When you think of winter sports in the USA, places like Aspen in Colorado, Mammoth in California, and Park City in Utah come to mind.
But for those looking for winter activities, Idaho, the Gem State, is vastly underestimated as a winter destination.
There are so many Idaho winter activities to do that it may one day overtake these other popular mountain ranges as one of the best places to visit in the USA in winter. But since it’s still a hidden gem, now is the time to go!
I mean, it does share a border with Canada and is covered from north to south by the Rocky Mountains and several other individual mountain ranges. That means unlimited Idaho winter fun for you.
If you’re not sure what winter activities in Idaho to add to your itinerary, worry not. We have created this guide to the best winter attractions in Idaho so you can make planning easy. Go take a look!
- Why Visit Idaho in the Winter?
- The Best Winter Activities Idaho
- 1. Skiing or Snowboarding the Slopes
- 2. Speed down the hills on a Snow Tube or Sled
- 3. Take in the Scenery on a Snowmobile
- 4. Join the Trend: Fat Tire Biking
- 5. Idaho Nordic or Cross-Country Skiing
- 6. Enjoy the Simple Serenity of Snowshoeing
- 7. Soak in a hot tub
- 8. Experience a Winter Festival in Idaho
- 9. Dash through the Snow on a Horse-Drawn Sleigh Ride
- 10. Try Your Hand at Ice Fishing
- 11. Get Christmassy in The Village at Meridian
- 12. See The Coeur d’Alene Resort Holiday Light Show From a Boat
- 13. Visit the Idaho Botanical Garden and Winter Garden aGlow
- 14. Wander Along the Greenbelt, Boise River
- 15. Soak in Lava Hot Springs Pools
- Before You Go
- More Idaho Travel Tips
This post was written in sponsorship with Visit Idaho, a long-term partner of ours as it’s a state we LOVE to visit and share. The ideas and opinions in this post are our own and based on personal experiences.
Why Visit Idaho in the Winter?
With over 60% of federally protected land, Idaho is the land of outdoor adventure and natural beauty – and a LOT of snow!
So why wouldn’t you choose Idaho for a winter vacation? Are you wondering whether it could be as good as those other skiing destinations in the USA?
We spoke to plenty of skiers on our trip who have skied all over the country. Each year they return to ski in Idaho as they have that blissful ski experience they desire on fantastic runs with great powder, but without the intense crowds of the snow destinations in the surrounding states.
Here are a few reasons we love Idaho in the winter.
1. Great Powder
Idaho is known to have great deep powder – it’s dry and light and hangs around for a long time. This is the perfect conditions for downhill skiing.
The snowfall is greatest in the northern part of the state. Lookout Pass receives the most with four hundred inches of light, dry powder snow annually. (Compared to Aspen which is 153 inches each year.) Jackson Hole and Park City receive around 400 inches as well.
2. Fewer Crowds
Idaho is lessor known and will give you stories to tell that most of your mates back home haven’t heard before.
Australians are used to wide, open spaces; minimal crowds; and endless adventures in stunning locations, which is why we really took to experiencing our first family ski trip in North Idaho.
At times, it felt like we had the entire slopes to ourselves, which as brand-new skiers we appreciated not worrying about expert skiers wiping us out. Dropping in on a skier is just as dangerous as dropping in on the local surfer’s perfect wave.
We had minimal wait times on lifts – if at all – and plenty of room at the bar after to enjoy our après!
3. Fun Après
While Australians love having all that space to themselves, they also like a bit of action after their days of adventuring.
Ski resorts in Idaho either have the après bar experience down pat, or they are near cool towns where you can soak up the winter atmosphere with a red wine by the fire and some live music.
One of my favorite memories of skiing at Schweitzer Mountain was watching sunset over the slopes from the outside deck with no one else really around.
4. Long ski season
Blink and you might miss the ski season in Australia. In Idaho, the ski season typically begins in mid/late November, nudging into spring with a finish in mid-April to early May.
That means even fewer crowds, more affordable prices, and warmer day temperatures (but still plenty of snow). We loved skiing at the beginning of March for these reasons.
5. Affordable Winter Vacation
What travelers love the most – especially if you are traveling on the Aussie dollar – is that Idaho is affordable when it comes to a winter vacation.
