Most Americans harbor a nostalgic dream to “see the country,” and the romanticized notion of exploring even our own scenic state by rail would be a wish come true for many Idahoans. While passenger trains in Idaho are no more – save for a lone Amtrak stop in our Panhandle – railfans and nostalgic train-lovers alike can indulge in railroad whimsy with this easy road trip to some of Idaho’s most unique train depots, train restaurants, and train-themed businesses.
As part of the Old West, the Oregon Short Line, Union Pacific, Pacific Idaho Northern, and many other railroad lines had stops in Idaho. These trains would bring in miners and loggers searching for new ways to make a living, along with new settlers hoping for a place to call home. Together, they give Idaho quite the railroad history! Many of the train stations remaining today have been converted into museums, which means this trip is educational and perfect for the whole family as well – and it’ll take you all the way from Southern Idaho to the top of the Panhandle.
Whether for the history, the architectural beauty, or the unforgettable memories, this is sure to be an unforgettable road trip! Check out the
Google Map here.
Stop 1: Boise
To start your road trip, it makes sense to begin in our capital's most prominent landmark: the Boise Union Pacific Train Depot. Situated on the rim just off of Capitol Boulevard, the panoramic view from the Depot patio is a stunning glimpse of the city skyline and the foothills. By night, the 96-foot bell tower lights up and is seen for miles. Weddings, events, and picnics are held here in the beautifully landscaped garden, and the city backdrop makes it a prime spot for family photos. Uniquely, the depot itself is impeccably restored, winding staircases included, with the treasured Engine 407 sitting just outside as a photo op for visitors.
Address: 2603 West Eastover Terrace, Boise, ID 83706
While you're here, stop at the Trolley House for breakfast.
This historic building was the end of the line for the city of Boise's own street car system until the 1920s. While trolley cars and railroads don't have much in common, both throwback to a simpler time of travel.
Address: 1821 E Warm Springs Ave, Boise, ID 83712
Stop 2: Nampa
Nampa's historic depot downtown is a truly special gem unlike any other found in Idaho. While the Gem State has hundreds of beautifully restored train depots scattered throughout even our smallest towns, Nampa's uniquely ornamented structure, formerly a stop on the historic Oregon Short Line, is quite possibly the most notable. Built in 1903, this stunning building was the sole reason Nampa, Idaho came to be - the Oregon Short Line bypassed Boise 110 years ago and the city was built around it, growing the already blossoming valley into the metro region we know today. Today, this depot acts as part of the Canyon County Museum, with displays that depict both local, national, and rail history.
Address: 1200 Front St, Nampa, ID 83651
Stop 3: Caldwell
The 1907 Union Pacific Oregon Short Line Train Depot in Caldwell played a major role in the city's development, especially with its location nearby the now-gone Saratoga Hotel and Old City Hall. If not for the depot, Caldwell would still be a part of Ada County, along with Boise! Rumor has it that there are Chinese tunnels underground, running in all directions from the depot... but today, you can check out the inside where a mini museum of photos and memorabilia is displayed.
Address: 701 Main St, Caldwell, ID 83605
Stop 4: Weiser
The city of Weiser hosts a collection of architectural gems, but none has been polished as brightly as the historic Union Pacific Railroad Depot. Completed in 1907, this depot served as the hub of the town’s transportation before slowly falling out of use with the rise of modern cars. It was recently restored and awarded an Orchid Award for Excellence by the Idaho Preservation Society in 2012. Perhaps what is most special about this gem, however, is the train car that stands on the grassy lawn beside the depot--a star in nearly every senior's photo session--and the tracks that run right behind the depot. Lucky visitors might be privy to the deafening freight engines first-hand as the trains rumble by on occasion.
Location: State and Commercial, across from the Vendome Event Center.
