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7 Best National Forests in Idaho

Written by Brad Lane
Sep 28, 2020

Idaho has no shortage of national forests to explore. A total of seven national forests cover approximately 20.4 million acres across the state. Within these public lands, amid glowing stands of ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, upright mountains sing. Wild rivers also run throughout, and shimmering alpine lakes invite quick dips during the summer.

Idaho's national forests span the central part of the state and extend into the northern Panhandle. Recreational activities are abundant throughout the national forests. Some everyday adventures include whitewater rafting, backpacking, and discovering hot springs.

For overnight stays, national forests in Idaho have several accommodations. One of the most popular ways to experience the starscape is spending the night at a designated campground. Hundreds of Forest Service campgrounds in Idaho cater to both tent and RV camping. Cabins, fire lookouts, and dispersed camping are also available.

To help plan your adventures, see our descriptions and recommendations for the best national forests in Idaho.

1. Salmon-Challis National Forest

Salmon River in Salmon-Challis National Forest

Rugged mountains, flourishing forests, and unimpeded rivers define Salmon-Challis National Forest. The national forest covers over four million acres in central Idaho. It includes a large chunk of the formidable Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. This ample outdoor space offers recreation outlets throughout the year.

The Salmon River flows through the forest and provides some of the best river experiences in the country. The Wild and Scenic Middle Fork of the Salmon River is internationally renowned for its white water. The Forest Service operates a permit system for the Salmon to prevent overuse of the resources.

An estimated 10,000 people float the Middle Fork of the Salmon River every summer. The Salmon is one of many unforgettable white water rivers in Idaho.

Boats on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River runs through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. One of the largest designated wilderness areas in the lower 48, Frank Church preserves over two million acres of wildland. The wilderness area resides in four different national forests, and the Salmon-Challis is the lead agency.

The national forest also encompasses four impressive mountain ranges. The Snake River Mountains are massive and best viewed from within the Frank Church Wilderness. Idaho's highest peak, Mount Borah, is within Salmon-Challis and belongs to the Lost River Range. Experienced hikers looking to bag this prominent peak need to get past the aptly named Chicken-Out Ridge.

Over 80 designated campgrounds welcome visitors throughout the forest. Two cabins and a fire lookout are also available to rent. Dispersed camping is available outside of designated campgrounds. Perhaps the best way to experience Salmon-Challis overnight is to strap on a backpack and carry a tent down the trail.

2. Boise National Forest

Boise National Forest

Boise National Forest is a two-million-acre natural playground at the backdoor of the capital city. Easy adventures from Boise into the national forest include white water rafting and hiking to hot springs. Unique geologic features also punctuate the forest, like Freddy's Stack Rock.

Boise National Forest is home to many of the best campgrounds and hiking trails near Boise.

The forest doesn't only attract city dwellers. The lush evergreen trees and wild waterways of Boise National Forest attract outdoor enthusiasts from across the country. The Payette River, in particular, is a well-known white-water destination. Other notable landscapes include shimmering lakes, wildflower meadows, and rolling grasslands.

One of the quickest escapes from Boise is atop Shafer Butte. Next to Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area, Shafer Butte offers a beautiful view above the ridgeline. From the Shafer Butte Campground, rewarding hikes like the Mores Mountain Loop are within walking distance.

Another route into the forest from Boise is the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway (Highway 21). Stretching from southeast Boise to Stanley, this postcard driving route is lined with campgrounds and hiking trails. Ponderosa Pine is one of three scenic byways to cruise through the forest. Payette River National Scenic Byway runs parallel to the west, and the Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway connects the two.

Kirkham Hot Springs, Boise National Forest | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Boise National Forest is also a real hot spot for hot springs. Several notable hot springs within the forest are under two hours from Boise. Places like Kirkham Hot Springs can get quite popular. Other notable hydrothermal features include Pine Flats Hot Springs and Bonneville Hot Springs. Many of the forest's hot springs rank high as some of the best hot springs in Idaho.

3. Sawtooth National Forest

The Sawtooth Mountains | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Sawtooth National Forest is the top spot for adventure in Idaho. Several mountain ranges, including the Sawtooths, rise throughout the forest for spectacular views.

Outdoor activity abounds throughout the two million acres covered by Sawtooth National Forest. From epic backcountry trips to resort-like amenities at Redfish Lake, Sawtooth National Forest covers every angle of enjoying nature.

Much of the forest's appeal comes from the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Highway 75, also known as Sawtooth Scenic Byway, is the main thoroughfare for this designated recreation area between Stanley and Ketchum. Several adventures line the highway, with the Sawtooth Mountains to the west and the White Cloud Mountains to the East.

Hiking in the Sawtooth Mountains | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Within the Sawtooth National Recreation, Redfish lake receives a lot of due attention. With crystal-clear water and a surreal alpine backdrop, this centerpiece lake features camping, cabins, and a historic lodge. Several hiking options stem from the lake, including a 2.5-mile trail to Fishhook Creek. All overnight reservations available at Redfish Lake tend to fill up fast.

Among many other activities like fishing, boating, and photography, Sawtooth National Forest is a haven for hiking. The area is home to many of the best hiking trails in Idaho. A few notable hiking destinations include Pioneer Cabin and Bridal Veil Falls. Alice and Toxaway Lakes make for a breathtaking two- to three-day backpacking trip in the southern part of the recreation area.

