We never knew that there were so many amazing things to do in Idaho until our recent visit.
I was looking for a state to wow me on our one-year USA road trip. Many states did wow me, but I drove into their borders knowing that.
I knew the adventures and landscapes of the American Southwest would blow me away. I knew the Rocky Mountains would be striking, and that Oregon would be filled with waterfalls and fantastic coffee, food and craft beer.
But Idaho. I knew nothing about visiting Idaho. And it became the ONE: The state that delivered unexpected beauty and joy and is now one of our favorite Pacific Northwest road trips.
Yes, I did know that the state of Idaho is known as the “Spud State”, but didn’t know it is also referred to as the “Gem State”. I’m now also calling it a state of natural beauty!
From our introduction to the free live music by the lake under a setting sun with The Talbott Brothers in Coeur d’Alene, I was hooked.
If this is what you are about Idaho, then we are going to get along just fine.
My inkling that our Idaho road trip would be something special intensified when so many from our online community jumped out with praise and their tips on the best things to do in Idaho.
Many, including locals, kind of hinted that they’d like the best places in Idaho to be kept a secret.
I get it, but how can I not share something so wonderful and we highly recommend you visit Idaho too!
In fact, we found ourselves saying with several of the Idaho attractions we visited,
“Best in North America, one of my favorites, my mind is blown, how did we not know this? I definitely want to come back.”
It’s where I discovered my new favorite waterfall in the USA, our favorite horse riding trail in the world so far, and one of my favorite lakes in the US.
All up we spent about two weeks road tripping on our Idaho family vacation.
We visited Coeur d’Alene and the Route of the Hiawatha in the north of Idaho across to Glacier National Park, Montana.
After Glacier, we drove down the Salmon River Scenic Byway to Stanley, down to Boise and Sun Valley/Ketchum and then around and back up to Mesa Falls, passing through Craters of the Moon National Park.
Below are our favorite things to see and do in Idaho that will seriously wow you.
Things to do in Northern Idaho
Who likes lake life?
Coeur d’Alene in the northern panhandle is one of the most popular Idaho vacation spots and made me realize how much I love the ease and joy that comes with living and playing by lakes.
Lake Coeur d’Alene
It’s stunning, and filled with many awesome water activities that do not carry the fear of sharks or crocodiles.
On its doorstep is a vibrant downtown with plenty of boutique stores, cafes, restaurant’s and live music!
I loved the young, vibrant feel of Coeur D’Alene, which reminded me of Raleigh in North Carolina in many ways.
Tubbs Hill Walk
Right on the doorstep of downtown is Tubbs Hill peninsula, a favorite for locals as a natural escape and exercise area.
The 2-mile loop trail follows the shoreline of Lake Coeur d’Alene through evergreen forests, around the 120-acre Tubbs Hill park.
There are multiple offshoots that take you to scenic overlooks, and picnic areas.
Be sure to take your swimsuits and stop off at some of the inviting secluded cove beaches along the walk.
Stand Up Paddle Boarding
Stand up paddle boarding is a family activity we love to do.
It’s a peaceful way to explore and connect to the local nature vibe.
The world is completely different when you can jump on a sup board on a large body of water that feels like the ocean, yet makes you feel completely safe and at ease at not knowing what lies underneath in its depths.
On this Idaho trip, supping on Lake Coeur d’Alene was extra special, as it was the first time Savannah felt brave enough to not only take out her own paddle board, but to also stand up.
One thing I love so much about traveling with my kids full-time is I am always present for those milestone events and get to witness the overcoming of their fear to get to know how powerful they really are.
Savannah doesn’t realize how athletic and strong she is, so I always knew she could stand up first go and balance fine, but she didn’t.
So to watch her face go from nervous anticipation to sheer joy at nailing it was a favorite Idaho travel memory.
You can rent kayaks and sup boards from Coeur d’Alene Resort and start paddling straight off the marina to explore the shoreline of the lake or further out.
It was our favorite of things to do in Coeur d Alene Idaho.
What a serene way to end our time in Coeur d’Alene then a sunset cruise with Lake Coeur d’Alene Cruises.
