Idaho is full of places to go and things to do, but when action packed adventure seems a bit daunting, load the family in the car for a relaxing car ride. Road trips on Idaho’s scenic byways offer varied scenery, underground ice caves, interesting moonscapes, spectacular waterfalls and sparkling lakes. With 34 designated scenic byways in Idaho there is no shortage of things to explore. Home to more whitewater than any other state in the lower 48 along with mountains to climb, trails to hike, lakes to fish, and 18 ski resorts, experience it all on a trek through town.
Here are a few favorites to get you started.
Pack the bikes for the Palouse Divide on the White Pine Scenic Byway
Travelers can spend the night in Coeur d’Alene then set off down this 82.8 mile scenic byway, which begins on Idaho Hwy 3 at Interstate 90 and cruises through the endless rolling hills of the Palouse.
Stop at the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes and ride on the 73-mile long bike trail that was built on the original Union Pacific Railroad grade, one of America’s most scenic byways. Or, if your family prefers to hike, you can travel farther south and explore the Palouse Divide. In the winter, this is one of Idaho’s designated Park n’ Ski areas. In the summer there are many options for picnicking, camping, and hiking.
Farther along the byway is White Pine Drive, the 12-mile stretch of highway that’s bordered on both sides by old growth forest, with most trees older than 400 years.
Camp and recreate in historic Laird Park, where remnants of early gold mining activity remain along the banks of the Palouse River. Or, continue on to historic Potlatch, the old logging and mill town with the funny name where Frederick Weyerhaeuser opened the largest white pine mill in the world in 1905.
Then head south to Moscow for lodging and great dining options in this college town, home to the University of Idaho, or turn around and return north toward the resort town of Coeur d’Alene.
Tour Historic Idaho City and stop by Stanley Lake on the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway
Starting in Boise, follow Idaho 21 north to the historic mining town of Idaho City, where you can still pan for gold in a nearby stream bed. Campgrounds and fishing opportunities dot the route from Idaho City to Lowman along the South Fork of the Payette River, as you slowly climb along the byway’s northeasterly route.
At the cutoff road to Grandjean, the roadway leaves the Payette River and squeezes between two of Idaho’s wilderness areas: to the right lies the Sawtooth Wilderness and its 217,000 pristine acres of coniferous forest lands and wilderness lakes; to the left is the Salmon-Challis National Forest, gateway to the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, with more contiguous acres of roadless wilderness than anywhere else in the lower 48 states.
From Banner Summit, one of Idaho’s highest at 7,056 feet, you begin a descent into the town of Stanley. As the roadway grooves through the steep foothills and thick forest, you can glimpse the Sawtooth Mountains ahead. Finally, as you drop into Stanley they come into full, magnificent view.
Here you can visit sites such as the magnificent Stanley Lake or the Staley Creek Wildlife Area, or soothe your achy bones in the area’s well-known Kirkham Hot Springs.
See Mesa Falls and Fish Henry’s Fork on the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway
Heading northeast from Idaho Falls, the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway begins in Ashton at the junction of U.S. Hwy 20 and Idaho 47. On the way to the falls, travelers can stop for a photo-op and some serious scenic vistas at the Teton Overlook, offering a perfect view of the Teton Mountain Range about 40 miles away.
This scenic byway only takes about an hour to drive, but most travelers like to spend half a day at the spectacular Mesa Falls. At 110 feet and 85 feet, both the Upper and Lower Falls can be seen from the Grandview Overlook. Next to the overlook, Grandview Campground has nine campsites if families want to spend the night. Visitors can also explore the historic Big Falls Inn and Stage Coach stop, which is currently the interpretive center.
Farther north, travelers can find lodging, camping, and recreation in Island Park. Eagle Ridge Adventures is a local dude ranch that can accommodate guests in the grand lodge or private cabins. Horseback rides, fishing, canoeing, hiking, horseshoes and Dutch oven cookouts are just a few of the activities guests can experience. There is still plenty of recreation for camping families. Local outfitters like Henry’s Fork Anglers offer guided fly-fishing trips along the famous waters of Henry’s Fork.
Yellowstone National Park is approximately 35 miles from Island Park, offering even more scenery and adventure for the families who just don’t want the road trip to end.
Channel Hemingway and Escape in the Rockies on the Sawtooth Scenic Byway
This scenic road trip begins in Shoshone, Idaho at the intersections of U.S. Highway 26 and 93. Driving north on Idaho Highway 75, pit stops should include the Shoshone Ice Caves, an underground ice cave, and Sculptured Canyon, a centuries-old lava field that was carved out by melting glaciers – hours of fun for exploring.
Farther north, stop in Ketchum and visit the Ernest Hemingway Memorial and gravesite. Hemingway spent the last years of his life amidst the scenic Sawtooth Mountains, fishing the area’s many lakes and streams.
Weary travelers can find posh accommodations at Sun Valley Resort, or continue north, over Galena Pass, which showcases the ridge of the Sawtooth Mountain range, and find a camping spot in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. With more than 300 alpine lakes and 756,000 federally protected acres, this area has everything from camping to water activities and wildlife viewing.
Northwest of Galena Summit, Stanley’s Redfish Lake is Idaho’s largest alpine lake, more than 300 ft. deep at some points. Families can camp, hike, fish, horseback ride and splash around in the lakes.
Visit the Craters of the Moon or get lost at the Mackay Dam on the Peaks to Craters Byway
Without a doubt this byway has the most diverse stretch of road in Idaho. You will experience wetlands, the vistas of the high mountain desert, expansive lava flows, and the Lost River Mountain Range boasting nine of Idaho’s twelve highest peaks including the highest peak, Mt. Borah.
The byway features world-class fly-fishing on beautiful Silver Creek, a unique rock formation known to the locals as the “Queens Crown.” Make a pit stop at the Carey Lake Wildlife Management area, home to dozens of species of birds and waterfowl. There is Idaho’s first national monument, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve with thousands of acres of lava fields and unique rock formations. In Arco, the “First City in the World to be lit by Atomic Energy,” you can see a submarine in the desert.
In the magnificent Lost River Valley, there are peaceful miles of agricultural lands in the shadow of the Lost River Mountain Range. The valley narrows and mountains seem to increase in size as you near Mt. Borah and the rest of the “great peaks.” At Spar Canyon you may see wild horses roaming the desert and are reminded of old western movies as you wind through Grandview Canyon.