An Idaho State Parks Challenge: 27 parks in one year is the best way to see the Gem State

The Idaho State Parks Challenge consists of visiting all of Idaho’s state parks in one year. We made up this challenge to see a bit more of our beautiful state and help alleviate the restlessness caused by Covid-19 travel restrictions. It was maybe the best decision we made in 2020.

Exploring City of Rocks National Reserve as part of an Idaho State Parks Challenge
Exploring Idaho one park or rock at a time.

Idaho is a pretty big state. With an area of 83,570 square miles, it is the 14th largest state in the U.S. It is also an odd shape and covers some diverse landscapes. There are a lot of mountains. There are also dense forests, alpine lakes, large lava fields, acres of farmland (those potatoes have to come from somewhere) and so many hot springs. The only thing we do not have a lot of is people and cities, and we are not complaining about that.

With so much natural wonder to see in Idaho, it can be a little daunting to know where to start. May I suggest our state parks? There are 27 of them located all over the state and a visit to them will introduce you to a whole new Idaho. And if you want to geek out like us, try the Idaho State Parks Challenge.

Note: the number of state parks in Idaho has changed over the years. You may see a sign or read a list with misinformation. The number 27 comes directly from the Idaho Department of Parks and Rec website. I would check with them if you have any questions about current and former state parks.

Why a challenge?

When the pandemic ruined all of our travel plans for the foreseeable future, we needed something to look forward to. In an effort to make some sort of travel plans, I mentioned, more in passing, that we could attempt to visit all of Idaho’s state parks. R answered immediately: “Mission accepted.”

We decided to see if we could visit all of Idaho’s state parks in less than a year and I think this decision saved 2020 for me. We spent the summer planning and going on adventures. Most were just weekend getaways and microtrips, but they alleviated the travel itch in a big way. I remember standing at the top of one of the sand dunes in Bruneau Dunes State Park and laughing out loud. It was hot. My feet were on fire and the wind was blowing sand into my face. But I was so happy in that moment simply because I was on an adventure. I was an hour away from my house, but it felt like I was much, much further.

Girl on top of a sand dune with a lake and more sand dunes in the background during an Idaho State Parks Challenge
So happy on top of a sand dune.

Why you should plan your own Idaho State Parks Challenge

I am vocal about the love I have for my home state. But this challenge taught me more about Idaho than I could have imagined. If you choose to complete the Idaho State Parks challenge, you will explore landscapes so vast and different that you will have a hard time believing you are still in the same state.

By visiting Idaho’s state parks you will…

  • Gain an appreciation for those early immigrants who used the Oregon Trail to cross and settle this country. You will see the ruts from their wagons and their signatures carved into stone.
  • See wildlife both big and small and you may even capture a National Geographic-worthy photo.
  • Cover a lot of ground and see SO many mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls and rock formations.
  • Enjoy moments where it feels like you are the only person on earth. We had entire parks to ourselves at times.
  • Have an experience that is really quite wonderful and rewarding.

Have I convinced you to start planning yet?

Canoe on Winchester Lake at dusk as part of an Idaho State Parks Challenge
A perfect evening at Winchester State Park.

How to get started planning your challenge

If you are feeling super ambitious and you have the time, you could plan one epic road trip to visit all of the parks. Driving time would be around 45 hours.

We broke our challenge into six separate trips. They were all weekend getaways except for one longer trip to upstate Idaho. Given the time it takes to drive that far north for us and the number of parks in that part of the state, we opted to tackle it in one big trip. But the other trips we were able to do over a weekend and did not require us to take any time off work.

Note: click on the name of each park below to read specifics about that park and our experience there.

Trip breakdown:

One fun thing about our trips is that we didn’t just visit state parks. We managed to do and see other fun things as well. R got to see Balanced Rock for the first time. We bought beautiful rings with opals mined in Spencer, Idaho. I checked off my last Idaho county. If you are going to be visiting a particular area, it is worth seeing what else might be nearby.

Girl with Balanced Rock in background as part of an Idaho State Parks Challenge
R + Balanced Rock

When should I start my Idaho State Parks Challenge?

