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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shop our favorite gear for kayaking ⟶
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shop our favorite gear for hiking ⟶
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.
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.
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.