While I loved the sunset cruise and the dinner, I’d recommend taking a day tour, simply because the lake is so beautiful, I would have loved to have seen more of it in the day time.
Ideally, I think this cruise would be better leaving an hour or so earlier so you can enjoy sunset while on the boat after seeing all the sights. It left as the sun was setting. Check to see if they do have that option.
Good news, the surrounding areas offer plenty of fun things to do.
Go a little further out of Coeur D’Alene and you’ll discover so much more.
Places to Eat & Drink in Coeur d’Alene
We enjoyed the food and drink and atmosphere in these establishments:
- Crafted Tap House & Kitchen
- Sweet Lou’s Restaurant & Tap House
- Capone’s Pub & Grill
- Evans Brothers Coffee Roasters
- Fine Brewed Cafe
Where to Stay in Coeur d’Alene
With its prime location on the lake and downtown, and its top notch facilities, the 4 star Coeur D’Alene Resort would be an ideal place to stay in Coeur d’Alene.
Farragut State Park
If you’re looking for places to go in Idaho the locals love and without the crowds of other parks in other states, go here.
This state park got recommended to us as one of the best places to see in Idaho by our waiter at Capones’ Pub & Grill (we love tips from the locals).
On the banks of Lake Pend Oreille, this 4,000-acre state park offers plenty of hiking trails, mountain biking and water activities.
We enjoyed the short Shoreline Trail (1.5 miles), which winds along Buttonhook Bay with outstanding views of the Monarch Mountains surrounding the scenic bay.
There is interesting history here too. This state park was once the second largest naval training station in the world. Yes, that’s right, an inland naval training base.
In response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, The U.S. built Farragut Naval Training Station inland, so that it would be protected from coastal invasion.
The waters of Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s largest lake, were also deep enough to test submarines.
Looking for fun things to do in Northern Idaho?
Offering some of the best skiing in Idaho, Schweitzer Mountain is also an adventure playground in the summer months.
For $35 you can purchase an all-day fun pass. The Ultimate Fun Pass gives you unlimited access to the rock climbing wall, trampoline jumper, 750 ft zipline, and ski chair lift.
You can also hit the mountain slopes following numerous hiking and mountain biking trails. Notch up the adventure by exploring it on horseback.
Be sure to catch the chair life up to the Sky House to The Nest restaurant. You’ll discover delicious locally sourced and seasonal food at a reasonable price with some of the best panoramic views in the Coeur D’Alene region.
You can see all the way out over Lake Pend Oreille, across three states and even over to Canada.
Another Idaho hidden secret – Schweitzer Mountain has made numerous best kept-secret ski destinations in the USA lists, including cross country skiing.
Don’t forget to consider the Coeur d’Alene region when planning your Idaho vacations.
Sandpoint City Beach
Loads of excited travelers recommended Sandpoint City Beach.
We even met a couple from Vancouver at the baseball in Seattle who told us Sandpoint is where they go regularly for vacation and it’s one of the best places to visit in Idaho.
It was an easy drive from Schweitzer Mountain and a lovely way to spend an hour in the sun.
The beach was calm and kid-friendly and is one of the most popular things to do in Sandpoint Idaho.
Do you swim, lie on the sand, or go for a paddle? Why not do it all.
Route of the Hiawatha Scenic Bike Trail
If you’ve been following our adventures, you’ll know we’re up for outdoor adventure, especially with our kids.
While you may not like to join us on an intense 15-mile hike, here’s an incredible journey you’ll love to be a part of.
No matter how new your kids are to adventuring, they can easily manage a bike ride on the Route of the Hiawatha.
Now I know you may think a 15-mile bike ride is not for novices, but this one makes it easy for you – it’s 15 miles on a flat, well-maintained path that is mostly downhill!
There is a good chance you may see deer along the way, and with 9 tunnels and 7 high trestle bridges spanning the steepest parts of the valley, the kids will LOVE it. You will LOVE it.
The forested Bitterroot Mountains provide a spectacular setting as you cycle one of the USA’s most famous rail to trail paths taking in stunning Idaho scenery.
It was an epic family adventure, and one of our suggested top things to do in Idaho!
Be prepared for the first tunnel which is almost 1.7 miles long – that is over 10 minutes at least riding in the pitch black. Flashlights are essential, as is a jacket as temperatures sit in the 40s.
