The Gem of the West: Our 7 Day Idaho Road Trip

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Stunning mountain ranges, pristine rivers and lakes, and an abundance of hot springs, Idaho has been on our bucket list for a very long time. Yet despite traveling the West for over a year, somehow the Gem State has continually eluded us. So when we got the opportunity to work with Visit Idaho to develop some content about road tripping through the state, we knew this was our chance. At last, we were finally going to explore the last remaining part of the Western frontier. And we are so happy we did!

The Sawtooth Mountains at sunset in Stanley Idaho
This post was written in partnership with Visit Idaho.

We spent 10 days in mid-August touring through the south-central part Idaho, putting together this road trip itinerary. The state is absolutely filled with outdoor recreation opportunities, so we tried to incorporate as many of them as we could into this trip.

So if you’re planning a trip to Idaho, definitely check out some of these amazing spots. And if you’ve never considered going to Idaho before, you’ve got to see what you’re missing!

What’s The Best Time to Visit Idaho?

While there really is no bad time to visit Idaho, summer is traditionally the best season for road tripping. But even then, there are a couple considerations to take into account.

Early Summer – Snowpack will remain at high elevations, preventing you from accessing some backcountry trails. Bugs will also be more prevalent. River levels will be a lot higher and colder, so if you’re interested in rafting or kayaking, early summer can be pretty intense. Feeding off the rivers, waterfalls will also be at their peak in early summer. Shoshone Falls (Idaho’s most iconic waterfall) will be at full force.

Late Summer – Snow pack will have melted off, allowing you to explore nearly all backcountry trails – however, the potential for wildfire is also greater. Rivers will be lower, warmer, and mellower, good for beginners to try out whitewater rafting. In general, waterfalls will be lower throughout the state and Shoshone Falls will be turned off completely due to seasonal damming.

Getting to Idaho

Idaho isn’t exactly the easiest state to get to in the lower 48, but its remoteness is what keeps it so pristine. If you’re looking for spectacular natural landscapes, without the crowds, then making the trek out to Idaho is certainly worth the trip.

Driving: You can access parts of Idaho with only a 5 or 6 hour drive from Washington and Oregon. You can also reach a great deal of southern Idaho in under 4 hours from Salt Lake City.

Flying:  If you don’t already live in the west, then flying and arranging a car rental is probably going to be your best option. Boise Airport does have a handful of nonstop flights to major hubs across the country and a lot more options if you’re willing to connect. Alternately, you could fly nonstop into Salt Lake City and drive up.

The sun setting over a empty road in Stanley Idaho

Day 1: Twin Falls   

We were coming up from Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City, so our Idaho road trip began in Twin Falls. Located in the southeastern part of the state, Twin Falls has a high desert climate, but it’s proximity to the Snake River means it has abundant access to water. Driving across the Perrine Bridge that spans the Snake River Canyon at sunset was one of the coolest entrances we’ve ever had to a new city.

Megan watching Sunrise over the Perrine Bridge, Twin Falls, Idaho
Canyon Rim Trail – This was our first stop in Twins Falls and it gave us a lot of perspective on the size and scale of the canyon. The easiest place to pick it up is from the Visitor Center on the south side of Perrine Bridge. This paved path runs along the rim of the Snake River Canyon and offers some spectacular views of the bridge and river below. We loved the view here so much, we had to come back early the next morning to catch sunrise.

Megan walking on a canyon rim at Thousand Springs State Park Idaho
Thousand Springs State Park (Box Canyon Unit) – Thousand Springs State Park is divided up into a variety of separate units, one of which is a box canyon that contains a turquoise water spring (and a waterfall in the early season). In our attempts to find the trailhead, Google Maps lead us down a variety of agricultural access roads before abandoning us in the middle of a cornfield. (If you’re planning on visiting, use this address instead) Once we finally found the trailhead, we took the path down to the rim of the canyon just as the sun began to set. We couldn’t find a way down to the actual springs so we could take a dip, but that was probably just as well. Because as tropical as the water looks, it comes out of the ground at a frigid 50 F degrees.

