Sara Sheehy worked in partnership with Visit Idaho to create this Travel Tip.
Fall is my favorite time to road trip in Idaho. Between stunning foliage, warm days that lead to cool nights, and uncrowded trails and roads, it’s the perfect season to explore the Gem State. This fall, hit the road on one of these three weekend trips that showcase the diversity of Idaho’s landscapes, the charming vibe of towns big and small, and some of the state’s most spectacular scenery.
Boise, Stanley, and Sun Valley
Roundtrip distance: 350 miles
This classic loop through southwest and central Idaho includes wild rivers, scenic byways, snow-capped mountains, and the tallest single-structured sand dune in North America—all within a leisurely weekend drive.
From Boise, make your way to the start of the beautiful 130-mile Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway. This gorgeous route winds from the bustling metropolis of Idaho’s capital city to the adventurous outpost of Stanley, tucked in the foothills of the Sawtooth Mountains.
The road climbs past Lucky Peak and Arrow Rock Reservoirs before passing through the historic town of Idaho City. History buffs will want to stop and check out the Wild West vibes of this once-thriving mining town. Trudy’s Kitchen is known for pie, so grab a slice to go and enjoy it at one of the many scenic pullouts along the South Fork of the Snake River, as you continue on your way to Stanley.
Though you’ll find Stanley quieter in the fall, its beauty never disappoints. Spend a night at Pip’s Palace, a modern tiny house right in town, or relax at Mountain Village Resort. Settle in as the sun sets, or visit one of the nearby natural hot springs for a soak.
In the morning, drive the short distance to the shores of mountain-rimmed Redfish Lake, where you’ll find hikes for all skill levels. Fishhook Creek is ideal for families and those looking for an easy, but stunning, foray in the Sawtooth Mountains.
From Redfish Lake, an hour’s drive on the Sawtooth Scenic Byway will take you over 8,701-foot Galena Pass and into Sun Valley, home of North America’s first destination ski resort. Take the afternoon to explore the ritzy yet down-to-earth vibe of the resort and neighboring Ketchum. Trace the footsteps of literary giant Ernest Hemingway, who called the area home on-and-off for 20 years, or check out the eclectic mix of boutique shops downtown.
Grab a bite to eat and a local brew or spirit at Warfield Distillery & Brewery, whose James Beard Award-winning chef elevates pub fare into elegant dishes. Spend the night in the center of town at The Limelight, or camp at The Meadows.
Sunday’s drive along the Camas Prairie skirts south of the mountains, past working ranches and sweeping vistas. Near Mountain Home, make your way to Bruneau Dunes State Park for a hike up the dunes, or rent a sandboard from the Visitor’s Center and sled down the sandy slopes. From the dunes, it’s a quick hour back to Boise.
Lava Hot Springs, Island Park, and the Teton Valley
Roundtrip distance: 380 miles
From hot springs to one of the world’s largest calderas, this road trip through southeast and eastern Idaho is full of surprises. Begin the journey in the town of Lava Hot Springs, where over 2.5 million gallons of water a day flow from an underground spring into the gravel-bottom hot pools of the same name. Save your soak for when the sun goes down; the stargazing is incredible.
While you wait to hop in the pool, check into your hotel (the Home Hotel is walking distance to the pools and has in-suite tubs that fill with mineral water from the hot springs), or campers can stay at the riverside KOA. Grab a bite to eat at the Riverwalk Café, a tasty Thai restaurant on Main Street, or at elegant Greystone Manor.
In the morning, relaxed from your evening soak, head east toward Palisades Reservoir and the Wyoming border. If you have time to spare, take a brief detour to see Chesterfield, an early Mormon village along the Oregon Trail that has been lovingly restored and cared for by the settlers’ descendants. Though the buildings are not open in the fall, you can still walk the grounds and take in the views.
Back on your route, the scenic shore of the Palisades Reservoir is perfect for stretching your legs before continuing on to Swan Valley, where you might catch a glimpse of the town’s namesake Trumpeter swans floating on the Snake River.
From Swan Valley, hop on the Teton Scenic Byway to travel over Pine Creek pass to Victor, Driggs, and Tetonia, known as “the quiet side” of the Tetons. Spend as much time as you like admiring the views of one of the world’s most recognizable mountain ranges, but don’t miss the chance to taste the wares at Grand Teton Distillery before getting a bit to eat at Tatanka Tavern. Rest your head for the night at Teton Valley Cabins, or camp at Big Eddy-Rainey Campground.
You’ll keep the Tetons in view in the morning as you drive to Island Park, a town nestled in a giant caldera formed by the same volcanic activity that created nearby Yellowstone. Stop at Upper Mesa Falls for a view of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River as it pours over a 10-story volcanic cliff, then head upstream along the same river to grab a waterfront lunch at Café Sabor.
For an elevated view of the Greater Yellowstone area, drive the winding dirt road up 9,866-foot Sawtell Peak. The well-graded road is ideal for those in a truck or SUV, or you can rent an ATV from one of the many outfitters in town.
With your explorations complete, drive south on Route 20 to Idaho Falls, where you can pick up Interstate 15 back to your starting point at Lava Hot Springs.
Lewiston, Coeur d’Alene, and Sandpoint
Roundtrip distance: 320 miles
Northern Idaho’s deep river canyons and densely forested landscape are both grand and intimate, creating a distinctive Pacific Northwest vibe. On this road trip, you’ll explore North America’s deepest river gorge and beautiful lakeside towns.
Start your journey in Lewiston, just south of Moscow, which is home to the University of Idaho. Lewiston is one of the access points to rugged Hells Canyon—the deepest river gorge in North America filled with spectacular scenery.
You’re going to get an early start on Saturday morning, so enjoy your Friday afternoon in Lewiston with a bite to eat at Zany’s and a walk along the Snake River. There are several hotels in town to spend the night.
A jetboat trip is the best way to experience Hells Canyon in the fall, and this full-day adventure is worth every second. Bring your binoculars to spot riverside wildlife, flora, and birds, and your camera to capture the beauty of the river gorge. Though Hells Canyon is typically warm year-round, pack layers in case you get wet from the boat spray or get a chill in the wind (the boat moves fast!).
After your Hells Canyon adventure, drive north to Coeur d’Alene and check into your lodgings for the night. Watch the sun set over Lake Coeur d’Alene while you eat a tasty meal at the Dockside Restaurant.
In the morning, take a short but beautiful 2-mile hike on Tubbs Hill, a promontory that juts into the lake itself. If you’d like more time on the water, Coeur d’Alene Cruises offers 90-minute cruises twice daily, which provide an ideal vantage point to view the fall foliage that paints the shoreline.
An hour north of Coeur d’Alene lies Sandpoint, a quaint resort town on Lake Pend Oreille. Stop in at Baxters On Cedar for a gastropub lunch, then stroll through the charming downtown before driving 12 miles north of town to Schweitzer Mountain Resort. While the lifts won’t be running, Schweitzer offers stunning views of the valley below, and the hiking trails are open until the snow falls.
From Sandpoint, it’s time to draw your weekend to a close and head home.
Feature image credited to Idaho Tourism.
Sara Sheehy is a writer and photographer who travels the world seeking wild places and great stories. When she’s not on the road, Sara spends her time exploring the mountains around her home base of Sun Valley, Idaho.
Published on October 20, 2020