There is a bucket list of adventures to be had in Idaho that will take you from the Northwest Panhandle to Idaho’s southern border. Taking the time to get away from the cities and discover this region’s beautiful attractions will leave no question as to why Idaho is known as the Gem state.
Idaho has been nicknamed “the Gem State” since its territorial days. The word Idaho is said to have been derived from a Native American word “E- Dah-Hoe” meaning “Gem of the Mountains” or “Light on the Mountain.”
As promised in my previous blog post, Boise: City of Trees, here is the first of two scenic day trips that will take you away from the city and let you explore some of Idaho’s most beautiful outdoor recreation areas.
The best way to enjoy Idaho’s stunning mountainous scenery, including steady flowing rivers and alpine lakes is to get into your car and explore. On most highways you will come across historical markers that can guide and educate you along the way, sharing geographical facts and snippets of history. These historical markers can be an iconic parts of a road trip, often sharing information that you most likely won’t read any place else. So, give yourself the time to stop at each historical marker along your route, you will be amazed at the history that they hold.
Before we get started with this Off the Beaten Path Road trip destinations, let’s talk about what it really means to to go “off the beaten path”. Off the Beaten Path means to go or dare to go places which are out of the ordinary, unfamiliar, and often more adventurous, typically the places that most folks don’t want to go to or never try to go. This different way of traveling is a bit more exclusive and often requires choices that can make the difference between being a regular tourist and having a true travel experience. It is these types of see more, explore more and do more adventures that will become a definitive memory and part of your life forever. After all, this is why we travel, isn’t it?
Part of wandering Off the Beaten Path is slowing down to notice unusual things and taking the time to safely stop on the side of the road if you spot something unique or obscure. Like this poem that someone put in the brush on the side of the road heading into the Sawtooth National Forest.
You Will Know the Wind
Sunlight will find you at your own speed.
Here among the weeds there are no hours or years
only the green.
Listen to the voices on leaves.
Believe in silence and shade.
This path remembers all your footprints.
It is so glad you have come.
‘Stumble Upon Discoveries’ like this during Off the Beaten Path travel excursions have a way of touching you in unexpected ways. The fact that someone felt so passionate about this particular location that they took the time to write a poem and post it with care for others to read, was a uplifting discovery.
With all of this in mind, it’s time to experience the Sun Valley Loop.
Sun Valley, Idaho, is known as one of the great ski destinations in America, but what some may not know is that it also the place that pioneered the very first chair lift back in the 1930s. Although the abundance of snow may attract outdoor enthusiasts in the winter, as the snow melts away and the green landscape re-emerges plenty of unique summer outdoor opportunities become available.
Setting your GPS to Sun Valley, the easy drive from downtown Boise will have you heading out the city, along I-84 then US-20 through the Camas Prairie. The trip to Sun Valley takes about two hours and 45 minutes, but the complete Sun Valley Loop will take about 6 1/2 hours total without stops, so it is best to leave early to give you time to roam and wander.
Working your way counterclockwise up to Sun Valley you will drive through some of the most spectacular scenery and natural beauty there is in Idaho.
Before arriving at the Wood River Valley which is home to the Sun Valley and the town of Ketchum, you will pass through other small towns like Fairfield and Hailey that are great places to get out and stretch your legs and grab a quick snack as you continue onto the Valley.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, The area surrounding the small town of Fairfield, Idaho offers a unique opportunity to view Camas Lilies (Camassia quamash (Pursh) Greene) in abundant quantities. Native Americans used Camas Lily extensively for medicinal purposes and as a staple food source. Great quantities of camas roots were collected by Native American women and were used to make a bread.
In Sun Valley you can put together any combination of getting up and down Bald Mountain to include hiking, biking, a gondola ride or a trip on the ski lift.
After most of the snow melts away and the sun begins to heat the rivers and mountains, outdoor enthusiasts flock to the Sun Valley area to get back to nature and to experience plenty of summer recreational activities. Sun Valley has about 400 miles of hiking, running and biking trails for both families and extreme sport enthusiasts. Golfing is also available as is other activities like skating outdoors.
The Big Wood River which runs through the Valley is a popular fly-fishing destination and several local outfitters offer single or multi-day river trips for rafters or kayakers. A great activity to help you beat the heat on hot summer days.
If your wondering where to grab a bite to eat during your time in Sun Valley, there are a list of dining options on the Sun Valley Website along with local shops to explore in the Sun Valley Village. If you are looking for accommodations you can find a list of lodging choices here. For a classic Sun Valley lodging experience take a look at the Sun Valley Lodge, which offers every luxury accommodation need you could imagine.
There are three restaurants in the Sun Valley Lodge, including The Duchin which has a great lunch menu and a list of cocktails, regional craft beers on tap, and an extensive wine list. Covered outdoor seating is available and the area overlooks the outdoor Sun Valley ice arena. While there we munched on the House Guacamole with house-made blue corn chips, cotija cheese, and salsa and sipped on a couple of daily special cocktails.
Sun Valley, Idaho regardless of the season is a place you will keep coming back for, time and time again, after visiting I can see why many people plan to return and why many of them make the trip every year.
After leaving Sun Valley it is a hour to your next stop, Stanley Idaho, and on this scenic stretch of your journey, you’ll be compassed by the Sawtooth National Forest and the breathtaking Sawtooth Mountains.
Many visitors come to this area for the outstanding scenery, trout fishing, mountain climbing, hunting, hiking and camping. Fun Fact: Idaho has the most federally designated wilderness area in the lower 48 states, and over 70% of the state is public land, including the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
According to the National Forest Foundation, ‘The Sawtooth Forest has archaeological and historical sites which reflect our heritage for the past 10,000 years. There are nearly 1,500 heritage sites recorded on this forest.’
