As September draws to a close, we start receiving calls asking for suggestions for the best places to see fall colors in Idaho. The foliage displays east of the Mississippi are legendary, but Idaho’s trees and native vegetation put on a pretty darned good show with the added bonus of wildlife, flowing rivers, and magnificent mountains as their backdrop. Our evergreen landscapes present a stark contrast to the vibrant golds, oranges and scarlets that dot the hills and countryside.
It is impossible to say exactly when and where the colors will be at their peak, but generally they start popping in early October in northern, central and eastern Idaho, and by mid-October the colors are coming on in the more southern locations.
Here are some favorite locations we’ve collected over the years.
Two safe bets for fall color in the northern Idaho panhandle are along our Scenic Byways and at ten State Parks. Riparian areas around lakes and rivers are home to species of trees and shrubs sporting splashes of color that contrast the soft muted greens of the pines.
Northern Idaho’s segment of the Selkirk Loop runs from Priest River, through Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry, to the border town of Porthill. A beautiful drive any time of year, it’s especially lovely in the fall. To get an up close view of the fall foliage, spend some time at The Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge.
Traveling the St. Joe River Scenic Byway, the combination of latitude and reflections on the lazy St. Joe River create a kaleidoscope of warm shades all along this 89-mile route.
The University of Idaho campus in Moscow is awash in color in the fall, both from students dressed in Vandal gold, and from the venerable old trees that have witnessed the school’s growth. At the University of Idaho Arboretum you may learn the roles the various trees play in the ecosystem.
Boise, nicknamed the City of Trees, is ground zero for deciduous, non-native trees. Oaks, maples, and ash add brightness to the downtown, area parks and the North End neighborhood. The Boise riverbanks and adjoining parks are resplendent with mature trees adding brilliant oranges and deep reds to the landscape. Cottonwoods and aspens add gold to the palette, with native low-growing plants and shrubs adding shades of red. The Boise Greenbelt – perfect for a walk or bike ride – follows the river, keeping you smack dab in color central.
Southwestern Idaho’s State Parks are ready for fall color seekers. Eagle Island State Park near Boise and Three Island Crossing State Park in Glenns Ferry have plenty of mature trees and native shrubs that beg to have a photo taken.
Traveling north from Boise on Hwy 55, the Payette River Scenic Byway and the Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway to its east promise riverside color including reds, golds, aspen and native shrubs. Traveling Hwy. 55 through Cascade, Donnelly and McCall, you’ll see pockets of color in the surrounding mountains with red bursts along the roadside and rivers. The Rainbow Bridge overlook is a great spot for a photo.
The whole of the Salmon River Scenic Byway will dazzle you, and the closer you get to the Idaho/Montana border, the more amazing the painted landscape will be. With increased elevation, the color increases. It is also likely that you will see wildlife so be aware that you may be unexpectedly sharing the road!
The areas around Stanley and the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway are always beautiful. The Boulder Mountain Range to the east frames the pallet of golds and oranges of the aspen and cottonwoods and their attendant red shrubs. If you’re ready for a hike after your drive, head for Redfish Lake and its surrounding trails. Just sitting by the lake is good too! The Sun Valley/Ketchum area also has some beautiful views.
Our first suggestion for eastern Idaho is easy: Mesa Falls Scenic Byway. Stop at the Mesa Falls Visitor Center and walk down to the viewing platforms for a spectacular view of the falls. Mother Nature is quite the accomplished artist.
Continue to the Island Park area and up to Henry’s Lake to extend your trip. Being close to the mountains means plenty of water for a wide variety of plants and trees, and the colors are magnificent. River corridors and mountains promise blazing golds and oranges sprinkled amongst the evergreens and along the riverbanks. There is also a strong likelihood of seeing wildlife when traveling the area’s four scenic byways.
As you can see, Idaho is packed with fall color. As locals, we sometimes feel they are a bit elusive, but we welcome the subtleties of color and vivid contrasts against our majestic backdrop. Fall is a special time in Idaho, but it is a beautiful state year-round. For an Idaho fall preview, visit our Pinterest board.
Steve Stuebner suggests some Idaho City area trails that offer plenty of leaf peeping. Read his blog here.