I can’t say that Idaho has always been on my radar as a travel destination. But, a few years ago I watched a Kraig Adams video on YouTube where he hiked through the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho and I was mesmerized. The alpine lakes and jagged peaks looked just as beautiful as Yellowstone or Yosemite, but with nowhere near the notoriety. I proceeded to watch every video on the Sawtooths available on YouTube, and knew I had to go.
Flush with the excitement from my first backpacking trip the year before, I planned a whole summer of backpacking for 2021. But after two rough backpacking trips (Channel Islands in May and Sequoia in July), I decided Crystal and I deserved some luxury. We scrapped the original plan and my focus transferred to another favorite of mine: water activities.
As a SoCal girl raised in the time of eternal drought, I am a little obsessed with fresh water. I’m the first to jump up at any mention of a waterfall or stream. Crystal and I even purchased inflatable kayaks at the start of the new year. So when I heard Idaho has innumerable hot springs, I became obsessed. I purchased a used book called Hot Springs and Hot Pools of the Northwest, and used it as my guide to planning my road trip through Idaho.
5 Day Itinerary
Day 1: Saturday
We landed in Boise around 3pm and promptly picked up our rental car before leaving the airport. We drove to our AirBnB, an unremarkable room in a hostel like home, not too far from downtown. It was cheap and we only stayed one night, so I was content.
Hungry, we drove downtown to see what Boise was all about. While we waited to be seated for dinner, we explored Freak Alley, a series of murals in the downtown area.
We ate outside at a restaurant called Fork. It seemed fancy for the area, and offered excellent local craft beer and cider.
Afterward, we hopped on some electric scooters and travelled down the famed Green Belt, a 25 mile path that connects all the parks along the Boise River. At one park, we stumbled upon a lantern festival a la Tangled, and decided to hang around. We watched locals launch their lanterns into the lake until it started to rain.
To get out of the rain, we grabbed a tasting flight at Meriwether Cider House. The selection was diverse and delicious. I had a gin inspired cider that was particularly tasty. We wanted to see what a nightlife was like, but for a Saturday night in a college town, it seemed pretty quiet.
Day 2: Sunday
We got on the road early and made our way to Bruneau Dunes State Park. We were the only people around, which seemed to be the theme of this whole trip. If you have never seen sand dunes before, then check this place out. However, Crystal and I already have, so we moved on quickly.
We continued along the I-84 to our next stop: Thousand Springs Scenic Byway. Nestled unsuspectingly amid arid farmland, the Thousand Springs State Park is a collection of small parks connected by the Snake River. There isn’t much information out there about this park, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
At our first stop, Malad Gorge, we were greeted by a lovely woman who provided us with a map of Thousand Springs State Park and highlighted all the best places to stop at. After parking, we walked a short trail to see the gorge. It did not disappoint. Gushing and bright blue, the Snake River cuts through the canyon below, allowing vibrant green plants to grow along its edges. As you admire the gorge, cars zoom right past and the juxtaposition feels funny.
We continued down Highway 30 to our next stop: Ritter Island. This is a must see. The journey feels a little precarious as you wind down a narrow road, but don’t worry. It ends at a parking lot attached to a large open park.
Here at Ritter Island you will find a historical museum and a short trail with many waterfalls. Every where you turn, crystal clear water is rushing. We saw many families launching kayaks from here, and looking back, I wish we did too.
I originally wanted to kayak to Blue Heart Springs, but the most common launch site (Banbury Hot Springs) was closed and we were told to launch from the 1000 Springs Resort. This worked out just fine, and was a great place for us to use the bathroom and pump up our kayaks. The resort is just across the Snake River from Ritter Island, and funnily enough we just ended up kayaking to Ritter Island, where we were only a couple hours ago.
It was our first time kayaking in a river, and holy shit it was so hard to paddle upstream. I honestly almost gave up. But the crystal clear waters once you make it to the springs more than make up for the struggle, and the easy float back to our launch site was fun.
After such an exhausting day, all we wanted was a shower and a nice meal. Unfortunately, the hostel we stayed at in Twin Falls had some unsavory guests that made us a little uncomfortable, but for the cheap price we dealt with it for one night. After narrowly escaping a dinner invitation from the aforementioned guest, dinner proved to be another funny time.
My research online led me to believe that Twin Falls would be a similar city to Boise, which I relayed to Crystal. However, upon arriving at the bar we chose for dinner, Crystal choked out “This is not a city, Lia.”
She was right, it was not. Even town feels like too strong of a word for the one street of one story buildings that is Twin Falls.
When we entered the bar, it was truly a movie scene. I swear the music stopped and every head swiveled to stare at us like they had never seen Black or Asian women before. Which, this deep into Idaho, they probably hadn’t. News of us seemed to travel around the bar. It is a funny feeling to know everyone in a room is talking about you.
We ordered our burgers and beers and were quickly peppered with questions by our curious waitress. She noticed our California licenses when she ID’d us and asked us the question that seemed to follow us around Idaho “What are you doing here?”
Ironically, another waiter ended up being from San Diego too, and we got to flip that same question around on him.
“I wanted to go to university in a new place.”
It was a good answer, and much better than “I saw a Youtube video.”
