Best Places to Visit in Idaho That Will Totally Surprise You
Idaho is a state of jaw-dropping landscapes and an astonishing diversity of natural beauty. From snowcapped mountains to red rock canyons and lush parks (yes, even in the desert!), Idaho’s scenery will totally surprise you. I've got 10 places to add to your travel list as well as an itinerary and guide for your next trip.
With the shocking blue water in Blue Heart Springs, panoramas of Craters of the Moon National Monument, to the awe-inspiring views at Sun Valley Resort, there are so many places in this state that will leave you breathless.
When you think of Idaho you probably think of potatoes. And they embrace it. It's emblazoned on their license plates and all. But it's safe to say Idaho is so much more than potatoes.
Whether you want to go skiing or snowboarding in the winter or hike through some of America’s most stunning landscapes during summertime, there is something here for everyone. With such an incredible variety of things to do and see, we guarantee your time spent exploring Idaho will be unforgettable.
Why Visit Idaho
Idaho isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think about a vacation destination. Shh… I have a secret. Idaho is one of the least visited states in the USA. Which is honestly… awesome. Because that means the entire state is a hidden gem.
It's the second least populous state in the U.S., and it ranks as one of the least visited states too! But don't let that deter you from exploring this amazing place. There are some beautiful natural wonders, fascinating history, great wine country, and tasty food to discover! We've put together a list of Idaho's most underrated places to visit for your next vacation destination!
Let's talk about potatoes. Why? Because it's what put Idaho on the map. You might not know it by looking at it, but Idaho used to be mostly desert. That was until in the 1930s when they used the Snake River to irrigate much of the land and create a beautiful, green, and agriculturally significant oasis for farmers.
Jack Simplot saw a demand for potatoes and created the first commercially viable frozen french fries, supplying the potatoes for McDonald's own french fries!
Idaho is filled with amazing scenery and fun activities for people of all ages. In fact, Idaho has more hot springs on public land than any other state! From hiking, biking, fishing, and whitewater rafting to visiting museums and shopping in charming downtowns – there’s something for everyone!
Best Time of the Year to Visit Idaho
If you're looking to escape the heat (like I was in Texas!) then summer is typically a great time to visit Idaho. The summers are gorgeous with long days and warm weather, but they are some of the busiest months for vacationers. The best time for a trip to Idaho is May through September when, it's not too hot and there's plenty of daylight to explore.
Sun Valley and Ketchum
The resort town of Sun Valley and Ketchum are famous for skiing but there's another reason for its fame. This is where Ernest Hemingway spent a good amount of time and even wrote some of his most classic literature, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Hemingway loved fishing and hunting which are a big part of the culture in Sun Valley. Hemingway is buried here and you can also visit Trail Creek Camp where he wrote.
Sun Valley is located on the edge of Bald Mountain and Dollar Mountain and has some incredible hiking, off-roading, and mountain biking trails plus fun attractions like Sun Valley Resort and Red Fish Lake.
Walk around the European style resort (it really reminded me of the ski resorts in the Austrian Alps) of Sun Valley. In 1936, Averell Harriman, chairperson of the Union Pacific Railroad decided to establish the first ski resort in North America and wanted it to model it after European ski areas. He enlisted count Felix Schaffgotsch, an Austrian ski instructor. First, he found the mining town of Ketchum and met Roberta Brass who’s father owned 3200 acres of ranch land that would be come sun valley.
Then, Charles Proctor designed ski runs hence calling the mountain “Proctor Mountain.” He also invented the world’s first chairlift. And, to top it off, Sun Valley is USA’s first destination ski resort.
For dinner, I recommend a step back in time and to eat at Pioneer Saloon. There's tons of history- read the menu!
If you're into off-roading or want to rent a side by side, you can check out Boulder Creek road.
We camped in the Sawtooth National forest Wilderness Area at Murdoch camp ground and loved our proximity to Sun Valley and Stanley!
