Backpack, Paddle, and Climb in Idaho

Idaho is full of surprises--whitewater in the country's deepest canyon, endless climbing at City of Rocks, and high, wild scrambles in the Sawtooths.

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Ditch civilization in the Sawtooth Wilderness


Hemingway was so smitten with the Sawtooths he asked to be buried here. You? You’ll wish you could stay forever, too–hiking, that is–after this long weekend of exploring around alpine lakes and past the endless serrated ridges that gave the chain its name. After all, more than 40 peaks rise above 10,000 feet, and 300-plus lakes dot this 217,000-acre central Idaho wilderness.


From the Hell Roaring Trailhead off ID 75, walk a flat 2 miles to Hell Roaring Lake, where you can take a break with killer views of a granite pinnacle known as the Finger of Fate. Continue 4 miles to Imogene Lake, where campsites feature IMAX views of the surrounding peaks. On day two, hike off-trail from the lake’s west end up to a basin of unnamed alpine lakes; 10,211-foot Payette Peak, with a full-blown Sawtooth panorama, is a non-technical scramble from the saddle. Return to Imogene and hike about 3 miles west (then briefly south) over a 9,250-foot pass to Edith Lake for a chilly swim and waterside camping. Hike out TK miles via Farley Lake, then dissolve into one of the hot springs along the Salmon River and ID 75, minutes north of Stanley.


Run heavenly whitewater in Hells Canyon


The federally designated wild and scenic Snake River churns through North America’s deepest gorge (8,000 feet of relief), a landscape of grass and sage hillsides and towering cliffs. Blast through rapids that rise to Class V in spring’s high water, then pitch a tent on sandy beaches and watch for elk and bighorn sheep, or fish for sturgeon that can grow to a staggering 10 feet in length.


Raft or kayak the 31.5 river miles from the Hells Canyon Dam to Pittsburgh Landing-just be forewarned about big Class IV drops in the Granite and Wild Sheep rapids, among others. Most of the stretch’s three dozen rapids are milder than that, with plenty of mellow stretches where you can crane your neck and try to comprehend the water investment necessary to carve an 8,000-foot-deep gash. Sleep on the sand at one of the numerous beach campsites along the way, or crash at the historic Sheep Creek Cabin, located mid-canyon ($129 a night for up to 8 people; see, where you can also arrange a shuttle). Prime seasons are spring and fall. A permit is required in summer; go to


Climb wild granite at the City of Rocks


Hundreds of granite spires and towers erupt from a high desert landscape of sage and aspen-filled valleys at this 14,000-acre southeastern Idaho reserve. The campsites are drive-in, but this ain’t no RV convention: Secluded tent sites are sprinkled through the remote park, and the only “services” are pit toilets, a single water pump, and a handful of gravel roads–which keeps this trove of trails and rock away from the tourist loop.


From Upper North Fork Circle Creek Trailhead, ascend through switchbacks high above the reserve for views of its innumerable granite formations, including the two biggest-the several-hundred-foot-tall Twin Sisters. The trail intersects with others, enabling a menu of hikes ranging from 5 to 7 miles. Bring chalk, too: The collection of hulking monoliths harbors more than 600 rock-climbing routes from easy to expert. Easy to moderate classics include the sport routes Delay of Game (5.8), and Finer Niner (5.9) and the trad routes Wheat Thin (5.7) and Skyline (5.8), as well as the exposed scramble up Lookout Rock that begins at campsite 29. The City of Rocks website ( has trail maps. Sites cost $7.

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