These Idaho mountain towns are perfect for outdoor vacations
July 01, 2020
Last Update: 2020-07-01 11:12:04
If you’ve reverence for roaming outdoors, Idaho’s got the terrain for you. Over 60% of the state is public land, 4.8 million acres of which are designated wilderness. Imposing mountains dotted with home-grown and world-renowned alpine resorts define the majority of acreage from the Selkirks to the Tetons. In between, white and flat water churns and curves from the Kootenai to the Snake Rivers.
Lushly forested lakeside communities, including Sandpoint, Coeur d'Alene and McCall, invite adventure, but also offer delightful creature comforts to sweeten reentry into civilization. The handmade huckleberry milkshakes, craft brews and live music in community parks are so delightful, in fact, you may find yourself hanging around an extra day. If you’re keen for experiencing nature’s splendor, here are the best base camps from north to south to access trailheads, mountains and rivers for an expedition that's all Idaho.
Lake Pend Oreille eventually ends up in the Pacific via the Columbia River © Cavan Images / Getty Images
Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint, northern Idaho
Stunning lakes, peaks and serene snowfall in Idaho’s panhandle make this northern Idaho region a magnet for outdoor living in any season. With Coeur d’Alene and Pend Oreille lakes, the Coeur d’Alene and Kootenai Rivers, Selkirk, Cabinet and Bitterroot Mountain ranges, and Silver and Schweitzer mountain resorts, there are a lot of places to play in any season, especially for families. It's no wonder that this corner of the outer Pacific Northwest, once written off as fly-over country, is losing its status as a locals' secret.
Coeur d’Alene bustles in comparison to Sandpoint, but both are outfitted for adventure in-town and beyond. Pedestrians, bikers and cross-country skiers can choose from casual, scenic, paved (or groomed) trails along the 72 mile Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes or 23 mile North Idaho Centennial, but the historic trestles and tunnels of the old Hiawatha “rail to trail” is a unique experience.
So, too, is the natural pathway that runs lakeside along Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail. For hikers, Scotchman Peaks Trail, an 8-mile day hike near Coeur d’Alene, earns panoramic views from the 3700ft climb. Gold Hill Trail matches vistas in Sandpoint. Anglers will love casting for trout along the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River and Kootenai (less accessible, but more quiet), and all matter of marine craft can be outfitted on either lake.
Enjoy some wilderness with your water sports on the Salmon River © Danita Delimont / Getty Images
Riggins, western Idaho
Riggins, Idaho is tucked in a narrow canyon between two gorges where the town dips its toes in the Salmon River and plays in the shadows of the Seven Devils. A little rough around the edges seems to be how geography intended it. With Hells Canyon, the Snake River, the Seven Devils Mountain Range, and the Salmon and Little Salmon Rivers, there are thrills galore, including the prime access to the nation’s deepest gorge.
Water is a luring thrill during the hot and sunny summers of Riggins. The Lower Salmon River, which runs through town, does not disappoint floaters and kayakers with its sandy, secluded beaches and stretches of wilderness. Coupled with ample opportunities to fish, visit historic homesteads, and marvel at the history of human exploration evidenced on the canyon walls, these excursions are cherished.
Jet boating is also popular for bringing visitors deep into Hells Canyon’s Snake River to the west and the Salmon “River of No Return” to the east (nicknamed as such due to its difficulty to navigate and steep canyon walls).
For those who wish to soak in the scenery from a bird’s-eye-view, Heaven’s Gate is a steep but short hike with panoramic views into Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. But if you’re gung-ho for really getting out there, the 28-mile Seven Devils Loop is quintessential Idaho: jagged peaks, placid, trout-filled lakes, old fire lookouts, bushwhacking, scree scrambling, snow in July, deadfall, wildflowers, huckleberries, mountain goats, whistling wind, gaping into a seemingly endless gorge, solitude and a possible run-in with a whiskey-carrying cowboy.
