Misconceptions about Idaho are rampant. Confused with Iowa, assumed to be all potato country, Idaho has most of the world fooled. The state is spectacular in grandeur, diverse in its geographic beauty—from the surreal Bruneau Sand Dunes to the unfathomable expanse of the central Idaho wilderness. It is a wondrous place that can defy imagination. For the uninitiated, or for those who simply doubt, here are but seven of the many wonders of the Gem State.
1.Central Idaho Wilderness Areas
Frank Church, Gospel-Hump, Selway-Bitteroot
Idaho contains the second highest wilderness acreage in the Lower 48, only falling behind California. A large portion of this area lies in the center of the state, where the Selway-Bitterroot, Frank Church-River of No Return, and Gospel-Hump Wildernesses all meet. The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness spills across the Idaho-Montana border, demarcated by the glacier-tipped Bitterroot Mountains. It is the third largest wilderness area in the Lower 48, filled with approximately 1,800 miles of trails, countless granite peaks and hidden valleys. The 600-foot-wide Nez Perce Trail is the only thing that separates the Selway-Bitterroot from the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the largest contiguous wilderness area in the Lower 48. Two white water rivers cut across the vast 2,357,715 acres, the Main Salmon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon. An expansive network of trails wind across the area, providing access for anyone who wishes to experience the jagged Salmon River Mountains that fill the interior of the area. Over 1.5 million acres remain trail-free, preserved for the wildlife that inhabits the wilderness. The Gospel-Hump Wilderness borders the Lower Salmon River and the northwest finger of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness area. It is equally spectacular in its “untrammeled” beauty and wild nature. The area is replete with moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, wolves and anadromous fish.
2. Bruneau Sand Dunes
An Other Worldly Landscape
Hike up the sand, calves surely burning, across the several large dunes that make up the state park. Once you reach the peak, strap on a sand board or dune ski and you are off, carving your way down the highest single-structured sand dune in North America. It sits at approximately 470 feet, towering over two small lakes that sit below. This height is the result of thousands of years of wind. Unlike most dunes in North America, these form near the center, rather than the edge, of the natural basin. It has acted as a trap for the sand for over 12,000 years; some geologists believe the dunes may have started with sands unearthed following the Bonneville Flood, about 15,000 years ago. The millennia have crafted the perfect outdoor haven, with fishing and hiking, horseback riding and star gazing. It rises like a slice of the Sahara, complete with a lake oasis, just 65 miles southeast of Boise.
3. Hells Canyon
The Deepest Gorge
The foreboding name of this canyon seems fitting when talking about its size; at 7,993 feet deep, it is North America’s deepest river gorge. Hells Canyon stretches a monstrous 10 miles from rim to rim. The Snake River flows over a mile below the west rim, on the Oregon side, and 8,000 feet below He Devil Peak of the Seven Devils, a mountain range dividing two of the deepest canyons in North America, with the Salmon River sitting on the other side. The canyon rim is around 2,000 feet higher than the Grand Canyon, on both sides. There are no roads across the canyon’s 10 miles, and only three roads that lead to the Snake between Hells Canyon Dam and the Oregon/Washington boundary, making it virtually inaccessible to all but the most determined adventurers. You are rewarded for perseverance with stunning vistas and raging white water.
4. Mount Borah
The Top of Idaho
Mount Borah is the highest mountain in Idaho, with Beauty Peak measuring 12,662 feet. It is the monarch of the Lost River Range, its bare grey limestone peak looming large over the surrounding mountains. The peak is prized among climbers, with nearly 6,000 feet separating it vertically from the lowest contour line encircling it, a measure topographers label as “prominence.” This distance qualifies Borah as a rare ultra-prominence peak. The peak was not recognized as the state’s highest until 1934, when it was verified to be at 12,655 feet. Legend has it that the difference in measurement was not a fluke, but rather the mountain grew since then. On October 28, 1983, Mount Borah rose 7 feet, when a massive earthquake shook the valley around it down and the ridge up. With a plethora of routes to the top, Mount Borah is a mountaineer’s dream.
5. The Palouse
The hills of the Palouse bloom erratically across the horizon. There are no continuous valleys. They do not follow the pattern of most mountains, carved in rows by rivers and streams. This is because these hills were deposited across the plateau, rather than whittled from it. These peculiar, asymmetrical hills cover 4,000 square miles from north of Lewiston, almost to the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene, expanding farther out of Idaho into the Northwest. The Palouse mimic dunes, blown in by prehistoric dust storms carrying fine silt. This silt was trapped when they hit wetter grasslands, accumulating into hills that hardened into loess. The hills flush green in the summer, before they ripen to gold in the autumn, making the Palouse both strange and picturesque.
6. Craters of the Moon
A Volcanic Wonderland
The Craters of the Moon appear mystical with tar-black rivers, frozen caves and sagebrush steppe spanning 1,117 square miles. The Monument and Preserve contain three major lava fields, all of which lie on the Great Rift of Idaho. Over 25 volcanic cones dot the landscape, with 60 discrete lava flows. These flows date back to as old as 15,000 years, to as young as 2,000. The youngest flows occurred recently enough that the Shoshone people likely witnessed their creation. More may witness these eruptions sooner than one would think; the volcanic fissures are considered dormant, not extinct, and are expected to erupt within the next 1,000 years. Some volcanologists predict that we will see an eruption in the next 100 years. Walk through and you will truly feel like you are traversing the lunar surface. As the explorer Robert Limbert said in his 1924 National Geographic article, the Craters of the Moon are, “bewildering in their immensity, mystifying in their variety of strange formations.”
7. Shangri-La & Redfish Lake
Pristine Waters, Majestic Views
The sockeye salmon is the namesake of Redfish Lake, as its fire-engine-red scales used to make the crystal-clear water shimmer red in the summer spawning season. Before the development of hydropower along the path to the Pacific, thousands of sockeye would complete an annual migration of over 900 miles from the ocean up the Columbia. With eight dams standing in their way, fewer and fewer sockeye make the journey successfully; in May 1991, “Lonesome Larry” was the only adult sockeye to make it. Thankfully, this grave situation shocked groups into action. The sockeye is considered endangered, and the count has grown to over 1,200. The lake itself is picturesque, easily enjoyed with an abundance of hiking trails and cabins, locations to rent boats, motorized or not. The ice-cold water reflects the surrounding mountains, the mirror image punctured only by the people playing within it. Just across and above the lake is the Shangri-La area, which comprises multiple alpine lakes and the famous Elephant’s Perch, a rock climber’s paradise. The area is pristine, the views breathtaking, and the hiking and climbing is virtually unlimited.