Ask someone from another part of the country what pops into their mind when they think of Idaho, and you might get a blank stare or a one-word answer: potatoes.
Which may explain why Idaho is not on many travel bucket lists. Honey, forget Bora Bora; let’s go to a potato farm!
It doesn’t help that unlike most of its neighbors in the American West, Idaho lacks a defining feature. Idaho is the only Western state without a major national park. It can lay claim to a sliver of Yellowstone, but 96% of that park is in neighboring Wyoming.
Thanks to many Americans’ tenuous grasp of geography, Idaho also often gets confused with Iowa, 1,300 miles away in the Midwest.
But don’t let Idaho’s image problem discourage you from planning a visit. The spectacular scenery of this overlooked state can hold its own with anybody’s, and -- unlike in Yosemite or Zion -- you won’t have to elbow your way through crowds to see it.
For starters, Idaho contains the deepest river gorge in North America, the second-largest wilderness area in the Lower 48, more miles of rivers than any other state and a waterfall that’s 52 feet higher than Niagara. That would be Shoshone Falls east of the city of Twin Falls on the Snake River, which carves a smile across the arid southern third of the state.
Idaho also has a colorful history of stubborn individualism, from Ernest Hemingway to “Napoleon Dynamite.”
Hemingway, the state’s most celebrated resident, wrote part of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in Sun Valley. Daredevil Evel Knievel tried, and failed, in 1974 to leap across Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket. And Napoleon rocked his geeky dance moves in the Mormon farming towns of the state’s southeast corner.
But the best reason to visit Idaho is the pristine beauty of its mountainous midsection and forested panhandle.
Start in the summertime in Boise – a handsome city with a compact, lively downtown – and drive northeast to Stanley, a frontier outpost in a gorgeous mountain valley flanked by the jagged Sawtooth Range and the middle fork of the Salmon River.
From there, you can hike to alpine lakes, cast for trout in meadow streams, raft down the Salmon or drive an hour south to the more refined resort-town charms of Ketchum and Sun Valley.
Or for a real adventure, pack a tent and head deeper into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, a vast swath of rugged forest that’s home to bears, moose, mountain lions and wolverines.
This, the heart of Idaho, is not for everyone. But if you want to lose yourself – find yourself? – in a rare expanse of unspoiled wilderness, it’s just the right place.