After 10 minutes that means frozen hands. Kalyra and I took 17 minutes as the tunnel was muddy, and she did not want her new Vans to be splashed with mud, so we rode slowly.
How fast do you think Craig and Savannah rode?
You can take your own bikes or hire them from the Lookout Pass ski area.
We hired bikes including a tag-along for Savannah. She’s 8 and probably would have made the entire bike ride on her own bike, but we didn’t want to risk it. She had a blast singing the entire time.
You can catch the shuttle back to the first tunnel, or if you really like adventure, cycle the 15 miles back uphill. We opted for the shuttle.
Be warned, there can be quite the line for the shuttle. We waited an hour once we finished our ride. All worth it as it was one of our favorite things to do in Idaho.
Video of the Route of the Hiawatha bike ride:
Drive the Salmon River Scenic Byway
All three roads leading into remote Stanley are designated National Scenic Byways.
Fun fact: it’s the only place in the US where this happens.
On the second part of our road trip in Idaho, we drove the Salmon River Scenic Byway through central Idaho.
If you love white water rafting, then you’ll be pleased to know the Salmon River has some of the best rapids and white-water experiences in the country – we left that to do when we return to Idaho.
The Salmon River Scenic Byway follows the Salmon River through the Salmon-Challis Highway and is the same path that Lewis and Clark traveled.
It’s a region filled with hikes, river activities, natural hot springs, and ghost towns.
Here are some awesome things to do along the Salmon River Scenic Byway.
Land of Yankee Fork Historic Area
The Land of Yankee Fork State Park tells the fascinating story of Idaho’s rich mining history.
Begin exploring at the visitor center, where you can watch an informative video of the mining history of the area and the development of the mining towns, which are now ghost towns.
There is an interpretive center with artifacts on the history of the area. Have your kids do the scavenger hunt. Our girls loved it and it was an engaging way for them to learn more about this region. #ThisIsHowWeHomeSchool
Then it’s time to explore the spectacular surrounding scenery and the ghost towns.
You can visit the ghost towns of Bayhorse and Custer, which was one of the largest towns established to support the surrounding mines.
Self-guided walking tours are available and be sure to stop into the Empire Saloon in Custer for a cheap scoop of handmade ice cream.
You can also take a tour of the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge, the largest dredge in Idaho to help get that gold out of the Yankee River.
Looking for cultural things to do in Salmon Idaho?
You can learn about the cultural and natural history of the Salmon and Lemhi River Country and its iconic figures at the Sacajawea Interpretive, Cultural and Educational Center.
Before visiting here, I knew only of this Indian female warrior by name only. I had little understanding of Sacajawea’s importance and strength.
While small, the center gives you an educational insight into Sacajawea’s life and integral contribution to the success of the Lewis And Clark Corps of Discovery expedition, which passed through here, the land of her birth.
There is also a pretty loop walk you can take along the river. I’m pretty sure we saw a bobcat while on this walk as well.
Where to Stay on the Salmon River Scenic Byway
We loved our RV campsite on the May Family Ranch and B & B located in Clayton, halfway between Challis and Stanley on the Salmon River.
We used it as a base to explore the Salmon River Wilderness area, Stanley and the Sawtooth Wilderness area.
The mountain views and country serenity was a highlight of our Idaho road trip.
Grandpa May was so warm and friendly. The ranch has cabins and is known for family reunions, but they also have RV camping on site.
What our kids most loved was the gigantic waterslide set up down the hill. We had a blast zipping down there on a hot summer’s afternoon. Boy did it go fast!
Salmon River Scenic Byway Video
Stanley, Sawtooth Wilderness
Stanley would have to be on the list of best towns in Idaho, and most scenic small towns in the USA.
It’s surrounded by national forest on the crook of the Salmon River with a backdrop of the rugged Sawtooth Mountains.
The town is small yet quite spread out on the Salmon River.
While the town itself didn’t impress me too much, the surrounding area completely wowed me and there are plenty of adventurous things to do in Stanley Idaho, and by the end of our three days in Stanley, I was planning when to come back.
