The prospect of leisurely travel can seem dim for those on a budget. But the United States is packed with scenic, low-cost, and enriching activities if you just know where to look.
With its diverse landscapes, ranging from rural farmlands to grand mountains and waterfalls, Idaho offers an abundance of hiking, camping, and recreational activities for travelers on a budget. And travelers can get a glimpse of Idaho’s Western heritage with visits to museums and historic sites.
We recently spoke with Laurie McConnell, Senior Tourism Communications Specialist at Visit Idaho, to get an insider’s view on some of the best affordable activities Idaho has to offer.
What brings the most tourism to Idaho, and what are some of the can’t-miss attractions?
I think most people look at Idaho as a destination for adventure and outdoor activities — with plenty of natural spaces and epic scenery. People know Idaho for the potato, and that keeps Idaho top of mind, yet there is much more to learn about and explore in this great state.
The more recognizable destinations in Idaho are Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho; there’s the capital city of Boise in the southwest, and Sun Valley in the central part of the state. People might already know about these cities, but there are many more lesser-known communities that offer a lot in the way of recreation, nature, scenery, and the opportunity to get away from it all.
We can’t overlook Idaho’s western heritage. This state was shaped by Native American tribes, the Lewis and Clark explorers, Oregon Trail pioneers, gold miners, missionaries and others. Historical sites and remnants of the past help tell the story of those who came before us.
What is the most popular time of year to visit Idaho?
The busiest time is the summer months, though Idaho is a year-round destination. In the summer, visitors have the most access to outdoor activities — hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, fishing, swimming and paddle sports, and of course backpacking and camping when the snows have melted from the higher elevations.
In the winter, we have 18 ski areas for visitors to enjoy, as well as Nordic skiing, snow tubing, snow shoeing, sleigh rides and snowmobiling.
During the shoulder seasons of spring and fall people like to explore the museums and galleries, hike and bike lower elevation trails, taste some Idaho wines and enjoy relaxing outside of the busier summer season.
What are some of your top recommendations for things to do and see in Idaho that are free or inexpensive?
Generally speaking, Idaho is an affordable place to visit with many attractions and activities that are easy on the budget. Idaho’s state parks offer plenty of recreation, camping and some even have museums. Hiking and biking trails, cedar groves, parks, and historical sites are often free. Take a shuttle across Redfish Lake, a scenic gondola ride at a ski resort, an underground silver mine tour, or play on a lakeside beach. It is easy to find budget-friendly things to do.
One of my favorite spots in Idaho is the Route of the Hiawatha Trail in the northern part of the state. This rail-to-trail biking route is amazingly scenic and such a great getaway. I also like visiting the lakeside town of McCall, and also Lava Hot Springs for a soak in the famous hot pools the city is named for. And Hells Canyon – the deepest river canyon in North America, even deeper than the Grand Canyon — it’s best seen from the water aboard a raft or jetboat but driving the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway offers spectacular views for just the price of gas.
I’m also quite fond of Twin Falls. The geological features are breathtaking, and the Snake River flows along the edge of town and through the spectacular Snake River Canyon. Further downstream at Thousand Springs, there are places where water cascades out of the canyon walls. The Lakeside town of Sandpoint is beautiful, too. The local ski resort offers year-round fun, the lake is perfect for relaxing or boating. As you can see, it is a challenge to pick a favorite. You can find your adventure just about anywhere.
What are some popular local dishes or restaurants to try that won’t break the bank?
Again, we’re all familiar with the potato. But Idaho is also the largest producer of farm-raised trout, in fact, a lot of it is raised in the Thousand Springs Area. You’ll find trout on restaurant menus here in Idaho, and all around the country. Huckleberries are another favorite in Idaho – huckleberry milkshakes are very popular.
Statewide there is a lot of effort to serve local ingredients — farm-fresh cheeses, farm-raised proteins like beef or lamb, locally made beer, wine and ciders, and of course produce. There is a lot of variety in our restaurants around the state so it’s easy to find a great meal, snacks — and milkshakes! — at a reasonable price.
Do you have any advice for tourists looking for affordable lodging in Idaho?
Idaho is a great state for camping. We have a lot of state parks and public land campgrounds that have low fees or in some locations no fee at all. There are plenty of RV parks that are also very affordable. Travelers can find privately owned, affordable lodging in most Idaho communities, and quite often those small towns are close to our natural attractions and activities.
In general, a trip to Idaho is likely going to be more affordable than many other states — we have a lower cost of living. People are often surprised by how far their dollar goes when purchasing food or lodging and activities. We have the high-end lodging and activity options, but you don’t have to spend lots of money to have a great time in Idaho.
With such a rich history, what are some of the most popular historical sites in Idaho?
The Nez Perce National Historical Park, Coeur d’Alene’s Old Mission State Park, Sacajawea Interpretive Center and Fort Hall Tribal Museum all help tell the story of our Native American history.
Idaho has its share of ghost towns, abandoned after the mining boom of the Old West.
Idaho City, which is barely an hour from Boise, is an old gold mining town. There’s a small museum there with collections and historical artifacts that date from the town’s earliest days. A lot of the buildings have been lost in multiple fires over the years, but many original structures have survived. It’s a cool place to explore, grab a bite to eat, or soak at the local hot springs resort.
Further north, near Challis, is the Land of the Yankee Fork State Park that dates back to the mining days. Other towns, like Bay Horse and Custer are nearby ghost towns that can be explored.
The Oregon and California Trails went through southern Idaho and the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled across the northern part of the state. Travelers can enjoy historical stops and interpretations along both routes.
What about affordable transportation options?
Boise has the largest airport. Travelers going to northern Idaho often fly into Spokane, Washington, because it’s just a 30-minute drive to Idaho. Those are the two main fly-in destinations. The Hailey airport near Sun Valley is smaller, but sees a lot of flights, especially in the winter during ski season.
Once you’re in the state, having a rental car or RV is probably going to be the best bet to let you get the most out of your trip if you’re traveling to different parts of the state.
However, if you’re coming into Boise for a long weekend, for instance, and staying in the downtown core, you can get by without a car. Most of the Boise hotels offer a complimentary shuttle from the airport and the downtown is very walkable. Uber and cabs are also an option, along with bike and scooter rentals in town.