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12 Best Hiking Trails in Idaho

Written by Brad Lane
Sep 28, 2020

Idaho has more amazing hiking trails than days in the year. Narrowing down the best hiking trails in the state is like choosing a favorite step along the path. But some hikes do stand above others. A few elevated hikes include massive mountain backdrops along the entire route. Other trails traverse ambling rivers with postcard-worthy scenery much of the way.

Some signature landscapes in Idaho include the Sawtooth Mountains, the Snake River Plain, and the beautiful lakes in the northern Panhandle. Hiking trails are the best way to explore these stunning environments, and footpaths are aplenty. Other outstanding features of Idaho include giant dunes, pioneer cabins, and steaming hot springs.

While hiking trails lead down memorable paths throughout the year, the summer is prime time for many of the best hiking trails in Idaho. Mountain passes shed their snow in summer, and the flourishing flora adds excellent color to the landscape. Wildlife is also spotted more easily with the extra daylight of summer.

Plan your next adventure with our list of the best hiking trails in Idaho.

1. Alice Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area

Alice Lake and the Sawtooth Mountains | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area is one of the best national parks in Idaho. This stunning natural space encompasses 756,000 acres and over 40 peaks upwards of 10,000 feet tall. The mountain town of Stanley makes a great basecamp for exploring the Sawtooth Mountains. Three scenic byways split from Stanley and dive into the postcard environment.

It's hard to choose the best hike in the Sawtooths, but Alice Lake is a contender. The hike begins at the Tin Cup Trailhead next to Pettit Lake, approximately 18 miles south of Stanley. It's no walk-in-the-park to reach this alpine body of water. It's a seven-mile hike in one direction to reach Alice Lake with over 1,800 feet of elevation gain. The views of the alpine wonderland are well worth the effort.

Reminiscent of craggy Swiss peaks, stunning mountains surround much of the lake. It feels worlds away to traverse the shoreline of Alice Lake, admiring the enormous environment every step of the way. Ambitious hikers can continue further, past Alice Lake to Twin Lakes or up to the aptly named Snowyside Pass.

Backpacking to Alice Lake is a popular alternative to a day hike. On the other side of Snowyside Pass, Toxaway Lake and Yellowbelly Trail make for a great loop. Snowyside Pass has snow to the end of July. Self-issued permits are required to spend the night in the Sawtooth backcountry.

The Sawtooth Mountains are not short on great hiking trails. Other notable routes include Sawtooth Lake, Bridal Veil Falls, and Fishhook Creek. Another spot to explore is Redfish Lake, a hub for camping and outdoor activities. Several great hikes stem from Redfish Lake and offer excellent views.

2. Palisades Creek Trail, Caribou-Targhee National Forest

Upper Palisades Lake, Palisades Creek Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Palisades Creek Trail is one of the most popular trails in southeastern Idaho. The trailhead and adjacent campground are off U.S. Highway 26, approximately an hour's drive from either Twin Falls or Jackson, Wyoming. What makes the trail so popular is the small amount of work it takes to see stunning mountain scenery.

The Palisades Creek Trail is within Caribou-Targhee National Forest, one of Idaho's best national forests. The trail connects two beautiful bodies of water: Lower and Upper Palisades Lake, with an out-and-back hike. It's four miles up to Lower Palisades Lake, with approximately 900 feet of elevation gain. It's another three miles and 500 feet up to Upper Palisades Lake.

The trail starts by following Palisades Creek, crossing bridges along the way, and revealing the creek's carved-out nature. The trail steadily climbs to Lower Palisades Lake, where a picnic area and dispersed campgrounds offer places to take a rest.

The extra miles to Upper Palisades Lake navigate a more open wetland environment prime for wildlife sightings. Upper Palisades Lake itself is over a mile long with a beautiful backdrop of the Snake River Range. For day hiking, it's over 12 miles to Upper Palisades Lake and back to the trailhead.

Hikers and backpackers looking for more can connect with the Waterfall Canyon Trail at Upper Palisades Lake. This connector trail makes it possible to backpack to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Address: Palisades Creek Road, Irwin, Idaho

3. North Crater Trail, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

North Crater Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Craters of the Moon offers one of the most unique hiking opportunities in the state. Few other places in Idaho offer a walk on a lunar-like surface. Designated a national monument and preserve in 1924, the landscape of Craters of the Moon oozed into existence thousands of years ago.

North Crater Trail is one of many that explore this dormant lava field in Southern Idaho. The trailhead is one of the first stops on the seven-mile Loop Road, the main sightseeing thoroughfare in the park. A connector trail from the Lava Flow Campground, one of the best places to camp in Idaho, also accesses the trailhead.

Diving deep into the molten environment, the North Crater Trail navigates lava fields and along the rim for excellent views. The North Crater Trail is over three miles one-way, with some portions of steep hiking. At the end of the trail, excellent examples of spatter cones invite further exploration.

