Idaho is best known for its potatoes, but the underrated Gem State is also home to some of America’s most impressive natural wonders. Much of Idaho is pristine, untapped wilderness. Its snowy peaks, vast blue skies, and crystal clear waters are a magnet for skiers, kayakers, climbers and general nature lovers. The Idaho Panhandle in the north is full of deep woods and shimmering lakes, while the south’s potato and alfalfa fields stretch as far as the eye can see along the Snake River Plain. Idaho’s picturesque mountain towns like Coeur d’Alene are reminiscent of European alpine resorts. The capital, Boise, is quickly becoming one of the American West’s commercial, cultural, and educational hubs. From North America’s deepest gorge to one of the longest undammed rivers in the country to a 9,000 square mile section completely free from human interference, Idaho is a wild land offering countless adventures. As the old saying goes, “Idaho is as America was.”
Indigenous tribes have inhabited the Idaho region for thousands of years. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 led to the first European exploration of Idaho by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The pioneering duo crossed Central Idaho with the hope of finding a route to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, they were met with the steep, imposing peaks of Lemhi Pass. Despite their lack of success, traders and trappers would follow in their wake and set up Kullyspell House, the first non-native settlement in the Northwest, in 1809.
In 1830, Captain Benjamin Bonneville, the famous French-born U.S. Army officer and explorer, accompanied the first wagon train across southern Idaho. Fort Boise, later to be called just Boise, was established in 1834. In 1836, Henry Spalding opened Idaho’s very first school and grew the first Idaho potato, the precursor to what is now an almost $3 billion per year industry.
The first permanent town in Idaho, Franklin, popped up in 1860. With the discovery of gold and silver, more towns including Pierce and Idaho City were established over the next few years. An influx of miners, ranchers and farmers settled in Idaho and developed the land enough to get federal recognition of the Idaho Territory in 1863, with Lewiston as the capital.
The 1877 Nez Perce War pitted natives against pioneers, with Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe leading his people in a flight across Idaho and Montana before delivering his famous words, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
The discovery of the country’s richest silver deposit near Coeur d’Alene in 1884 electrified the economy and fast tracked Idaho on the path to statehood. Idaho became America’s 43rd state in 1890 with a population of almost 90,000. Idaho caught the headlines once again when notorious criminal Butch Cassidy robbed a bank in Montpelier in 1896.
After the turn of the century, Idaho experienced another economic boom as the new Milner Dam carried irrigation water south and the nation’s largest sawmill opened in Potlatch. Idaho continued to make history by electing the nation’s first Jewish governor, Moses Alexander, in 1914. Since his time, many Idahoan Jews have served as mayors, state assemblymen and many other positions of power.
Idaho was also the birthplace of Philo Farnsworth who made major contributions to the development of the first television set and J.R. Simplot who started in the potato industry and became a billionaire from his business exploits. A nuclear reactor prototype was established in the desert near Idaho Falls in 1949, and in 1951 it became the first place to use nuclear fission to produce electricity.
Today, Idaho is a progressive, diverse, and ecology-minded state whose natural beauty leaves its hundreds of thousands of annual visitors awestruck.
Boise: Set against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, Idaho’s capital has a number of interesting museums and plenty of outdoors activities. Downtown Boise and the North End district are every bit as much of Pacific Northwest Bohemian culture as Portland and Seattle are, while suburbs such as Meridian and Nampa embody the independent spirit of the Rocky Mountains.
Arguably the best site here is the Boise River Greenbelt, a 25-mile scenic pathway providing excellent opportunities for hiking, biking and jogging. Along the way, you can see Julia Davis Park which contains some of the city’s best museums. It boasts the Boise Zoo, the Idaho Historical Museum, the Discovery Center of Idaho and the Boise Art Museum. Be sure to see the simple, yet highly evocative Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, located near the library and Boise State University.
The Idaho State Capitol Building is one of the most grandiose and exotic capitol buildings in the country. The intricate, Roman-inspired marble work and gold eagle adorning the dome make the seat of Idaho’s government measure up to its counterpart in Washington, D.C. A free guided tour shows how this masterpiece of architecture was constructed, as well as providing illuminating displays about Idaho’s settler-era.
For something very unique and family-friendly, check out the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey. Owls, vultures, eagles and condors are just some of the majestic creatures on display. Guides and interactive exhibits explain the art of falconry, while a live falconry show in an indoor amphitheatre puts theory into practice.
Boise’s diverse environment includes the largest Basque population living outside Spain. The Basque Museum and Cultural Center shows visitors the history of the Basque settlers in Idaho and gives insight into their unique, little-known culture and language.
The Old Idaho Penitentiary, operating from 1872 to 1973, was where some of the West’s roughest and meanest criminals were housed. Visitors can now walk through cell blocks, solitary confinement, and the dreaded gallows while learning about the prison’s bold escapes, scandals and executions. Sitting right next to the prison are the Idaho Botanical Gardens which includes trees planted by the prisoners in the 1930’s and ‘40’s.
Located about 20 miles away from Boise’s center is the Bogus Basin Ski Resort. Reasonably priced and featuring a variety of slopes for every skill level, Bogus Basin is Boise’s hidden gems. Even if you’re not a skier, the view of the city and Rocky Mountains makes it worth the short drive.
Coeur d’Alene: The largest city in Northern Idaho, Coeur d’Alene is very much part of the Pacific Northwest both in terms of its scenery and culture. The centerpiece is the huge, serene lake – perfect for fishing, boating and swimming. The nearby two mile Tubbs Hill Nature Trail offer spectacular views of the lake and surrounding forests.
Sun Valley: Arguably one of the best ski resorts in the West, Sun Valley is the Idahoan equivalent to Aspen, Colorado. Dollar Mountain offers gentle terrain for beginners while Bald Mountain will appeal to those looking for a challenge. Special events include World Class Ice Skating Performances at Sun Valley Ice Rink and Wagon Days, a four day Old West-themed series of street theater, dances, parades and more. Nearby Ketchum is where Ernest Hemingway lived until his death in 1961. A nearby memorial to him reads: “Best of all he loved the fall, the leaves yellow on cottonwoods, leaves floating on trout streams, and above the hills the high blue windless skies.”
Other attractions: Custer Ghost Town in Central Idaho is a remnant of the state’s mining glory days. At its height in 1896, 600 miners called this tiny town home until the end of the collapse of the nearby mines left Custer empty by 1910. Visitors can see the original schoolhouse, gold dredging machine, an interpretive slideshow, as well as nearby Bonanza Ghost Town.
Craters of the Moon National Monument is an alien landscape of lava flows that, surprisingly, hosts a very diverse array of plants and animals. The Apollo 14 astronauts visited this area in 1969 in preparation to learn about the moon’s geology in preparation for future trips to the moon. The park is one of America’s best preserved and most varied volcanic protected areas, with some of the world’s deepest open rift cracks.
Daven and Eat
The only Orthodox shul in Idaho is Chabad Lubavitch of Idaho in Boise. They are located at 6114 North Cape Arago Place and can be reached at (208) 853-9200 or jewishidaho.com
There are no kosher restaurants in Idaho. A number of Boise markets such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods carry kosher products. For kosher meals, contact Chabad of Idaho in advance.
Both roundtrip flights and Amtrak tickets from L.A. to Boise currently start at around $300 per person. Greyhound tickets start at about $360 per person. Driving there is about 13.5 hours or 840 miles.
(Sources: Wikitravel, Lonely Planet, Tripadvisor, Fodor’s)