Why Idaho? For years, there was a 500-piece picture puzzle of the Sawtooth Mountains, which I’d found in my parents’ cabin in New Hampshire. Sawtooth. I thought the name sounded cool and dangerous. My wife, meanwhile, had visited Idaho in the ’90s: Whenever I rhapsodized about the California Rockies, she compared them unfavorably to the Sawtooth Range. So, we headed out West, complete with our young son, to see the aforementioned Sawtooth Mountains in lower/central Idaho.
We started out in Boise and headed East through Boise National Forest, then to Idaho City, a cowboy town in the middle of Route 21. With short hops, we found ourselves plunging into a rich wilderness, complete with mountains, great hiking and hot springs. We spent three days in a yurt overlooking the mountain range, and eventually, after camping in state park sites, we headed to Stanley, sporting the famous view of the Sawtooth Mountains—these jagged-ridged rocks that seem to split the sky.
We probably would have retraced our steps in the summer of 2016, but nature (and man) intervened in the form of the Pioneer Fire, which by early August had made a long swath across the Boise National Forest, devouring the yurts. Lesson learned: August is forest-fire season in Idaho, and your plans may change at the last moment. Upside: In this incredible state, there’s a lot of room for a Plan B. We decided to head north into the panhandle area, known for its spectacular scenery and survivalists, its aura of privacy and self-sufficiency.
First Stop: McCall
McCall is Idaho’s summer resort town for those who can’t afford Sun Valley, and it was a great starting point out of Boise. This is basically a final gasp of civilization (and Wi-Fi) before we entered the large stretch of national parks northwards towards Canada. McCall borders the huge Payette Lake, a 5,300-acre glacial lake that’s clean, deep and surrounded by beaches and summer houses. We had different plans.
We took a 30-minute ride out of McCall, including a passable dirt road, beyond Little Payette Lake, onto Lick Creek Drive, and there we were: Lake Fork Guard Station in the Payette National Forest. These guard stations are scattered across the state and, for the price of a cheap motel, offer a spooky cabin, complete with plumbing, heating and hot water. This particular spot had two extras: a very cold mountain stream out back, and a huge yurt. We spent our nights in the yurt, our days exploring stretches of the Payette park.
The camping and hiking in the area covers all ranges of difficulty, but in deference to the 6-year-old, we stuck to easy or moderate trails. The highlight was Josephine Lake, 25 miles north of McCall.
After an extended drive over a single-lane switchback road, we found a wilderness pocked with burn areas and budding undergrowth. A short hike from the trailhead led us to a glacial lake, extremely deep at points, surrounded by walls of granite and falling rocks. The landscape is in a state of constant change, as loose rocks tumble and crack, creating rivulets of smaller, broken rocks, heading downwards towards the lake itself.
The lake was at approximately 6,500 feet—that elevation where, in the middle of August, the temperature during midday becomes tolerable. If you have a 6-year-old (on the verge of 7) who hates the word “hike,” try the word “boulder.”
Burgdorf: ‘Roosters really do crow. They crow at 6 p.m.’
That’s the recorded journal entry from Aug. 26, which was spent at Burgdorf, a hot springs north of McCall. There are many hot springs in Idaho. Burgdorf is the coolest of them all, it includes roosters, and, as we arrived, it was celebrating its 150th birthday.
We weren’t exactly sure what to expect. We followed a dirt road for long enough to wonder if we had missed a turn. (This happens a lot in Idaho.)
Then we came into a large field, with the occasional blue heron, backed by Crystal Mountain and edged with Ponderosas. On the right: a ghost town/resort with the name “Burgdorf” etched in knotted pine on an overhead gate. The landscape was peppered with hunting cabins, collapsed cabins, a broken-down Chevy truck from 1940, a panoramic view of waving grass and roosters. Oh yes, and there was a heated pool, courtesy of the hot springs that had been grabbed up by gold miners in 1866.
We would spend a total of three days and one night there, leaving relaxed and looking like pale raisins. We were ready for the next leg: the rafting adventure!
The Salmon River
No trip to Idaho is complete without a rafting adventure—that’s what they say, and they’re right. We signed up for a two-day tour down the Salmon River, also known as the River of No Return. Riggins (pop. 500), a few hours north, was the point of departure. A friendly town that was once a lumber mill, Riggins is now a way station for fishers and boaters who tour the Salmon River. We arrived in the evening for our initial briefing. As an added attraction, we had our own private forest fire to witness: Two men had fired tracer bullets at the local Gun Club, accidentally igniting the blaze.
