Renowned for its potatoes and precious gems, Idaho offers a mix of modern metropolises and open land. Famous cities include Boise and Idaho Falls, as well as many ghost towns that are remnants of the days of the Wild West.
In the Pacific Northwest Region of the United States, Idaho is a landlocked state that stretches from the border with Canada down to Utah and Nevada on its southern border. Although nicknamed the “Gem State”, far more than precious stones can be found in its incredible landscapes.
Wildernesses have been protected to preserve natural landmarks like Shoshone Falls, Hells Canyon, and the Craters of the Moon National Monument.
Whether you’re exploring the big cities or heading out into the unknown of Idaho’s Rocky Mountains, this state will captivate you with its friendly residents and majestic landscapes. With something worth exploring in every corner of the state, Idaho is gaining momentum as a major tourist destination in the Pacific Northwest.
History of “The Gem State”
Idaho first became a state in July 1890 under President Benjamin Harrison. However, thousands of years before becoming a part of the United States, the area was home to indigenous inhabitants that lived 16,600 years ago.
Evidence of human habitation, stone tools, and animal bone fragments, have been found along Idaho’s Salmon River. The discovery of these artifacts is some of North America’s oldest evidence of human life on the continent.
Thousands of years later and before Idaho was signed into law as a state, the area was most famously explored by Lewis and Clark during their expedition in August 1805. European exploration of the state wouldn’t occur until 1811. The expansion of European settlers in the area was fueled by the fur trade.
Many early settlers in Idaho also sought missionary work among the Native American tribes. In a Protestant mission, Reverend Henry H. Spalding opened Idaho’s first school, created the state’s first irrigation system, and planted the first Idahoan potatoes. Another famous mission and the oldest standing building in the state, Cataldo, became a major stop for settlers, traders, and miners.
Many settlers driven by the California Gold Rush in 1849, passed through Idaho on the Oregon Trail but few chose to stay permanently. The state wouldn’t see its own gold rushes until 1860, which is when settlers began to grow the state’s mining industry.
There were several gold deposits, but the state would ultimately become most famous for its gem deposits which included precious stones like amethyst, opal, and aquamarine.
The abundance of Idaho’s natural resources has helped grow the state’s economy in modern history. Major industries that currently thrive in the state include agriculture, mining, and forestry. Although many of the old boom towns have long since been abandoned, ghost towns that are scattered throughout Idaho still hold relics from the past.
Capital City of Boise
Situated in the southwest corner of the state is the capital and largest city, Boise. Pronounced “BOY-see”, the city’s name is thought to have been derived from the French word for woods – “bois”. However, the exact origin of the name Boise is uncertain.
Covering an area of 64 square miles, Boise is divided into four neighborhoods called the Bench, Downtown, North End, and West Boise. Downtown Boise is the most touristy area in the city with numerous small businesses, restaurants, cafes, and cultural attractions. The 8th Street area has a great pedestrian zone and the Basque Block teaches visitors about the city’s heritage.
Additional attractions in Downtown Boise include the Idaho State Capital, Boise Art Museum, Zoo Boise, and the Egyptian Theatre. Just to the south of Downtown in a more residential area is the Boise State University.
The city’s older structures and homes can be found in the North End, which has a mix of residential and commercial areas. Much more compact than Downtown, the North End is well-known for its beautiful Harrison Boulevard and Hyde Park.
The rest of the city of Boise is predominantly residential. Attractions that visitors may find in other neighborhoods in the city include Barber Park, the Greenbelt, a few hot springs, and the Table Rock Trail.
As the state capital, Boise attracts plenty of tourists to the city. There are lots of urbanscapes to explore or visitors can head just outside of the city’s neighborhoods to explore the nearby natural landscapes in the foothills.
Picturesque Idaho Falls
Idaho Falls is a major city in East Idaho. First settled by cattle and sheep ranchers, the city sits along the banks of the Snake River, which is a major attraction in the area. With running and bike trails, the city maintains several miles along the Snake River for outdoor recreation.