Adventure abounds throughout Sawtooth National Forest. Every major highway that passes through the area is a designated scenic byway. Cabins, developed campgrounds, and dispersed camping line every roadside. The mountain towns of Stanley and Ketchum make great basecamps with local restaurants, groceries, and lodging.

4. Caribou-Targhee National Forest

Caribou-Targhee National Forest

Caribou-Targhee National Forest covers 2.6 million acres in southeast Idaho and western Wyoming. The national forest is neighbors with both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. The forest also connects with Bridger-Teton National Forest. Much of this wildland is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Wildlife roams freely within this intact ecosystem spread across multiple states. In Caribou-Targhee, native large mammals include elk, moose, and grizzly bears. More typical sightings include deer and waterfowl.

Over 1,600 miles of trails span throughout the forest, enabling many ways to get around. Hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers all tend to have their favorite routes. For an unparalleled hike into high mountain surroundings, the trail to Upper Palisades Lake is worth the sore calf muscles.

Two designated wildernesses within the forest offer bigger hiking adventures. Miles and miles of trails wind throughout both the Jedediah Smith Wilderness and Winegar Hole Wilderness.

Autumn at the Upper Mesa Falls

Caribou-Targhee also has one of the best waterfalls in Idaho. Part of the Snake River, Upper Mesa Falls plummets for over 100 feet to make a striking impression. This developed area includes the historic Big Falls Inn, now renovated and operating as the Mesa Falls Visitor Center.

Another unique feature of the forest is Minnetonka Cave. Not far from the shores of Bear Lake in St. Charles Canyon, this underground attraction has a half-mile trail that visits nine different rooms. Guided tours are the only way to explore this subterranean space filled with speleothems. The caves are a constant 40 degrees, and visitors should dress accordingly.

5. Idaho Panhandle National Forests

Sunset on Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho Panhandle National Forests

Idaho Panhandle National Forests cover 2.5-million acres in the northernmost part of the state. This rugged and wild region of Idaho is filled with sloping mountains, wild rivers, and some of the state's biggest lakes. With boundaries that stretch into Montana and Washington, Idaho Panhandle Forests attract attention from across the region.

Three of the most prominent lakes touched by the forest, and three of the best lakes in Idaho, include Lake Coeur d'Alene, Lake Pend Oreille, and Priest Lake. Each lake provides many things to do, like boating, fishing, camping, and hiking. Lake Pend Oreille, itself, pronounced "pond oh-RAY," has depths of over 1,000 feet and history as a naval training station.

Idaho Panhandle National Forest has some fast-moving water, too. The "Shadowy" St. Joe River runs throughout the southern part of the forest. The upper section of this ambling waterway was deemed a Wild and Scenic River in 1978. This postcard river offers several recreation outlets like fly-fishing, rafting, and backpacking along the shores.

The Selkirk Mountains within the forests are some of the most dramatic peaks in the country. The Cabinet Mountains within the forest are also breathtaking in size and hiking attributes. The largest of the Cabinet Mountains, Scotchman Peak, offers a short but extremely steep route to the top of the world.

6. Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest

Lochsa River, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest

Stretching across north-central Idaho, this national forest covers four-million acres of varied terrain. Much of this massive public space is designated wilderness. The forest has parts of both the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

Boating and other water activities are abundant in the national forest thanks to three rivers that run within its borders. The Salmon, Lochsa, and Selway Rivers entice white water, fishing, and photography enthusiasts from across the country. The Lochsa River, itself, is a Wild and Scenic River renowned for its trout fishing and choppy waters.

Next to the banks of the Lochsa, on the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway (US 12), Wilderness Gateway Campground is one of the best places to camp in Idaho.

The campground delivers on its name with several big adventures nearby. Sample itineraries from Wilderness Gateway include river expeditions, backpacking trips, and hot spring hikes. The Lochsa Historical Ranger Station is also accessible from the campground.

The imposing Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness looms near the Wilderness Gateway Campground. This million-acre wilderness area has over 1,800 miles of hiking trails winding through its untamed acreage. The Bitterroot Mountains make up much of the wilderness skyline, which is breathtaking in both terrain and beauty.

The Forest Service operates over 60 campgrounds within Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. These sites have potable water and pit toilets, as well as picnic tables and fire rings. RVs are catered for at some campgrounds better than others. Some campgrounds can also be reserved ahead of time. Dispersed camping is also available throughout the forest.

7. Payette National Forest

Gravel road in Payette National Forest

In Central Idaho, near McCall, Payette National Forest has a wide range of landscapes to explore. The forest covers 2.3 million acres and spans the threshold of Hells Canyon to high alpine meadows bursting with color. Payette National Forest is a gateway to adventure and a launching point for the six other national forests surrounding it.

The forest is one of several areas designated as a gateway to Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. More than a mile below the canyon's edge, the Snake River carves its way throughout this eye-catching landscape.

Much like its own depths, Hells Canyon is nearly bottomless when it comes to recreation. Visitors flock from across the country to white water raft, backpack, and simply take in the massive environment.

Activities span throughout the year in the Payette. Hiking, fishing, and camping dominate the summer season and shoulder months. The forest transforms into a winter wonderland for the rest of the year. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are abundantly popular, with groomed trails and designated trailheads. Downhill pursuits are also catered for at places like Brundage Mountain Resort.

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