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15 Best National & State Parks in Idaho

Written by Brad Lane
Sep 28, 2020

Exploring outdoors is easy to do in Idaho. From the northern Panhandle to the southern Snake River Plain, state and national parks in Idaho uncover the crown jewels of the Gem State. A few of the outstanding landscapes in Idaho include jagged mountain peaks, wild and scenic rivers, and the tallest freestanding sand dune in North America.

Idaho has several National Park Service units with varying landscapes to explore. Sawtooth National Recreation Area is perhaps the most shining example of pure natural beauty in the state. This rugged landscape features 40-plus mountain peaks standing over 10,000 feet high. In the southern part of the state, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve showcases a different slice of rugged landscape in the form of an ancient lava flow.

Idaho State Parks present even more diversity to explore. Towering pine trees, glistening alpine lakes, and the Oregon Trail are on display throughout these public lands. Each state park presents new views throughout each season of the year. State parks also provide the most abundant places for RV and tent camping. The Idaho State Parks website has details on making camping reservations.

Plan your next outdoor vacation with our list of the best state and national parks in Idaho.

1. Sawtooth National Recreation Area

Sawtooth National Recreation Area | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Jutting from the horizon between Stanley and Ketchum, the Sawtooth Mountains are the crown jewel of Idaho. Encompassing 756,000 acres of these jagged mountain peaks, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is a must-visit for outdoor enthusiasts. The NRA includes three designated wilderness areas and 700 miles of trails that traverse from one postcard spot to another.

Sawtooth NRA highlights the Sawtooth Mountains and three other ranges, including the equally impressive White Cloud Mountains. Four major rivers also have headwaters in the NRA: the Salmon, the South Fork of the Payette, the Boise, and the Big Wood. Displaying prominent stature, the NRA also has over 40 mountain peaks rising over 10,000 feet.

Recreation options are endless in Sawtooth National Recreation Area. All four seasons of the year lend to different activities like boating, backpacking, and cross-country skiing.

Sawtooth National Recreation Area is home to some of the best hiking trails in Idaho, with iconic trails like Alice Lake and Sawtooth Lake offering unforgettable mountain landscapes. And with three scenic byways navigating the entire NRA, the drive through the Sawtooths is worth the trip alone.

Camping in the Sawtooths is both abundant and widespread. The U.S. Forest Service operates several designated campgrounds that cater to tents and RVs.

Several of these campgrounds, including the most popular ones surrounding Redfish Lake, accept reservations six months in advance. Reservable campsites often book out for the entire summer season upon release. Dispersed camping throughout the national forest is also permitted.

For further logistics on the area, an excellent first place to visit is the Sawtooth NRA Headquarters. The headquarters includes the North Fork Visitor Center and is less than 10 miles up Highway 75 from Ketchum. Here, you can find interpretive information, local conditions, and further recommendations on where to stay and explore the Sawtooth Mountains.

Official site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sawtooth/recarea/?recid=5842

2. Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

Craters of the Moon | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

In South Central Idaho, less than a hundred miles north of the Utah border, Craters of the Moon lives up to its otherworldly name. A stark and striking landscape, this volcanic national monument spewed into existence thousands of years ago. What remains today from this ancient lava flow is an inspiring landscape that beckons new adventures every season.

The seven-mile Loop Road is the best way to explore Craters of the Moon. The Loop Road connects with several hiking trails that highlight the scarred environment of the park. The road also delivers visitors to the entrance of the five different caves open to exploring. Specific scenic stops along the Loop Road include Spatter and Snow Cone and the Devil's Orchard Nature Trail.

Craters of the Moon is also one of the best places to camp in Idaho. Surrounded by the park's unique geology, the Lava Flow Campground offers an overnight experience on the moon's surface. The campground is available on a first-come, first-served basis, and park visitors should arrive early to reserve a site. About half of the sites accommodate small trailers, while the other half is better for car camping and tents.

The Visitor Center near the park's entrance is an excellent first place to visit. This educational space shines a little light on the natural and cultural history of the monument.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/crmo/index.htm

3. Bruneau Dunes State Park

Bruneau Dunes State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Home to the tallest freestanding sand dune in North America, Bruneau Dunes is an outstanding natural feature in Idaho. The sheer size of the 470-plus-foot dune at Bruneau quickly catches the eye upon entering the park. This shifting mountain of sand offers one of the best hiking trails near Boise and is the center of many fun things to do at this popular state park.

