Active groups revel in the great outdoors
Snow-dusted mountain ranges and glacier-carved lakes, vast forests and massive sand dunes, eerie lava fields and jaw-dropping canyons—they all offer spectacular settings for adventure-hungry travelers in Idaho. And did we mention that Idaho, thanks to snowmelt from the western slopes of the Continental Divide, has more whitewater river miles than any state in the lower 48? With all these geographical wonders, you’d think Idaho would receive more attention from vacationers and trip planners. Yet the state often gets overlooked when people think of the Great Northwest—perhaps because it doesn’t have a big-name national park that draws the crowds. But who wants crowds? One of Idaho’s most popular group-tour destinations is Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, where jet boats provide thrill rides on the Snake River as it surges through North America’s deepest gorge. Built to ascend the forbidding rapids and maneuver with amazing agility, jet boats provide an easy way to experience the river. Michelle Peters, of Visit Lewis Clark Valley, says the boats are “perfect for group tours” and compares them to motorcoaches, noting that they have “comfortable padded seats, an aisle in the middle, a bathroom onboard and can accommodate 55 passengers.”
Confined within steep, eroded black basalt walls, the Snake River carves its way along the Idaho-Oregon border next to the Seven Devils Mountain Range, flowing through a canyon that measures 7,993 feet from its highest point to the desert-like valley floor. More than 30 outfitters offer jet boat trips down the river from Hells Canyon Dam and upstream from Lewiston and White Bird. Intrepid paddlers can challenge the churning rapids on guided float trips.
The mighty Salmon River is Idaho’s whitewater capital, an adventure travel magnet. One of America’s most scenic wilderness areas, it contains the continent’s second-deepest gorge. The main Salmon River (called “The River of No Return”), the longest free-flowing river within one state outside of Alaska, offers roller-coaster rapids on half-, full- and multi-day raft and kayak trips. Jet boat excursions are available, too. The Middle Fork of the Salmon, one of the top 10 whitewater rivers in the world—with Class III and IV rapids—is considered the quintessential whitewater experience.
Most Salmon River trips are outfitted in Stanley in south-central Idaho’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area. The Sawtooth Mountain Range, with its alpine vistas, soothing hot springs, 300 high-mountain lakes and jagged peaks exceeding 11,000 feet, is considered the crown jewel of Idaho. This wilderness paradise attracts all levels of adventurers who come for the hiking,
climbing and mountain biking. Its 700 miles of trails include many easy hikes ideal for first-timers. The Fishhook Creek hike, for example, traverses a beautiful valley and culminates in a pristine meadow with stunning views of the Sawtooth Mountains. With an elevation gain of 300 feet, the trail (five miles roundtrip) is gentle and often wide, without a lot of rocks.
To explore an entirely different landscape, consider trekking through the lava fields at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, which has many trails threading the other-worldly terrain of lava tubes, cinder cones and fissures. Covering 750,000 acres at the base of the Pioneer Mountains in south-central Idaho, the preserve is about the size of Rhode Island.
At Bruneau Dunes State Park in southwestern Idaho, hikers can walk along the edges of the dunes or even rent a sandboard and surf down the hills of windblown sand. The park boasts North America’s highest single-structured sand dune, which rises 470 feet above two small lakes. Groups can gaze at the night sky through a 25-inch reflector telescope at Bruneau Observatory.
Idaho’s supreme rails-to-trails adventure is the Route of the Hiawatha, a gentle 15-mile, downhill biking experience near Wallace that includes panoramic views from seven sky-high trestles and pedaling through train tunnels with light provided by the rider’s miner helmet. The route is most famous for the Taft Tunnel, which burrows for 1.66 miles under the Bitterroot Mountains at the Idaho-Montana state line. Shuttle buses pick up you and your bike for the return journey uphill. Mountain bike rentals and shuttle passes are available at Lookout Pass Ski Area, 12 miles east of Wallace. Retired miners will guide your group through Wallace’s Sierra Silver Mine.
Northern Idaho’s other top biking path is the paved 73-mile Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. Spanning the Idaho panhandle between Mullan and Plummer, it begins in the historic Silver Valley, continues along the Coeur d’Alene River past scenic Lake Coeur d’Alene and traverses rolling farmlands to Plummer. Twenty developed trailheads provide entry points, and there are 17 scenic waysides along the route for picnicking.
The 26-mile-long Lake Coeur d’Alene, surrounded by mountains, spreads south of the city of Coeur d’Alene and is the perfect spot for water sports, from boating and fishing to swimming, water skiing and parasailing. Downtown on the lake shore is forested Tubbs Hill, a 120-acre preserve featuring trails to secluded coves and beaches and to the summit for inspiring views. Also on the waterfront is the Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course, a par 71 distinguished by the world’s only floating green.
Many group itineraries include a stop at Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel in Worley, 25 miles south of Coeur d’Alene. Sporting a cool Native American vibe and new entertainment venues, it offers tons of open space. Gaming areas have been totally renovated, the decor refreshed. The resort’s championship golf course is one of the best in the state, and there are a number of hiking and boating activities that are designed for groups
Eastern Idaho, which includes Idaho Falls, the South Fork of the Snake River, Teton Valley and Island Park resort area, provides a good base for exploring Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. A focal point for outdoor recreation is Harriman State Park, a wildlife refuge within the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Offering trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, the park is known for its spectacular summer wildflower displays. It occupies the site of the 11,000-acre Railroad Ranch once owned by Union Pacific Railroad.
Off-road vehicle enthusiasts flock to the 400-foot-high mounds at St. Anthony Sand Dunes, just west of St. Anthony in eastern Idaho. Several outfitters offer ATV rentals for those keen on riding through the shimmering, shifting, white-quartz sand. The dunes also can be explored on horse and by foot. For travelers with an adventurous streak, Idaho is one big playground. visitidaho.org