Visit Shoshone Falls – If you arrive early in the summer, then there’s a good chance Shoshone Falls will look absolutely epic. You can either drive to Shoshone Falls Park and see it from an overlook or you can kayak up to the base of it from further downstream. If you arrive in mid-August – like we did – the falls will be greatly diminished due to seasonal damming of the river for irrigation.

Michael Kayaking on the Snake River in Twin Falls, Idaho
Kayak the Snake River – This was the biggest highlights from our time in Twin Falls. We did a half day rental courtesy of AWOL Paddle Sport Rental and kayaked up the Snake River. Shoshone Falls had been reduced to a trickle, so we spent some time checking out nearby Pillar Falls. It was a blast being out on the water and the seeing the canyon from below. The rentals prices were super reasonable, too. Definitely would recommend this to anyone visiting the area.

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Day 2 : Boise

Boise is the next Portland. We didn’t believe it when people told us that at first, but after seeing it in person we believe them now.  Beautiful craftsman homes, tree-lined riverside parks, new restaurants and breweries, and a ton of outdoor recreation within just an hours drive of the city center. It’s no wonder Boise is one of fastest growing cities in the country.

Megan Bike Riding in Greenbelt Park in Boise, Idaho
Green Belt –  This 25-mile urban park flanks the Boise River as it runs through the city. Not only does this tree-lined park offer residents an outdoor space to recreation, but it serves as a vital corridor for pedestrian and bicycle commuters. We rented bicycles from one of the many Green Bike stations and took a ride down the scenic paved bike path.

Michael admiring the tall pallets of beer at payette brewing
Payette Brewing
– While you’re out enjoying the Green Belt, you might want to take a pit stop at Payette Brewing. They’ve recently opened a brand new 60-barrel facility with an adjoining tap room. Take the tour of the brewery, test their new seasonal specials, or pick up a game of corn hole in their grassy backyard. A steady rotation of food trucks also means you’ve got access to some of Boise’s best street food.

Tube the Boise River – We didn’t get a chance to do this personally, but we saw a ton of people floating the river as we biked along the Green Belt. Even our tour guide at Payette Brewing encouraged us to stay an extra day just so we could do it. If you’re looking for more information about floating the Boise River, the city has a great resource about it.

Day 3: Boise

While Boise is a worthwhile destination on its own, the city is also a great launching point for outdoor activities in the nearby vicinity. On our second day in town, we took a short 45-minute drive out to the Payette River to experience world-class whitewater rafting.

Whitewater Rafting with Cascade Raft & Kayak – Possibly the highlight of our entire trip through Idaho, we did a half day rafting trip with Cascade Raft & Kayak and had an absolute blast. We rafted down the south fork of the Payette River, which contained an exhilarating mix of class III & IV rapids and proved to be the perfect introduction for us. For more experienced rafters, the nearby north fork is apparently a nonstop class V rodeo ride from start to finish. Even if you’re a little hesitant, we would definitely recommend checking out Cascade. They’ve got a great staff, great facility, and offer a truly extraordinary Idaho experience.

Day 4: Boise to Stanley

On our fourth day we made the drive from Boise to Stanley. Wildfires had closed down the more direct path along route 17, which forced us to take a very scenic detour along route 21.  

Megan sitting in the Bonneville Hot Springs, Idaho
Bonneville Hot Springs –
Just a short hike down from an adjoining campground, we made a quick stop at Bonneville Hot Springs during our drive up to Stanley. While the spring water comes out of the ground here at a scalding 190 F, it quickly cools as it passes over a waterfall and through a series of stone pools. Down towards the creek, the water is quite pleasant and perfect for a nice, long soak.

