The Best Kept Secret in the West: Our First Northern Idaho Road Trip

If you think Idaho is nothing but potatoes, you are dead wrong! With its abundance of challenging trails along dramatic mountain ridges, pristine hidden hot springs, and tucked away small towns, I can pretty confidently assure you that Idaho is one of the most underrated states in the U.S.

If you’re anything like me and you love exploring the outdoors, but can’t stand the crowds at popular destinations, Idaho just might make the perfect map marker for your next road trip. The state of Idaho is truly a hidden gem that is perfectly gorgeous in all the right ways. So much so that I considered not writing this blog in an attempt to keep it all to myself so that it stays that way. But I know anyone reading this loves nature as much as I do, and will treat it right. So without further ado, I’m going to share a few key spots from our itinerary that will bring you to some of the best the state has to offer.

Stanley, Idaho

Stanley, with a population only in the ’60s, might be one of the cutest towns I have ever traveled to. This small dirt road town features Old West-style buildings and dusty small streets that’ll make you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. Surrounded by the astoundingly beautiful Sawtooth Mountains and flanked by the rushing Salmon River, this is the perfect vantage point of Idaho I always imagined.

There is an incredible amount of activities to do in and around Stanley. It was late summer/early fall when I made my visit and I saw an abundance of people camping, hiking, fly fishing, mountain biking, kayaking, soaking, and swimming.

Where to stay near Stanley:

Before this trip I had never been to Idaho. So, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect and there was a bit of a learning curve about where I should stay. Normally, I would prefer to camp, but not knowing much about the area I decided to stay the first few nights in an AirBNB just within the city of Challis. The city was adorable and about an hour long scenic drive into Stanley. Now that I have visited the area, I can confidently say there is plenty of free camping in and around Stanley. Just about every quarter mile, you’ll see rustic campgrounds with fire rings and picnic tables. I noticed there were both, free areas and first come, first serve locations. The free ones did not appear to have bathrooms, but there were a handful of public restrooms along the road.

Sawtooth Mountains

Stanley isn’t just a picturesque mountain town, it also happens to be the gateway into one of the most pristine wilderness areas in the nation. The Sawtooth Mountains deserve at least one full day of exploration, and even more if you have the time!

We chose a moderate 12-mile hike that combined jagged mountain peaks with alpine lake views. The 5 hour round trip trek to Sawtooth Lake was an amazing choice for our first hike in the area. We went in early September and the temperatures could not have been any better. We trekked a bit further past Alpine Lake up to Sawtooth Lake first, which made for an invigorating refresh on our sun-scorched skin. What I mean by that is, it was REALLY freaking cold. On our way back down we took a side shoot over to Alpine Lake, which blew us away with its majestic beauty. At the request of my husband we also soaked our sore muscles there, only luckily, this snowmelt pool wasn’t quite as painfully cold.

Goldbug Hot Springs

The following day we were making our way up to Montana. So, we decided to head up to Salmon and stop by Goldbug Hot Springs on the way out. Our bodies were feeling a bit stiff from the previous day of vert, so we thought a good soak might do us some good. Goldbug came highly recommended by our AirBNB host and was only a 3.5 mile out and back hike. To people in the area this hot spring is far from secret. We were a little worried that due to the time of day it would be crowded and we would be left disappointed, but OH MY were we wrong.

The trail up to the hot springs is short, but also pretty tough. Bring lots of water and good hiking shoes. We went in the middle of a hot day, and there isn’t much shade. The first part of the hike is nothing but switchback incline that will really get your heart rate going and intense enough to take several stops. After the second bridge you’ll start hitting step-ups and the trail is considerably steep near the end. The steepness is well worth it though- so peaceful and secluded.

Pro Tip: Spend a few hours there and try out all the different pools, as they all have different temperatures. They range from very hot to barely lukewarm.

Overall our couple days in Idaho seriously surprised us and from what I understand this is just a sampling of the incredible beauty in Idaho that you could see you during a road trip. Which is why we can’t wait to go back someday. Next time we would love to make it on to some other places like McCall, Ketchum, Coeur d’Alene, and Sands Point. If you have the time. There are probably thousands more hiking trails, hundreds of hot springs, and endless adventures to be had in this incredible state.