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The Ultimate Southwest Idaho Road Trip

A family-friendly adventure on Idaho’s Highway 55

By Kellie Escoto

All photos courtesy of Southwest Idaho Travel Assocation

As the sunset transforms the wide Idaho skies overhead into a vibrant gradient of pink, orange and dusty purple, I lean back in my chair on the porch of the Bitner Vineyards Bed and Breakfast. My husband, Mark, pours two glasses of local merlot and passes one to me. We’re reaching the end of our annual family road trip. This year we chose to explore Highway 55 in Southwest Idaho, and after days of enjoying beautiful scenery and discovering local gems, our family feels closer than it has in years. As I take in the stunning view—miles of vineyards stretching out before us, with the Snake River glinting in the distance—it’s hard to believe that just days ago, our family road trip was off to a rocky start.

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Disconnecting to reconnect

My kids are getting to that age where leaving town in the middle of break constitutes a social crisis. They prefer their phones, tablets and friends to anything else, and we were a little worried about dragging them along.

But despite early grumblings, as soon as we hit Highway 55, things started to change. One moment we were passing golden grasslands that gave way to rolling hills and distant snow-capped mountains; the next, lush green trees and old stone bridges that spanned gushing streams. From that point on, the phones took a backseat to the views.

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Call of the wild

After several hours of driving, McCall was the perfect place to ditch the car for a few hours and stretch our legs. We wandered through Legacy Park, with its clean, manicured lawns and prim cobblestone walking paths, nestled against Payette Lake. Downtown McCall is dotted with public art installations, and the benches and street lamps of Legacy Park feature distinct modern designs to match. As we walked the path, I marveled at the mountains in the distance. Beautiful in summer, I could just imagine how incredible they’d look capped in snow. I knew we’d have to come back.

After a quick stop to browse the selection at the Granite Mountain Nature Gallery—the kids ogled ancient fossils and begged for one of the glittering minerals on display to take home as a souvenir—we capped off our visit with lunch at a restaurant overlooking the crystal blue lake.

We concluded our first day’s drive at Lake Cascade. There’s really nothing like roughing it, so we pitched our tent among the trees at French Creek Campground. My son was dying to ride the zip line course at nearby Tamarack Resort, and somehow he convinced me to join him. Taking that first step off the platform high above the ground was terrifying, but as soon as I did, my attention turned to the rush of cool air, wind whistling past my ears and spruce branches so close I could practically reach out and brush them as I passed.

The night ended around the campfire, the sound of wildlife blending with laughter as we told stories and roasted marshmallows under a swirl of glittering stars.

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Something for everyone

In the morning, we were back on the road. We grabbed brunch at the lodge in Smith’s Ferry as we passed through, where a bluegrass band was playing on the patio. We could see whitewater rafters jostling through the currents of the Payette River, but I was glad to be on solid ground—the adrenaline fix from the zip line was more than enough to hold me over for the rest of the year.

After wending our way south on Highway 55 and stopping at scenic overlooks along the way to marvel at the sprawling views, we hit downtown Boise for brunch and window shopping before heading west. My daughter had a blast exploring a local vintage shop, and even picked out some clothes that looked just like what I wore when I was her age.

With that, we were on to the leg of the trip I was most looking forward to—our jaunt through Idaho’s wine country. The Snake River valley boasts dozens of wineries and tasting rooms within walking distance. With a room booked at Bitner’s cozy bed and breakfast, we were in the perfect central spot. We enjoyed rosé at Koenig Vineyards, Riesling at Annadelle and Syrah at Vale Wine Co., all without the worry of getting around safely. When we returned to Bitner, the kids listened to Ron Bitner, the owner and an accomplished entomologist, with rapt attention as he explained the importance of honeybees in growing wine grapes.

And so here we are, at the end of a fantastic day, overlooking Bitner Vineyards. Tomorrow we’ll sleep in, and then maybe we’ll take a tour of the vineyard or a stroll to the river. We’ll take the kids to Deer Flat, where we’ll look for Western grebes building water nests and ospreys diving to pluck fish from the water, before eating al fresco in the picnic area. We might even consider extending our trip by a day or two before heading home—after all, with so much to see in beautiful Southwest Idaho, we aren’t in any hurry to leave.

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