Several other trails in the park highlight the extraordinary landscape of Craters of the Moon. Near the end of Loop Road, the hike up Inferno Cone truly feels like exploring a different planet. The universally accessible Devil's Orchard Interpretive Trail is also a family favorite.

For those that like to explore underground, Craters of the Moon has a collection of caves open for the public to explore.

4. Mineral Ridge National Recreation Trail, Mineral Ridge Scenic Area

Mineral Ridge and Lake Coeur d'Alene | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Approximately 10 miles east of Coeur d'Alene in Northern Idaho, Mineral Ridge is the BLM's first recreational site in Idaho. Much of the beauty that inspired the designation of this National Recreation Trail still shines on this 3.3-mile loop hike. At its apex, a stunning view of Lake Coeur d'Alene unfolds on the horizon.

It's a manageable uphill hike to begin the Mineral Ridge Trail, with less than 700 feet of elevation gained in just over two miles. Markers on the trail match up with a trail guide available from the BLM. The trail guide describes the local flora, fauna, and history of the area.

The overlook of Lake Coeur d'Alene is the true spectacle at the top of the trail, where a connecting path leads back to the parking area.

Between November and February, bald eagles use the area to feed on spawning salmon. Mineral Ridge offers an excellent viewpoint of these majestic animals.

This part of Idaho is beautiful, and for extended trips, many of the other top things to do in Coeur D'Alene incorporate the scenic environment.

Address: 9200 ID-97, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

5. Central Ridge Trail, Military Reserve, Boise

Boise skyline from the Central Ridge Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Great hiking trails line the Boise Foothills right outside the capital city. Many of these trails are accessible by public transportation, bicycling, or walking. And the vast majority of trails near Boise are managed by the non-profit Ridge to Rivers Partnership.

Ridge to Rivers maintains over 190 miles of multi-use trails near Boise. One of the most picturesque paths to follow is the Central Ridge Trail within Military Reserve. The trailhead for this family-friendly hike is behind the Boise VA Medical Center and Fort Boise Park.

The Central Ridge Trail traverses up the spine of the foothills. Climbing approximately 500 feet over two miles, the Central Ridge Trail offers one of the best Boise skyline views from a hiking trail. This moderate hike is also perfect for making a loop or connecting to other higher trailheads.

For more insight on the area's best trails, check out our article on the best hiking trails near Boise.

Address: 750 Mountain Cove Road, Boise, Idaho

6. Pioneer Cabin Trail, Sawtooth National Forest

Pioneer Cabin | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

A classic alpine hike outside Ketchum and Sun Valley, the Pioneer Cabin Trail makes hikers work for a reward. And quite a reward it is! At the end of this trail, at an elevation of nearly 9,500 feet, an old cabin waits quietly beneath the jaw-dropping Pioneer Mountains.

The trailhead for Pioneer Cabin Trail is accessible via Trail Creek and Corral Creek Road from Ketchum and a 10-mile drive. Designated dispersed camping areas line the route to the trailhead. The end of Corral Creek Road is a small parking area for Pioneer Cabin Trail and the Long Gulch Trail.

Heading up Pioneer Cabin Trail, the route navigates at least 23 switchbacks over 3.6 miles, with nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain along the way. The trail does give some welcome distraction with sneak previews of the surrounding mountains. The trail rounds off with the first view of the cabin, where vistas of the most inspiring mountains welcome weary legs.

The Sun Valley Company constructed the cabin in the 1930s to promote European-style skiing. Today, this cabin is still in good shape and features cots for a small number of hikers to spend the night. Sleeping in the cabin is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

To make this gorgeous hike a loop, hikers can take Long Gulch Trail back down to the parking area. This hike is longer and much steeper than Pioneer Cabin Trail, making it the preferred route going down.

7. The Dunes 6 Mile Hiking Trail, Bruneau Dunes State Park

The Dunes Hiking Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

In southwestern Idaho, Bruneau Dunes is home to the largest freestanding sand dune in North America. These shifting natural features are nothing but fun to explore. Visitors can hike up the different dunes of the park and ride down the sandy slopes on a sled.

An interpretive six-mile trail traverses the highest ridge of the dunes. It also navigates the surrounding desert-like environment. The trail officially starts near the park's visitor center, where sand sleds are available to rent. The trail is also accessible from the Broken Wheel and Eagle Cove Campgrounds.

The park's desert and marshland environments bookend either side of the hike. The real hiking highlight is traversing across the ridge of the sand dunes. It's awkward footing atop the shifting ridgeline, but it is rewarding to make it all the way across. Avoid this hike in midday summer, as the sand can become unbearably hot.