From lodging to lessons, ski rentals and lift tickets, Idaho offers more affordable prices to their Rocky Mountain rival resorts in other states. Some resorts, like Lookout Pass also have free ski school for kids.
We break down ski costs and other super helpful tips on planning a trip to Idaho in this free webinar available to our VIP email community.
Let’s take a look at some of the Idaho winter activities you can experience.
The Best Winter Activities Idaho
Now you know why Idaho is a top destination to visit in the winter, it’s time to look at the best winter activities in Idaho. From skiing to ice skating, to snowshoeing and snuggling up with hot chocolates in a sleigh ride – don’t miss out on these fun winter attractions!
1. Skiing or Snowboarding the Slopes
Idaho is a powder playground and within the state, you’ll find 28,000 vertical feet of terrain on over 18,000 acres all surrounded by spectacular scenery – that’s snow covered backcountry and evergreens laden with snow that you hope to ski or board beside.
Idaho has eighteen ski resorts, each with its own personality and unique offerings. SkiIdaho.com is a great website to help you compare prices, runs, lifts, skiable acres, and vertical drops of each of their 18 ski mountains.
When most people think of skiing in Idaho they think of Sun Valley Resort, full of prestige and celebrity sightings.
It was the USA’s first destination ski resort i.e., where the idea of the American ski vacation was born and the place that had the world’s first chairlifts and changed skiing for everyone.
Dollar has repeatedly been ranked the best or one of the best places in the country to learn to ski, and it’s one of the few winter resorts in America with onsite heli-skiing, and the only one where the pickup and drop-off are actually on the mountain.
And Ski Magazine just named Sun Valley the top ski resort in North America for the second year in a row.
While Sun Valley has these “best of” and glitzy facts, in terms of powder, the ski resorts in Northern Idaho have the most powder.
Lookout Pass, Schweitzer (the largest ski resort in Idaho), and Silver Mountain are all easily accessible and close to Spokane airport in Washington. They are only two hours max driving time between them, which makes it easy to experience a few ski resorts in just one trip.
There are also four ski resorts close to downtown Boise including the popular Bogus Basin and Tamarack Resort and within half an hour from the center of McCall, you have access to three vastly different ski areas, including Brundage which is said to have the best snow in Idaho.
The runs at Lookout Pass go between Idaho and Montana. Now there’s a story to tell: You skied in two states on the one trip #NoExtraMileageNeeded
2. Speed down the hills on a Snow Tube or Sled
The ski fields aren’t just about skiing or snowboarding. Many offer the chance to fly down groomed runs on tubes or sleds.
Snow tubing was a welcome relief from the intensity of skiing while still giving us a dose of thrill.
We enjoyed racing each other down the hill or speeding down together as a group at the Silver Mountain Resort. The views of the surrounding mountains as we flew down were spectacular. This was a winter activity that is fun for the whole family.
Another popular place to go tubbing or sledding is Camel’s Back Park.
If you’re not sure you want to try sledding down a slope, you can also ride down the Glade Runner Mountain Coaster in Bogus Basin. This area is well known for its alpine and Nordic skiing and terrain park for freestyle skiers.
3. Take in the Scenery on a Snowmobile
Time to experience the quiet and white powdery world from the back of a snowmobile.
There are experienced snowmobile guides around the state who will take you on rides through evergreen snow-covered forests and powdery meadows, past high mountain lakes, and frozen creeks all with sweeping vistas.
Stanley is a popular snowmobile destination and often sees some of the coldest temperatures in the Continental USA.
4. Join the Trend: Fat Tire Biking
One of the fastest-growing Idaho winter activities in recent years is fat-tire biking (it’s also popular for beach riding in the summer!)
Fat tire biking means riding a special bike that has tires typically at least four inches wide, almost twice as wide as regular tires. They allow you to travel over snow-packed trails with more stability and ease.
There are no special techniques to learn – it’s just like mountain biking, although will require a certain level of fitness. It’s an affordable winter activity and is the thing to do with the skiing conditions are not as great!
There are fat bike trails all throughout Stanley and Sun Valley. You’ll find twenty miles of forested terrain at northern Idaho’s Schweitzer Mountain and farther south, fat bikers can roam for hundreds of miles in Teton Valley.