Stop 5: Camas Prairie Railroad
To railfans and historians the Camas Prairie is legendary for its numerous tunnels, high timber trestles (earning it the name as the railroad on stilts), and overall breathtaking scenery of the Pacific Northwest. This gorgeous line stretches all the way from Grangeville to Lapwai. Probably the best known part of the railroad is the Second Subdivision that runs from Spalding, on the Clearwater River, to Grangeville, in the heart of the high Camas Prairie. Over the course of the 66.5 miles, the track climbs from an elevation of approximately 800 feet by the river to a high point on the prairie of more than 3,700 feet at Craigmont, but the system radiated in all directions from Lewiston except north. Aside from timber it also hauled several various types of agriculture. Today, while impressive in its towering, geometric beauty, the railroad stands unused and falling into decay--but we'll talk about that more later!
Stop 6: Potlatch
Union Pacific Preservation Society
As the first commercial building in the small town of Potlatch, the depot was constructed in 1906 by the Washington, Idaho and Montana Railway Company. It served the Potlatch Lumber Company as well as the largest white-pine sawmill in the world. While the sawmill came down years ago, the depot remained and slowly fell into disrepair. falling slowly into disrepair. Recent efforts have been remodeling the depot from the outside, in. But the two-story boarding house deign and vibrant red exterior makes this little gem something a little extra special--and what a unique opportunity to lease an apartment or office at the top of a historic train station!
Address: 185 6th St, Potlatch, ID 83855
Stop 7: Sandpoint
As the only Amtrak stop in Idaho, Sandpoint is a treasured hub for vacationers who travel by train, and for those who love the sights and sounds of these thundering metal beasts. In fact, Sandpoint is also the largest funnel – the site where east-west railways in the northern states converge – in the Northwest. The confluence here of three northern rail lines means that a few dozen trains rumble through Sandpoint at all hours. The 1916 Gothic-style depot here is the oldest remaining active passenger depot of the former Northern Pacific railway, and the only passenger train of any kind in Idaho. Riders still use the original white-tiled waiting dock before boarding the Empire Builder to travel east to Chicago or west to Seattle/Portland.
Address: 450 Railroad Avenue & Former Northern Pacific Station Site, Sandpoint, ID 83864
Stop 8: Wallace
Wallace's beautiful historic Union Pacific Depot is not only an architectural treasure, it is also a museum and the inspiration behind the town's annual Depot Days. Tucked away in the heart of the Silver Valley, this gem has regular hours and friendly faces ready to detail the history of the Panhandle's rail history.
Address: 219 6th St, Wallace, ID 83873
Stop 9: Pocatello
100 years ago, all Union Pacific trains traveling between Chicago and Portland, Oregon had to go through Pocatello. If it was a passenger train, it stopped at the depot. In fact, Poky's history is rooted in travelers stopping through on their way to make their fortune; in this humble city, presidents even gave speeches at the depot from the backs of private rail cars. Until the 1960s multiple trains ran through the depot, where there was also a newspaper stand, snack bar, shoeshine stand, barbershop and more.
Today, the building only houses offices. But usually the first thing visitors saw in the depot was the large mural painted by Bethel Farley, which depicts three young Native American men on horseback overlooking a small village. Below them is a steam locomotive and passenger train standing at a small station with "Pocatello" painted on a sign board. While you're in the area, take a detour to check out the historic depot in Victor and Blackfoot as well!
Address: 300 South Harrison Avenue Pocatello, ID 83204
While you're passing through the area, stop for a ite to eat at this too-cute train restaurant - La Parrilla.
Hearty Mexican food enjoyed from the comfort of a throwback railcar? Delightful!
Address: 280 6th St E. Ketchum, ID, 83340
Stop 10: Fairfield
Camas County only has one surviving city these days: Fairfield. At one time, Hill City--an unincorporated town nearby-- was the terminus of the Oregon Short Line railroad, and even shipped more sheep than any other point in the world. A remnant of this bygone era and many pioneer items still remain within the historic Railroad Depot/Museum building located in Fairfield. This sunny yellow building makes quite the statement in this rural little town!
What do you think? Ready to make Idaho’s rail culture and unique history come alive? Fortunately, just about every town in Idaho has its own unique train depot, often with an included museum, so you can tailor this road trip to your budget, availability, and location. Enjoy!