We'd been waiting for this a long time. The principal reason being our fascination with the story of Lewis & Clark's expedition to find the Northwest Passage to the Columbia river from the Missouri river. And their struggles with the Bitterroot Mountains that straddle the current boundary between Montana and Idaho. Lemhi Pass has been on our life list for a while and we were happy to make this trip. Much of the state is wilderness and traveling the scenic  byways strewn through the state was a perfect way to experience the Gem state.


Day 1 Fly into Boise, stop briefly at the State Capitol and quickly head to the Payette River Scenic Byway, Wildlife Canyon Byway, Hells Canyon Scenic Byway
Day 2 Continue north on US-95 to Grangeville connecting to the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway all the way to Lolo Pass, head south to Salmon (via Montana) passing the Salmon River Scenic Byway.
Day 3 Tour the Lewis & Clark Backcountry Byway (Lemhi Pass/Continental Divide) and then go southeast on the Sacajawea Historic Byway. Head (via Lost Gold Trails Loop and Fort Hentry Historic Byway) to Mesa Falls Scenic Byway and Teton Scenic Byway.
Day 4 Take a break from the scenery and visit EBR-1, the world's first nuclear reactor intended for producing electricity. Explore the Craters of the Moon National Monument via the Peak-to-Craters Scenic Byway. Stopover at Ketchum, Idaho.
Day 5 Cross Galena Pass on the Sawtooth Scenic Byway before returning to Boise via the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway


The Photos

The photo album can be accessed here.

Idaho Rivers

Much of this trip was spent by the side of rivers and understanding how they played an important role in the region's history. From the map below, one can see the major river systems in the state. On this trip, we covered the Snake River (Hells Canyon) and its tributary the Salmon River, as well as the Clearwater River.


Idaho Terrain

No points for guessing where the bulk of the population lives. The crescent shaped valley in the south (through which the Snake River flows) and the lowlands in the northwest. The rest of it is great for scenic driving but not so much for living.


Idaho Scenic Byways

As can be seen in the map above, Idaho has no shortage of byways for those willing to drive through long stretches of roads, some of which go on for miles without any population. While you don't encounter the high 10000+ foot passes you see in Colorado, you do go through several mountain roads and follow river routes.

The scenic byways visited by us are marked in the map above with red ellipses and polygons.


Payette River Scenic Byway

From Boise, the Payette River Scenic Byway heads north on Idaho 55 to Horseshoe Bend where it meets the Payette River. From there, it passes through the Boise and Payette National Forests and the towns of Cascade and McCall before reaching the northern end of the byway at New Meadows.

This byway presents opportunities for river rafting, kayaking, wildlife and cultural history. Or simply enjoy the scenery as you drive through the winding 2 lane roads and forests. 


Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway

As the name suggests, the Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway presents the sight of numerous elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, chukars, wild turkeys, eagles, ospreys, cougars, bears and wolves. This byway connects the Payette River and Ponderosa Pine byways to form a nice trio of byways accessible from Boise.

We did not spend enough time here to view any of wild life. 

Hells Canyon Scenic Byway

Hells Canyon is a 10-mile wide canyon located on the Idahos's western border with Oregon. It is North America's deepest river gorge at almost 8000 feet deep in some parts. The Snake River flows at the bottom and carved the canyon. Most of the area is inaccessible by road. A short stretch of paved road runs on the Idaho side of the river at the bottom of the canyon and forms the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway. One can access this section by paved highway from Boise or through dirt roads on the Seven Devils Mountain range.

We got there through the Kleinschmidt Grade from the town of Council. 

Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

The reference to the Northwest Passage is from 1803, when Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to find the Northwest Passage - a link between the Missouri River and the Columbia River through the unexplored Rocky Mountains. Of course, we now know that such a route does not exist, Continental Divide and all that.

This 202-mile byway, stretching across north-central Idaho, parallels the explorers' route through the ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce people.

From the west, the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway begins on US-12 at Lewiston, ID and traverses the Clearwater River Canyon, passing through Nez Perce areas of Spalding and Kamiah (where the Heart of the Monster site is) and the towns of Orofino and Kooskia. At Kooskia, the byway splits, one segment going south on Idaho Highway 13 toward the Camas prairie and the town of Grangeville. Another segment continues eastward on US-12 along the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River and culminating at the Lolo Pass.

We joined the byway at Grangeville on ID-13 and on reaching the fork, turned west for a few miles till Kamiah before turning back and heading for Lolo Pass

Salmon River Scenic Byway

Salmon River Scenic Byway begins on the Montana border at the Lost Trail Pass (elevation 6995 ft.) and follows the Salmon River - also called the River of No Return - through the Salmon-Challis National Forest through the historic city of Salmon. It continues southwest on US-93 eventually veering west till Stanley for a total distance of 160 miles.

We did not explore this byway in any detail. It was nearing dark as we re-entered Idaho at the Lost Trail Pass and we had plans to cover the Lewis and Clark Backcountry Byway (Lemhi Pass) - which had been on our life list for a long time. But we did enjoy the twilight sights (and the road signs!).

