Idaho is one of the country’s backcountry oases, one of the original American wildernesses to capture the imagination of its artists. Not far from the inception of the American wilderness ideal at Yellowstone, in the 20th century Ernest Hemingway helped to popularize Sun Valley, the original mountain town where the country’s first ski resort was built. The Sawtooths have never lost their rugged quality, and towns big and small in the Gem State still keep the wild western feel, if modernized by the visitors who take advantage of its skies, mountains, meadows, and rivers.
No discussion about Idaho’s backcountry would be complete without Stanley. In the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains, it is the nexus of any backpacking adventure in the mountain range, but there are plenty more outdoor adventures to be had. The area is criss-crossed with singletrack, the granite of the Sawtooths is ideal for multi-pitch climbing with classics like Elephants Perch and the Saddleback Lakes area, and the Salmon River steelhead run is the longest in North America, so bring your fishing gear. The Middle Fork of the Salmon River offers challenging whitewater and stunning canyon wilderness. It doesn’t end in the winter, either; those mountains become a snowbound playground for backcountry ski huts and snowshoeing. And you can forget bathing when all you need is a hot spring. We’ve written about Stanley and its amazing backcountry many times. As wilderness goes in the Lower 48, it’s about as good as it gets, but what really stuns is the census data: fewer than 70 people call this place home. In other words, Stanley is an ad hoc mountain town in the purest sense.
Follow the course of the Snake River into Twin Falls, and the outdoor enthusiast will encounter a spoil of riverine riches. Twin Falls, the waterfall from which the city earned its name, rises 125 feet above the canyon. Just a short distance downstream and 5 miles east of the city of Twin Falls, Shoshone Falls is 212 feet, bigger than Niagara. The Snake River drops another 20 feet at Pillar Falls, where two stone columns mark the drop and lend the waterfall its name. Another 1.5 miles downstream, the Perrine Bridge is one of the only places in the world where BASE jumping is legal—and world records have been set here.
Gorgeous river canyons? Six-hour stand-up paddles to superlative waterfalls? As if that weren’t enough, a rails-to-trails project converted a 10-mile stretch of the south rim into a walkable, bikeable trail, a historic river landmark that commemorates a watershed event in the European westward exploration, and Twin Falls is about 90 minutes from the City of Rocks. That’s outdoor perfection.
In the southwestern corner of the state, Bear Lake State Park straddles the Idaho border and stretches for 20 miles of Rocky Mountain wilderness. In Idaho, the little town of St. Charles is the gateway to everything this park has to offer—stand-up paddling, camping, diving, fishing, and relaxing on the beach. But not everything pertains to the water here. The Minnetonka Cave, just 11 miles west of St. Charles, offers nine limestone caverns to explore in the foothills of the Bear River Mountains, where Bloomington Peak offers great views of the Bear River valley.
The original mountain town has long passed into legend, but the outdoors remain among the premier wilderness areas in the Sawtooth Mountains. The town, made famous by Ernest Hemingway and Bruce Willis—whose mansion may still be up for sale, if you’re in the market—is home to the first ski resort in the U.S. and many a fine singletrack and backpacking trail. Just a few fine examples include the High Ridge Trail, Bear Gulch, and if you can’t afford the resort, the Pioneer Yurt in winter. Bourgeois, but undeniably beautiful. And if you’re yearning for the arid high plateaus of Idaho, Craters of the Moon is a couple hours south.
In the Idaho Panhandle, Wallace is a historic town known best for its mining past. These days, it has declared itself the center of the universe, and if not in literal terms, perhaps it’s one of the best backcountry adventure towns in the state. The Route of the Hiawatha starts here, a 15-mile biking trail that is another of Idaho’s rails-to-trails projects. The Coeur d’Alene River courses through town, and kayak adventures can begin on the river from downtown. Add to that the opportunity to explore an extensive mining history and the Lookout Pass Ski Area, and Wallace is a respectable adventure town.
The largest city on the Idaho Panhandle sits on the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene, a 25-mile lake with abundant outdoor adventure to choose from. Start on the Mineral Ridge Recreation Trail, over 3 miles along the lakeshore with beautiful views. Then choose from the lake’s many on-water adventures, like stand-up paddling or even parasailing.