Intrepid explorers can climb and traverse these tall sand dunes at Bruneau. Hikers should avoid hiking midday during the summer, however, as the sand can reach unbearable temperatures. Smaller sand dunes are also abundant in the area and especially popular with kids to climb and sled down. Sandboards are available to rent at the Visitor Center.

The Bruneau Dunes Observatory highlights the incredibly dark sky that descends upon the state park at night. The observatory is open to the public on Friday and Saturday nights between March and November.

Bruneau Dunes has several camping opportunities available. Eagle Cove and Broken Wheel Campgrounds at the park feature tent camping and RV spots with water and electricity. Bruneau Dunes also has an equestrian campground.

Address: 27608 Bruneau Sand Dunes Road, Bruneau, Idaho

4. Farragut State Park

Boat on Lake Pend Oreille in Farragut State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

On the southern tip of Lake Pend Oreille, one of the best lakes in Idaho, this expansive state park combines a unique history with a beautiful landscape. Within the Coeur d'Alene Mountains of Northern Idaho, Farragut hosts ample summer visitors looking to camp, hike, boat, fish, and play disc golf.

Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced "pond oh-RAY"), accessible within Farragut, is Idaho's largest and deepest lake. Parts of this massive body of water reach over 1,000 feet deep. Amenities at Farragut to enjoy the water include a boat ramp, shoreline hiking trails, and plenty of places to cast a line.

Farragut's long history includes a legacy as a naval training site during the Second World War. The adjacent Lake Pend Oreille still serves as a submarine research center. Remnants of Farragut's maritime history are abundant in the park today. The park's Museum at the Brig has exhibits detailing this past.

Camping within Farragut is also abundant. The state park features over 260 individual campsites spread across several campgrounds. RV camping and tent camping are both accommodated at Farragut. Equestrian and group campgrounds are also within the park. Reservations are available and recommended throughout the summer season.

The state park also features five disc-golf courses that all share the same parking area. Ranging from a short putt-and-pitch course to long-distance professional tees, the course at Farragut makes the state park a mecca for the sport.

Address: 13550 ID-54, Athol, Idaho

5. Ponderosa State Park

Cyclists enjoying a ride through Ponderosa State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

This scenic state park encompasses a 1,000-acre peninsula that juts into Payette Lake from McCall. Popular activities at Ponderosa State Park include hiking, fishing, and camping. Wildlife photography is also popular thanks to the resident bald eagles and other raptors that swoop through the area.

Ponderosa State Park features several ways to spend the night. RV camping is available in the Peninsula Campground and at the large group campground near the entrance station. Deluxe Lakeside Cabins are also available to rent with fully stocked kitchens and living spaces. The largest cabin at Ponderosa State Park sleeps up to eight people.

The state park also includes the North Beach Unit on the northern end of Payette Lake. The Northwest Passage Campground in the North Beach Unit is popular for tent campers. The North Beach Unit also features a scenic Canoe Trail that connects to Payette Lake.

Address: 1920 Davis Avenue, McCall, Idaho

6. Heyburn State Park

Plummer Creek at Heyburn State Park

On the southern tip of Coeur d'Alene Lake in Northern Idaho, Heyburn State Park is the oldest state park in Idaho. First established in 1908, the Civilian Conservation Corps developed the park further in the 1930s. The abundant woodlands that comprise Heyburn State Park have a more extended history dating back to indigenous cultures of the Coeur d'Alene people.

Today, visitors can take in the scenic environment of the state park with a day visit or overnight stay at the campground. The park encompasses over 2,000 acres of water, including three lakes and the St. Joe River ambling on the eastern border. Boating and fishing for a variety of species are easily accessible at the park.

Inland activities are also abundant at Heyburn State Park. Hikers, bikers, and horseback riders all find room to explore the park's abundant trail system. Bird-watchers often flock to the state park, as wildlife is commonly spotted from the trails. The 73-mile "Trail of the Coeur d' Alenes" paved bike path also runs through the park and connects with other scenic attractions in the Idaho Panhandle.

Address: 57 Chatcolet Lower Road, Plummer, Idaho

7. City of Rocks National Reserve

City of Rocks

A hot spot for outdoor enthusiasts, City of Rocks has attracted visitors to Southern Idaho for centuries. Indigenous populations were the first to travel through this corridor of massive rock monoliths. Later, mass emigrants on the California Trail looked towards these eye-catching boulders as a waypoint on their journey.