Explore the shores of Lake Payette, McCall © Anna Gorin / Getty Images
McCall in midwestern Idaho
New construction may outshine the A-frame cabins of McCall’s rustic roots, but this Lake Payette homestead retains family-friendly, humble likeability. With Lakes Payette and Cascade, the Payette River, and Brundage Mountain Resort, McCall is one of the very best places to beat the winter blues.
Like Sandpoint and Coeur d'alene, McCall serves a feast of natural attractions in all four seasons. In the summer, Payette Lake buzzes with motorboats towing water skiers and wakeboarders. Renting a pontoon and touring the lake also makes for a relaxing way to see the shores. White water enthusiasts can catch waves on the Cabarton, Main Payette or South Fork of the Payette.
For all its summer shenanigans, however, McCall earns points for organizing some serious snow play. Ponderosa State Park and Brundage Mountain maintain trails year-round for skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and biking. And the Winter Carnival, which lasts a couple of weeks in January and February, overtakes the town with ice sculptures, parades and imaginative new snow sports like snow golf, dog-pulled cross-country ski racing and motorized snowbiking.
View the Milky Way from Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve © christiannafzger / Getty Images
Sun Valley and Stanley in central Idaho
Ketchum has been a star on the Idaho map since Sun Valley Ski Resort opened in 1936, and this blue sky, big mountain town now notoriously blends luxury with the outdoors. That said, Idahoans might argue that Stanley – a winding, scenic drive over the Galena Summit from Sun Valley – is the real jewel of the Sawtooths. But the Salmon and Wood Rivers, Redfish Lake, and Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve – the United States' first gold-tier dark sky park – are not to be missed, either.
There’s no denying the quality of downhill at Sun Valley. The runs are long, lines are short and views are killer. Visit the Sawtooths in summer, where biking, fishing, hiking and camping can be done for minimal fees. Highway 75 just north of Ketchum homes a handful of fee and free campgrounds along the Big Wood River, but summer is busy; most sites are first-come, first-served, so a mid-week arrival is advised.
From there, pick your trail! A couple favorites are the three-mile Titus Lake Trail off the Galena Pass that can be coupled with a slight detour to the Galena Lodge and the 8.5 mile round trip climb to the 1930’s era Pioneer Cabin, the roof of which famously states the obvious, but encouraging, “the higher you get, the higher you get." Literary folk will appreciate that Ernest Hemingway used to enjoy fly-fishing at nearby Silver Creek.
Stanley provides equal access to trailheads along the Galena Pass, but also the beaches, boating, swimming and trails around Redfish Lake and the Salmon River. Don’t miss the Sawtooth Lake Trail if you want to see the photogenic beauty for which this mountain range is famed. And for heaven’s sake – don’t forget to look up at the night sky!
Scenic view of Teton Range rising above farmland, Driggs, Idaho, USA © Danita Delimont / Getty Images
Victor and Driggs in the Teton Valley
Victor and Driggs don't get the same attention as Jackson Hole, Wyoming – but they share the same brilliant Tetons, minus the pomp and circumstance, and sit along the border of West Yellowstone. With the Grand Targhee Ski Resort, and Teton River, though, this is truly a best-kept-secret of Idaho, and its own complete package.
Whether your passion is climbing, hiking, biking, skiing or fishing, the Teton Valley’s got it – and with a mountain trifecta backdrop to boot. Skiing the ‘Ghee is spectacular, but locals also like to ski "the Pass", a swath of backcountry that can be accessed along Teton Pass connecting Idaho and Wyoming. Long-distance cyclists take note of the Yellowstone/Grand Teton Rail Trail, which extends 104 miles from Victor to West Yellowstone, though the 7.7 mile ride between Victor and Driggs also satisfies riders for a more leisurely day trip.
Cloud-covered mountains and forest at Yellowstone National Park © BGSmith / Shutterstock
If baiting a fish is what you’re after, Trail Creek Pond is great for bank fishing with the family, while the Teton River offers a handful of boat ramps for flat-water casting. Climbers visiting the Teton Valley have over 100 routes to choose from between Darby Canyons, Shady Wall, the Arms Deal and Grand Walls.