Idaho  is one of the Rocky Mountains states of the United States of America. Idaho is a rugged state, with 10,000 - 12,500 ft (3000 - 3800m) snow-capped mountains, whitewater rivers (one running through the deepest river canyon in the U.S.), forests, high desert, and plenty of wilderness. Most of the land north of Boise is National or State Forest.
North Idaho is sometimes considered part of the Pacific Northwest. It's where the rolling grain-covered hills of the Palouse give way to the Bitterroot (Rocky) Mountains. South Idaho is usually considered part of the Intermountain West, and is in the Mountain timezone.
All of the following cities are good bases for outdoor activities within their regions.
Idaho's nickname is "The Gem State," although the motto on the state's license plates reads "Famous Potatoes." This often has the unfortunate result that anyone who has heard of Idaho imagines the state as a vast expanse of potato farms, with grizzled inhabitants living in cabins with no running water. In reality, the cabins mostly have running water. Some even have indoor plumbing.
In reality, Idaho is increasingly becoming a mix of both city and rural life. Some Idahoans do indeed live in cabins in the middle of nowhere, but others live in urbane condominiums in downtown Boise. Indeed, Boise is now the largest metropolitan area in the Rocky Mountains region of the US outside of Colorado. Most of the other major cities in Idaho have also experienced significant growth over the past 20 years.
In part because of this growth, some longtime Idahoans are openly disdainful of newcomers in general, and ex-Californians in particular. However, this rarely translates into an open expression of ill will towards visitors.
Idaho is typical of several other western states, e.g., Oregon, Washington, and California, in that there are really two states in one. The northern part of Idaho is characterized by mountains, lakes, forests and rivers. While the southern half has some spectacular mountains (the Owyhees and parts of the Tetons), it is mostly high-plains desert similar to the Inland Empire of southern California.
Most of the world-famous Idaho potatoes are grown in Eastern Idaho. Onions are an important cash crop in southwestern Idaho near the Oregon border, while sugar beets are prevalent in the Twin Falls area. As many crops are irrigated in the otherwise arid Snake River Plain, water is an extremely important and potentially explosive political issue in Idaho.
Northern Idaho farming is characterized by dry land wheat, barley, and legume crops. Logging is also a big part of the northern Idaho economy, although not as much as in the past due to environmental activism. A favorite bumper sticker in north Idaho is "If You Don't Like Logging, Try Using Plastic Bags For Toilet Paper." Similar to Washington and Oregon, there is a great disparity in the population of each half of the state. North Idaho is significantly less populated than the southern half.
Idaho is second only to Utah in the number of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, or Mormons, as a percentage of the population. Mormon religion and culture are particularly prevalent in Eastern Idaho, where the faith is at least as strong as anywhere in Utah. However, the LDS Church's influence diminishes considerably as one travels north of Boise towards the panhandle.
A common misconception is that Idaho is somehow a racist or Neo-Nazi state. Around 1980, a Neo-Nazi and white separatist brought a band of followers to Hayden Lake near Coeur d'Alene and began regularly making the local and national news with his racist provocations. Although the local residents vigorously disapproved and regularly held much bigger counter-demonstrations, the Neo-Nazi image has stuck. Idahoans breathed a collective sigh of relief in 2001 when the 20 acre compound owned by the "church" was handed over to a woman who had filed a lawsuit against them after being assaulted by their guards, and many of the racists left the state.
Southeastern Idaho, with its sparse topsoil, was greatly affected by the rising water level of prehistoric Lake Bonneville to the south, a lake which covered most of what is now the states of Utah and Nevada. At a point roughly near Twin Falls, the rising waters broke through into the region in an ancient, massive flood, channeling the floodwater westward for what is estimated to have lasted for approximately seven weeks, almost completely draining the ancient lake and creating the massive, lengthy, and spectacular Snake River Canyon that we know today. The massive flood stripped the region's topsoil down to bedrock, tumbling huge, multi-story high boulders downstream, where eventually the boulders and other heavier materials dropped out and were deposited in and along the Snake River streambed. The stripped topsoil, a much lighter material, eventually was deposited well to the west, creating fertile farming regions well adapted to growing potatoes. Because of the great flood and the stripping of the region's topsoil, much of the agriculture in southeastern Idaho's thin layer of topsoil must be supported by fertilization as well as irrigation.
