Declared a state in 1890 after much political wrangling, IDAHO was the last of the Western regions to be penetrated by white settlers – in 1805, Lewis and Clark described central Idaho’s bewildering labyrinth of razor-edged peaks and wild waterways as the most difficult leg of their epic trek. Though much of its scenery deserves national park status, it has always lacked the major showstoppers (and therefore the crowds) of its neighbouring states, a situation its famously conservative citizens have long been happy to maintain.
Nevertheless, you’d be remiss to skip Idaho; the state capital, Boise, is surprisingly urbane and friendly, but above all, this is a destination for the outdoors enthusiast. The state is laced with incredibly scenic highways, especially through the jaw-dropping Sawtooth Mountains, with Red Fish Lake offering some of the most mesmerizing scenery in the Rockies. Other natural wonders include Hells Canyon, America’s deepest river gorge, and the black, barren Craters of the Moon. Hikers and backpackers have the choice of some eighty mountain ranges, interspersed with virgin forest and lava plateaus, while the mighty Snake and Salmon rivers offer endless fishing and especially whitewater rafting. And you’ll eat well here: the fresh trout is superb, and the state is also known for hops (and therefore microbrews), lamb and of course, fine potatoes.
The verdant, likeable capital of Idaho, BOISE (pronounced BOY-see; never zee) straddles I-84, just fifty miles east of the Oregon border, and was established in 1862 for the benefit of pioneers using the Oregon Trail. After adapting (or misspelling) the name originally given to the area by French trappers – les bois (the woods) – the earliest residents boosted the town’s appearance by planting hundreds more trees.
Today Boise is a friendly, cosmopolitan and outdoorsy city of some 205,000, with great skiing, biking and floating along the Boise River (the favourite way for locals to cool off in the summer), all within paddling distance of a host of excellent independent stores, restaurants and bars. Downtown is centred on the fountains at Grove Plaza, where the annual “Alive after Five” concert series sees different food and drink vendors take over the square (June–Sept every Wed).
Boise is also unique in having the largest Basque population in the world outside of the Basque heartland (in Spain and France), and is the home of Boise State University (BSU), whose football team the Broncos (with its famed all-blue field, lined with blue-painted turf) receives fanatical support from locals – their rivalry with snooty University of Idaho in Moscow (who are reputed to consider the Broncos uncouth drunks) goes back a long way, though the two teams rarely meet these days. But perhaps Boise’s best feature is the Greenbelt, a 25-mile bike path and hiking trail that crisscrosses the tranquil Boise River, linking various parks right in the heart of the city.
From the busy little watersports and ski resort of McCALL, 110 miles north of Boise, Hwy-55 climbs steadily to merge with US-95 and follow the turbulent Little Salmon River. Just south of the hamlet of Riggins, thirty miles on, comes a good opportunity to see Hells Canyon from Idaho. With an average depth of 5500ft this is the deepest river gorge in the US, though you wouldn’t guess so due to its broad expanse and lack of sheer walls. Nevertheless, it is impressive, with Oregon’s Wallowa and Eagle Cap ranges rising behind it and the river glimmering far down below. Heaven’s Gate Overlook is the best viewpoint into the canyon from Idaho; from the south end of Riggins, allow a half-day to reach the overlook on a very steep and winding gravel road (Forest Road 517), best tackled in a 4WD. The canyon is also accessible by road from Oregon and by jet-boat trip.
Taking a five-day rafting trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River is perhaps the most exhilarating and unforgettable experience in Idaho; by the time you’ve finished you’ll feel like one of Lewis and Clark’s team. The river drops 3000ft during its 105-mile journey through the isolated and spectacular River of No Return Wilderness. Trips usually begin in Stanley and end in Salmon, Idaho and cost from $1665. See rowadventures.com.
One of the highlights of the Idaho Panhandle is hiking or biking the Route of the Hiawatha Bike Trail (ridethehiawatha.com), the former fifteen-mile stretch of rail line between Roland and Pearson that runs through ten tunnels and travels over seven high trestles; the 1.7 mile-long St. Paul Pass tunnel is the highlight. Trail passes are $10; there is a shuttle between Pearson and Roland that costs $9. The equally spectacular Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes runs 73 miles from Mullan to Plummer (see parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/parks/trail-coeur-d-alenes).
North of Ketchum and Sun Valley, Hwy-75 climbs through rising tracts of forests and mountains to top out after twenty miles at the spectacular panorama of Galena Summit (8701ft). Spreading out far below, the meadows of the Sawtooth Valley stretch northward. The winding road – dubbed the Sawtooth Scenic Byway – meanders beside the young Salmon River, whose headwaters rise in the forbidding icy peaks to the south, as the serrated ridge of the Sawtooth Mountains forms an impenetrable barrier along the western horizon. The main highlight along this stretch is Red Fish Lake (just off the highway, 60 miles north of Ketchum), beautifully framed by Mount Heyburn and Grand Mogul peaks, home to sockeye salmon and plenty of hiking and camping opportunities.
The first whites to encounter the Nez Percé people were the weak, hungry and disease-ridden Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. The natives gave them food and shelter, and cared for their animals until the party was ready to carry on westward.
Relations between the Nez Percé (so called by French-Canadian trappers because of their shell-pierced noses) and whites remained agreeable for more than fifty years – until the discovery of gold, and white pressure for property ownership led the government to persuade some renegade Nez Percé to sign a treaty in 1863 that took away three quarters of tribal land. As settlers started to move into the hunting grounds of the Wallowa Valley in the early 1870s, the majority of the Nez Percé, under Chief Joseph, refused to recognize the agreement. In 1877, after much vacillation, the government decided to enact its terms and gave the tribe thirty days to leave.
Ensuing skirmishes resulted in the deaths of a handful of settlers, and a large army force began to gather to round up the tribe. Chief Joseph then embarked upon the famous Retreat of the Nez Percé. Around 250 warriors (protecting twice as many women, children and old people) outmanoeuvred army columns many times their size, launching frequent guerrilla attacks in a series of narrow escapes. After four months and 1700 miles, the Nez Percé were cornered just thirty miles from the safety of the Canadian border. Chief Joseph then (reportedly) made his legendary speech of surrender, “From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever”. Today some 1500 live in a reservation between Lewiston and Grangeville – a minute fraction of their original territory.
Nez Percé National Historic Park, with 38 separate sites, is spread over a huge range of north-central Idaho, eastern Oregon and western Montana. At the visitor centre in Spalding, ten miles east of Lewiston (daily 8am–4.30pm, summer closes 5pm; free; 208 843 7001, nps.gov/nepe), the Museum of Nez Percé Culture focuses on tribal arts and crafts, while the White Bird Battlefield, seventy miles further south on US-95, was where the tribe inflicted 34 deaths on the US Army, in the first major battle of the Retreat.