Stanley often sees some of the coldest temperatures in Continental USA. Wow. I’ll see you in summer!
Horse Riding Sawtooth Mountain Range
We’ve ridden horses in various places in the USA and Australia, and we all agreed horseback riding through the Sawtooth wilderness (possibly the most beautiful place in Idaho) has been our favorite horse ride yet.
Nothing gets Savannah more excited than to spend an hour or so on a horse. She beams from beginning till end and for hours after – her unicorn dreams almost brought into reality.
We were all beaming right beside her on this one as we rode through ponderosa forests beside sparkling lakes and then gained 200 feet in elevation to the open with striking views.
What can I say?
Check out them Sawtooth mountain peaks! Such a wow moment when we reached the crest of the hill and the views opened up.
Not just the jagged peaks of the Sawtooth ranges offering a panoramic view as we rode, but also views of both Big and Little Redfish Lake.
This is Idaho sightseeing at its best.
I also loved the passion and friendly enthusiasm of our guide Shelby. You could tell leading trail rides she does purely for the love. She was informative, kind and gentle and great at bringing conversation out of our shy girls.
Redfish Lake Corrals, operated by Mystic Saddle Ranch, has been offering family-friendly guided horseback rides through the breathtaking Sawtooth Wilderness since 1969.
Horseback trail rides range from one hour to all-day rides and start at $49 per person.
We did the 90-minute horseback ride and found it of excellent value, and definitely one of the most fun things to do in Idaho with kids.
I’ve discovered my second favorite lake in the USA, after Lake Lure in North Carolina.
Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness is truly spectacular, and the family Idaho vacation of your dreams.
The vibe here was relaxed and fun and centered on connecting to mother nature and each other. I could have stayed at Redfish Lake for weeks.
Sadly, we only had a few hours, and we STUPIDLY forgot our swimsuits!!
Not too worry, the views of the Sawtooth range framing the spectacular clear glacial waters of this five-mile long lake was enough to satisfy me.
The water was a little chilly anyway, or so that excuse helped me get over my disappointment while staring at those having fun on the SUP boards – my ultimate favorite thing to do on a lake. Next time. Next time.
Instead, we enjoyed a guided commentary cruise on the lake, arranged by Redfish Lodge.
We loved learning more about the unique geography of the lake to the story of the Sockeye Salmon, from which the lake gets its name.
They have seen vast improvements over the past several years in the numbers of sockeye returning to the lake, not too long ago there was only one.
Thank goodness for some positive environmental news.
We loved our hour relaxing on the boat, having fun together and enjoying the stunning scenery of this mountain paradise.
You can hike five miles down to the other end of Redfish Lake (where no cars can go) and then catch the boat shuttle back.
That is on our list of things to do in Stanley when we visit Idaho again.
On the main beach area of the lake you’ll find Redfish Lodge which offers full service dining or their Lakeside Grill, which offers burgers and beverages with outside seating next to the lake.
The marina offers motorized and non-motorized rentals, lake tours, fuel, and a shuttle service to the popular trail heads at the far end of the lake.
Hot Springs in Idaho
I had no idea that Idaho is a land that in part has been created by volcanoes and has a fault line running under it.
This means Idaho is rich with hot springs, and they are one of the top Idaho tourist attractions.
And you don’t have to go on wilderness hikes to find them (although they have those ones too).
Many of the hot springs are actually beside the Salmon River and its tributaries and are accessed right beside the scenic highways!
Look for a small pool bordered by river rocks and the steam rising from the side of the rushing cold river. Don’t rely on people sitting in them though to help you find them, often there is no one even in them!
Snake Pit Hot Spring, Stanley, Idaho
The most ridiculously beautiful hot spring that we had all to ourselves was Snake Pit Hot Spring right on the edge of Stanley town.
It’s a local’s hidden secret and we had it all to ourselves, including these dramatic views of the craggy peaks of the Sawtooth mountain range. A herd of deer even sauntered on past us!
Idaho, you are something special.
Here are a few more Idaho Hot Springs we discovered and loved.
Sunbeam Hot Springs
These popular thermal hot springs sit on the bank of the Salmon River below the highway where a thermal spring cascades from the hillside to the river.
Look for the steam.