Today, visitors to City of Rocks enjoy the scenic environment through a variety of activities. Hiking through the beautiful landscape and climbing the 60-foot stones throughout are the two biggest reasons to visit this national park unit. Over 22 miles of hiking trails lead to features like windows, arches, and viewpoints. The 600-plus rock-climbing routes at the park include sport and traditional.

City of Rocks features over 60 campsites spread throughout the park. Advanced reservations at the campgrounds are almost required on summer weekends. The national reserve also has a designated backcountry camping area where visitors can pitch a tent. The neighboring Castle Rock State Park features the Smoky Mountain Campground with an additional 38 sites available.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/ciro/index.htm

8. Harriman State Park

Henry's Fork of the Snake River in Harriman State Park

In eastern Idaho, and part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Harriman State Park has over 11,000 acres filled with wildlife. While large mammals like moose and elk roam the vast environment, birds are the most common animals spotted at Harriman State Park. Of particular note, large trumpeter swans often frequent the area.

Influential railroad families once owned the parkland in the early 1900s. Today, the state park rents out the rustic retreats and cabins that remain on the property. Other unique overnight stays at Harriman include cabins and yurts.

Dry Ridge Outfitters, within the park, offers guided horseback rides. Hiking and mountain biking are also available with over 22 miles of trails. A winding collection of groomed cross-country ski routes navigate the park during the winter.

Harriman State Park also co-manages the nearby Mesa Falls, within Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The impressive Upper Mesa Falls is on the Snake River and crashes over 100 feet into a scenic gorge. This spectacular display of gravity ranks as one of the best waterfalls in Idaho.

Address: 3489 Green Canyon Road, Island Park, Idaho

9. Priest Lake State Park

Couple fishing on Priest Lake

In far Northern Idaho, less than 30 miles from the Canadian border, Priest Lake is a place of rugged beauty. A lush forest of cedar and fir surrounds the 19-mile Priest Lake, and towering Selkirk Mountains backdrop much of the shoreline. The state park is along the eastern shores of this magnificent body of water.

The Indian Creek Unit of the state park, near the middle of the lake, is open year-round and provides the most facilities to enjoy the surroundings. Visitors to Indian Creek will find a visitor center, campground, swimming beach, and boat ramp. To the north, the Lionhead Unit also has a boat launch and more primitive camping opportunities.

Popular things to do at Priest Lake include boating, fishing, and taking in the woodsy environment. Winter tends to come quickly this far north in Idaho. The state park is often an early mecca for activities like cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.

Address: 314 Indian Creek Park Rd, Coolin, Idaho

10. Three Island Crossing State Park

Three Island Crossing State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

In Glenns Ferry, halfway between Boise and Twin Falls, Three Island Crossing is where the Oregon Trail crosses the Snake River. The state park blends cultural history with a beautiful landscape to provide several ways to engage with the environment.

The crossing of the Snake River presented a tumultuous moment on the Oregon Trail. The park does a brilliant job painting the picture of the river crossings that occurred in the 1840s. The on-site Oregon Trail History and Education Center provides detailed exhibits. Other interpretive landmarks in the park include historic wagon ruts and replica Conestoga wagons.

The beautiful Snake River landscape also attracts visitors to Three Island Crossing. Popular activities at the state park include hiking, mountain biking, nature photography, and disc golf. The park also features a campground with eight cabins and over 80 campsites that cater to RVs.

Address: 1083 S Three Island Park Drive, Glenns Ferry, Idaho

11. Lucky Peak State Park

Spring Shores Unit, Lucky Peak State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Lucky Peak State Park is a 30-minute bike ride from Boise on the scenic Boise River Greenbelt Trail. This proximity to the city makes Lucky Peak State Park the perfect place to get away and enjoy natural surroundings.

The state park comprises three different units along the Lucky Peak Reservoir. Closest to Boise, the Discovery Park and Sandy Point Units offer beautiful open space to picnic, sunbathe, and enjoy the water. The large swimming area at Sandy Point is particularly popular during the summer. The park offers paddleboard rentals by the hour. Sandy Point also features a disc golf course during the spring and fall.