5. Idaho Nordic or Cross-Country Skiing
Nordic skiing – also known as cross country is a much-favored winter activity in Idaho. Cross-country skiing is usually on groomed runs with parallel grooves in the snow acting as guides for your skis whereas Nordic skiing is typically off-trail.
Basically, it’s skiing over flat or rolling, hilly terrain in a forward and back motion similar to walking or running with your skis on.
Sun Valley has more than twenty-five miles of groomed trails crisscrossing through the valley. Lessons are available if you have not experienced the high-intensity workout of cross-country skiing.
A popular thing to do in Idaho during the winter is to enjoy a cross-country ski trip, visiting Idaho’s backcountry yurts. There are several of these near Idaho City.
6. Enjoy the Simple Serenity of Snowshoeing
Looking for something a little more mellow? Take a hike in snowshoes instead.
Snowshoeing sounds like my kind of Zen winter adventure. Just me and the kind of silence only a snow-laden evergreen forest can provide, punctuated only by the soft sounds of my shoes moving across the trail.
The good news is snowshoeing is a pretty easy winter sport and suitable for all ages. You can set off on a trail on your own or join guided tours.
There are over 180 miles of groomed and ungroomed trails in some of the most scenic areas in Idaho. Most of the ski resorts will have snowshoe trails, but you’ll find trails in other areas too, like Harriman State Park in the Island Park region of Idaho. It has a 25-mile winter trail system connected by trekker huts helping you warm up along the way.
Try snowshoeing at night. The Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area has trails illuminated by solar-powered lamps making it easy to navigate in the darkness. Snowshoeing at night with the starry skies is a magical experience.
7. Soak in a hot tub
Nothing wraps up a winter playground day than a soak in a hot tub with mountain views, sparkling stars, and your favorite drinks.
Idaho is spoilt for natural hot tubs. There are 130 soakable hot springs out of 130 – more than any other state in the lower forty-eight.
Almost all will have a view to rave about. And many of the best Idaho hot springs are located between Challis and Stanley sitting right beside the Salmon River Scenic Byway.
This is the winter getaway you dream of!
Burgdorf Hot Springs near McCall is only accessible only by snowmobile during the winter months. You’ll ride twenty-five miles into the Payette National Forest through river valleys and powdery meadows to reach the naturally-fed hot springs. You can rent cabins with wood stoves and oil lamps for the night but bring your own cooking equipment, food, and sleeping supplies.
8. Experience a Winter Festival in Idaho
Idaho abounds in winter festivals. Here are a few that grabbed my attention and love for quirk and cultural.
Fire & Ice Festival is a quirky winter festival, held in Lava hot Springs, which is renowned for its soothing spring-fed hot pools. The festival features wine tasting, parades, fire performers, and the Polar Bear Float Parade—a costumed river floating down the freezing Portneuf River in the dead of winter.
McCall Winter Carnival is the most famous of Idaho’s winter festivals. The iconic 10-day festival features towering snow sculptures, dog sled pulls, a polar plunge, a Mardi Gras Parade, and fireworks over Payette Lake.
For those who like a bit more grunt, the Snowbike SnowBeast Grand Prix and Extreme Skijor in Wallace and Mullan is known as the “Wildest Event in the Rockies”
ATV’s tow skiers and snowboarders down a snow-packed, downtown Wallace Street course while pro and amateur motorized snowbike racers compete on the grand prix course in Mullan.
9. Dash through the Snow on a Horse-Drawn Sleigh Ride
Christmas took on a new level of magical when we moved to the USA and traded the surfing Santa for the sleigh riding one.
Christmas feels more like Christmas to us as it’s the winter wonderland that was always depicted on our Christmas cards, movies, and TV shows when we were growing up.
What better way to experience a little of that winter wonderland magical experience than dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh.
Snuggle under a cozy blanket to the sounds of the bells as the dark descends. Fingers crossed you see Santa’s Reindeer wild elk as you glide around ranches and enchanting snowy hills.
You can choose from more intimate romantic sleigh rides to those that accommodate larger groups. Our tip is to choose a sleigh ride that transports you to dinner and some hot ciders. See more information on sleigh rides here.