Known as a city where people can enjoy both urban delights and the great outdoors, Idaho Falls is a quaint place to live and visit. Some of the most notable historic neighborhoods include Downtown and the Numbered Streets. Areas with newer development in Idaho Falls are the West Side and Snake River Landing.
As one of the last urban areas before stepping into some of Idaho’s most remote wilderness areas, Idaho Falls is the place to go for relaxing, dining, shopping, and exploring. Combining old-world feeling with modern sophistication, this city is a little slice of heaven in Eastern Idaho.
Filled with rugged wilderness, some of the most famous landmarks in Idaho include Shoshone Falls, Hells Canyon, and the Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve. Each of these natural wonders showcases the pure beauty and diversity of landscapes that can be found in the state.
Often called the “Niagara of the West”, Shoshone Falls is a large waterfall that flows from the Snake River in South-Central Idaho. With cascades falling from a maximum height of 212 feet (65m), the falls span for more than 1,000 feet along a rocky rim of the river.
Much more than a tourist destination, the falls have been harnessed to build natural resources including irrigation and hydroelectric power. Visitors can see Shoshone Falls and learn more about the history and modern use of the area by visiting the park that sits on the rim. Spring is the best time to see the falls and when water flow will be at its highest.
Straddling the border of Idaho and Oregon, Hells Canyon is the deepest river gorge in North America. It raises 7,993 feet (2,436 meters) above the river. On Idaho’s side of the canyon, visitors can take the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway to view miles of breathtaking river and mountain landscapes.
The Seven Devils Mountains are the most notable mountain range on Idaho’s side of the canyon.
Craters of the Moon
The most unique natural landscape in the state is found in Central Idaho. Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve has a mix of lava fields and sagebrush grasslands. Otherworldly in its appearance, hence the name, the reserve is a breathtaking attraction.
Visitors who find themselves in or pass through the city of Arco, Idaho won’t want to miss taking a trip to this distinctive national monument.
Idaho Ghost Towns
Another way to explore Idaho is by visiting its ghost towns. Once thriving, these now abandoned towns are leftover from the days when settlers and miners struck it rich by finding gold and silver in the mountains. Much more than ghost towns, these places tell the story of Idaho’s mining and frontier history.
There are dozens of ghost towns throughout the state, but some of the most visited ones are the Yankee Fork State Park, Bayhorse, Bonanza, Custor, Challis, and Stanely.
Some of the ghost towns are owned by the state of Idaho and the US government, while others are under private ownership. Depending on the ghost town, visitors can participate in activities like hiking, ATV riding, photography, and historical tours.
The Gem State
In Idaho, there are over 72 different types of precious and semi-precious gemstones that can be found in the rock, stream and river beds. Known as the “Gem State”, visitors may want to get their hands on one of their own stones and try their luck searching for the precious minerals.
Gem hunting, otherwise called rockhounding, is permitted in certain places throughout Idaho including public and private land. Typically, gem hunters will pay a small fee to be able to access the deposit areas. Popular areas to hunt for gems are the Panhandle National Forests, Sawtooth National Forest, Owyhee County, and the Deer Hunt Mine.
Less pretty than precious gems but much tastier are Idaho’s potatoes. Grown throughout the state, potatoes helped the state grow from its early settlement days to a multi-million dollar industry. Still thriving today, potatoes grown in Idaho are shipped to supermarkets all over the United States, as well as internationally.
Thriving in the volcanic ash soil, Idaho’s potatoes are coveted for their quality and large size. Visitors can learn more about the state’s potatoes by visiting the Idaho Potato Museum or taking tours of private farms.
Idyllic scenes in Idaho are putting the state on the tourist map. Each year, more tourists are drawn to explore the expansive wilderness areas, charming cities, and quaint towns that are found throughout Idaho. Offering both adventure and relaxation to tourists, a trip to this state is guaranteed to captivate your wanderlust and make for an unforgettable journey.
While exploring the Gem State, be sure to swing by one of its over one hundred hot springs that are available for soaking.