English is almost universally spoken and understood, except that potatoes are sometimes called "spuds" and there's a bit of a rural twang as you get out to the logging and farming areas. Spanish is spoken by a significant Hispanic minority, but it's not as widely spoken as a second language as it is in the Southwest, so don't expect to be able to get by speaking Spanish without considerable difficulty.
Flights come in to all cities, plus some of the towns. Alaska Airlines and its subsidiary Horizon Airlines are the best, but United, America West, and Southwest Airlines serve Idaho as well.
The lone city in Idaho with rail passenger service is in the panhandle at Sandpoint. Amtrak's "Empire Builder" stops in Sandpoint in the middle of the night (just before midnight westbound, about 230 AM eastbound) on its daily runs between Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul/Minneapolis, Glacier National Park, Spokane, and Portland/Seattle.
Apart from modest public transportation systems in the major cities, Idaho has no mass transit to speak of. The only Amtrak stop in the state is in Sandpoint in the far northern panhandle. Otherwise it's all driving or flying.
Idaho is served by several Interstate highways. I-90 in North Idaho passes through Coeur d'Alene. I-84 enters Idaho at the Oregon border, serves the Boise metro area and passes near Twin Falls en route to Salt Lake City. I-15 serves the Eastern Idaho cities of Pocatello and Idaho Falls. The short I-86 in South Central and Eastern Idaho connects I-84 and I-15.
Most other main roads in the state are two-lane highways. In more remote locations unpaved roads are commonplace. Pay close attention to current road conditions while traveling, particularly in winter. You know you're from Idaho when your elderly grandparents think it's normal to arrive at Christmas (or even just for a weekend visit) after driving 400 miles through blizzards and along winding two lane river roads.
Crossing into Montana often involves going through mountain passes. This is particularly true when not on I-90 or I-15. In the winter, check with the highway department for pass conditions -- many passes are closed from the first snow until mid-April.
The two-lane US 95 and Idaho State Highway 55 serve as the only intrastate connections between North Idaho and the rest of the state. Even in ideal weather conditions, traveling by car from North Idaho to Eastern Idaho invariably involves a drive through Boise or through Missoula, Montana. Either way, you'll drive 600 - 700 miles when it's something like 300 miles as the crow flies.
Flying is an expensive but wonderful way to get around and see the majestic scenery. Although many of the state's smaller airports have no commercial flights at all, while others (such as Twin Falls) don't have regular flights to other parts of the state, backcountry flights are available from many locations, and you get to fly through canyons and into remote airstrips that are nearly unreachable any other way. Examples are McCall Aviation and Selway Aviation in Central Idaho. If you just want to go city-to-city, call Horizon Airlines.
There are many bald eagles in northern Idaho. A good place to see them is Lake Coeur d' Alene. Take I-90 East and exit at the Harrison exit. Lake Coeur d'Alene is 25 miles long with more than 135 miles of shoreline. The lake is an average of 120 feet deep.
Coeur d'Alene (pop. 38,388 in 2004 census) has become known as the playground of the Pacific Northwest for luxury accommodations and a wealth of recreation and attractions in a stunning natural setting. The lavish Coeur d'Alene Resort draws thousands annually to be prepared by its Mobile four-star accommodations and to play its posh golf course.
Finished in 1853, The Cataldo Mission, located east of Coeur d'Alene on I-90 is the oldest standing building in Idaho. The Old Mission (built 1848-1853) was a combined effort of the missionaries and over 300 native Catholics.
Silver Mountain Ski and Summer Resort, located 30 miles east of Coeur d'Alene, is home to the world's longest single-stage gondola. Enjoy a scenic ride and take in the great views along the 20-minute ride to the top.