Lewis and Clark Backcountry Scenic Byway

The Lewis and Clark Backcountry Byway is the one that is the centrepiece of this trip. It is located 20 miles southeast of Salmon off of Idaho 28, forming a 40 mile loop beginning and ending at the Tendoy store. The roadway is unpaved but can be traversed in a regular car with reasonable wheel clearance. The Agency Creek Road section is steep.

Sacajawea Historic Byway

The Sacajawea Historic Byway starts at Salmon, Idaho and continues southeast on Idaho Highway 28 through a very sparsely populated region - wide and flat - between two mountain ranges before bending left through Idaho Highway 33 for a short stretch till I-15. This historic byway is named after the Shoshone woman who was born here but was captured by the Arikara tribe and forced to live among them in North Dakota. She later became a trusted member of the Lewis and Clark expedition (the only woman, the only teenager and already a mother).

Lost Gold Trails Loop

The Lost Gold Trails Loop ventures southwest along Highway A-2. It starts off the town of Dubois by the railway tracks and continues west over I-15 onto Idaho 22 to the old Highway 91 Junction till Spencer. Attractions include museums, mines and historic towns.

We spent less than an hour on a portion of this trail connecting to the Fort Henry Historic Byway on our way through to the Mesa Falls and Teton Scenic Byways

Fort Henry Historic Byway

The Fort Henry Historic Byway marks the first white settlement in Idaho. The directions are too detailed (see link). Attractions include river access, monuments, sand dunes, game areas, historic ranches etc.

Our time here was very brief as we were keen to get through to Mesa Falls and Teton Scenic Byways before dark.

Mesa Falls Scenic Byway

The Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, the shortest of this trip at only 29 miles long, starts and ends on US-20 forming an alternative scenic route. The southern end is at Idaho 47 and the northern end is at Route 294.

At 114 feet and 65 feet, the Upper and Lower Mesa Falls offer spectacular views in a forest setting. The viewing platforms provide very interesting angles to view the falls.

Teton Scenic Byway

The Teton Scenic Byway begins at Idaho 31 at Swan Valley and through Idaho 32 and 33 ends at Idaho 47 at Ashton. Through its 69 miles length, there are several vantage points from which to view the splendid western skyline of the Teton range in neighbouring Wyoming.

It was a trip down memory lane for us to view the mountains from the opposite side of where we had previously seen them from (Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming) more than a decade ago.

Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway

The Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway covers a diverse stretch of road with wetlands, high mountain desert vistas, lava flows and views of several high peaks including the highest, Mt. Borah. It starts at the Junction of Idaho 75 and US 20 and through southeast to Arco before turning left on US-93 to its junction with Idaho 75. It passes through the Craters of the Moon National Monument.

We joined the byway at Arco after our morning visit to EBR-1 and spent a couple of hours at the National Monument.

Sawtooth Scenic Byway

The Sawtooth Scenic Byway traverses the section of Idaho 75 from its junction with US 93 in the south to the town of Stanley in the north. It passes through the resort towns of Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley and then climbs steeply to Galena Pass offering magnificent views of the Sawtooth range and the wide valley below.

We drove through the entire byway on our return leg via Stanley and the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway back to Boise.

Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway

This byway follows Route 21 from Boise, north to the historic mining town of Idaho City. Then it goes along the South Fork of the Payette River as it climbs northeast and then squeezes between two Idaho wilderness areas (Sawtooth and Salmon-Challis). After crossing Banner Summit (7056 ft.), it descends to the town of Stanley.

We did this route in reverse (Stanley to Boise) to end our trip.

Other Sites

Boise Capital of the state of Idaho and gateway to this state that is mostly (> 95%) wilderness. The state is in the Rocky Mountains region that stretches from USA to Canada. It forms a northern border with Canada and is sandwiched between the states of Montana in the east and Washington/Oregon in the west.
US-95 North to Grangeville This stretch of US-95 north of New Meadows is not part of any scenic byway but it was scenic and historic (White Bird Battlefield)
EBR-1 The Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 is a national historical landmark located at Idaho National Laboratory off US-20/26 near Arco, Idaho. A breeder reactor is one that produces more fuel than it uses. This is considered the first nuclear reactor in the world that was used for generating electricity.

A very interesting morning at the EBR-1 lab with several exhibits of great interest. The display even included references to the Fukushima disaster (just 5 months prior to our visit).


We went overboard and shot a lot of videos from the car. The days were sunny and the scenery was captivating. For best viewing, change quality to HD (not for slow connections). You can do this by clicking the Change Quality icon (gear).

Trip Tracks

Click here for the KML file for the trip. This can be opened in Google Earth.

Alternatively, you can view the waypoints and trip tracks in Google Maps below.

View 2011-09 Idaho Scenic Drives in a larger map

Photos and Text: Malini Kaushik and R.Venkatesh