Galena Summit Overlook
On the drive you can stop and enjoy the natural beauty of the Galena Summit. Situated at 8,700 feet, this overlook is the highest summit stretch of the highway offering incredible views of the Sawtooth Range and the headwaters of Salmon River.
Just look for the signs and a small parking area off the side of the road.
As your drive through this rugged area, you’ll continue to see a variety of wildlife, there are signs next to the road saying, “Stock Crossing” and “Game Crossing,” so be sure to be on the lookout!
Along this route through the valley as you head for Stanley Idaho, a river is born. Although this is the first glimpse of the Salmon River it’s actual journey starts high above this meandering stream up near the tip of the Galena Summit. This slow moving brook, fed by snowmelt and spring-fed streams is visible from the road and as you make your way North the Salmon River travels along with you, growing in size which each mile of the journey.
The path of the Salmon River is generally northeast where it is joined by the Lemhi River, and then makes it’s way northwest to join the Snake River several miles south of the Idaho-Oregon-Washington border. The largest tributary of the Snake River, the Salmon River is called the “River of No Return” because travel upstream was once impossible.
The Salmon River is not only breathtaking as it grows in size while making its way to its final destination, it is also unique for many reasons, aside from flowing North. In the lower 48, it is the longest free-flowing river that also runs through the heart of the largest continuous wilderness.
“A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself.”
― Laura Gilpin
As you drive along keep an eye out for the wildlife that inhabit this area, including pronghorn antelope, deer, elk, sandhill cranes, and wolves.
Soon you will arrive in Stanley Idaho, a small town, that is the starting point for hiking in the Sawtooth National Forest. It is also a great spot to stop, fill up on gas and grab some more beverages and snacks for the rest of the road trip. Fair warning, Stanley is extremely busy during the summer months and there are limited services there and the next town of Lowman that you will pass through. It is good to fill up the tank in Stanley, even if you have to wait in line at the only gas station in town.
Fun Fact: Stanley Idaho is one of the coldest places in the lower 48, which means it can be blistering hot in Boise and at the same time get down into the 30s at night in Stanley. The elevation is the reason for this, the town of Stanley sits at 6,250 feet and some of the peaks surrounding it exceed 11,000 feet. Regardless of the season you travel through Stanley, I recommend packing warm layers. Mountain weather can change in an instant so a be prepared mindset is imperative.
Stanley is very close to Redfish Lake. some of the best views of the Sawtooth Range.
Photo Credit: Visit Idaho
The area surrounding Stanley is known for over 300 lakes to discover and explore. Several of the larger lakes sit in the basin, but most are alpine lakes nestled close to the Sawtooth Mountains.
On your way out of town, head north on State Highway 21 and make one final stop at Stanley Lake. Stanley Lake is approximately seven miles west of Stanley, readily accessed by a three-mile spur road from Highway 21. The lake offers excellent boating, waterskiing, canoeing, kayaking and fishing for rainbow, cutthroat, brook and bull trout. The area surrounding Stanley Idaho is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts who want to wander and explore the untouched wilderness.
As you venture away from Stanley you will leave Highway 75 behind and continue your adventure on Highway 21. On this part of the journey you’ll experience how incredible this mountainous region truly is, and you’ll see first hand why Highway 21 is called the “Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway”.
The Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway ambles through the Boise National Forest, taking you past dense forests of pine and through high mountain valleys. This two-lane winding road has some intense steep grades and switchbacks, but the view from vantage points along the way make it worth exploring this remote area.
Fun Fact: Boise National Forest is comprised of over 2.2 million acres of land in the state of Idaho. This vast wilderness area is home to 9,600 miles of streams and rivers, and over 15,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs. The wide open spaces and natural beauty of the Boise National Forest allow for a wide assortment of outdoor recreation activity options.
This scenic byway will take you past historical markers with stories of old mining towns and road sign directions to local hot springs leading to the “Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway,” which is near the small town of Lowman. Lowman is in an actively geothermal region and natural hot springs surface all around the middle of this community as well as in many other places in the surrounding mountains.
Like the Kirkham Hot Springs which is visible from a turnoff on the side of the highway.
This area is not only home to some of Idaho’s most beautiful natural soaking pools and seven different hot springs (many right off the road), it is also a perfect stretch to do some white water rafting down the Payette River.
Places to stay in Lowman if you decide to make it more than a day trip, Visit Idaho.
From Lowman you will continue to follow Highway 21 towards Idaho City, another spot to stop and grab anything that you need before returning to Boise.
Photo Credit: Idaho City Chamber of Commerce
This last stretch of the drive only takes about one hour but there is still more to see along the way.
In addition to witnessing the continuing beauty of the Boise National Forest you will catch sight of the Boise River on the way back to Boise. The 102 mile long Boise River is a tributary of the Snake River and is a popular destination for floating and cool off during the hot Idaho summers.
If you start your Sun Valley Loop from Boise early enough you should arrive back just in time to catch the end of Happy Hour. This is a perfect time to sit back, relax and celebrate a day well spent, going “Off the Beaten Path”.
Trillium Bar & Restaurant Happy Hour enjoyed in the Grove Hotel Boise.
Stay tuned for more of my Idaho adventure, Boise Day Trips: Off the Beaten Path part two were I’ll be sharing a picturesque drive up to Payette Lake, in McCall Idaho. Until then I’d love to hear about some of your favorite Idaho destinations, just drop a note in the comments.
“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
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