We love a good camping trip. Mix some friends together around the fire under the night sky and we’re sold! So when our good friends Roshan and Jess asked if we’d like to join them for a multiple days camping in the Idaho wilderness we jumped at the opportunity. Instead of packing tents and sleeping bags, however, we opted for a home on wheels.
Living in the city, we didn’t own a car and tended to stay fairly local when camping. Our friends suggested that we check out Wandervans, a campervan rental service with locations in Salt Lake City, Utah and Boise, Idaho. The four of us quickly settled on a stretched Mercedes Sprinter complete with two queen sized beds, fridge, and sink. Renting a van gave us the freedom to see as much of Idaho in one long weekend so long as we could find open land to park on. With licenses in hand, we caught a flight to Boise.
#Vanlife keeps trending as the modern version of the mid-century RV lifestyle. Boarding our campervan that we affectionately named Kendall, we could see why. Packed with just enough convenience and comfort, this road and gravel worthy tent on wheels perfectly suited our needs. Large enough to fit the four of us comfortably, but small enough to drive anywhere, Kendall made all of Idaho feel accessible for a long weekend.
With a general route in mind, we filled our new home with all the provisions four eager trekkers needed and started driving West to Idaho’s desert dunes.
Bruneau Dunes State Park took us by surprise. After coasting along I-84 east for an hour, we came upon golden dunes set against an endless blue sky. Naturally the four of us did what any pack of adventurers would do when finding North America’s largest single-standing dune at nearly 500 feet, we raced our way to the top! From up here we started to take in Idaho’s diverse environments. Standing on sand, we could clearly see forests, lakes, and endless ridges over the horizon. All of these varied landscapes beckoned us, and so we hopped, skipped, and rolled our way down the dune to get back on the road. Next stop: Shoshone Falls State Park.
Located near Twin Falls, Idaho along the Snake River, Shoshone Falls deserves the moniker of “Niagara of the West.” It’s stunning 1000-foot wide rim drops over 200 feet to the river below. Just a few minutes from cookie-cutter homes and big box stores, this easily accessible waterfall is frequented by residents and visitors alike. The falls are actually composed of an erosion-resistant hardened rhyolite lava flow. Originating from the millions-year old nearby Yellowstone hotspot, this lava flow keeps its form as the canyon cliffs and riverbed erode at a faster pace, so you have quite a while to take in these falls before they turn to dust. After breaking for lunch with the sounds of crashing water in the distance, we got back to our aggressive schedule and headed North to the surface of the moon.
Craters of the Moon
Considering we started our day in downtown Boise, hiked dunes before lunch, and ate sandwiches overlooking the largest waterfalls west of Niagara, we started to get used to sudden changes in the environment. Nothing really prepared us for the alien landscape we were approaching. We blasted “Rocketman” and sang along as we neared Craters of the Moon National Monument.
Spreading across nearly 620 square miles, Craters of the Moon is the largest preserved lava bed in the contiguous Unites States. A moving hotspot surfaced lava from Earth’s mantle over millions of year as the North American tectonic plate shifted southwestward. Pressure from this escaping lava raised the land surface up until the hot spot moved further north towards Yellowstone, where it remains active today (50 miles of Yellowstone resides in Idaho). As the pressure drops, so does the land, creating dramatic fault-block mountains which characterize Idaho’s southern landscape. Containing more than 25 volcanic cones and 60 distinct solidified lava flows, the landscape has inspired an other-worldly appeal since its naming in the late 19th century.
Racing against the sun (and our fellow campers), we nabbed a camping site in the park itself. We trekked near our site to get a sense of the surreal landscape surrounding us and started making dinner as the sun set against the black gravel below our feet. We took the top bed the first night and slept rather comfortably, happy that we didn’t have to contend with a tent or sore back the next morning.