There was a wide range of temperatures here from too hot to get in, to just right, to a little too much river water wafted in!
If you go to the north of the change rooms, you’ll find a small pool there that is not as busy as the others.
Frenchman’s Bend Hot Springs, Ketchum
Frenchman’s Bend Hot Springs is about a 30-minute drive from Ketchum/Sun Valley. It’s worth it.
This is where we found the perfect hot spring temperatures as we snuggled into the boulders beside the creek.
This hot spring can get busy as it’s one of the most popular things to do in Sun Valley area.
Fortunately for us we had it all to ourselves and stayed for quite a while. It was the perfect Idaho hot springs experience for us taking in serenity and thermal temperatures.
More hot springs recommendations:
- Goldbug Hot Springs is meant to be the most spectacular. It does involve a 2-mile hike uphill to get there, but that’s what makes it all the more special. It’s on our return-to-Idaho bucket list.
- Boat Box, but we couldn’t find it. Apparently there is only room for two or three cars at the pull out. The spring flows into what looks like a witch’s cauldron.
- Kirkham Hot Springs is one of Idaho’s most famous geothermal pools and is easily accessible on scenic highway 21 outside of Stanley. We intended to stop here but due to being short on time could only take a quick peek.
Other things to do in Sun Valley / Ketchum area:
- Hike the 2.5 mile Adams Gulch Trail
- Grab a beer at the Pioneer Saloon Bar
- Ride the Roundhouse Express Gondola from River Run Lodge
- Coffee at Hank & Sylvie’s
- Take a peak inside the Sun Valley Lodge
- Explore Sun Valley Village
- Get a bite to eat and a beer at Lefty’s Bar & Grill
- Starbucks (awesome interior and visitors center inside)
Things to Do in Southern Idaho
With only one day in the state capital, we can’t go too in-depth in this post on the best things to do in Boise Idaho.
But, we can say we absolutely loved all the Boise activities we did and want to return to explore it more in depth. It’s now at the top of our list of best cities in Idaho.
Don’t just take our word for it, Mike and Anne from Honeytrek (who are currently on a 6 year world honeymoon) have it at the top of their list of places they’d love to live.
And Lee Abbamonte, the youngest American to travel to every country, calls Boise the most underrated city in the US.
I LOVED how easy Boise was to explore on a bike, with its 25 miles of greenbelt along the river and bike friendly city streets.
The other thing that wowed me about visiting Boise were the stunning views from Camel’s Back Park of the city and surrounding desert like landscape.
It’s quite a strenuous hike up a very steep flight of stairs but it’s worth it. I’d recommend taking the switchbacks back down as the steep hill before the stairs is pretty slippery coming back down.
Surprisingly, we also loved the State Capitol building.
You can walk right in there and enjoy the stunning marble interior and even visit the Governor’s office and sign his book. We were even able to walk into his office.
We stopped there for lunch, which was great, but the outstanding experience was the Huckleberry lemon drop.
And we will be talking about this cocktail for years to come and even took home a bottle of huckleberry vodka, which is not something we ever really drink.
Bardenay, a term sailor’s used to describe cocktails, is the country’s first restaurant distillery.
On our last night, we discovered the vibrant restaurant nightlife district of 8th street and enjoyed a delicious meal and service at Bittercreek Alehouse.
Highly recommend spending time in 8th street, especially if you don’t travel with kids.
For things to do in Boise with kids, our daughters enjoyed these stops:
Where to Stay in Boise (The Riverside Hotel)
Our accommodation at The Riverside Hotel on the Boise River was also outstanding.
Its location was fabulous – just a short bike ride (or mile walk) into downtown Boise along the Greenbelt. You can even jump in, float along or paddle the Boise River from the hotel.
The food at its Riverside Grill was delicious and reasonably priced and backed with groovy local live music. It’s on the river and anyone can eat here.
The pool was also an area that was easy to relax beside. One reason we didn’t explore Boise as much as the girls just wanted to play in the pool with their cousin who had just flown in from Australia to spend three weeks with us.
The hotel also has a free airport shuttle making it one of the most practical places to stay in Boise for business or leisure!
Craters of the Moon National Monument
I was wowed just driving into Craters of the Moon National Monument in Southern Idaho.
