With such a vast landscape full of the beauty nature has to offer and an astounding history, Idaho is full of sights and once in a lifetime experience. Incredible bodies of water, stunning mountains, grassy prairies, forests, and unusual geological features make the state unlike any other place in the world. There’s so much to do and see in Idaho’s national parks; you may never want to leave.
Whether you enjoy outdoor recreation or want to take a scenic tour in your car through the state, Idaho has something to offer everyone. Explore how national parks began and the top 10 national parks in Idaho today.
A Guide to National Parks
President Abraham Lincoln kick-started the United States’ conservation efforts by granting Californians the right to keep Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove away from commercial use. Presidents have since worked to form protected lands, from national forests and national parks to national memorials.
According to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “There is nothing so American as our national
parks … The fundamental idea behind the parks … is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”
Protecting the lands for future use depends on the type of national service as well as the historical aspects of the land. The National Park Service (NPS) spans over 84 million acres of land, including parks, rivers, battlefields, monuments, beaches, historic sites, and natural beauties.
What’s the Difference Between Parks, Forests, and Memorials?
When it comes to national services, there is a difference between national parks and national forests in their main goal. Unlike the
National Forest Service, the National Park Service’s goal is to preserve the resources exactly as they are for future generations. The Forest Service, on the other hand, can manage resources for sustainable uses. Therefore, forests can have many more uses like lumber.
Memorials and historical parks are totally different. They are protected and preserved because something significant to American history happened in the location, such as New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park or Ft. Sumter where the Civil War’s first shots were fired.
The state of Idaho, for example, is home to the following parks:
- 21 State parks
- 10 National forests
- 6 National Wildlife Refuges
- 2 National historic parks
- 2 State Fish Hatcheries
- 2 Metro and City Parks
- 1 National Recreation Area
- 1 State Forest
This list encompasses national landscapes from each type simply because there are too many wonderful places to mention that is worth seeing in Idaho.
Top 10 Best National Parks In Idaho
Idaho is home to some awesome national parks, most of which are found in the far south and east sides of the state. The following list is the top places to see in Idaho, starting with only the best national parks.
1. CITY OF ROCKS NATIONAL RESERVE
Named in1849 by James Wilkins because it looked like “a dismantled, rock-built city of the Stone Age,” City of Rocks offers large granite formations that rise abruptly from the land and cluster together like skyscrapers. This reserve holds spires, narrow ridges, sheer-walled canyons, and natural arches. It’s a great location for hiking and rock climbing, but many people find camping here is a dream come true.
2. HAGERMAN FOSSIL BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT
A small area filled with grassy hills and cliffs, this national monument sits on the edge of the Snake River. In this location, many American fossils have been discovered. Pliocene fossils were discovered here along with over 200 other species, including the earliest true horse found in North American named Equus simplicidens or the Hagerman Horse. Many of the fossils found here are over 3.5 million years old, and the area is protected today as one of the world’s richest known fossil deposits. More than just the fossils, the landscape and plants even give us a glimpse of what the land was like before the Ice Age.
3. CRATERS OF THE MOON NATIONAL MONUMENT AND PRESERVE
With a lava field that covers over 600 square miles, Craters of the Moon National Monument is a wonderful place and the largest basaltic lava field in the United States. Although the monument only spans just over 80 square miles of the land for people to enjoy, the park holds 60 different lava flows ranging between only 15 thousand to two thousand years old.
The scenic landscape is odd, and with so many volcanic events, the future is uncertain. Exploring at this preserve could be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Here, you’ll find the land shaped and created from an array of natural events thousands of years ago, including:
- Spatter cones
- Lava beds
- Lava Caves
- Other volcanic features
Located only three hours from Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, this national park is just as much a trip through time. Today, nature photographers even flock to the area due to the stunning diversity of plants and wildlife. Hike up to Broken Top Loop, explore Buffalo Cave, and be sure to see the Lava Trees and Echo Crater.
4. YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
America’s first national park, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill to set aside the land as protected and public national forests in 1872. In fact, Yellowstone is the first and oldest national park worldwide, and the vast landscape of this park leaves you with no question why people felt the need to preserve this magical place.
Explore the forests, lakes, mountains, and volcanos with colorful hot springs, geysers, and mudpots. People travel here to see Old Faithful, the small eruption that goes off like clockwork. Check out the array of wildlife and stay a few nights camping or in one of the many lodges nearby. With so many things to do, you could fish, hike, and tour the landscape for days on end.
5. BOISE NATIONAL FOREST
With over 2.5 million acres of land, including grassland and diverse national forests, you can spend a week exploring everything Idaho’s capital has to offer. There’s the North Fork Payette River Canyon that travels ten thousand feet into the Trinity Mountain range, over 500 trails to explore, and 250 different lakes and reservoirs to see. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, this is the place for you!