Today! Honestly, anytime is the right time to visit Idaho’s state parks. However, there are a few things to keep in mind.

If you visit in the wintertime, please note that some parks will not be open or will only be partially open. For example, Bruneau Dunes State Park is home to the Bruneau Dunes Observatory. But your only option to experience it is after the sun goes down in the summertime.

With that in mind, winter can also be a wonderful time to explore Idaho. Many state parks have winter activities like snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. The crowds will be a lot smaller and you may have an entire park to yourself.

Cross country skiing at Ponderosa State Park.
Wintertime state park fun at Ponderosa State park.

If you enjoy spending time on the water, then summer is your best bet. We experience all four seasons in Idaho and it is not pleasant to go swimming during three of them. R and I ended up completing our Idaho State Parks Challenge in one summer. This meant that we enjoyed a lot of lake time. But it also meant that things were hot. There were a few times when I wished it had been a little (or a lot) cooler.

I suggest you figure out what you like to do and plan your park visits around that.

How much time should I spend in each park?

The amount of time you spend in each park will depend on the size of the park and the activities you want to do. Thousand Springs State Park, for example, is made up of seven different units. If you want to see them all (and they are unique and worth a visit), an hour or two is not going to cut it. However, there were plenty of parks where all we did was enjoy a picnic and a stroll. An hour was fine in that case. Below is a chart depicting each park, how much time we spent there, which activities we enjoyed, which activities we missed, and an assessment of our visit.

Idaho State Parks Challenge list of parks and time spent at each

Each park is unique. However, there are some that are more memorable than others and for different reasons. In fact, R and I have different must-see lists.

B’s not-to-miss parks

  • Thousand Springs: this park has so many different features and things to do. A whole weekend is really not enough time to see it all, particularly if you want to visit other places like the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. Favorite areas include Ritter Island, Malad Gorge and Box Canyon.
  • Bruneau Dunes: this place is so unique and climbing on sand dunes is fun (just make sure it isn’t too hot).
  • Bear Lake: I have yet to visit another lake in Idaho like Bear Lake. Most of Idaho’s lakes are beautiful. But they are very cold and have rocky bottoms. Most get deep really quick as well. Bear Lake has a wonderful sandy bottom, is shallow for a long time and is warmer than our usual alpine lakes. And the color! It is like nothing else outside of the Caribbean.
girl in turquoise water at Bear Lake State Park during an Idaho State Parks Challenge
Turquoise water at Bear Lake.

R’s not-to-miss parks:

  • Farragut State Park: this park has history (WW2 submarines), activities (frisbee golf, hiking, boating), and scenery (cliffs, trees, and lakes). So it was a littler sampler of R’s favorite things. Our time here was interrupted by a freak wind storm, and it was still awesome.
  • Ashton to Tetonia: Of the three trails in the Idaho state park systems, this was the fave. The reason? The Teton mountain range stands impressively in the horizon. This is one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in Idaho, and that is saying something. On this converted former rail road you can stroll along and soak up the scenery.
Teton mountain range on Ashton to Tetonia trail during an Idaho State Parks Challenge
I mean come on…
  • McCroskey: And speaking of scenery, have you heard of the Palouse? Driving the ridge road through McCroskey State Park will be an introduction. The best time to see the view of the unique rolling hills of this area is when the canola fields turn bright yellow. It is stunning.

What should I pack to visit Idaho’s state parks?

If you are visiting the state parks during the summer like we did, do not forget your sunscreen. Idaho has decent elevation and you do not want to run around without sun protection. Also, you are going to need a swimsuit. Many of Idaho’s state parks are located on rivers, lakes and reservoirs. And if it is hot, you are going to want to get in the water. Drinking water and insect repellent are also must haves.

If you go exploring in the winter, dress warm and be prepared for all four seasons. We get snow in Idaho and a lot of it in some parts. The last thing you want to do is get stuck in a blizzard without proper clothing.