Stanley Lake is a glacial lake located south of the Sawtooth Mountains. This is an incredibly beautiful place that captures your attention with it's deep blue waters surrounded by jagged mountain peaks and hiking trails.
I recommend hiking at Redfish Lake. For $14 you can take a high-speed boat across the lake and hike the “Bench Lakes” Trail to head back to the beginning. The water looks like a beach, it's so crystal clear.
After that take a dip at Stanley Lake and relax on the beach after your hike.
The town of Stanley is tiny, but fun, so save some time to explore!
I loved Boise. Like, Michael and I talked about moving to Boise it was so nice! Great restaurants, interesting history, and tons of outdoor activities.
To kick off our time in Boise we took a bike tour where we learned tons about the city. There are some incredible parks and public spaces that are a testament to the city and it's people. Everything is sparkling clean and well maintained.
This is in part to Idaho's billionaire Jack Simplot. After making lots of money selling potatoes to McDonald's for French fries, he donated much of his money back to the city of Boise.
In fact, over one third of Idaho's labor income comes from potatoes! So it's no surprise they celebrate this heritage with Potato Drop each year in downtown Boise on New Year's Eve.
But don't just eat fries. Although I do recommend checking out Boise Fry Company for a variety of fries, burgers, and sauces. One thing Boise has to offer that might surprise you is the food scene. I was blown away by all the variety that Boise has to offer.
My favorite restaurant in Idaho has to be Fork in downtown Boise. Every dish we had was divine but the mushroom starter (I don't even like mushrooms) was out of this world.
Interestingly, the biggest Basque population outside of Europe resides in Boise! This is due to Basque shepherds who migrated to the area in the 1800's. The Basque population occupies a relatively small area of land that rests on the border of France and Spain where the Pyrenese Mountains meet the Bay of Biscay.
You can visit the Basque Market and Basque Museum, go to a traditional Basque dinner (I recommend just to grab food at the market – it was delicious!) and even take a class at the Basque Center.
There's also an amazing brewery called Payette Brewing that's dog friendly!
Just outside of Boise, my favorite thing to do is head to Bogus Basin. It's a ski area about 30 miles outside of town that you can easily visit for the day. You will pass many pretty landscapes along the way and get a great view of downtown.
Once at Bogus Basin you can rent skis or snowboards and head to the top of the mountain where there are some fun mountain biking trails. But my favorite activity was the alpine mountain coaster! Get an unlimited pass so you can ride it as many times as you want!
Twin Falls and Shoshone Falls
Shoshone Falls was my first introduction to Idaho after driving up from Colorado through Utah. I had no idea what to expect. It's safe to say I was blown away. Shoshone Falls is the second highest waterfall in America and there's an excellent view of it from a hike up to Grand View Point. The falls are on the Snake River as it tumbles over an enormous basalt cliff into a deep canyon, forming a horseshoe-shaped waterfall which is 1,000 feet wide and plunging 212 feet.
We almost didn't go to Blue Heart Springs. We actually had to go back to Twin Falls and decided to go for it since we were back in the area. OMG, Blue Heart Springs is incredible. Rent some canoes and paddle around the canyon. You could easily spend hours here exploring.
You'll rent kayaks at Banbury Springs (they also offer a pool), and I recommend renting for 4 hours.
On your way out make sure to stop at Clover Leaf Creamery for the best ice cream in Idaho!
Craters of the Moon
Not far from Twin Falls is Craters of the Moon, a national monument. You can hike around lava tubes, explore the black cinder covered cones dotted with flowers, and wander through caves.
The gnarled, crusty ground that was frozen in time traces the tale of rivers of lava that gushed from fissures across the Snake River Plain known as the Great Rift.
Trails are interactive and have information along the way. We particularly liked learning about the spatter cones that you can peer through after a short walk up.
Sandpoint, once named America’s Most Beautiful Town, is in the northern tip of Idaho. This charming town feels almost beach like with a number of waterfront shops and restaurants. Watch out for moose on the road!
Walk near the water, grab a bite to eat, and make time for Schweitzer Mountain, an excellent ski area for all levels.
