Why You Should Plan a Stargazing Road Trip in Idaho

International Dark Sky Reserve near Sun Valley, Idaho
Photo: Nils Ribi/Courtesy of Idaho Dark Sky Reserve

If there’s one thing you should know about downtown Boise, it’s this: don’t go on a Sunday. The wide streets and 25-mile tree-lined Greenbelt make for a relaxed stroll, but judging from what we saw, this capital enjoys its day of rest. After landing at Boise airport and picking up our rental car, a lonely crew of booze bikers tearing down Main Street was the only sign of life we encountered.

Idaho, Ketchum, downtown
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My friend Jack and I came to Idaho not to window shop, or explore Boise’s Basque cultural district, but to get our stargazing on. Idaho is home to the country’s first dark-sky reserve, and as such, the potato state is drawing more astrophiles than ever. Particularly in mid-August, when the Perseid meteor shower makes its annual appearance. So, after our lunch, we were on our way.

Ketchum, Idaho

Google offered us three options for getting to Ketchum, the epicenter for all astral activity — and final resting place of Ernest Hemingway. We set off down Highway 21, also known as the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway. At nearly four hours, it’s not the fastest route to Ketchum, by any means, but as the name implies, it’s easy on the eyes.

Ponderosa Pines Scenic Byway near Boise, Idaho
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Shortly after leaving Boise, we began traveling through wide-open valley plains, where the sun-scorched tallgrass looked about as silky golden as a cup of honey. We were soon ascending into Boise National Forest, where the road took on a dreamy, Route 66-esque quality: a diminishing line of tarmac, conveying us through the wild expanse of the American west. Our view was sunbeams, telephone wires, and a whole lot of empty prairie.

No cell service reaches the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, but it was just as well. The unplugged mountain drive left us time to fantasize about the Perseid meteors, and what it would actually be like to witness a night sky without any light pollution.

We also found out it was going to be a new moon that night, which meant even better visibility than normal. The stars, it seemed, were truly aligned.

Staying in Ketchum

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters in the end,” wrote Hemingway, and in regards to our excursion from Boise, it couldn’t have been more true. While Boise National Forest felt pristine, vast, spellbinding, arriving in Ketchum early Sunday evening was uneventful.

Our hotel, the Limelight, looked out over Main Street, which has a Wild West-style saloon, a performing arts center, and a handful of high-end restaurants (As ski towns go, Ketchum is often billed as a tinier, quainter Aspen). Dinner at the Mediterranean-inspired Town Square Tavern was delicious. But the most exciting part of the night came after — when we headed into the backcountry to see stars.

The Central Idaho Dark-Sky Reserve covers a huge area of land — 906,000 acres, to be exact. Of course, stars are visible all over Idaho, but here you can really dive deep into darkness. In fact, as one of the least densely populated states, Idaho was made for stargazing.

Galena Lodge, Idaho
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Ketchum is contained inside the designated area, and stars can certainly be viewed here, but we opted to drive 30 minutes north, to Galena Lodge, a rustic family resort with Nordic trails, yurts, and a whole lot of empty space.

Stargazing in Idaho

Supporting “the needs of wildlife” is listed as one of the virtues of a dark-sky reserve, like the one in Idaho (others have been designated in far-flung places like New Zealand, Wales, and Namibia). But they do just as much to stoke our own human sense of wonder.

Beautiful Stanley Lake, Stanley, Idaho during night with milky way in the background.
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So, what’s it like to stand in the middle of a dark-sky reserve, on a new moon, during a meteor shower? Freaking awesome. After pulling into the parking lot at Galena Lodge, we hiked about 15 minutes to a field, where a few other star folk had gathered to watch. Aside from our small group of 10 or so, there was no one else around for miles. Settling into our portable folding chairs, we turned off our headlamps and turned our attention to the glorious inky void above.

Star trails over Sawtooth Range, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho, USA
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Finally, the big reveal. A wash of stars, including the Scorpius constellation, and Pegasus, and ruby red Mars all competed for our attention. The richly silhouetted Milky Way was as seamless as oozing lava, or free-fluttering gauze, delicately embroidered with millions of tiny twinkling gems. And every three or four minutes, a yellowish-green streak would go skating across the sky, eliciting sudden “Oohs” and “Ahhs” from the small audience.

Starry night sky over Redfish Lake, Idaho.
Matt Benjamin Photography @bouldermatt82/Courtesy of Idaho Dark Sky Reserve

On the drive back to our hotel, I strained my head out of the window to catch a glimpse of a few last meteors, stealing over the peaks of the Sawtooths.

Don't miss: Sawtooth National Forest

Of course, not everyone will be lucky enough to time their trip to the Perseid meteor shower. If you can, try to sync up with a new moon, to maximize the darkness. And spend some time exploring the wilderness of Sawtooth National Forest, the entrance to which sits just beyond Ketchum.

The Sawtooth Range sits in the distance in a meadow, in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area of Stanley, Idaho.
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There are tons of accessible and easy-to-navigate campgrounds, like Caribou and Murdock, both of which are excellent for fly-fishing and have dozens of scenic hiking trails leading up into the mountains. No prior camping experience? It doesn’t matter in Idaho. Locals are friendly, and often willing to help point you in the right direction if you seem lost.

My only regret? Not packing some warmer clothes. As it turns out, the mountains get freezing cold at night — even in mid-August — and neither my friend nor I had dressed appropriately

On our last night, snuggled in our tent at Caribou campground, we headed to bed early, since it seemed a better option than shivering in the open air. Nevertheless, I happened to poke my head out around 2 a.m. to scan the brilliant sky. In just a few seconds, a bright meteor projected itself over the northern horizon, sending a wave of joy through my half-asleep body. My packing skills left something to be desired, but I sure was warming up to Idaho.

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