“Open the gate; don’t let the cows out,” said the notes field on our back-country camping app. We shut it behind us and inched down the dirt road, hoping the heifers would clear a path. “Could this really be the way?” I said to Mike. We rounded the bend and a river flowing around a rippled mountain with dashes of red and purple appeared with a perfectly level campsite. It was one of the prettiest we’d seen in our first 500 days of RV-ing and no one was around. This was the theme of our Idaho road trip: beauty under the radar. For example, they don’t have any national parks, though when you’re going through Patagonia-style mountain ranges with 40 peaks over 10,000 feet or rafting the deepest river gorge in North America, it seems the parks service must have a made a mistake. And even crazier, this gorgeous state is mostly known for its potatoes! Something had to give. We reached out to Visit Idaho to set the record straight with a month-long road trip. Here are our highlights from 1,500+ miles through the wildly underrated Gem State.
Crossing the state line from bustling Jackson, Wyoming into Idaho felt like there was not only more room to breathe, but the air got fresher. Teton Valley, Idaho shares the same dramatic mountain range and national forests as Jackson Hole, but with a fraction of the people. We had our eyes on the serene Linn Canyon Ranch, run by a family that has been raising horses and outfitting pack trips in the area since 1906. We called about availability for their glamping tents and the receptionist said, “One moment please,” and in a muffled voice we could hear her asking the owner, “Isn’t that when the VanLife Gathering is happening?” While she was thinking no one wants to stay here when 75 vans, RVs, skoolies, and bread trucks will be taking over their property, that news was music to our ears! We’ve always wanted to meet more people in the VanLife community and loved Linn Canyon Ranch even more for entertaining us gypsies. We stayed a night in their luxe wall tents and then spent the next two communing with our people, taking rig tours, swapping tips, and having laughs around the fire. (A cool guy we met here actually invited us to his camp at Burning Man…and we’re taking him up on it 🙂 Stay tuned).
City of Rocks & Castle Rocks
Pulling into the City of Rocks National Reserve, the granitic spires and pinnacles form a skyline that dazzles like a geological Manhattan. Beyond just beautiful, it’s steeped in Western history. It was a major junction on the California Trail, where over 200,000 pioneers passed through on covered wagons during the Gold Rush. Stop at Camp Rock and Register Rock, where hundreds of 19th-century signatures are written with axle grease, and keep your eye out for wagon ruts on the 22 miles of hiking trails. City of Rocks shares a ranger station with Castle Rocks State Park, so be sure to plot your adventure to both recreation areas. Between the two parks, there are 173 recorded bird species (one of the highest concentrations in the state) and over 700 rock climbing routes, making it a climber’s mecca. (We did a ranger-led climbing trip for just $37!) Another reason we came to Castle Rocks? They have Idaho State Park system’s first-ever glamping accommodation, the ultra-chic Willow Yurt. Having a secluded and plush accommodation with a deck overlooking the 10,339-foot Cache Peak and forest of stone was camping bliss!
We were flipping through the Idaho Roadsidder magazine (available at most ID tourism offices) and Shoshone Falls jumped off the page. “The Niagara of the West,” it said—but taller! How had we never heard of this 212-foot high waterfall? We had to detour to see them in person. Entering the park, cliffs shot up with columnar basalt, a volcanic jigsaw puzzle of sorts and a dramatic prelude to the main attraction. The falls rushed around lush islands then spilled down tier by tier until they plummeted into the Snake River, billowing with clouds of mist and casting rainbows across the gorge. Beyond tall or wide, these dynamic falls are our new favorite in the States! Watch them in action.
Craters of the Moon National Monument
Driving along the Big Lost River, the green landscape faded to black. Two-thousand years ago a volcanic eruption coated 750,000 acres of Arco, Idaho with basaltic lava. What looked like hills were actually cinder buttes, caves were lava tubes, and spires were spatter cones. Nothing was what it seemed. A landscape that appeared dead from a distance had an abundance of wildflowers bursting from the volcanic rock. We drove the scenic seven-mile loop, hopping out for a hike at the surreal Devil’s Orchard, panoramic views atop Big Cinder Butte, and to spelunk the incredible Caves Trail. Walking along this flat path over the swirling lava field, you can dip down into four different lava tubes, with the most dramatic being the 800-foot long Indian Tunnel. The Shoshone Native Americans would stop here for water and shade on their summer migration (it’s crazy to think their ancestors witnessed the last eruption!). Walking in lava’s path, you can’t help but ponder the next cataclysmic shakeup. According to historical trends, the park is overdue for some fresh activity.
TIP: Try to time your visit around a new moon. This national monument is one of Idaho’s International Dark Sky Parks and has some of the best stargazing in the country!
