5 ways to do something epic, or at least memorable, in Idaho’s great outdoors this year

A hike up Cervidae offers 360-degree views of the hills east of Boise. It’s one of the four Grand Slam hikes near town.
A hike up Cervidae offers 360-degree views of the hills east of Boise. It’s one of the four Grand Slam hikes near town. ccripe@idahostatesman.com

This is Idaho and it’s 2018. What are you going to do to make this year special? We asked several of our contributors to offer their suggestions about outings you should consider to make 2018 memorable.

No. 1

Climb a mountain

At 12,662 feet, Borah Peak is Idaho’s tallest peak and a worthy destination for any Idaho outdoors person in good shape, ready for some scrambling and not afraid of heights. Whatever you’ve heard about Chickenout Ridge, it’s mostly mental. Read my take on climbing Borah at IdahoStatesman.com.

Climbers descend along Borah Peak’s Chickenout Ridge. Bil Manny bmanny@idahostatesman.com

Not ready for Borah? Try Hyndman Peak, east of Ketchum. At 12,009 feet, it’s the ninth-highest in Idaho and the shortest of Idaho’s nine 12,000-footers. Among the 12ers, Borah and Hyndman are the two with reliable trails to follow. Unlike Borah, the biggest of a bunch of rocky peaks along the abrupt Lost River Range, Hyndman sits atop the lush, rolling Pioneer mountains. And while Borah is an uphill march that takes you quickly above treeline, Hyndman is a relative stroll along a shady creek and aspen groves before climbing through green pastures and firs to emerge into Hyndman Basin. There you find ponds and stream-fed meadows, before traversing a rock field and the final boulder-clogged ridgeline. It’s like visiting all of Idaho’s mountain terrains in one hike. Since it’s a 13-mile round trip, consider making it a two-day venture sheltered under Hyndman, Old Hyndman and Cobb Peak.

Not ready for Idaho’s 12ers? Our state has any number of climbs to test you — and many close to home. A good place to start is the four Boise-area climbs that make up what Idaho mountain guru Tom Lopez dubs the Grand Slam — Cervidae Peak, Kepros Mountain, Lucky Peak and Mount Heinen — all within an hour of Boise. At around 5,000 to a little over 6,000 feet, any one of them easily can be done in a day.

Bill Manny

No. 2

Backpack to a mythic lake

Ship Island Lake is just one of the lakes that beckon deep in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, but it’s got a mystique all its own. Daunting palisades seem to guard the outlet creek that falls — 4,500 feet — into the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the River of No Return that gives the wilderness its name.

Ship Island is in the Bighorn Crags section of “The Frank,” north and west of Challis. It’s 11 or so miles from the Crags Campground trailhead. It’s not a particularly hard hike, but it’s not easy, either. It’s remote and getting to the trailhead involves what is basically a daylong trip from any Idaho population center. You can’t do it in a weekend.

I visited Ship Island Lake in 2013, retracing with my brother a snowy, rainy horse-packing adventure with our grandfather in 1974. A good first-night destination is Wilson and Harbor lakes. That would allow you a leisurely pace and time to explore Birdbill, Gentian or even Big Clear lakes along the way. Landmarks like Cathedral Rock, Beaver Slide and Fishfin Ridge lend this eccentric, otherworldly landscape its craggy identity.

To get to the Crags Campground trailhead, head north of Challis. Turn left on Morgan Creek Road and take it over a summit into Panther Creek. Go left on Forest Road 112 in Cobalt — down 47.6 miles of dirt road.

Bill Manny

No. 3

Bike beyond the Greenbelt

Of all the potential bike rides in Idaho, the Route of the Hiawatha stands out as a one-of-a-kind experience in the Bitterroot Mountains near the historic mining town of Wallace.

The 15-mile ride starts near the portal of the 1.6-mile Taft Tunnel, where everything gets very quiet inside — it’s super dark and you pedal along with a strong light beam, maybe make a few hoots and howls, and enjoy the cool environment inside the mountain.

After emerging from the tunnel, you’ll ride through 10 more shorter tunnels and over seven high railroad trestles as you descend a small gradient along the gravel trail. It’s a beautiful and unique ride, but it’s not particularly difficult. I’ve seen very young kids on the trail, and they do great. You can take a bus ride from Wallace to the trailhead, where rental bikes await, or you can bring your own bikes and take a shuttle to the top. Contact ridethehiawatha.com for more information.

Cyclists cruise through the trestles on the Route of the Hiawatha rail trail near Kellogg. Pete Zimowsky Idaho Statesman file

Two longer rail trails in Idaho also are popular with cyclists — the 83-mile Weiser River Trail and the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, a 72-mile paved trail from Mullan (near Wallace) to Plummer. The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is particularly delightful because it’s paved, so it can be done on a road bike with skinny tires or a cross bike. The trail winds along the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River and through pines and aspens, and the gradient is easy for any ability. Later, the trail borders Lake Coeur d’Alene, and there’s a cool bridge you cross over to finish at Heyburn State Park. You could do that trail in several days and camp along the way, stay in a bed and breakfast or find a rental house online.

