One of the most breathtaking states in America is almost always forgotten.
Contrary to popular belief, Idaho is not, in fact, in the midwest. You might have it confused with Ohio or Iowa (or even Indiana if you’re especially geographically challenged), but Idaho is about 1,500 miles west of those places. Part Rocky Mountains, part Pacific Northwest, and part high desert, Idaho is one of those weird places that seems to exist in a vortex. Nobody’s really sure where it is on a map and nobody’s really sure what’s there, but once you find out, there’s no going back. The state’s deserts, mountains, and lakes will somehow find a place in your heart and you’ll feel torn between keeping this secret all to yourself and sharing it with the world.
Oddly, it’s the only state west of Texas without a national park.* That doesn’t mean it’s some wasteland of beauty, though. Somehow, these magical mountain peaks and insane volcanic landscapes have flown under the radar. But that’s a good thing. Get here before everyone else figures out that it’s the most underrated state in the lower 48.
*Technically, a tiny fraction of Yellowstone National Park is, in fact, in Idaho, but there is no park entrance within the state.
INSIDER TIPThough beautiful, the terrain is also dangerous and it’s easy to get lost—if you plan to explore Idaho’s pristine wilderness, make sure you’re with somebody experienced and leave no trace.
A Lunar Landscape
WHERE: Craters of the Moon National Monument
About 12,000 years ago during the Holocene Epoch, a supervolcano blasted across Southern Idaho, leaving a giant swath of scorched earth in its wake. Today, the landscape looks like something from outer space, with over 1,000 square miles of rough and craggy volcanic rock with trails that wind through caverns, lava fields, lava tubes, and lava cones. The aptly named Craters of the Moon National Monument, the largest basaltic lava field in the United States, is also home to the deepest known (800 feet deep) volcanic rift crack in the world.
A Haunted Canyon
WHERE: Hell’s Canyon
The deepest river gorge in the country is, surprisingly, not the Grand Canyon. At 8,000 feet deep and 10 miles wide, Hell’s Canyon outranks the Grand Canyon, creating a dazzling landscape that lures hikers, fishermen, campers, and white water rafters. This 125-mile-long canyon, parts of which is in Oregon and Washington, rewards visitors with jaw-dropping views of the green valley below and the peaks of the Seven Devil’s mountain range beyond. Once you see this place in real life, you’ll be shocked you’ve never heard of it before.
INSIDER TIPSome say the canyon is haunted by the victims of the Hell’s Canyon Massacre, when 34 Chinese miners were ambushed and killed in 1887.
The Wildest River in the Lower 48
WHERE: Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness
The roadless Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48, with over 2 million square miles of pristine landscapes. The Salmon River carves through granite peaks and dense pine forests while bighorn sheep, mountain lions, wolves, and wolverines roam the cliffs and backwoods. With a remote location and little access, there’s only one way to really experience this untouched wilderness—a multi-day whitewater rafting trip on the Salmon River with an expert outfitter like Middle Fork Adventures.
An Unexpected Desert Oasis
WHERE: Bruneau Dunes State Park
Home to the tallest freestanding sand dune in North America (470 feet high), Bruneau Dunes is 4,800 acres of an exotic desert landscape right where you’d least expect it: about an hour outside of Boise, Idaho. The natural dunes don’t allow motorized vehicles, but visitors can try sandboarding, spot desert wildlife and birds of prey, go stargazing, or simply marvel at the oasis-like dune lakes scattered throughout the parks.
A Raging Waterfall
WHERE: Shoshone Falls and the Snake River Canyon
While Niagara Falls wows with its sheer volume of water, Shoshone Falls is actually higher. On the Snake River in Southern Idaho, the falls crash into a canyon below, creating a beautiful spectacle that can even be seen from the side of the highway—no hiking boots required. If you want to do a bit of exploring up close, there’s a short trail to take you closer and there’s a lake nearby that’s perfect for swimming. The snake river canyon is absolutely breathtaking when seen from above. While the landscape surrounding the falls is a desert, the base of the canyon along the Snake River–500 feet below–is a lush green paradise.
INSIDER TIPMake sure to visit in the spring, when the volume of the falls is at its peak, reaching 20,000 cubic feet per second.
WHERE: Redfish Lake and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area
Affectionately called the “Redneck Riviera” by locals, Redfish Lake is a pristine and ice-cold alpine lake surrounded by the jagged cliffs of the Sawtooth Mountains. The scenery here is stunning and the recreation options make this slice of heaven almost like a National Park–except for all the beer drinking and wakeboarding. The lake is a little bit like summer camp for adults, with canoeing, boating, camping, and a lodge that hosts live music and concerts throughout the summer. Avid hikers can tackle the 17-mile loop around the lake or opt for overnight backcountry trips in the 217,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area, where you’ll find 350-miles of hiking and horse trails. One option for intrepid explorers is a trip with Sun Valley Trekking to visit Bench Hut and saddleback lakes, known as Idaho’s Shangri-la.
A Technicolor Prairie
WHERE: The Palouse
At first glance, the Palouse might remind you of a certain iconic desktop background. There’s something truly calm-inducing about these rolling green hills that look like an abstract painting. Used mostly as farmlands now, the loess hills are a prime example of wild prairie lands, which are a surprisingly endangered landscape in the United States.
Underground Frozen Rivers
WHERE: Shoshone Ice Caves
Visit the Shoshone Ice Caves for a 1-hour tour of Idaho’s largest ice cave. Here, 160 steps below the surface, you’ll see ice formations, even at the peak of summer. In the 1800s, the cave actually served as an ice source for the town of Shoshone, but now it’s a quirky roadside attraction. There are a few competing caves in the area that all have a Wes-Anderson-meets-Making-a-Murderer vibe that’s quintessentially Idahoan. If you have time, stop by Mammoth Cave for a visit to their (terrifying) taxidermy museum.
A Basalt Slot Canyon
WHERE: Black Magic Canyon
This carved basalt canyon, similar to Utah’s famous slot canyons, was created by water boring through stone over 10,000 years. Part of the Big Wood River, the canyon is only accessible during the summer, when the water flow dries up. Use caution when visiting, as the area can be extremely dangerous during a flash flood and it’s a happening hang out for rattlesnakes.
America’s Oldest Ski Resort
WHERE: Sun Valley
Sun Valley is probably one of Idaho’s most famous attractions. This world-class ski resort towers over the Wood River Valley and the town of Ketchum, with a 3,400-foot vertical drop from peak to base. On clear days, the views from the top of Baldy stretch for hundreds of miles, giving skiers a panoramic vista of five mountain ranges. It’s also part of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, meaning that this is one of the best places in the world to view the Milky Way–no telescope needed.