Day 5: Stanley

Situated at the base of the Sawtooth Mountain Range, the tiny hamlet of Stanley (population 63) is one of the last vestiges of the old Idaho frontier. While formerly a lonely ranching outpost, Stanley now serves the basecamp for nearly every outdoor sport you can possibly imaginable.

Megan riding horseback in the sawtooth mountains
Redfish Lake Corral Horseback Riding – Trail riding isn’t usually our thing (the last time we were on horseback, we had a mini-fiasco in Cuba that left us both a little wary of “getting back on the horse”) but we gave it another shot here in Idaho and we’re so happy we did. Riding out into the Sawtooths at sunrise has got to be one of the coolest ways to experience the scenery. We had an extraordinary guide named Kagan. While he was only twenty years old, he’s lived his whole life in Idaho and has got plenty of stories to share.

Megan hiking in Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness
Hike in the Sawtooths – We’ve never seen mountains quite like the Sawtooths before. These jagged mountain peaks pierce upwards towards the sky from densely covered pine forests.  With over 700 miles of trail, 300 high mountain lakes, and 40 peaks over 10,000 feet, there’s plenty of wilderness to explore. We only got to do a short day hike near Redfish Lake, but if you have a little extra time, check out this list of hikes on The Outbound.

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Day 6: Stanley to Goldbug Hot Spring

From Stanley, we continued our drive north and arrived at Goldbug Hotsprings. We had heard about these hot springs years ago from an Yonder Journal article and haven’t been able to stop thinking about them. Now we were finally getting our chance to visit them.

Megan laying in the goldbug Hot Springs in Idaho
Goldbug Hot Spring – These hot springs are by far this most “epic” we have ever visited. The trailhead actually starts on private land, but a short and very steep two mile hike takes you up into the mountains. There hot water cascades down stone ledges to create a natural infinite pool. The water is crystal clear, the bottom is gravel, and there is even a waterfall. While camping isn’t allowed within 500 feet of the springs, we pitched a tent further down the trail and enjoyed a sunrise soak the next morning.

Day 7: Goldbug to Craters of the Moon

After a leisurely departure from Goldbug, we drove back into the high desert of southern Idaho. While the scenery gradually transitioned from towering mountains to dusty plains, nothing could have prepared us for the landscape we were about to encounter in Craters of the Moon. When we arrived, we felt like we had stepped onto another planet.

Michael walking on a path through the Craters of the Moon National Monument
Scenic Loop – Craters of the Moons is a massive natural preserve that encompasses three ancient lava fields. While you could spend years exploring this park, the best way to get an overview of its dramatic volcanic landscape is by taking the Scenic Loop Drive. We arrived at the park in the late-afternoon and stayed through sunset.

Cinder Cone – One of the many attractions along the Scenic Loop Drive, the Cinder Cone is an incredible place to catch sunset. This gigantic mound of crushed volcanic debris rises prominently above the surrounding landscape and provides an excellent vantage point. As we ascended the hill, an oversized full moon started to rise over the horizon.  Our entire visit here had felt otherworldly and this was the perfect way to cap the trip.

You Gotta Go, To Idaho

If you love the outdoors but hate dealing with crowds, then you should definitely make a trip out to Idaho. There are just so many amazing places to check out and we only touched upon a few of them in this guide.  (We can’t wait to go back to check out the northern panhandle section!)  

But what we loved most about Idaho, was the deeply rooted connection it had with its natural surroundings. From the tree-lined streets of Boise to idyllic cattle ranches of Stanley, this is a state that has fully embraced an active outdoor lifestyle. And it’s that connection that really made us feel at home.  

We had a great time in Idaho and we definitely plan on going back – sooner rather than later.

Megan watching sunset over the Snake River in Twin Falls, Idaho

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  1. These photos are absolutely stunning. I’m definitely seeing Idaho in a new light! 😉 (PS let me know when you get to CT!!)

