Annual Manual » Annual Manual: Recreation

Monumental Destinations

National treasures in Boise's back yard


Sure, places like Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite national parks get all the attention, but Idaho has its share of national treasures that come without the suffocating crowds.

Across the Gem State, a collection of national reserves, monuments and conservation areas has been set aside to celebrate some of the most unique landscapes and historic landmarks in the country. From recreational havens to scientific hotspots, there's plenty to see in southern and central Idaho, and much of it is just a short drive from the Boise area.

Here are some of our favorite destinations.

Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area

South of Kuna,

Just outside of the main Treasure Valley metropolitan area, across an unassuming expanse of sage-covered high dessert, sits ground zero for some of the most successful wildlife conservation efforts in the world.

The 485,000-acre Birds of Prey Conservation Area is home to more than 800 pairs of nesting raptors, including kestrels, making the area a haven for bird lovers.

Established in 1993 to protect the habitat, it is also home to the Peregrine Fund World Center for Birds of Prey. The organization is a world leader in conservation programs, with broad-reaching breeding and research programs, as well as public educational offerings. Year-round hours at the Velma Morrison Interpretive Center give the public—and generations of school field trips—a chance to see the birds up close and learn more about efforts to save them.

City of Rocks National Reserve

200 miles east of Boise, south of Burley,

It took a few years, but Mother Nature eventually sculpted the spires and canyons of City of Rocks out of granite to create one of the most highly regarded climbing areas in the country. Spires rise to 600 feet from the desert floor, creating the feeling of an open-air cathedral.

Regardless of the time of year, hikers, campers and climbers can be found throughout the area, many of them trying their skills on the more than 700 developed climbing routes.

The first European visitors to the area came with the wagon trains moving west. Even in the 19th century, the vista of towering spires captured the imaginations of the travelers, many of whom left their names on rocks in the area.

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

170 miles east of Boise, between Carey and Arco,

Who needs to go to the moon when you have Craters of the Moon with easy access and breathable air? Encompassing roughly 750,000 acres, Craters offers visitors a surreal vista—a landscape turned black by layers of hardened lava that once flowed across the land, creating a jumble of peaks, craters, caves and features that seem like they were sculpted by an artist. Its lunar reputation is no joke—the Apollo 14 astronauts trained in the park in 1969.

Now visitors can camp while exploring the almost alien landscape thanks to hiking trails and scenic drives. The more adventurous can check out the system of lava caves beneath the surface of the park.

Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument

100 miles east of Boise near Hagerman,

History collides near Hagerman, where visitors can see both the Oregon Trail and one of the richest deposits of fossils from the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs anywhere in the world.

What is now a sagebrush-covered plain was once home to a rich and diverse ecosystem—at least it was between 3 million and 4 million years ago. Then the area was home to saber-toothed cats, ancient camels and sloths, as well as the Hagerman Horse, the official state fossil. Hagerman has the largest concentration of these ancient horse fossils (Equus simplicidens) on the continent, including 30 complete skeletons. Overall, fossilized remains of more than 220 species of both plants and animals have been found in the area.

Visitors are not allowed to dig for fossils themselves, but the visitors' center has some of the best examples on display, and ranger-led programs allow the public to take a closer look at things. For a little more recent history, check out the wagon ruts left by pioneers traveling on the Oregon Trail in what is now the Oregon Trail Overlook parking lot.

Sawtooth National Recreation Area

Roughly 150 miles northeast of Boise near Ketchum,

When people think of the wilds of Idaho, the Sawtooths are usually what come to mind. From the jagged peaks of the mountains, to the pristine rivers, alpine lakes and forests full of wildlife, this is one of the places where Idaho likes to get flashy. Spanning more than 750,000 acres, the area has been protected to ensure its rugged beauty will last.

The recreation area is filled with places to do just that—recreate. From hundreds of miles of hiking trails dotting the entire area to favorite destinations like Redfish Lake, outdoor opportunities abound. The area includes portions of the Sawtooth Wilderness, as well as a corridor running through the Sun Valley and Stanley areas. The eastern portion includes the Boulder and White Cloud mountains—an area that has long been proposed for federal designation of its own.

Whether its fishing on world-class rivers like the Salmon, mountain biking near Sun Valley or backpacking to alpine lakes, Idaho's reputation as an outdoor paradise is well earned in central Idaho.