No matter the time of year, I recommend you pack some basic provisions and a first aid kit. A lot of Idaho’s state parks are off the beaten track and far from towns. You want to be prepared for anything. We often had a picnic packed since we never knew if we would be around a town when we got hungry. Make sure you have drinking water, food and a full tank of gas.

What will the Idaho State Parks Challenge cost me?

Gas and lodging will be your biggest expenses. If you like camping, then Idaho’s state parks are where it is at. Head to the reservation system to book your spot today. R hates to camp and I don’t love it. So we mostly stayed in hotels and Airbnbs near the state parks. We even crashed at my folk’s house one night. 

Some of the parks have sleeping options like yurts and cabins. We did take advantage of a couple of these overnight stays. In fact, the yurts at Winchester Lake State Park are lovely and even come with the use of a canoe. The whole experience made Winchester Lake one of my favorite state parks experiences. Overnight stays can be a little hard to book during busy times, so you will want to book as soon as possible.

Yurt at Winchester Lake State Park lodging during Idaho State Parks Challenge
Our home for the night.

Park fees

The Idaho State Parks Passport is not a fun booklet that lets you get stamps in each state park (unfortunately). There is no such program in Idaho. Instead, the passport is a $10 sticker that provides unlimited day-use access to every Idaho State Park. It is only available to Idaho residents and is good for one year (perfect for the Idaho State Parks Challenge). If you do not get the passport, each park will set you back $5.

If you are not from Idaho, you have the option to purchase a Motor Vehicle Entry Fee sticker for $80. You can purchase this sticker at any Idaho state park (with a visitor’s center) or online.

Other things to keep in mind on your Idaho State Parks Challenge

In Idaho, we deal with wildfires. For the most part, wildfires ruin views with haze and smoke. But every once in a while they ruin plans. We had a lot of trouble with a wildfire when we visited Dworshak. You can read about that story in my blog post about Dworshak State Park.

Wildfire in northern Idaho during Idaho State Parks Challenge
This wildfire made for a pretty sunset. It also ruined some of plans thanks to closed roads and power outages.

We have rattlesnakes in Idaho. Thankfully, we didn’t see any, but there are plenty of parks where you need to keep your eyes peeled.

We also have bears and moose, neither of which you want a close encounter with. We saw moose at a distance from the safety of our vehicle in Harriman State Park and we were warned of possible bear sightings at Henrys Lake. Thankfully, we did not encounter any.

The Idaho Department of Parks and Rec website is a great place to research each park. If you have a question about a park that you cannot find online, don’t hesitate to reach out to the park directly. The park rangers are very friendly and passionate about their parks. Asking what their favorite thing to do in the park is a good way to learn something new.

Jake Davis, a park ranger at Dworshak State Park, shared all kinds of useful information with me including the following:

“Certainly though, the most unique thing about this park is the dramatic water level fluctuation. Full pool is 1600’ and minimum pool is about 1450’. I don’t believe there is any other water body in Idaho that experiences fluctuations of this magnitude.”

Who knows what else you may learn by reaching out to the park? Give it a shot and see.

SUP on Priest Lake as part of an Idaho State Parks Challenge
Exploring Priest Lake State Park via SUP.

Conclusion

To be fair, not everything you will see in Idaho will be amazing. There will be times when you understand exactly why early immigrants moved right on through to get to Oregon. It’s okay to not love every park you visit. And not everything we experienced was all sunshine and roses. Just like any trip, things went wrong. A hotel lost our reservation one night and we had to scramble to find a place to stay (they still charged me as well so I had to deal with that after we got home). Google maps took us down a cow trail instead of a road and what should have been a 10-15 minute drive took us about an hour. A wind storm and wildfire caused us a whole heap of trouble and anxiety at two different parks.

However, all of the setbacks were worth the trouble when I think back to riding horses in historic Harriman, looking down at the Oregon trail wagon ruts near Thousand Springs, swimming in the turquoise blue waters of Bear Lake and riding a tandem bike on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. Idaho made 2020 not just bearable, but a wonderful experience.

If you are looking for a new challenge or goal or you just want some new insight into the 43rd state, I recommend the Idaho State Parks Challenge.

State park selfies…

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