  2. I always thought Idaho was like Iowa, but with potatoes. Then my little sister went to college there, and damn. Gorgeous. I wish I had figured that out sooner!

    1. We didn’t have many expectations going into Idaho, either – with states like Montana, Washington and Oregon next to it, we’ve always been a little distracted I guess. But, man, what a beauty it is!!

  3. I’ve been reading your blog for the last few months, and I see this post! Went to watch your vlog, and looks like you were at the Starbucks only a couple blocks away from my house. Walking distance. I live close to downtown Boise. I could’ve shared our house for your wifi working session, and could’ve told you where to eat on your way out, instead of Noodles & Co… Hit me up next time you are in town! Glad you got to go see the Sawtooth, such a special place. Love your blog and vlog. So fun.

  4. Idaho always feels like the last real “gem”, if I can use that term. 🙂 Maybe if you don’t include Montana, it’s just the last Western state that doesn’t have a ton of hype and tends to elude folks when they bust out the highlighter and map to make plans…

  5. I have been researching Idaho forever and am so glad I stumbled across your blog! I was feeling overly ambitious and totally confused about all the places I wanted to see, and here you have them! Listed in a total comprehensive order! 2 questions remain though: were you camping so you didn’t have to time it strictly to get to a hotel? and, on average, how long did it take you to get from one stop to another?

  6. Yay! I love that you loved it. I grew up in Idaho and most people who grew up there can’t wait to leave. Until you actually leave and want to come back again! 🙂 This trip looks amazing. Thanks for sharing this amazing state! 🙂

  7. LOVE this. I am dying to go to Idaho (we’re moving to Seattle this week so excited to be in close proximity). I’ve also heard great things about Boise so this itinerary looks absolutely epic. Thank you so much for sharing!!

  8. Idaho seems like an amazing idea and a great destination for a road trip. I’m currently undertaking a road trip in EU, but this seems like a great idea for later! Would you recommend it for autumn?

    1. Winter comes hard and fast in Idaho, but early fall (September) would probably be an excellent time to visit.

  9. Really nice post . Thanks for sharing . I am planning to visit Idaho in this year, Hope your blog will help me out…

  10. Thanks for the tips! Adding Idaho to my USA Bucket List right now.

  11. K. Adams. says:

    I am really glad you have enjoyed your time in this beautiful state (or at least the southern portions.) My husband and I are backpackers and hot spring travelers in idaho, we really enjoy the beauty this state offers. The pictures are gorgeous, but even better in person. Great post!

  12. Idaho seems like a handful of hidden jewels waiting to be discovered. I love blogs like these that uncover places to visit and things to do. The beautiful outdoors are calling everyone to life a happy life and explore while they can.

  13. Great post! We are new to the Boise area (from Oregon and Washington), and we have plans to explore our new home state. This helps us a ton. Yes, Idaho is beautiful and we are discovering all the outdoor activities Idaho has to offer. Thanks again!

  14. Amazing pictures – it made me feel like I was there with you during the trip. It’s awesome how nature ‘hides’ these unbelievable spots for relaxation while you’re on an adventure. I can’t even pick which place you visited I like best! They’re all superb!

  15. You will definitely enjoy north central and the panhandle areas of Idaho the next time you visit. Idaho vistas change dramatically with each twist and turn of the road. I’m a 5th generation Idahoan, and I’ve been north, south, east and west in this state, visited some amazing places, but even I have not made it to all the must-see sites! And the ones I have visited, still need to be revisited in the different seasons. Never get tired of those views. Love, love, love my great state. Warning tho – we’ve managed to stay hidden for quite some time, but are now on the map. The used-to-be non-existent lines are starting to grow. Just say’n.

  16. So glad I found your site via pinterest! We are heading to Idaho from San Francisco in 2 wks. First road trip via a sprinter van and first time to Idaho. We only have 6 days- could you recommend which sites to see w/ that amount of time and maybe the route? Thanks!