Day 3: Monday
Monday morning I was itching to get out of Twin Falls and into a hot spring, but we had one last stop in town.
How Shoshone Falls is not talked about on every travel blog I do not know. It is breathtaking. Taller than Niagara Falls, the tiered cascade is expansive and powerful, even in August. I attempted some long exposures sans tripod, which actually turned out better than I thought it would.
Hopping back in our car, we crossed the Perrine Memorial Bridge, and promptly pulled over for a quick picture of the bridge. Content with all the pictures we took, we finally headed north on Highway 75.
Like the previous day, the drive between towns is pretty barren. Lots of open space and few cars between, we passed time listening to Lizzo. After our second round of the crooning ballad Jerome, it was finally time to check out our first hot spring. Frenchman’s Hot Spring, only 10 miles outside of Ketchum, is very accessible. After parking on the side of the dirt road, walk down the road. Keep an eye out for rings of rocks along the edges of the river. These rings pool the hot water bubbling up from underground springs, and are perfect for soaking. That afternoon every hot spring seemed to be full, but thankfully a couple allowed us to join them across the river. Be super careful crossing the river. The current is fast, and I definitely fell and broke 3 nails.
Worth it though.
In total we spent almost 2 hours at these springs, chatting with the couple and trying out different pools. The couple mentioned living nearby and coming everyday during lunch. What a dream.
Refreshed and ashy from our time in the springs, we drove further north to Stanley, the gateway to the Sawtooths. The drive is very scenic, and the homes in Sun Valley are insane.
For years I had been waiting for this moment to see that video in real life, so imagine my devastation when we checked in at Mountain Village Resort and the receptionist apologetically said “Is this your first time in Stanley? How unlucky.”
Unfortunately, smoke from nearby fires covered the famous Sawtooth Mountains and wouldn’t clear for a few days. Unlucky indeed.
Determined to make the best of Stanley, we grabbed some ice cream from a coffee stand called Peaks and Perks, and admired the view of the valley below.
Before the day ended, I had one more hot spring I wanted to visit. Stanley is a hotbed for hot springs. Just outside town, along the 75, you can find many to choose from. We parked in a pullout on the highway, and noticed Boat Box Hotsprings was already occupied. Thankfully, the couple invited us to join. If that is not the case for you, there are some pools next to the tub that are also good for soaking.
Whoever installed this tub is a genius. With a tube that transports hot water from the spring, you can easily fill the tub. Be sure to mix in cold river water with a bucket to get the perfect temperature. Thankfully, that was already done for us and all we had to do was relax and enjoy the view of the Salmon River. We stayed till golden hour chatting with the couple who turned out to be traveling artists from Michigan. It was the perfect way to end our first day in Stanley.
Day 4: Tuesday
Although I was not doing the epic multi-day trek through the Sawtooth Forest that drew me to Idaho, I was determined to get one good hike in on this trip. We drove to Redfish Lake where we bought roundtrip tickets for the boat to take us across the lake.
Wildly unprepared, with only a water and a gatorade to sustain us, we set out to Alpine Lake. It was an 11 mile, incredibly challenging hike with many switchbacks and no shade. Looking back, I don’t know why we thought we would make it back on the 3pm boat back.
After a tough trek up, we only admired the lake for 30 minutes. Then, feeling the time crunch, at one point I even started running. By the time we made it back to the pier, it was way past 3pm. We were dehydrated and exhausted. While we waited for the 5pm boat, we chatted with an older couple who offered us water. We must have looked awful.
Back at the hotel, we ate at the attached restaurant and redeemed our drink vouchers for celebratory beers. While most of the hotel is unremarkable, but convenient, there is one aspect that makes it special. Upon check in the previous day, we made our reservation for the hotel’s hot spring around sunset after our hike. One visit comes free with your stay, and it was the main reason I chose this hotel.
With our towels in hand, we headed down the path toward the semi-enclosed hot spring. The hotel built a a 3-walled wooden structure around the manmade pool, which siphons hot water from the nearby spring. The opening allows for stunning views of the Valley Creek and the option for dipping in cooler water.
We were joined by a middle aged couple, one of which was a life coach. The setting sun over the valley was a spectacular backdrop for insightful conversation we had. Overall it was an amazing experience, I would do over and over.
Day 5: Wednesday
Our time in Idaho was coming to a close, but I still wanted to squeeze one last hot spring.
We woke up early Wednesday to a chilly morning in the mountains. The car meter said 17 degrees, and I was thankful for our decision to not camp on this trip. We stopped by Stanley Baking Company for some coffee and delicious cinnamon rolls and then headed on the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway.
Cruising down Highway 21, we turned at the sign for Kirkham Hot Springs. From the parking lot you can see the steam rising from the ground. As you descend toward the river, the view is arresting. A cascade of steaming water flows from the top, creating a series of pools overlooking the Payette River. Just when I thought nothing could top the Mountain Valley Resort Hot Spring, here was a hot waterfall!
Since we arrived early, we had the hot springs to ourselves and it was so peaceful. If we didn’t have a flight later that afternoon, I don’t think I would have left.
Leaving is always bittersweet, but this time felt especially hard. Idaho turned out to be even better than I could have ever imagined. I think about this trip often, and I tell anyone who listens that Idaho should be at the top of their list. I can’t wait to go back.
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