One thing that will definitely surprise you is the castle at Schweitzer Mountain! A Hogwarts inspired castle is actually a private residence and you can stay in the next door Château de Melusine.
There are tons of trails to explore and it's dog friendly, so bring your pup with you!
The northernmost city in Idaho is Coeur d'Alene and it's a playground for golfers, but there's plenty to see and do in area. Walk along the lakefront and have a gooey's sundae at the resort. Pro tip: go at sunset and head to “Whispers” and sit outside near a fireplace. You can order drinks or sundaes here!
Downtown there are tons of galleries, shops, and restaurants. I recommend heading to Jimmy's Round the Corner for their famous, Guy Fieri approved, pecan roll.
Coeur d'Alene offers a wide array of water-based activities including lake cruises and sailing as well as whitewater rafting, kayaking etc.
Lastly, you must bike the Hiawatha! This 15 mile leisurely bike ride is all down hill! You'll head to “Lookout Pass” and bike through a mile and a half tunnel and then meander down the mountain with beautiful views.
On your way back to Coeur d'Alene stop by the cute town of Wallace and grab a bite to eat at Fainting Goat. Make sure to check out the “center of the universe” while you’re there! It’s in the middle of the street in the town!
Hell's Canyon is a picturesque river gorge located along the Idaho and Oregon border. This is the deepest river gorge in North America, with the Snake River running through it.
I recommend taking a half day Jet Boat Tour to get to see the canyon up close and learn more about the history.
I was shocked to see beautiful sandy beaches dotting the canyons. You'll also see deer, big horn sheep, and bald eagles! Hells Canyon got it's name from the earliest white explorers. Many people have tried to control the Snake River with boats and ferries, but few have been successful. Apparently, it was utter “hell” to try and meander down the river. The term “Hells Canyon” was first used in a book published in 1895, and it has become known as this ever since.
After Hells Canyon, stop by Lewiston, which traces its history to the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805, and is found along the Clearwater River in northern Idaho.
Lewiston is home to excellent fish and chips served up at the local pub as well as tons of breweries, restaurants, and shopping.
It's also an easy drive from Spokane and Coeur d'Alene making it an easy stop.
I thought we had seen the best of Idaho, and then we went to McCall. I loved this laid-back town with great resorts and a buzzing downtown.
There are tons of outdoor activities including water sports on Payette Lake, fishing at Lucky Peak, and hiking at Cascade Reservoir.
My favorite hike is Boulder Lake. It starts out easy and gets a bit more challenging as you make your way up to the lake. The scenery is beautiful and you'll meander through beautiful trees.
If you decide to spend the night at one of the resorts, I recommend checking out The Lodge at Sun Valley Resort for live music and dancing on Saturday nights!
Lastly, take the short drive to Gold Fork Hot Springs for the perfect hot springs experience. These beautiful, well manicured stone pools heat up to 102 degrees. Best part? It's only $10 to get in.
Idaho One to Two Week Itinerary
If you have one week in Idaho, here’s my suggested itinerary.
If you’re flying in, you’d fly into Boise. I’d allow 2-3 days here. You can also head south for a half day trip for Twin Falls and Blue Heart Springs. Make your way east to Sun Valley and Stanley Lake. If you only have a week in Idaho then try and squeeze everything in 1-2 days. If not, extend your time to at least 3 days.
Next, go north to McCall. Further north you’ll find Lewiston and Hells Canyon. Then at the top of Idaho you’ll go to Couer d’Alene, Hiawatha, and Wallace. Then head back south to Boise!
If driving, start from Twin Falls and go to Blue Heart Springs. From there just head all the way north and follow the route for a one to two week trip as laid out above.
Idaho has something for everyone, and that’s what makes it such a special place. Whether you want to explore in the summer or wintertime, there are plenty of things to do across all four seasons. From skiing and snowboarding during the winter months, to hiking through some of America’s most stunning landscapes during warmer weather, we guarantee your time exploring this beautiful state will be unforgettable!