Wallace, on I-90, is known for the fact that every downtown building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Wallace is also famous for its mining history and included in that history is the Oasis Bordello Museum. When the final occupants of the Oasis Rooms left in January 1988 (the last recorded date in the "hotel" registry), they seemed to have left in a hurry. Clothing, makeup, toiletries, food and personal items were all left behind. An accurate and tastefully-presented twenty-minute tour of the upper rooms explains the mystery of the ladies' hasty departure and gives a glimpse into the town's bawdy past with details that range from poignant to hilarious. Also of interest in the Wallace area is the Sierra Silver Mine Tour. This is the only tour of its kind in the Northwest. It offers a rare opportunity to personally experience the underground world of mining in the richest silver district on earth. Also the main city in which the movie "Dante's Peak", starring Pierce Brosnan , was filmed. Wallace is also nicked named "The Center of the Universe" When entering the town walking or driving there will be a sign pointing down towards a cross walk which is where the center of the universe is supposed to be.
Not far from Wallace, Kellogg has metal sculptures of a dragon and knight, a gold panner, an elk (in front of the local chapter of the ELKS), a big wildcat (which is the high school's mascot) in front of the local pool, a miner and donkey, and the best was the Red Baron. All seemed to be made of scraps of metal from different things, but they are large! Mine tours (approx. 30 min.) are given at Crystal Gold Mine. Kellogg was the site of one of the worst U.S. mining accidents; a statue of a miner holding high a rock drill guards dozens of impromptu headstones at the Sunshine Mine Disaster Memorial. Miner's Hat Realty, a building shaped like a big miner's hard hat, complete with giant carbide lamp can be seen from I-90 on the north side of the road.
A giant dog created in Cottonwood, Dog Bark Park is one of America's latest additions to the type of roadside architecture popular in the early days of automobile vacation travel when travelers would often buy gas, eat meals or stay overnight in a building that looked like something else. Dog Bark Park Inn offers an expansive continental self-serve breakfast featuring their family's secret recipe for The Prairie's Best Fruited Granola.
Craters of the Moon National Monument, 18 mi W of Arco on Hwy 20, is an amazing part of the natural landscape. The visitors center and the opportunity to climb a cinder cone make this a worthwhile stop on an otherwise uneventful road. Be sure to bring water, especially in spring and summer. With a couple flashlights, you can explore the lava caves.
Idaho Potato Expo, 130 NW Main St., Blackfoot. Hours: Nov-Mar, M-F, 9:30AM-3PM; Apr-Oct, M-Sa, 9:30AM-5PM. Perhaps most amazing: the world's largest potato chip, a 25x14-inch Pringle created in 1991 by Proctor & Gamble engineers. This pizza-sized potato snack is in its own display case.
As in the rest of the United States, credit cards are widely accepted. You'll have little to no difficulty with Visa or MasterCard. American Express and Discover are also accepted but not quite as universally, especially in smaller towns. You may very well have problems if you present a JCB card for payment as most Idahoans have neither seen nor heard of them.
Personal checks are usually only accepted if local to the immediate area, and even that is slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past. Travelers checks are likely to warrant confused looks if presented outside of tourist areas.
If paying in cash, US dollars are the way to go, although Canadian dollars may be accepted by some merchants in the extreme north near the border. Occasionally Canadian coins become intermingled with US change and may be accepted at face value, or even given as change back to you. This can and does occur even in southern Idaho. Even so, don't be put off if they're refused. Paper currency, however, is all US dollars; if you're south of Sandpoint, don't even try anything else.
Tipping your server or bartender is considered good etiquette at sit-down restaurants and bars, but is generally not expected elsewhere. Even so many Idahoans consider tipping optional - especially in rural areas - so good tips tend to be appreciated by waitstaff much more so than in other places.
Winter activities such as, skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, and even camping are popular, both with tourists and residents. In the summer, Idaho has world-class boating (try a jet boat leaving from Lewiston), whitewater rafting, camping, hunting, fishing, mountain biking, and hiking. Rodeo is also popular in the more rural areas.