Address: 27608 Bruneau Sand Dunes Road, Bruneau, Idaho

8. Around the Mountain Trail, Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area

Around the Mountain Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

High above Boise, the Around the Mountain Trail circles every peak touched by Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area. The trail is most popular with mountain bikers, but this scenic six-mile route also attracts hikers and trail runners. And every type of user enjoys the big views around every turn.

To indeed hike around the mountain, users connect the ATM trail with others in the area like Deer Point and Pioneer Trail for a 10-mile loop. The traditional start of the trail is at the JR Simplot Lodge. Here, hikers and bikers cross under the Deer Point Express chairlift to connect with the Around the Mountain Trail.

The trail is incredibly well maintained, making for an obstacle-free hike. The moderate 2,000 feet of elevation gain, however, adds some strain to calf muscles. Counterclockwise is the recommended way to go on the trail. Expect to encounter other trail users along the way. Also, expect big views of the surrounding Boise National Forest with each step.

One of the best campgrounds near Boise is within walking distance of the ATM trail. Shafer Butte Campground and Picnic Area offers a compact space to pitch a tent. The campground also shares a trailhead with the Mores Mountain Interpretive Loop. This two-mile loop offers another spectacular hike close to Boise.

9. Lochsa Down River Trail, Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest

Lochsa River

The Wild and Scenic Lochsa River is quite the sight to behold. The name of the river translates in the Nez Perce language to "Rough Water," and this untamed river lives up to its reputation. The river offers some of the best white water rafting in Idaho. And the adjacent Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness has abundant hiking trails.

The Lochsa Down River Trail is one of many great hiking trails in the area. The route follows the river, with moderate changes in elevation. Once used to supply a historic ranger cabin, the trail stretches between two trailheads on the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway (Highway 12). The southern trailhead is the photogenic Split Creek Bridge.

The northern trailhead, Sherman Creek, is next to the popular Wilderness Gateway Campground. The entire trail is approximately 16 miles long. Days hikers should arrange a shuttle if they want to cover every mile. Many users opt for a shorter out-and-back from either trailhead.

Other great hiking trails line the area. Wilderness Gateway Campground offers an excellent basecamp for many hiking adventures. Other popular hikes from the campground include the six-mile trek to Stanley Hot Springs. The 1.3-million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is also at the backdoor of this aptly named campground.

Address: US-12, Kooskia, Idaho

10. Scotchman Peak, Idaho Panhandle National Forest

Scotchman Peak | David Taylor / photo modified

In the Northern Idaho Panhandle near the Montana border, Scotchman Peak is the highest Idaho Cabinet Mountain. The uphill hike to Scotchman Peak requires strong leg muscles to climb. This challenging day hike ascends 3,700 feet in less than four miles and is steep the entire way.

The views only get better with every step until ending at the 360-degree vantage point atop the 7,009-foot Scotchman Peak. Within eyesight of the summit is the northern end of Lake Pend Oreille (one of the best lakes in Idaho) and the surrounding Clark Fork River Valley.

Herds of mountain goats live atop this high alpine environment and often pose for pictures. Hikers need to give all wildlife appropriate distance at the top of Scotchman Peak. Hikers should also pack plenty of water for the eight-mile round trip, as few water sources exist on the trail.

Address: NF-2294, Clark Fork, Idaho

11. City of Rocks National Reserve

Window Arch Trail

In far southern Idaho near the Utah border, this national reserve lives up to its name. Littered across this expansive environment are giant boulders and rocks sticking high into the air. The monoliths were once an essential landmark for emigrants on the California Trail. Today, City of Rocks is a hot spot for hiking and climbing.

The park has over 20 miles of designated trails that tour some of the more prominent rock features. A few boulders worth hiking around include Bath Rock, Treasure Rock, and Elephant Rock. These magnificent rock monoliths are along the main park road with available parking nearby.

Another eye-catching feature to hike to in City of Rocks is the massive Flaming Rock, which is also popular with rock climbers. A beautiful Window Arch rock formation is also accessible within a short hike from a parking lot.

Every rock formation at City of Rocks is particularly eye-catching come sunset when a desert glow overtakes the entire area.

12. Idaho Centennial Trail, Statewide

Lake Pend Oreille, seen from Idaho Centennial Trail

The Idaho Centennial Trail is a state-spanning backpacking route that travels 900 miles from south to north. The trail traverses some of the wildest and most picturesque landscapes in Idaho. From inspiring desert landscapes to the jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains, the Centennial Trail covers a lot of scenic ground.

The Centennial Trail passes through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is also on the route. Near Priest Lake, the northern terminus of the Centennial Trail is at the Canadian border. Hikers encounter high elevation gains, several species of wildlife, and big mountains along the entire path.

The Idaho Centennial Trail isn't as famous as other long-distance trails in the country. Few people have completed the entire trek to date. Parts of the trail are still under development, and thorough research needs to accompany any long-distance attempt. Idaho Parks and Recreation has published a Trail Guide, which is an excellent resource for planning.

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