A Southwest Idaho Road Trip for Any Season

A husband and wife explore Southwest Idaho’s hot springs, hiking, towns, campgrounds and more

By Flash Parker

Untamed. Untouched. Still Wild.

That’s the bold proclamation made by the Southwest Idaho Travel Association. And these good folks don’t stop there. Their slick travel guides tout steamy hot spring getaways, best bike rides ever, the best wine valley you’ve never heard of, epic whitewater adventures, legendary hikes, and more. It’s a picture of a bold, rugged playground with plenty of creature comforts to experience in towns largely unexplored. Frankly, it sounds like American West I like to conjure in my mind when I think of a getaway destination.

My wife and I live in Spokane, and we’ve traveled all around Washington state, so we have high standards when it comes to outdoor adventure destinations, and what we want out of a western vacation. The things we’re always on the lookout for, in no particular order, are great hiking trails, excellent craft beer, and outdoor activities we can do together.

Hurry up and slow down

Idaho City is the first stop on our trip. We’ll loop back around through Cascade and McCall, but for our first night we want true relaxation, the kind we know we’ll find at The Springs in Idaho City. While some hot springs are on the remote and rustic side, The Springs offers a more luxurious experience. The plan is to slip into the resort’s natural hot spring pool, stare at the stars through the steam, and let all the stress of the everyday fade away.

The hot springs are every bit as sublime as advertised, and come complete with poolside service, sweeping mountain views, and an unexpected splash of serenity—The Springs at Idaho City limits the number of guests who may experience the pools at any one time, lending the entire affair an air of exclusivity.

I’m stunned at how difficult it is to pull myself out of the pool after a long soak; our entire vacation could extend no further than the deep end of a hot spring, and I’d be content. But, as fortune would have it, I’m put back in the driver’s seat of our adventure and told that the next experience is up to me. That’s how we find ourselves out on the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Route—points for the best-named byway in the nation, by the way—heading south toward Boise.

The route is remarkable; mountains stand sentinel on both sides, endless forests of pine hide all manner of beautiful wildlife, and the Lucky Peak State Park pops up as if out of nowhere with inspiring views of the Boise River. We turn east, and only a little out of our way, to take photos at the Arrowrock Dam, itself a spectacular bit of outdoor bliss. We make a note to pick up a fishing pole in Boise and find time to drop a line somewhere on our next trip into the wild.

I’m stunned at how difficult it is to pull myself out of the pool after a long soak; our entire vacation could extend no further than the deep end of a hot spring, and I’d be content.

The best of city living

We make quite a few plans while we wander Boise, a city I can only describe as a small high desert town with big city perks. In the downtown core, places like the Basque Block, N 8th Street, W Main, and W Idaho St buzz with electric energy. It’s a craft-centric city with pop-ups, boutiques, galleries and one-off outposts galore.

We dare each other to get tattoos at Iron Wolf Tattoo; we sample half a dozen eccentric sour ales at the Barbarian Brewing downtown tap room, work our way down the farm-to-table offerings at upscale Fork, battle Pac Man’s rivals at the Spacebar Arcade, and catch a few quirky joints, like the City Peanut Shop, Re-Pop Gifts (you have to get your picture taken in the police box, naturally) and finally Mixed Greens | Modern Gifts, a trendy shop with everything from custom greeting cards to hardy succulents in handmade pots.

We barely even get a chance to scratch the surface of Boise’s art culture—save for taking photos of a few incredible public art murals while we wander. We cap our day in the city with a visit to the beautiful capitol building, a trip around the grand old post office building (we really should have picked up a couple of postcards) and an atmospheric evening at the Freak Alley Gallery, which if I told you too much about here, would spoil all the fun.

Challenge accepted

There’s too much to do in Southwest Idaho. That’s really not a problem, depending on how you look at it—more like a challenge that we willingly accept. We pack up our van and cruise north to Cascade, which, as the name suggests, offers plenty of epic outdoor activities on Lake Cascade, the mountains (which include nearby national forests Sawtooth, Salmon-Challis and Payette), Horsethief Reservoir, the Payette River, and more.

We set up camp at the Arrowhead Mountain Village and spend half a day making magic in the Art Yurt and the Craft Studio (my silver pendant will do quite nicely as a Christmas gift), before we settle our affairs for the next day, when we’ll take on some of the wildest whitewater in the world on the mighty Payette. If you haven’t heard, the North Fork Class V rapids are perhaps the world’s most challenging, and no, we’re not getting within a country mile of them.

You’d have to spend a year in this part of the state to even begin to scratch the surface of all the outdoor activities and cultural attractions available. We already know that we want to come back for the 4 Summit Challenge cycling event, Valley County Fair & Rodeo, and salmon fishing on the Cabarton reach, and need to do some reading up before we tackle a day of morel mushroom and huckleberry hunting. There is even a Huckleberry Festival in August that I’d love to check out. Yes, my wife threatened to dump me out of our raft if I said I’ll be your huckleberry one more time.

There’s too much to do in Southwest Idaho. That’s really not a problem, depending on how you look at it—more like a challenge that we willingly accept.

More than a ski town

It’s hard to leave Cascade, but we’re thrilled at the prospect of spending a few days in McCall. “Ski Town USA” also happens to be one of the finest spring and summer destinations in the mountain west, given its location at the base of Payette Lake, tucked up into the crook of the mountains. Our goal up here is to conquer South Lodge Lane, a 6.2 mile out-and-back hike up Brundage Mountain.

The hike is breathtaking, with sweeping views into the tiny town of New Meadows, and further over the Snake River and way out into eastern Oregon. We spy a small herd of cow elk and their calves before we reach Temptation Saddle, and huff and puff our way to the summit at 7,640-ft.

Our reward for a hike well spent is a soak at the springs in Gold Fork. We skip between each of the five different pools, somehow maintaining different temperatures, treating ourselves to a bit of muscle therapy before we retire to the rustic trappings of the historic Hotel McCall, a landmark property that immediately inspires us to book a return to this spectacular corner of Idaho.

story art

The hike is breathtaking, with sweeping views into the tiny town of New Meadows, and further over the Snake River and way out into eastern Oregon.

Explore the Outdoors in Southwest Idaho