Highway 21 Revisited

The Scenic Journey of Trails, Hot Springs, Mountains and Stars

Article by Ashley Loeb

Photography by Loeb Life Photography + Provided

Originally published in Boise Lifestyle

In Idaho, it’s not hard to discover the truth behind the saying, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” Idaho State Highway 21 is called the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway because it’s the perfect showcase of Idaho’s diverse natural landscapes, and a great place to begin your spring (or summer) adventure. This winding road is far less crowded than Maui's famous Road to Hana and has enough stops along the way for a day or weekend trip that doesn’t require stepping on a plane.

This scenic journey begins in Southeast Boise where the historic wagon tracks of the Oregon Trail make for an easy hike before driving over the Boise River. Lucky Peak State Park comes into view shortly after, complete with a sandy beach and the dam’s reminder to “Keep the Forests Green.”  A rising sense of awe takes hold as you leave the foothills and head towards the mountains. There are several historical points along this drive, including Robie Creek, a gorgeous green plateau that sits above Moores Creek. After the spring rains, it feels akin to the green hills of Ireland!

For the next 20 miles, the evergreen trees hug the curves of the highway leading into Idaho City. This tiny historic town was once the largest city in the northwest in 1864, and its wild tale is told in the Boise Basin Museum, which is on the National Register of Historic Buildings in America. After seeing photos and artifacts of its heyday, take in some fresh air on Charcoal Gulch, a 5-mile moderate hiking trail where beautiful moss-covered pine trees loft overhead and spring flowers blossom at your feet. Uncrowded and plentifully shaded, this trail makes for a peaceful forest walk.  For a family-friendly option, opt for the Buena Vista trail which loops the bottom layer of forest around an old airstrip and creek.

There are an abundance of hiking trails, campgrounds, and natural hot springs within and beyond Idaho City. Drive north another hour and visit Kirkham Hot Springs nestled along the banks of the Payette River, then continue 50 more miles to Stanley, the perfect spring destination less than three hours from Boise.  The magical mountain town of Stanley, with its unique and captivating views of the Sawtooth Mountains, will leave you breathless. Soak up the sun with a picnic on the beach at Redfish Lake or spend the afternoon kayaking, horseback riding, or hiking the picturesque trails.  Stanley is home to the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, a 1400-square mile stretch of natural darkness, and the only one of its kind in the United States.  Watch the Milky Way rise over the mountains before heading to one of the cozy mountain lodges for a nightcap and soft bed.

Whether your trip leads to an overnight stay or only lasts a day, this scenic byway provides many great reminders to live in the moment. Next time you’re craving a break from the hustle and bustle of daily life, take Highway 21.  The journey will leave you convinced that Boise’s backyard is an easy and beautiful place to escape.

Plan Your Adventure


Papa Brunees (Stanley)

Offering a wide variety of specialty pizzas, sandwiches, salads, calzones and beer

Trudy’s Kitchen  (Idaho City)

All Day Home-Cooked Meals, Cream Pies and Huckleberry Cheesecake

Mountain Village Restaurant (Stanley)

Friendly and Cozy with Comfort Food and adjoining Bar/Saloon

Limbert’s (Stanley)

Redfish Lodge restaurant with delicious coffee serving breakfast and dinner


BoCo Collectibles (Idaho City)

Fine Art Gallery and Souvenirs

Sarsparilla Ice Cream Parlor and Gifts (Idaho City)

Handmade Ice Cream, Nostalgic Candies, Local Gifts

Mountain Village Mercantile (Stanley)

Groceries, snacks, gear, souvenirs


Inn At the Pines (Idaho City)

Cozy newer retreat near The Springs

Redfish Lake Lodge (Stanley)

Rustic, charming lodge with amazing views and lake amenities

Mountain Village Resort (Stanley)

Cozy downtown lodge with access to scenic hot springs


The Springs (Idaho City)

Relaxing luxury hot springs with private pools (Thurs-Sat Only currently)

Sawtooth Adventure Company (Stanley)

Scenic adventure river tours, rafting, kayaking, SUPs, Biking

Redfish Lake Corrals (Stanley)

Family-friendly guided scenic horseback rides


The greatest thing about Idaho City is its close proximity from the valley. With unlimited outdoor adventure in all seasons, it’s a simple escape for a weekend or a day. Whether adventure, relaxation, shopping or great food and drink are on your agenda, there's something for everyone.

Boise Ridge Riders host the “Idaho City 100” annually in June for dirt biking fans of all ages

Idaho Center for Outdoor Education manages the disc golf course

Gold Mine Grill and Saloon has live music every weekend as well as food, hotel rooms and tiny cabin rentals.

Gold Dust Rodeo is held at the rodeo grounds annually in June.

Jack Pine Roundup Rodeo, held annually in August.

Diamond Lil's not only has a steakhouse but a museum, as well.

Simply Fun – the name says it all.  It’s the cool toy store in town.

Historic Walking Tours covers all things history and mining.

The Sluice Box (the crazy building at the end of Main Street) is always on the can't miss list.  Grab coffee in the new coffee shop while antique shopping.

Cowboy Campground is a venue and campground that also offers horse corrals for people traveling with horses.

Majestic Mountain Ranch has bunk house for rent and a dutch oven cooking adventure for a true mountain escape

Idaho City Grocery Store has a growler station and some incredible beverage selections, (better than a lot of options in the valley!) as well as a great fresh meat counter.

A new "micro resort" called The Smoke Jumper is in the works.

Kim and Cathy are a mother daughter team who own Harley's Pub, a stop for all the motorcyclists who love to cruise the curves to the town and beyond.

For more information check out Idaho City Chamber of Commerce

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