10. Try Your Hand at Ice Fishing
If you’re visiting in December or January, you have arrived at the perfect time to try ice fishing.
Ice fishing is a really popular winter activity in Idaho and there are many lakes where you can cut a hole in the ice and drop your line to try to catch some fresh Rainbow Trout.
Lake Cascade is a popular spot for ice fishing and is only two hours north of Boise. The best thing about this lake is that the road to the shoreline is plowed, so you’ll find it easy to access in snowy conditions.
Of course, if you’re new to ice fishing or you’re unsure of what to do, the best thing to do is book a tour. This way you can make sure you’re doing it safely and properly.
11. Get Christmassy in The Village at Meridian
The Village in Meridian is a shopping complex with upscale stores, boutique stores, high street chains, and many eateries and restaurants.
During Christmas time, this is the place to be to get in the mood for the Christmas spirit. The mall goes all out, bringing in an ice pond, a huge Santa’s grotto, ice rink, and more lights than you can count.
If you’re looking for Idaho winter activities for kids, then be sure to take them to see Santa. The house is set up at Fountain Square and reservations are required in advance, because it’s hugely popular.
12. See The Coeur d’Alene Resort Holiday Light Show From a Boat
You’ll never see Christmas Lights in the same way after seeing them on the firework cruises organized by The Coeur d’Alene Resort.
The Coeur d’Alene Resort Holiday Lights Show is all about the light displays. In fact, there are more than 1.5 million lights involved in the display, and each year it just gets bigger and bigger!
It’s a Coeur d’Alene tradition to begin the festivities at the end of November with an annual Lighting Ceremony.
This is when all the millions of Christmas lights turn on alongside a magnificent fireworks display.
The best way to see the illumination is by boat cruise. Book tickets for the Journey to the North Pole Holiday Lights Cruise and you’ll have the best seat in the house when the lights turn on!
13. Visit the Idaho Botanical Garden and Winter Garden aGlow
Another place in Idaho known for its Christmas traditions is the Idaho Botanical Garden in boise, which has an evening fundraising event that runs from the end of November until the end of December.
The event is called Winter Garden aGlow, and it’s a huge Christmas light display arranged throughout the gardens, which comes to life at night.
During the winter months, the garden turns into a twinkling wonderland with more than 600,000 lights hanging in the trees and plants.
Each year, the lights are lit up to help raise money for a good cause. It’s a popular Winter activity in Idaho, so each person must reserve a one-hour entrance beforehand to be able to visit.
14. Wander Along the Greenbelt, Boise River
The Greenbelt is one of the most popular parks in Idaho for outdoor recreation. It spans along the Boise River and Boise National Forest, and is where people can go running, biking, fly fishing, or cycling all year round.
During the winter, the greenbelt is cleared of snow so the path is still able to be used. The landscape is magical when it’s dusted in snow, and the winter sun twinkling against the water is the cherry on the cake.
If you’re looking for relaxing and serene things to do in Idaho in winter, then make sure you visit the Greenbelt for a quiet stroll.
15. Soak in Lava Hot Springs Pools
If the cold air is getting to you, then perhaps you would like to warm up at the Lava Hot Springs Hot Pools. Located southeast of Pocatello, these mineral-rich pools are the perfect place to relax and take a dip in thermal waters.
Each pool has been regulated to a different temperature, so you’ll always find the right temperature for you.
This is especially nice after a day of skiing where you might need to soothe your aching limbs.
Before You Go
So there you have it, those are 15 Idaho winter activities that everyone should add to their itinerary. While Idaho doesn’t get the same rep that California or Colorado do, you can see there is so much to see and do, that it’s only a matter of time before people start discovering this hidden winter gem.
Before you go, remember to prepare well for the winter. Pack snow chains for your tires, book accommodation in advance for cheaper deals, and wear warm clothing – Idaho gets cold!
And most of all, have fun!
More Idaho Travel Tips
Need more inspiration about Idaho? Then check out these other resources:
- 12 Top outdoor adventures in Idaho
- 20 best things to do in Idaho for first time visitors
- Surprising Idaho: 11 reasons we love the Gem State