Land of the Yankee Fork
When you think of State Parks, you often think of rec areas with lakes and mountain trails. The Land of the Yankee Fork is a totally different kind of park. Not confined by a rigid boundary, the sites are scattered throughout central Idaho’s gold country. After an informative stop at the museum and park office in Challis, the rangers sent us road tripping to the ghost towns of Bonanza and Custer. Driving up a narrow valley, we saw crooked old cabins, mountainous piles of stone, a 988-ton gold dredge (still owned by the original mining families), then Custer emerged. Beautifully restored to its 1870s heyday, the town’s old saloon, schoolhouse, a few cabins, and plenty of mining relics remained. Docents on site bring the history to life with stories of deadly poker matches and a lively jailhouse.
Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon
If you’re into river rafting, then you know all too well about the Middle Fork of the Salmon. It’s a National Wild and Scenic River, National Geographic puts it in the top ten rafting trips in the world, and it ticks all our boxes for an epic back-country adventure. Set in the Frank Church—the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48—the Middle Fork cuts through an untouched forest without a single road or even a motor to disturb its tranquility. While it’s possible to put your name in the park system’s lottery and massively gear up for a self-guided journey, we’d say lock in your voyage with Solitude River Trips. With the help of their expert team, we navigated the 100 miles of rapids and enjoyed it all the more with their comfy camp setup, gourmet meals, top-notch fly fishing, and insights on this geographically and culturally rich region. In fact, we loved it so much, we featured it the “In Motion” chapter of our glamping book, Comfortably Wild. Watch our video to take a ride on the Middle Fork.
Kirkham Hot Springs
There are so many hot springs in Idaho, we’d even see them steaming from the side of the road. The state has over 130 to soak in and some so dreamy we’d prefer them to fancy spas. While we’ve heard incredible things about Gold Bug Hot Springs, our absolute favorite was Kirkham. Driving Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, we pulled over at an unsuspecting campground. With a mere $5 parking fee, we had an all-day pass to a series of hot waterfalls and steamy pools. This is a popular family spot though it’s easy to find privacy and top-notch soaking in under a ten-minute hike. We rounded a bend and found private hot pools overlooking the cerulean Payette River.
Boise: Our Kind of Town
We had a good feeling about Boise, not just as a place to visit, but somewhere we could see ourselves living (bold statement from two nomads). We checked into The Modern Hotel, a mid-century travel lodge converted into one of the hottest spots to lay your head and grab a bite. We took the Modern’s complimentary bikes and hopped on the Boise River Greenbelt–25 miles of scenic bike path flanking downtown, riverbanks, lakes, and various parks. To get our bearings in the city center, we took a fabulous walking tour with the non-profit Preservation Idaho. We learned about everything from early Basque settlers (the surrounding Treasure Valley has the densest population of Basque people outside of Spain!) to the pioneer trading posts and brothels that lined downtown. Today it’s as cosmopolitan as any major city, but hasn’t lost its small-town charm.
Snake River Wine Country
Just an hour outside of Boise, the Snake River Valley is making waves in the wine world. It may not be a household name yet, but ever since they received an AVA (American Viticulture Area) designation in 2007, it has become one of the fastest growing wine regions (50+ vineyards and counting!). We paid homage to Idaho’s largest and longest running winery with a tasting at Ste. Chappelle. A $5 tasting yielded five delectable pours, a souvenir wine glass, and instant relaxation in their gorgeous tasting room. Then we took a tip from Travel & Leisure and stopped at Bitner Vineyards along the Sunny Slope Trail. Not only are their organic wines delightful, they have one of the best views over the region’s sea of vines and the river that gives life to it all.
Did you know which state is home to North America’s deepest river gorge? Well, it’s not the Grand Canyon State. Carved by the 1,000-mile Snake River, Hells Canyon is 1.5-miles deep with mountain scenery as dramatic as its raging rapids. To take it all in, we went with Hells Canyon Adventures—the only outfitter that can run the river in both directions. Starting our journey in oar boats, their stealthy guides took us down roller-coaster rapids that had our whole boat—ages 20 through 60—squealing and giggling like schoolkids. Eighteen miles and three hours of fun flew by before we switched over to the jet boats. Rolling with 950-horsepower, we defied the force of Class IV rapids and the tremendous flow (20,000+ cubic feet per second!) and shot up that river for a whole new kind of thrill.
During the first few months of our two-year road trip around North America, we’ll admit we sped through Idaho to get to an event in Montana. We didn’t know what we were missing, though now with 1,500 miles under our belt, it’s clear we’re still just scratching the surface. See you next time, Idaho!
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Big thank you to Visit Idaho for sponsoring this post!