In the company of 16 others, we were bussed to the edge of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, where we negotiated the II- and III-class rapids (that would have been moved up a notch in springtime). The Salmon River was lovely, peaceful, hot, child-friendly, largely unpopulated and made a lot easier to negotiate thanks to a team of friendly, knowledgeable pros. Shout-out: Mountain River Outfitters. We took the short trip, but another time we may try the longer version, which begins by plunging into the middle of the Frank Church wilderness.
That trip ended after three days, and there were three days until Baltimore. I headed to a bar in Riggins (occupied by exhausted and intoxicated firefighters) and asked a very nice proprietor where else to go. She shrugged and told me it was all spectacular.
So, instead of heading up the panhandle, we saved on gas and took on the Seven Lakes Trail, which starts below Riggins and takes a circuit over Hells Canyon, one of Idaho’s more spectacular vistas. We spent a day there, enjoying the view and freezing our butts off during the darker hours (bring winter sleeping bags, folks! It reaches 100 degrees during the day, but at night, it headed to 28).
By then, two weeks were up, and we’d barely scraped the surface. But our tickets had already been purchased, and Nathaniel had to begin second grade. We considered the possibility of home schooling him in a hunting cabin somewhere above Coeur d’ Alene (still unvisited but apparently also beautiful), but in the end we opted to return to Baltimore, with its own tender virtues. We arrived on the steaming tarmac of BWI bearing secret and occasional flashbacks from a state that is, as a vacation destination, a well-kept secret. In the spirit of generosity, we invite you, the reader, to check out Idaho. But please, don’t tell too many of your friends.
Ernest Hemingway’s Grave
To Baltimore’s Poe Toaster: You made it a habit to leave half-empty bottles of cognac at Poe’s grave. Tired of that? Well, then, come to Idaho, a place where another great American writer met his untimely and booze-fueled demise. Ketchum, Idaho sports the simple gravestone of that complicated man who, in the last two years of his life, fell in love with Idaho, and then, in view of the spectacular Sawtooth range, shot himself with a double barrel 12-gauge shotgun.
At the foothills of the Sawtooth Range, Boise is a good drop-off point. The Roaring Springs Waterpark isn’t what you’d travel to Idaho to see, but it represents a convenient break for the younger crew before the trip eastward. Another highlight in Boise is the Idaho Shakespeare Festival: low-budget, high-quality. There’s the old Idaho Penitentiary—now a museum, after being closed down in the ’70s.
Craters of the Moon National
Monument and Wilderness
This is to the west of Boise, and I personally haven’t been there, but I’ve heard it’s remarkable. It is an ocean of lava flows and rock piles, an unforgettable monument to Idaho’s wild geological history. Only save this one for the early summer: In mid-August, it gets hot.
Heaven’s Gate Lookout Station
This is north of McCall, overlooking the incredible Hells Canyon. An easy trip for four-wheel drive, it offers an amazing vista, complete with a panoramic map and (in our case) two park employees with a lot of time on their hands, who were more than willing to point out mountains, fires and other attractions.
Intelligent, fit, independent, adventurous, DIY-friendly and very helpful. They readily welcome to tourists to their beautiful state.
In McCall, Idaho, on the edge of Payette Lake, Fogglifter Café is a friendly, casual dining place with great sandwiches and (occasional) Wi-Fi to boot. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit is a chain, but it had us returning repeatedly: for the racks, the ambience and the free softie ice cream cones. The River Rock Café is the place in the tiny town of Riggins to head for a family dinner. The fried chicken—and the friendly ambience—was the highlight for our family. As for Bert and Kate’s Cattlemen’s Family Restaurant, only Kate is around now, but she serves the best breakfasts in town. Whether you’re an exhausted firefighter or a family of three, it’s the place for fast and friendly breakfast. (And if your kid is having his seventh birthday, far from home, she’ll make it memorable.)
Burgdorf Hot Springs is 150 years old this August, and it’s the coolest hot springs resort in Idaho, or anywhere else, for that matter. Whether you stay in inexpensive cabins or just do a day visit, you’ll leave relaxed, happy and with money to spare. Equally kid-friendly is Idaho’s river life. Wilderness River Outfitters pulls out all the stops: cooking, entertaining the kids and guiding rafts down rapids. For more cultivated water, try Roaring Springs, the eighth-ranked waterpark in the U.S., for rides and great soft-serve ice cream.