Idaho’s nickname is the Gem State. This is very apt, since the 43rd state is truly a gem among states. In the north along Interstate 90, you’ll find lush green forests, picturesque lakes and the historic silver mining town of Kellogg. In the south along Interstate 84, you’ll find deserts and history – the Oregon Trail that brought pioneers to the West passes through here. And in-between, you’ll find Highway 12, a scenic byway that parallels the Clearwater River that Lewis and Clark followed on their expedition to the Pacific.
You’ll also find great recreational opportunities among the best places to visit in Idaho: great skiing and golfing, camping and hiking, and some great mountain biking in the Hiawatha Trail that starts at the Montana border and ends 17 gorgeous, graveled miles later.
10. Sandpoint[SEE MAP]
Sandpoint may have less than 8,000 residents, but it’s a major economic hub in northern Idaho. Two national businesses, women’s wear retailer Coldwater Creek and salad dressing manufacturer Lighthouse Foods have their national headquarters here.
Nestled in the mountains, Sandpoint sits on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille, (pronounced “pond oh ray”) Idaho’s largest lake with swimming, boating and fishing. Bing Crosby’s family once had a large stone home on the lake shore. Nearby is Schweitzer Mountain, Idaho’s largest ski resort. No wonder this charming place was named a Most Beautiful Small Town in 2011.
9. Lava Hot Springs[SEE MAP]
Lava Hot Springs is a popular vacation resort in Southern Idaho situated near Pocatello on the old Oregon Trail route. The town isn’t very big – a tad over 500 souls – making it a good place to chill out away from the crowds.
“Chill out,” however, may be a misnomer as you’ll find five hot springs pools here. Water temperatures range from 102° to 112° constantly, even though water is constantly flowing to the Pontneuf River at the rate of 250 million gallons a day. When you tire of soaking, cool off by floating the river on inner tubes.
Many travelers look at Hells Canyon National Recreation Area that divides Idaho and Oregon as a scenic and recreation area. That it is, no doubt about it: At nearly 8,000 feet deep, Hells Canyon is the deepest river gorge in North America and can be explored on countless hiking trails.
Running through the middle of it is the Snake River that combines with the Clearwater River to the. Hells Canyon is also an important archaeological district, with indications humans lived here 15,000 years ago. Early explorers also passed through here, so you’ll find historic sites on both sides of the canyon.
7. Idaho Falls[SEE MAP]
The falls at Idaho Falls may not be very deep, but they’re plenty wide. The falls in downtown Idaho Falls only drop 22 feet (7 meters), but they stretch 600 feet (180 meters) across the Snake River. They’re best viewed from the Snake River Greenbelt, a six-mile round trip over a paved path.
The greenbelt, the city’s top attraction, is popular with bikers and strollers as well as those who climb down the rocks for a little fishing. The town itself is the best city in eastern Idaho. It is the economic, arts and cultural center for the region.
6. Coeur d'Alene[SEE MAP]
Just 30 miles east of Spokane, Washington, Coeur d’Alene rules the Idaho Panhandle. The largest city in northern Idaho, the city sits on the shores of the scenic Lake Coeur d’Alene. If you’re a golfer, you might want to play a few rounds at the Coeur d’Alene Resort course that’s famous for its 14th Hole, a green that sits in the lake, floating along on an underwater cable.
Coeur d’Alene is one of the best places to visit in Idaho throughout the year, from its Christmas lights cruise on the lake to summer’s Iron Man competition.
5. Shoshone Falls[SEE MAP]
Q: What falls in the United States is higher than the mighty Niagara Falls?
A: Shoshone Falls in Twin Falls, Idaho. The water falls on the Snake River drop 212 feet (65 meters), Niagara only falls 167 feet (51 meters). Still, Shoshone Falls are sometimes called the “Niagara of the West.” The falls were an important fishing and trading spot for Native Americans, including the Shoshone for which they’re named. The best place to view the falls in a city park that has swimming, picnic and play areas, hiking trails and a boat ramp.
4. Craters of the Moon National Monument[SEE MAP]
Craters of the Moon National Monument is an eerie place in southern Idaho. The lava formations make it appear desolate; it is one of the best preserved basalt flood areas in the Lower 48 states. Thought to resemble the Moon’s surface, NASA astronauts trained at the lava field as they prepared for their moon landing. Once there, they discovered the Moon was different from Craters of the Moon.
A flashlight is a must if you plan on exploring the lava caves; water also is essential in the summer. The Oregon Trail skirted parts of the monument.
3. Sun Valley[SEE MAP]
Sun Valley is Idaho’s premier ski and summer vacation resort, with many celebrities owning homes in the area. Located in central Idaho, Sun Valley is nestled among mountains that provide great skiing, ice skating and snowboarding in the winter, and golf, horseback riding, hiking and fly fishing in the summer.
It is a year-round family tourist destination. Sun Valley has hosted World Cup ski races, while Olympic ice skater Sonja Henie filmed Sun Valley here. Noted writer Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls here.
2. Boise[SEE MAP]
Located in southwest Idaho, Boise is not only the state’s largest city, but also its capital. Part of Idaho’s Treasure Valley, Boise (pronounced “BOY-see”) was a stop along the Oregon Trail. The city’s 8th Street through downtown is now a pedestrian zone.
It’s here you’ll find the Basque Block where you can learn about Boise’s Basque heritage. Boise’s North End has older homes and tree lined streets; the American Planning Association named it one of America’s 10 Great Neighborhoods in 2008. If you’re a jazz fan, don’t miss the annual Gene Harris Jazz Festival.
1. Yellowstone National Park[SEE MAP]
America’s most loved park, Yellowstone, is not only America’ first national park, but the first national park in the world. It’s a wonderful place to visit, with spectacular scenery and plenty of geothermal activity (don’t miss seeing Old Faithful erupt).
It’s also a good place to see wild animals in their native habitat – buffalo rule here, so don’t be surprised if you get stuck in traffic caused by a buffalo sauntering down the road. Remember, these animals are wild, so keep your distance. Yellowstone is located mostly in Wyoming; only one percent of the park is in Idaho.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Yellowstone
See also: Top Yellowstone Attractions