The Route of the Hiawatha rail trail takes bicyclists over 200-foot-high trestles. Pete Zimowsky Idaho Statesman file

The Weiser River Trail is best ridden in two or more segments, unless you’re a hard-core and want to ride it all in one day. I’d recommend starting at the north end of the trail, near New Meadows, and riding downhill. Shuttle a vehicle to your destination. The top part is great fun because it winds along the upper Weiser River on a nice downhill grade, crossing under the highway and zipping through the forest. The town of Cambridge is a natural halfway point where you could overnight at Mundo Hot Springs. There are several roadless canyons where the trail is a long ways from U.S. 95. There you can enjoy riding next to the river and potentially seeing great blue herons, deer, chukars and other birds.

Steve Stuebner

No. 4

Try rafting — or take on a bigger river

If you’ve been thinking you’d like to try whitewater rafting, the place to start is on a guided trip on the Main Payette River, starting from Banks. It’s a 7-mile trip with three Class III (intermediate) rapids. When the weather warms up into the 80s and 90s, there’s nothing better than getting splashed on the Main Payette and cooling off with swims in between the rapids. Cascade Raft Company, Bear Valley Outfitters and Idaho Whitewater Unlimited all do a great job guiding Payette River trips.

After you’ve floated the Main Payette, you’ll be ready to step things up a notch by trying a guided trip on the South Fork of the Payette River “Staircase” section. This is a Class IV run with some big whitewater, especially in April and May when the snow is melting fast in the mountains. It’s safe to take kids 12 and over on this reach. The same outfitters mentioned above do South Fork trips on a regular basis.

payette river
Paddlers take on Slalom rapid on the South Fork of the Payette River. Pete Zimowsky Idaho Statesman file

If you’re looking for something grander, there is no greater adventure in Idaho than floating the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Its 104 miles of roller-coaster rapids run through Idaho’s wild heart — the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness — carrying floaters from the high country down to the Main Salmon. Along the way, rafters and kayakers run 100 Class III and Class IV rapids, soak in six natural hot springs and fish for the thick westslope cutthroat that clog the river’s shadows.

National Geographic Magazine rated the Middle Fork of the Salmon as the third-best river to raft — not in the U.S., but in the world.

The river is managed as a true wild river, which means that each time you run it, the rapids have changed, the landscape is different. The rapids get so big in high water the guides have to decide whether to make guests walk around them.

On one of our last trips in high water, Redside Rapids flipped a boat — a startling reminder that we were on an adventure, especially with 47-degree water.

It’s a trip that most families can enjoy together. Children play on the beaches with each other, carefully watched by guides. We’ve seen 80-year-old grandmothers on Middle Fork trips.

salmon river
A raft blasts through Time Zone Rapids on the Salmon River near Riggins. Pete Zimowsky Idaho Statesman file

About 10,000 people float the Middle Fork annually, but low-impact camping practiced by outfitters and boaters under U.S. Forest Service guidance keeps the river crystal clear and clean. Boaters carry out everything, including human waste.

Outfitters and private boaters now run from June into October. Fly anglers love the fall float.

There are two places to begin the trip — Boundary Creek, which can be reached via Idaho 21, and the Indian Creek airstrip, 25 miles downriver from Boundary Creek and the main route in lower water.

The Middle Fork’s canyon walls and caves include pictographs, painted by ancient ancestors of the Shoshone and Bannock Indians who lived along the river for thousands of years. Several of the campgrounds were used by the U.S. Army during the Sheepeater Indian War of 1879, the last Indian war in Idaho.

Just seven parties are allowed to launch daily. Private trips are made available through a lottery in February for rafting dates from May 28 to Sept. 3. After Sept. 3, it’s first-come, first-served. Private trips should be undertaken only by the most experienced floaters with all the right equipment.

Outfitter trips are included in the seven daily limit. The best way to find an outfitter that meets your needs is to check out the Idaho Outfitters and Guides website (ioga.org). There are many options and packages.

Rocky Barker and Steve Stuebner

No. 5

Learn a new outdoor sport

Perhaps the biggest perk of my time as our outdoors reporter was the opportunity to try an abundance of new sports and find the ones I wanted to pursue. The two that have stuck with me most are cross-country skiing in the winter and paddleboarding in the summer.

I learned to cross country ski as part of a story about a year ago. Within a few weeks, I had purchased my own used gear (you can get outfitted for under $100 at the used-gear stores in town) and skied a forest trail near Mt. Bachelor in Oregon. This winter, my wife and son have taken their first lesson and picked up their used gear; we spent last weekend skiing in and around Grand Teton National Park. We all ski downhill, too, but cross-country is a far more accessible way to enjoy nature in the winter. If you’re less adventurous, snowshoeing is a great alternative. Go with somebody who knows what they’re doing, follow a trail to a nice view and then run through the powder on the way down. It’s a definite feel-like-a-kid moment.

A stand-up paddleboarder navigates the Salmon River at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains a few miles north of Stanley. Joe Jaszewski jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com

Paddleboarding is similar in its accessibility. It doesn’t take any real skill to step on a board and paddle around a lake or a flat stretch of river. The only times I’ve fallen off my board — and I have lousy balance — were while riding tandem with my son and when I was, no kidding, texting someone about work while floating down the Boise River and ran into a tree (don’t do that). I bought my board last summer and got an easy start at Quinn’s Pond. I progressed to Discovery Park at Lucky Peak State Park, a flat stretch of the Boise River, and then floated the Boise River through town. But the most fun was taking the board on the road to explore other waters. My favorite last year was floating the Deschutes River in Sunriver, Ore.

If you don’t like these suggestions, try mountain biking or alpine skiing or even pickleball — anything to draw you outside more often in this new year.

Chadd Cripe