Starting early the next day we drove the short distance in the park to Devil’s Orchard Trail. This winding, uneven trail wraps around multiple lava flows dating between 2000 and 15,000 years old. We couldn’t get beyond how surreal and alien this landscape felt. During the hike we broke off the main trail and investigated a few of the lava tubes that ran underneath the lava flows. These tubular caves formed as super-heated lava cooled at the edge of lava flow. The molten rock eventually emptied out of these caves leaving the tubes intact. Walking through these tubes was a bit unsettling, considering cave-ins are common, but we navigated our way through darkness until we popped up elsewhere on the trail. Thoroughly caved out, we boarded Kendall and hit the road heading north to Sun Valley.
Just as we left the outskirts of the park we came across Carey Hot Spring – a small crystal-clear puddle off the north side of route 93. Idaho is teeming with hot springs, which like the lava fields and tubes are part of Idaho’s geologically active landscape. Although we didn’t take a dip, we did promise ourselves that we’d find more hot springs along the way. With this in mind, we kept driving toward the Sawtooth National Forest.
We stopped at Ketchum in the early afternoon for lunch. The mountain town and its neighboring Sun Valley draw mountaineers and snow sports enthusiasts from all over the country. According to the locals the area is filled with transplants from the Bay Area, and we could see why: the valley is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream without the commotion of Bar Area life. As avid skiers and boarders, we’d love to revisit the area during the winter, but we were more than satisfied by our sandwiches and drafts for the moment.
The Sawtooth Range’s 57 peaks over 10,000 feet tall created a mountainous wall in the distance while driving north along route 75. We took in the full view from the Galena Summit Overlook, which provided us the ultimate vantage point of the hundreds of jagged peaks that give these mountains their “Sawtooth.” name. From there, we descended into the valley below, meandering our way farther north, making pit stops by rolling fields of flowers and quiet creeks.
Mountain Lakes and Villages
Needing a break from the road, we took a quick detour to Redfish Lake off of route 75. Framed by the Sawtooth Ridge in the distance, Redfish lake’s clear, cold water refreshed us. Living out of a van is great fun, but sometimes you need something close to a shower, and dipping into a perfect alpine lake did the trick. Getting our mountain lake fix in, we struck out on the road to see just how north we could get by sundown.
By the time we hit Stanley we felt fully transported to a different America. Home to about 60 permanent residents, this small mountain village seemed like it had been transplanted directly from the Alps. We hopped in the nearest host spring that we could find and made acquaintances with a mix of visitors and locals relaxing under the waning daylight. Noticing the approaching lack of daylight, we figured it best to track down a campsite before dark.
Wanting to make full use of our federally protected lands, we scouted out the perfect open campsite near Stanley Lake. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management maintains about a quarter of a billion acres throughout the country, and much of this land is open to campers without a reservation. Landing the perfect site for our second night, we set up camp between some loggers and a short trail to the lake. Here we cooked up some sausages and split a bottle (or two) of wine under the deep starry night sky.
The next morning we filled ourselves with the rest of that sausage and some eggs. After saying goodbye to our rustic lakeside home, we drove west leaving the Sawtooth National Forest behind. The glacial region is overflowing with lakes, rivers, and forests, and it’s an incredible escape from the overly-developed bits of America that stretch from coast to coast.
Sadly we needed to rush back to our rat-race lifestyle back in the Bay Area, so we hurried our way toward Boise. Since we gave ourselves plenty of breathing room, we took one last moment to relax in the Kirkham Hot Springs along route 21. Of the three hot springs we visited, Kirkham was our definite favorite. Adjacent to the Payette River, this hot spring provided us with heated, azure waters that flowed freely into the river. We cherished our time in these waters and wished that we had weeks if not years to explore the rich wilderness of Idaho and the American West. Knowing that we’d be back one day, we started back in a mad dash for our flight home.
Idaho took us by surprise. We had both camped near and far across California, but we had never experienced America’s western wilderness. Idaho gave us everything from pristine hot springs to desert dunes in one long weekend. Just imagine what it could offer you with a few days of your own time and four wheels under your feet.
Photography on this post was also attributed by Roshan Jobanputra.