The park was created in 1908 from a piece of Sawtooth National Forest, and the people who first came to this land were the Shoshone people before European trappers and prospectors arrived, long before the gold rush brought more people out west in1862. You can still explore the abandoned mines today.
After the gold rush ended, people continued to travel to this area for hiking, biking, horseback riding, wildlife viewing, and to see the flowering plant native to Idaho called Sacajawea’s Bitterroot. The best part about traveling to this national park is that with Boise so close, there are tons of lodging options including cabins in the woods and hotels.
6. MINIDOKA NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
A national historic site listed as a national park service site in Idaho, this area commemorates the more than nine thousand Japanese Americans who were held imprisoned or in internment camps during World War II. During the war, prisoners were held at the Minidoka War Relocation Center, and the site was named a national monument in 2001. Only spanning just over 200 acres of land, this south-central location is in the high desert.
Most of the land was divided into farms and the building broke down for other uses after it closed. Many farms were given to World War II veterans. Today, you can find a small walking trail and signs to take you through the history of the area. There’s also a reconstructed guard tower to mark the entrance of the site. Head near Jerome for lodging finds.
7. Nez Perce National Historical Park
Named after a group of people, the Nez Perce or nimipu people survived and adapted this Idaho land for thousands of years. In the mid to late 1800s, conflict erupted between Native Americans and the settlers and led to war.
Conservation efforts today seek to preserve that traditional lands that were once inhabited by these people, and a museum was built in 1965 as a park headquarters. This inland northwest location contains three very different elevations, from prairies and plateaus to valleys and mountains. As such, there are also many climates you can experience in this park. Many different wildlife species live in this stunning area, and people can explore various battlefields and 38 sites.
8. LEWIS AND CLARK NATIONAL HISTORIC TRAIL
Celebrating the expedition of the heroic and famous adventurers Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark, the entire trail was added to the national trail system in 1978. It spans 11 states and 3,700 miles, beginning in Illinois near Wood River to present-day Oregon. The trail is free to travel, and there are many sites along the way to explore (many of which may charge an entrance fee).
In Idaho, the trail follows the discovery team from the Clearwater River into the Snake River as they crossed what is now Idaho into Washington. Cyclers and mountain bikers enjoy the riding trails with hills set in the distance.
9. SAWTOOTH NATIONAL FOREST
There’s nothing else out there like the wilderness at Sawtooth, and it’s no wonder that the famous writer Ernest Hemingway fell in love with the area so much he was later buried there. Located not far from Boise, spend the day hiking, fishing, or paddling through the white waters of the Salmon River. You can explore a ghost town, or even find elk and mountain goats roaming free. Take a scenic drive through the south-central portion of Idaho, climbing 5,000 feet from the desert canyon to a rugged mountain range. The trail is around 250 miles long, heading through old gold-mining towns and natural hot springs into popular ski towns like Sun Valley. Boise is a perfect location to start your adventure! If you want to drive the whole thing, plan for just over three hours at least.
10. CALIFORNIA NATIONAL HISTORIC TRAIL
Heading to California in search of gold, many travelers and farmers followed this trail during the 1840s and 1850s. The original trail began around the Missouri River, with jumping off points along the way. Today, there are still over a thousand miles of trail traces to been seen. Wagon ruts and dusty trails help you feel like you’ve taken a trip through time.
Parts of the trail head through Idaho, where it splits into several different trails. Some head to Oregon, following the Oregon trail north from there, while others follow rivers like the Sweet water to Wyoming. From here, you can move on to follow the Nez Pierce trail or even Lewis and Clark’s historical trail. Today, you can explore this treasured historic trail from a
road trip and reflect on the state’s history. Many of the access roads include back country roads, which are often unpaved gravel, so a four-wheel drive car and ideal road conditions are ideal before you attempt the trek. Here, you can explore attractions like soda springs, where the naturally bubbling water tastes like soda water.
How We Chose Our Ratings
We want our best of lists to remain honest and accurate, so we chose our ratings based on the places in Idaho that have the most to offer. Listed with the top places you need to see at the beginning, the state of Idaho contains so much beauty and history to explore. If you love nature, there are a well of experiences for you. And we seek to find only the best national parks in Idaho.
Keeping this in mind, we also spanned different types of national experiences. Parks and forests made the list along with monuments worth seeing while you’re in the state. We aim to create an in-depth list, and that includes the best that Idaho has to offer different people, so you can find exactly what you’re looking for. Our recommendations were created with real travelers in mind.