A bicycle trail, the Trail of The Couer d'Alenes, runs in northern Idaho from the west all the way to Montana. Go to http://www.traillink.com/ViewTrail.aspx?AcctID=6015690 for information. Other trails that are popular include: the Route of the Hiawatha trail (http://www.traillink.com/ViewTrail.aspx?AcctID=6015687), tha Latah Trail (http://www.traillink.com/ViewTrail.aspx?AcctID=6017504), and the Bill Chipman Palouse Trail (http://www.traillink.com/ViewTrail.aspx?AcctID=6015815). These trails range anywhere from 7 miles to 72 miles long. The rails-to-trails project is responsible for transforming abandoned train routes to hiking, biking, and walking trails. One of the longest trails in the nation is being worked on in Northern Idaho.
Gateway to Recreation
Idaho's Salmon River of No Return originates just south of Stanley. Idaho's Salmon River, the longest free-flowing river in the United States floats through the largest wilderness in the Lower 48. This trip is usually six days long and includes historic ranches and homesteads, fishing, hot springs, and class III - IV rapids. A limited number of private boaters and rafting companies explore 85 mile wilderness section of the Salmon River.
The food is pretty much middle American. There are a few ingredients that are Idaho specialties, like Idaho Rainbow Trout, and of course the Famous Potatoes. Moscow proclaims itself the "Dried Pea and Lentil Capitol of the World," so I guess those are Idahoan too. In the college towns (Moscow, Boise, Pocatello, Idaho Falls), it's pretty easy to find organic and vegetarian food, but in the rural areas you might have a hard time finding a meal without beef.
In much of Idaho, particularly the southern portions, a popular condiment is "fry sauce", a combination of ketchup and mayonnaise. Fry sauce is primarily a Utah condiment but it is also popular in nearby areas, especially those with significant Mormon populations.
Idaho liquor laws aren't as stringent as in neighboring Utah, but they are more restrictive than places like Nevada. As in the rest of the United States, 21 is the drinking age; expect to get carded if you look like you're under 30.
Specific rules governing bars vary slightly from county to county, but generally speaking bars close at 2 AM in the larger cities and 1 AM just about everywhere else. Last call means last call in Idaho; bar owners risk hefty fines or worse if they're caught serving even one minute past closing time.
Full-strength beer and wine are readily available in supermarkets and convenience stores (although if you're not a fan of mass-produced American-style lagers, the selection can often leave something to be desired). Hard liquor must be purchased at a state store. Freestanding state liquor stores are common in the larger cities, although private markets may double as the local state store in small towns. Stores stop selling beer and wine at the same time the bars close in that particular county.
The college towns have a good selection of bars, including the occasional microbrewery. You'll have to look hard to find any sort of interesting music scene in any but the largest cities, where there is a wide variety of types of bars from which to choose. In the more rural areas, you'll be stuck drinking at a country western bar or...well, that's about it. You might come across a place that will play classic rock, but even those are hard to find, unless you know where to look. Ask a local, because podunk and nice are usually synonyms out there.
On the plus side, almost every bar but the very swankiest has drink specials at least 3 nights a week. $1.50 wells, $2 pints, doubles for single prices...
The weather in Idaho can be fickle and extreme compared to other parts of the world. Mountains make their own weather, and it can be sunny one moment and stormy the next. If you are taking part in some outdoor activity, be prepared. Most importantly, use your common sense.
Idaho is one of the few remaining US states with only one telephone area code statewide: 208. Although there has been talk of an area code split or overlay due to the state's continued growth, nothing is currently planned along those lines. Most localities support emergency 911 services.
Cell phone service is reliable in all of the major cities as well as most other parts of the state. The only places you're likely to encounter trouble are deep in the mountains. That said, large no service zones do exist; the further you travel into the back country, the less likely you'll be able to call someone if you get in trouble. In rural areas some carriers may have a noticeably better presence than others.
All Idaho ZIP postal codes begin with "83-". Only the larger cities use more than one ZIP code.
Public WiFi access is available at most larger hotels, as well as throughout the city of Ketchum in Blaine County.