Idaho is a massive and varied landscape, boasting sage-covered deserts, volcanic fields, whitewater rivers, and spectacular canyons formations that range from majestic mountain peaks and alpine lakes to vast pine forests. With spring quickly approaching and summer travel season quick on its heels, we’ve been talking about Idaho’s beauty quite a bit. But while you may have visited and/or heard of Idaho’s most breathtaking scenic landmarks and wilderness areas, do you truly
know them? In fact, how well do you know Idaho? Check out Idaho’s seven greatest natural wonders and just a taste of their unique history.
1. Lake Pend Oreille
Lake Pend Oreille is the largest lake in Idaho at 43 miles across, as well as the gem of our state's panhandle. At over 1,100 feet deep in some parts, it is also the 5th deepest lake in the nation.
What you might not know is that the Pend Oreille is a glacial lake, formed by ice moving south from Canada. While naturally sourced, the waters are made slightly larger by the Albeni Falls dam. Today, this natural wonder and expanse of crystal clear water is beloved not only for its beauty, but for its history. The Kalispel pictographs dot many of the rocky shores while Farragut State Park adjoins the Navy's submarine research center at Bayview, called the Acoustic Research Detachment. Lake Pend Orielle's depth is such that it mimics the properties of open ocean.
2. Bruneau Sand Dunes
On the one hand, the Bruneau State Park sand dunes are essentially an adult sandbox gone rogue; on the other, they are a natural, untamed Idaho wonder. Standing at 470 feet and officially labeled as the tallest "single-structured" dunes in America, it is the relatively constant winds pushing in opposite directions that keeps the dunes stable and present, rather than migrating as many dunes do, despite human activity and natural forces.
There are three major dunes, and all of them can reach boiling temperatures even during mild heat, but it is truly the sheer size and healing properties of the dunes themselves that make them magnificent. A natural trap has caused sand to collect in this semicircular basin for thousands of years, according to geologists, and many believe that the dunes visible today may have originally started with sands from the Bonneville Flood close to 15,000 years ago.
3. Sawtooth Mountains
While not as dramatic as the Tetons or as rich with American history as the Appalachians, the Rockies' Sawtooth mountain range in Central Idaho creates a jagged skyline that features 57 breathtaking peaks over 10,000 feet high. Nestled deep within the range's towering crags are hundreds of glacial lakes and every type of wildlife imaginable, while also housing the start of three of Idaho's major rivers: the Middle Fork of the Boise River, the South Fork of the Payette River, and the Main Fork of the Salmon River. Here, you'll likely see more animals than people, making for a restorative view in the heart of Idaho, particularly in Idaho's treasured Boulder White Clouds.
The Sawtooths were originally inhabited by the Sheepeater tribe of Native Americans, aptly named for their favorite game. The base of the range also cradles the Sawtooths' crowning jewel, Redfish Lake, which is historically described as being so full of Sockeye (Redfish) that one could nearly walk on water. Today, Sockeye are endangered and immense conservation efforts are taking place. It's also worthy to note that in 2010, a fault line was discovered near the lake and named the Sawtooth Fault, which is capable of producing a scale-topping 7.5 magnitude earthquake in the future.
4. The Great Idaho Rift
Idaho's Great Rift is a line of volcanic cones and lava vents that runs through the Craters of the Moon National Monument, considered to be the largest, deepest and most recent volcanic rift system in the mainland United States. Naturally, this makes it worthy of a separate mention from its surrounding landscape.
Two thousand years ago this rift was spewing lava across the Snake River Plain, but today the Great Rift is a series of fissures, lava flows, and volcanic cones nearly 53 miles long and up to five miles wide. Here, amidst the sea of craters, crags, rock formations, and caves, a line of low volcanoes and splatter cones line the rift where the earth opened up and hot magma poured out to create the rest of the reserve, while the immense trench that originally released the tidal wave of lava still remains as a vivid reminder of the power of geology. This rift has reportedly only been hiked to completion once; other attempts have resulted in dangerous heat exhaustion.
5. The Salmon River
Also known as the River of No Return, the 425-mile Salmon River flows entirely undammed, the last of its kind in Idaho and the longest river that is fully contained within Idaho's borders. Over the course of its untamed journey through the largest wilderness area in the lower 48, it also drops down more than 7,000 feet between its head near Galena Summit and its ending confluence with the Snake River.
More than just a water body of extreme whitewater rapids and sandy beaches, the Salmon is also powerful enough to have carved its own set of incredible river canyons, second only in size to the Snake River's vast Hell's Canyon. What many don't realize is that the Salmon River is also known as the River of No Return not because it cuts through the road-less Frank Church Wilderness area, but because in Idaho's pioneer and exploration days, once a boat reached its destination, currents were too powerful to return them upstream, forcing groups to disassemble them and use them for lumber. Quite literally, there was no way to return back the same way they came.
6. Craters of the Moon
Here in the heart of Southern Idaho, a solidified volcanic sea rages in every direction, one of only two such geologic formations in the world. Yet, despite Idaho's thousands of miles of rushing rivers, not a single one makes an appearance in this dry, apocalyptic expanse of craters, caverns, fissure vents, rock features, and historical remnants.
A geologic wonderland at its core (literally), Craters of the Moon stretches 618 square miles and is, in fact, continuously growing and shifting beneath its surface. Eruptions from the Great Rift at its center typically occur every 2,000 years, and Craters of the Moon hasn't seen an eruption in well over that length of time -- which means Idaho's surface geology could rapidly and violently change in the very near future.
The tallest cinder cone in the reserve is Big Cinder Butte, which stands more than 700 feet above the landscape. Due to the unique geology of the area, plants and animals across the expanse have adapted uniquely to survive and thrive; they may look like ordinary desert foliage, but here a humble sagebrush plant might have a root system that burrows twenty-five feet into the earth just to find water. Impressive!
7. Owyhee Canyonlands
In the Owyhee Wilderness, Idaho's often-overlooked and unpopulated gem, desolate beauty comes to life. Often referred to as the Big Quiet because of the utter stillness and lack of visible city life, the only sounds you'll hear in Idaho's Southwest corner are those of the landscape: small, desert wildlife moving about, the rustling of sagebrush, and the faint babbling of small streams. But here you'll also see some of Idaho's most rugged scenery in the form of basalt canyons, like Bruneau and Dead Man, as well as wild and scenic rivers like Big Jacks, Wichahoney, and the three forks of the Owyhee.
A true "vestige of the American West" and quite possibly the most remote wilderness in the lower 48, the Owyhee Canyonlands cover around 4,500 square miles across Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon and feature incredible feats of ancient river-carved landscaping. To outsiders, the region is a barren wasteland. What you might not know, however, is that this ordinarily rocky, desert landscape turns a vibrant green come spring, and hosts the largest intact shrub-steppe ecosystem remaining in western North America.
Simply incredible. Expansive and mysterious, this wonderful state is a rugged frontier like no other, wouldn’t you say?