Do you know Idaho? You probably know a lot about the more populated states like California, New York, Florida, and Texas. And you’re also less likely to know someone who lives in Idaho or grew up here. It’s currently the fastest growing state in the US, but there are still fewer than 2 million people living here.
But where do you start with Idaho if you’ve never visited? Let’s review some common misconceptions and myths about the Gem State and explore a few things you probably didn’t know.
It’s not Iowa or Ohio
Persistent legends abound in Ohio, Iowa, and Idaho with a similar storyline. A college student from one of these three states is introduced to an older person back east where everyone is presumably wiser. When the student answers the fateful question about where he was raised, Idaho, the pretentious octogenarian must correct him. “Young man, around here we pronounce it ‘OHIO.’”
Idaho is more than just farmland
Idaho covers nearly 83,600 square miles (53 million acres), and about 22% of the state is used for agriculture. Over 60% of Idaho is public land administered by federal agencies – Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Park Service – including forests, grassland, wetlands, and rangelands. If you’re unfamiliar with western rangelands, picture shrubs such as sagebrush and rabbitbrush, grasses and scattered juniper trees. Much of the public and privately-owned rangeland provides grazing for cattle or sheep.
Idaho is one of the Mountain States
It’s unclear why someone might assume the western US is flat or that there is a void between the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mountains. There are over 100 named mountain ranges in Idaho, from the Bear River Range above Bear Lake in the southeast to the fabulous Selkirk Mountains and Seven Sisters near the Canadian Border. The highest ranges, Lost River, Lemhi, and Pioneer, are in central Idaho and reach over 12,000 feet above sea level. Aside from these, 10 other mountain ranges in Idaho have peaks over 11,000 feet.
Potatoes are part of Idaho’s agriculture
It is true that Idaho is famous for its potatoes and about a third of America’s spuds are grown here, but potato farms are only a fraction of the landscape. In 2012 there were over 11 million acres of land in farms throughout the state, but only 345 thousand acres were planted in potatoes – 2.6% of all farmland. More acres were planted in hay (1.38 million acres), wheat (1.25 million), barley (593 thousand), and corn (367 thousand).
More than a dozen different kinds of potatoes are grown here, but they aren’t Idaho’s biggest moneymaker. Dairy products are now number one in Idaho, with beef/cattle sales coming in at number 2. Chobani, which opened a yogurt plant in Twin Falls in 2012, is part of the surge in dairy production in Idaho.
The Port of Lewiston connects Idaho to the Pacific
Idaho is not landlocked – the port at the City of Lewiston is 700 feet above sea level and is the farthest inland port on the Pacific coast. Barge traffic on the Lower Snake River and Columbia River serve as the top wheat-exporting route in the US. In 2014, 49% of all American wheat exports passed along the Columbia and Snake River system. The inland waterway includes 8 locks and it serves cruise ships and recreational boaters, too.
A little over 1% of Idaho’s surface is covered by water – 926 square miles of lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. So why not go fishing? Idaho’s streams and rivers offer world-renowned fly fishing, from Henry’s Fork in eastern Idaho to nearly every corner of the state. And don’t forget the aptly named Salmon River. For a completely different experience, you might try winter fishing for Bonneville Cisco in Bear Lake. These 6-inch striped fish spawn in late January through early February, and millions fill the lake. Bonneville Whitefish are larger and are considered a delicacy, spawning in late fall. Other prized fish in Bear Lake are Mackinaw and the Bear Lake Cutthroat.
For a greater challenge, consider catching (and releasing) a white sturgeon, the largest freshwater fish in North America. These primitive fish are found in the Snake River through parts of southern Idaho and Hells Canyon, the Kootenai River in northern Idaho, and other rivers that empty into the Pacific, including the Columbia River. While they can grow up to 20 feet in optimal conditions closer to the Pacific coast, the Idaho record for a white sturgeon is just over 9½ feet.
There’s gold in them thar hills
Idaho saw many explorers, pioneers, and prospectors pass through its forests and rangelands, from Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery to pioneers on the Oregon and California trails. Lewis and Clark were looking for the Northwest Passage. Oregon pioneers were looking beyond the sagebrush for the green Willamette Valley. Forty-niners raced over Idaho hills to claim riches in California. Few migrating Americans wanted to build up an irrigation system in the dust to eke out a living surrounded by sagebrush.
But then in 1860 gold was discovered in northern Idaho near Pierce and prospectors fanned out to the east and south. In 1862 a much larger deposit was discovered in the Boise Basin, producing gold for several decades. The following year Idaho Territory was created and an economy was built around mining by the farmers and businessmen who supported the miners with the essentials of life. The town of Boise, situated at a fertile spot along the Oregon Trail, grew quickly to serve weary travelers and hungry miners a few miles away.
Now you know a few more truths about Idaho. For more fascinating details, check out one of these sites on your next visit:
- Appaloosa Museum, Moscow
- Boise Basin Museum, Idaho City
- Idaho Capitol Building, Boise
- Idaho Potato Museum, Blackfoot
- National Oregon/California Trail Center Museum, Montpelier
- Nez Perce National Historical Park, Joseph/Spalding