Idaho Heartland

Departing from Boise, the state's charming capital, this long-distance drive traverses a vast backcountry of white-water rivers, hard-edged mountain peaks, and miles of rolling prairie that turn golden in the summer sun.

  from The Most Scenic Drives in America

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Dworshak State ParkIdaho ParksDworshak State Park, located on the western bank of Dworshak Reservoir, is a popular fishing, boating, and archery spot.
Idaho, located at the cross roads of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, enjoys an incredible wealth of scenic diversity. Here, where the members of the Nez Perce tribe have made their home for centuries, a few hours’ drive in almost any direction can take you from desert to mountain or from valley to prairie, and then back again. Best of all, some 4 million acres of the state are federally protected wilderness areas; they remain much as they have always been since the Lewis and Clark expedition first ventured into the area, crossed the Bitterroot Range in 1805, and beheld an unspoiled land they decided might best be called, simply, paradise.

1. Boise
French Canadian fur trappers first explored this area in the early 1800s. Impressed by the abundance of cottonwoods along the riverbanks, they decided to name the place Boisé, which means ”wooded.” American settlers eventually followed, traveling west on the Oregon Trail, and today, with more than 140,000 residents, Boise is Idaho’s largest city as well as the state capital.

In a wide valley backed by the silvery ridges of the faraway Owyhee Range, Boise boasts an appealing mix of the old and the new, the natural and the manmade. The capitol, with its neoclassical dome, is the stately centerpiece, while the historic district, Old Boise, lies at the east end of downtown. Also worth a visit are the sprawling grounds of Julia Davis Park, which contains Zoo Boise and offers charming narrated excursions aboard an antique steam engine train. The Boise Greenbelt, perhaps the city’s proudest achievement, features nearly 30 miles of trails along the banks of the Boise River — the very area that inspired the early fur trappers.

2. Payette River Scenic Byway
For a refreshing contrast to city life, head north on Rte. 55, the Payette River Scenic Byway. Leading into wooded wildlands, it soon becomes one of the loveliest roadways in the state. The scenery really picks up at mile 23, where an overlook affords a view of Horseshoe Bend, a lengthy curve in the Payette River.

At Banks, some 14 miles farther along, the river splits into two branches. Winding upward, the byway follows the northern fork, which makes a tumultuous 1,700- foot descent in a mere 15 miles.

3. Cascade Reservoir
A dam on the North Fork Payette River, completed in 1948, created this large reservoir, which comes into view about three miles north of Cascade, a popular resort town. Long stretches of sandy shore lure summertime swimmers and sunbathers. Camping is also popular, and those who spend some time in the area can fish, boat, hike, and ride horseback as well. Rte. 55 skirts the reservoir’s eastern shore.