Take a trip through central Idaho, and you’ll be surprised by how much there is to see and do. Mining history, whitewater, hot springs, and dramatic scenery make for a getaway that’s both educational and fun.
Three or four days allow plenty of time for exploring and soaking along a route that begins and ends in the Boise area. Travel north on Highway 55 along the Payette River Scenic Byway to Banks, then head west to Highway 21 toward Lowman. The drive on Highway 55 follows the Payette River, where you’ll see rafters and kayakers bobbing about in the whitewater rapids. There are several turnouts along the byway, perfect for stretching your legs and snapping a photo.
At Banks, the north and south forks of the Payette River meet to form the Main Payette. Stop at the Banks store for a snack and watch rafters “put in” to start their trip. (The Main section of the Payette River is perfect for families and first-time rafters—so if have time, it’s worth it to book a trip with any of the outfitters that run this stretch.) When you turn east at Banks toward Lowman, you’ll be traveling on the Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway. This winding route follows the South Fork of the Payette River and offers beautiful views of the river below and forested mountain scenery. It’s easy to spot brightly colored rafts and kayakers on this stretch of river.
Car campers will enjoy a stay at the Mountain View Campground on the Payette or at nearby Kirkham Campground. There’s a $5 day-use fee at the campgrounds; camping is $15 a night. At Kirkham Campground, the hot springs are the main attraction, but you can also access the Kirkham Ridge hiking trail. If you prefer to sleep indoors, continue on Highway 21, the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, to the towns of Stanley or Challis for a variety of lodging options.
Stanley is a tiny western town known for its eye-popping sunsets and fresh mountain air. This popular summer locale is the starting point for recreation on Redfish Lake, the Salmon River, and the rugged Sawtooth Mountains. Guided whitewater rafting trips leave from the Stanley area, and hiking, mountain biking, and horseback trails are everywhere. Head south on the Sawtooth Scenic Byway to Redfish Lake Lodge for a tasty snack or meal—or an overnight in a cabin or lodge room—and you’ll be steps away from lake recreation, trails, and everything outdoorsy. Play on the beach or rent a boat or paddleboards. Horseback trail rides are a favorite family activity in these parts, with outfitters offering anything from a day ride to a high mountain lake to a multi-day journey into the wilderness.
Continuing on to Challis on the Salmon River Scenic Byway, you’ll want to stop at Land of the Yankee Fork State Park, where frontier mining history comes to life. The interpretive center features museum exhibits, audiovisual programs, and a gold panning station where, for a small fee, you can try to strike it rich. The park’s boundaries include the nearby ghost towns of Bonanza, Custer, and Bayhorse; the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge; the Custer Motorway; and the Challis Bison Jump, but you’ll need to drive to each area. The park entrance fee is $5 per car, and entrance to the interpretive center is $2 per person or $5 for a family. Each of these sites offers great opportunities for exploration and discovery.
From Challis, travel south on Highway 93 past Idaho’s highest point, Borah Peak, to Highway 20/26 for a stop at Craters of the Moon National Monument. If time allows, travel south on Highway 93 to the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway (Highway 30) for views of the 212-foot-high Shoshone Falls and the area around Thousand Springs, where waters from the Snake River Plain aquifer tumble from canyon walls. If time is tight, you can take Highway 20 west to Mountain Home, and then Interstate 84 back to Boise.
Published on March 23, 2015