The striking rainbow colors of the desert landscape slowly changed into the black hardened rock of the lava fields.
We’ve learned quite a bit about volcanoes on our travels across the US from Hawaii to Bend, Oregon. Craters of the Moon takes that education a step higher.
Thanks to a few highly informative displays in the visitor center, I learned more about how this region was created by a handful of lava flows which oozed out of fissures along the Great Rift, a series of deep cracks that start near the visitor center and stretch 52 miles (84 km.) to the southeast.
It created hotspots and calderas all the way to its youngest hotspot, Yellowstone National Park, which was a great lead into our upcoming adventures exploring the USA’s first national park.
By the way, the western edge of Yellowstone and the western slope of the Tetons are places in Idaho!
Junior Rangers will love the lunar like badge they can collect from this park. With its 7-mile scenic loop drive and short, flat trails this is an easy national park to explore in just a couple of hours.
Don’t miss the 0.2 mile hike up Inferno Cone. This was my favorite of things to do in Craters of the Moon.
The views of the Great Rift, Snake River Plain and Pioneer mountains and the various cinder cones that lay scattered around are spectacular and showcase creation frozen in time.
Caves Trail is also a popular trail that will take you to 4 caves, tubes and tunnels created by the flow of lava.
Truly no better way for a child to learn than have them walking amongst Craters of the Moon and experiencing the essence of volcanic activity through their five senses AND their imagination.
This park is a must see in Idaho and one of the most interesting places to visit in Idaho.
Things to Do in Western Idaho
On our road trip from Sun Valley to the West Yellowstone area, I discovered my favorite waterfall in the US so far.
And I am stunned I only heard about this Idaho waterfall a week before visiting.
Lower Mesa Falls and Upper Mesa Falls are spectacular waterfalls along the Henrys Fork of the Snake River, deep in the Grand Targhee Forest.
The water tumbles spectacularly over a million-year-old volcanic rock, down into a narrow valley surrounded by lush jungle, and steep forested cliffs.
It’s the first time my girls have been that close to such a powerful waterfall and they were more than WOWED.
There were barely any other people around, and the few that were there were oohing and aahing just as loudly.
Upper Mesa Falls has a short boardwalk which takes you close to the falls with multiple viewpoints.
Lower Mesa Falls offers a long distance view of the falls from Grandview Overlook. There is a mile hike between both if you want more adventure.
Put this place on your list of things to see in Idaho. But be bear aware, grizzly bears are in this area so carry your bear spray and make loads of noise!
And if you love waterfalls, Shoshone Falls is a waterfall on the Snake River approximately 3 miles northeast of the city of Twin Falls. Sometimes called the “Niagara of the West,” Shoshone Falls is 212 feet high—45 feet higher than Niagara Falls!
Video: Craters of the Moon, Mesa Falls and Henrys Lake
Henrys Lake State Park
I’m disappointed we did not have more time at this spectacular mountain lake near West Yellowstone.
Henrys Lake State Park sits in a bowl at an elevation of 6,470 ft surrounded by 10,000-foot peaks.
We arrived late in the evening after our road trip from Sun Valley to Mesa Falls and s stayed only one night at the RV park.
The sunrise colors and views the next morning were breathtaking and worth the stop we made before crossing over into Montana.
No filter needed for these colors.
Henrys Lake State Park is very popular for fisherman angling for big trout.
It also offers beautiful nature trails for hiking and biking and wildlife and wildflower viewing and fantastic camping.
If you’re looking for things to do in Idaho near Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, it’s a stone’s throw from the western boundary of Yellowstone National Park, Harriman State Park, and Mesa Falls and a worthy addition to your places to visit in Idaho list.
I hope this Idaho travel guide informs and inspires you to take your own Idaho vacation.
This is not an exhaustive list of what to see in Idaho or places to go in Idaho, and we know we’ll be back for even more adventures in different seasons and the regions of eastern Idaho and Idaho falls.
Check out the official Idaho tourism website for more information.
Idaho Road Trip Map
Click on the map and various layers to see where the places in Idaho we recommended to visit.
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Have you visited Idaho? Do you have any other insider tips to share?