Farther north along the reservoir, the Spring Shores Unit offers the best place for motorboats to get on the water. Featuring a full-service marina and two large boat ramps, Spring Shores also has several boat rental options.

Near Spring Shores, the adjacent Macks Creek Park is one of the best campgrounds near Boise.

Official site: https://parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/parks/lucky-peak

12. Lake Cascade State Park

Lake Cascade State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

With 86 miles of shoreline, Lake Cascade in central Idaho attracts water enthusiasts from across the state. The state park surrounding this massive body of water enables all sorts of recreation and camping opportunities. The state park has several different units along the shoreline, including a dozen campgrounds.

The North Fork Mountains backdrop the entire lake. Popular activities on the water include boating, and fishing for rainbow trout, coho salmon, and smallmouth bass. Windsurfing and sailing are also popular on the water thanks to consistent afternoon gusts. The state park has six boat ramps spread across the lake, as well as several swimming beaches.

Inland activities at the state park include hiking, bird-watching, and picnicking on the shores. In the winter, activities like cross-country skiing and ice fishing are also abundant.

Campgrounds are on the southeast and northwest shores of the lake. Campgrounds on the northern side are near the entrance of Tamarack Resort. This four-season mountain resort features an abundance of mountain biking trails. Many of the campgrounds at Lake Cascade accept early reservations.

Address: 100 Kelly's Parkway, Cascade, Idaho

13. Bear Lake State Park

Bear Lake

The 20-mile Bear Lake straddles the Utah border in the southern part of Idaho. Renowned for its glistening turquoise waters, Bear Lake is also known as the Caribbean of the Rockies. What the Caribbean is lacking in mountains, however, Bear Lake delivers with a stunning backdrop of the Bear River Mountains.

Bear Lake State Park comprises two units on the northern and eastern shore. The North Beach Unit features an expansive two-mile-long swimming beach and place to splash in the water come summer. For those looking to spend the night, the East Beach Unit features approximately 50 campsites with electric hookups.

Getting on the water is one of the most popular activities at Bear Lake State Park. Both park units have boat ramps to access the lake. Snowmobiling and ice fishing are fun things to do at the state park during winter.

The entire region surrounding the lake also provides ample adventure. Minnetonka Cave, within the adjacent Caribou-Targhee National Forest, is a short drive from the state park.

Address: 1767 Eastshore Road, St. Charles, Idaho

14. Thousand Springs State Park

Malad Gorge Unit, Thousand Springs State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Thousand Springs State Park is near Twin Falls in Southern Idaho. The state park comprises several park units within close driving distance to each other. One of the best ways to explore all the state park units is on the 68-mile Thousand Springs Scenic Byway. This scenic byway connects the nearby Shoshone Falls with all the natural features of Thousand Springs State Park.

A steep and narrow road accesses the Niagara Spring Unit of Thousand Springs State Park, 40 minutes northwest of Twin Falls. The Snake River canyon at Niagara Springs features a dazzling spring-fed waterfall next to a picnic and open grassy area. Farther west, Box Canyon Springs and Ritter Island offer more striking water features near the Snake River.

One of the most fascinating units to visit within Thousand Springs is Malad Gorge, located below Interstate 84 near the Tuttle exit. This nearly 500-acre park highlights the Malad River as it tumbles through a canyon towards the Snake River. Visitors to Malad Gorge can view the waterfall beneath the interstate via a scenic driving route lined with pullover spots.

No overnight facilities exist within any units of Thousand Springs State Park. All park units are open from sunrise to sunset. For an extra stop along the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway, Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument is nearby. The Visitor Center at the monument features unearthed exhibits, including a cast skeleton of the famous "Hagerman Horse."

Address: 2314 S. Ritchie Road, Hagerman, Idaho

15. Old Mission State Park

Old Mission State Park

Also known as Coeur d'Alene's Old Mission State Park, this historical space is home to the oldest known building in Idaho. Catholic missionaries and members of the indigenous population built the Sacred Heart Mission in the 1850s. The mission is now at the center of Old Mission State Park and on the National Register of Historic Places.

The mission poses brilliantly for pictures during the day. And the adjacent visitor center displays information about the history of the area. Also on site are a restored parish house and historic cemetery. A self-guided tour is one of the best ways to explore Old Mission, including time spent on the hiking trails that wind throughout the park.

Address: 31732 S Mission Road, Cataldo, Idaho

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