When you think of skiing in the USA, places like Aspen in Colorado, Mammoth in California, and Park City in Utah come to mind.
Idaho, the Gem State, is probably not a state you have considered for your winter destination. Allow us to help you reconsider.
With over 60% of federally protected land, Idaho is the land of outdoor adventure and natural beauty – and a LOT of snow!
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.
We have created this post in sponsorship with Visit Idaho, a long-term partner of ours as it’s a state we LOVE to visit and share.
Why visit Idaho in the Winter
Why would 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 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.
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.
Lessor known and 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!
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.
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 in the beginning of March for these reasons.
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 winter activities you can experience in Idaho.
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 is 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 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
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.
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 popular for snowmobile destination (See trail map) and often sees some of the coldest temperatures in Continental USA.
Snowmobiling in McCall is a MUST. Brundage Mountain Resort offers guided snowmobile tours.
Join the Trend: Fat Tire Biking
One of the fastest growing 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.
Jug Mountain Ranch in McCall Idaho is meant to have some of the best fat biking in the country.
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 a 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.
Unique Adventure Idea:
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.
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 guide 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 it in the darkness. Snowshoeing at night with the starry skies is a magical experience.
Soak in a hot tub
Nothing wraps up a winter playground day then 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.
Experience a Winter Festival in Idaho
Idaho abounds in winter festivals. Here are a few that grabbed my attention and love for quirky 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 float 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.
Dash through the Snow on a 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 a dinner and some hot ciders. See more information on sleigh rides here.