Idaho is known by many for its potatoes. It’s even on their license plate: “Famous Potatoes”. Also on their license plate is “Scenic Idaho”, and it is this impression that I took from visiting Idaho. I’m fairly confident that many have no idea just how amazingly scenic Idaho actually is.
In fact, over 60% of Idaho’s land is owned by the federal government, and most of the federal land is managed by either the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service. The result is a treasure trove of beautiful places. Maybe I’m a jerk to Idahoans for letting their secret out, but SERIOUSLY, Idaho is the place to visit. Still don’t believe me? Listen up.
Our first stop upon arriving in Idaho was in the city of Idaho Falls. We had our first couch surfing hosts lined up here. They were absolutely amazing and made us feel right at home. The first night we checked out Idaho Brewing Company, where we enjoyed a beer and a great jam band made up of old hippies. The following day, we biked around the greenbelt, viewing the falls and many cool benches, or “art you can sit on”.
That night, our host cooked us an amazing dinner. It felt great to sleep in a place that felt so homey, and after delicious eggs in the morning, I didn’t want to leave. But the open road was calling, so we headed west toward Craters of the Moon National Monument.
Craters of the Moon turned out to be a fascinating place. Millions of years ago, when the Yellowstone Hotspot was actually located here, there were violent eruptions here which formed huge craters. Since then, the North American Plate has shifted, which is why the hotspot is now under Yellowstone. The lava fields now seen at Craters of the Moon were formed by eight major eruptive periods in the last 15,000 years. Lava has erupted approximately every 2,000 years, mostly through the Great Rift: a huge fissure in the landscape. The impact left behind by lava is fascinating. There are many different geologic forms made up of hardened lava.
Per usual, we went right to the visitor center upon arrival to inquire about backcountry camping. The ranger there told us we were the first of the day, and likely would be alone. It was a hot day, and though the trek across the wilderness trail was beautiful, it was slightly miserable with very little shade. The lava cinders upon which we walked were soft and quick to slide under our feet. When we reached our destination, Echo Crater, I ran excitedly down the slope. I ended up slipping on the cushiony cinders, and scraping my leg up pretty bad. “There’s lava in my wound!” I cried as we cleaned it up.
In case you didn’t catch that: WE CAMPED IN A CRATER! Echo crater was formed from a volcanic eruption occurring there. Camping in the enormous crater, which we did end up having to ourselves, was a unique and enjoyable experience.
When we hiked out the next morning, it was much cooler, and I took more time to enjoy the plants growing out from the cinders, as well as the cinder cones that flanked our hike.
After hiking out, we headed back to the visitor center to obtain cave permits. You must have a cave permit because it is important that any clothes or boots you are wearing have not been in any other caves. This prevents the spread of white nose syndrome amongst bats. The caves at Craters of the Moon were formed by hot lava flowing through hardened lava.
Compared to the walk to the caves, (across lava fields in the relentless heat), exploring inside the chilly caves felt rejuvenating. Beauty Cave was our favorite. It is so vast and so dark.
Another interesting fact about Craters of the Moon is that volcanic eruptions happen here every 2,000 years, and it has been over 2,000 years since the last eruption. A park ranger told us that they monitor for volcanic activity. I wish she had told us that before we slept in the crater, as I couldn’t help but think about an untimely death by lava while falling asleep.
That night we drove to Boise where we enjoyed a brew. When we learned that the Wal-marts in town were not open 24 hours, we were unsure whether we could sleep there. Instead, we headed north to the national forests, where dispersed camping is free.
In the morning, we intended to head to a few different hot springs. After stopping at a ranger station, however, we learned that the ones we intended to go to were washed out due to high waters. Flooded, too, were the hikes we intended to do. It’s a good thing we’re both open to going with the flow. We ended up going to Bonneville hot spring. This is a popular and amazing place, where the hot spring falls into the pool alongside the river, mixing with river water to create a perfect bath. It felt amazing to soak in.
We then headed to Stanley, Idaho, where a ranger station for the Sawtooth Wilderness is located. At the ranger station, we met an employee who was also from Minnesota. She was working there for the summer, and told us she had told her mom “I fell in love with a man named Stanley.” We were skeptical at first, just having come from the amazing Teton Range. By the end of our trip in Stanley, however, we too, were in love.
The Minnesotan recommended one of the only hikes that was currently trekable with the snow: Bench Lakes via Redfish Lake trailhead. She also said she had heard rumors of people making it to Alpine Lake, though she hadn’t yet done it herself. Stopping in at a ranger station is an excellent way to get the inside scoop. She gave us a few other great recommendations too: the Crag breakfast sandwich at the local bakery, a secret local hot spring, and free dispersed camping areas.
That night, we drove up one of the free camping areas. We snagged a spot with a tremendous view. We also happened to be surrounded by cows. Stephanie was very entertained by the cows. We realized after watching them for about an hour that they do something interesting every 10 to 15 minutes.
In the morning, we went for the Crag sandwich which really hit the spot. We then caught a ranger talk at the Redfish Lake Visitor Center. Here are a couple of things we learned from the talk: wolverines are very present in the Sawtooths and love the snow. They can travel up a snowy mountain that would take a mountaineer all day in about half an hour. The Sawtooth Range is relatively young, and made up of granite, whereas the neighboring White Cloud Mountains are made up of limestone as they are located in a part of Idaho that was once coastal.
Our hike into Bench Lakes was relatively short. We hiked along a ridge from which we could view the White Cloud Mountains over Redfish Lake. When we reached the second lake, there was a large group of boys camped there. We tried to move on to the third lake, but there was just too much snow and water. We ended up camping in an unexceptional spot at the end of second lake. It was a cold night. The next day, we headed on toward Alpine Lake. This was a very long, very scenic hike in which I truly fell in love with the Sawtooths. We passed many beautiful peaks. The final couple of miles up to Alpine Lake were all uphill, and much of the trail was streaming with water. We went up switchback after switchback, with great views all the way up. Toward the top, snow patches became increasingly frequent, until eventually the ground was almost completely snow covered.
After rock hopping over a creek, we could suddenly see the lake in the distance! We hurried over the packed snow to find complete solitude on the stunning, partially ice-covered Alpine Lake. This quickly became our favorite campsite of the trip thus far.
In the morning, there was more ice covering the lake than there had been the night before. I took many pictures of the beautiful shapes the ice made. I also made Oobee stand on the thin ice. She’s small, and it held fast.
After breakfast, we started the hike out. We would’ve liked to stay longer, but we were hiking the full 14 miles out this day. It was a tough day, and once we completed it, we decided we were done with long hikes for a few days. We drove to the White Clouds to disperse camp in a free site.
The next morning, we drove to Goldbug Hot Springs near Salmon, Idaho. This was an absolutely perfect place to be after a long hike. We enjoyed a much-needed soak with amazing views. It was lucky we arrived early, because as we hiked out, we passed approximately thirty people coming in. I don’t think the pool holds quite that many people.
We were planning to do one more hike in Idaho in the Bitteroot Range, but we cancelled it as we needed to rest our bodies. Instead, we headed for Missoula. I will return to Idaho in the future. It is an endlessly amazing place for recreation.