Although Idaho’s fall colors don’t match the intensity of the palette of colors in the Northeast, they still reason to get in the outdoors to savor the show. They add a pop of color to the vast swaths of evergreens in the Rocky Mountains, and glowing red, purple, and yellow underbrush in the Boise, Payette, or Sawtooth national forests can be just as photogenic as New Hampshire’s fall colors.
These fall colors always look brighter when they reflect off water, so what better way to savor them than paddling? Fall colors will be bursting from Boise to McCall and Stanley, and now is the perfect time of the year to see them from a touring kayak or canoe.
Here, five great paddling trips in Boise to see the brilliant fall colors that abound around Idaho. Don’t forget to take the camera—in a dry box, of course.
1. Boise River
By fall, many floaters have given up on the Boise River. But the cottonwoods and other diversity of trees along the river make it a quilt of fall colors. The river’s shoreline is bursting with yellows, reds, purples ,and oranges as canoeists and kayakers paddle downriver from Barber Park to Ann Morrison Parks. The river corridor has such an array of colors because of all the trees in the city’s parks along the way. It’s definitely one of the best paddling trips in Boise that takes advantage of the fall’s color.
Put in the river at Barber Park, the traditional launch off Echert Road, and take out at Ann Morrison Park; the entire trip should take about three hours. The river will be very low, so wear neoprene paddling shoes so you can get out and push over the low riffles. The main three diversions along the trip are low, too, and might be better to portage, though running them in low water in a canoe is doable. But boaters have to scout and line up for the drops properly. A swim in the 40- to 50- degree water in October is no fun, after all! During the trip, pull out of the river at a small beach on the north side, between the East Park Center Bridge and the Broadway Bridge, and stop at The Ram Restaurant & Brewery just downstream from the beach. (Some boaters carry their canoes to the lawn of the restaurant to be on the safe side to prevent theft). The “taste of fall” at the restaurant is the 71Pale Ale flat iron pork sandwich.
2. Payette Lake
Located 102 miles north of Boise, off Idaho highway 55, Payette Lake is an underused canoeing and kayaking lake, especially in the fall when the aspens are glowing and fair-weather boaters shy away from the high country’s chilly temperatures—don’t forget your paddling gloves for this adventure.
The north end of Payette Lake near North Beach is an ideal place for paddling and seeing hints of yellow. A good paddling adventure is up the North Fork of the Payette River, where it feeds into the lake; the river will be low, but doable. Boaters will find reds, purples,and oranges in the underbrush along the river’s banks. Kayakers can also launch at the boat ramp at Ponderosa State Park on the southeast side of the lake and paddle along the shoreline of the park. Look closely in the coves for hints of fall colors. After the trip, stop at My Father’s Place in McCall for some of the best burgers and milkshakes in western Idaho.
3. North Fork of the Payette River
The section of the river from the town of Cascade to the Cabarton Bridge is about 7 miles and goes through agricultural and river bottomlands with brush that offers hints of color. The colors are subtle against the backdrop of meadows and river bottomlands. The water is low and you’ll have a long day of paddling, but it’s worth it to take in views of the mountains and forests on both sides of Long Valley. Launch at Fischer Park, which is located on the east side of state highway 55, just south of Cascade adjacent to the Payette River. It’s 70 miles north of Boise on Highway 55. End the trip at the Cabarton Bridge, but don’t go past it: From there, it’s a low-water, rocky whitewater experience on the Cabarton stretch of the river.
Also, avoid other sections of the North Fork, which are Class V rapids. How can you keep your eyes on the intense whitewater and look for fall colors anyway? Avoid any sections of the North Fork of the Payette from Smiths Ferry downstream to Banks because of the rough waters. (Do that section in a car along state highway 55.) After the trip, head back to Boise but stop in Horseshoe Bend at Kit’s Place. A favorite among boaters is the Hawaiian Chicken sandwich. Don’t forget to pose for a photo next to the fully stuffed black bear.
4. Lake Cascade
The reservoir is very low in the fall but that doesn’t mean paddlers can’t carry their boats down to the waterline and take off. The reservoir’s shoreline, especially out of Donnelly on the north end, provides scenic fall colors. It’s also a good place to see ospreys and pelicans. The west side of the reservoir has aspens and tamaracks changing colors. The tamaracks (western larch) look like yellow flames in an evergreen forest. Look up on West Mountain, to the west of course, and see tamaracks and aspens spicing up the landscape.
Boaters can drive 70 miles north of Boise on state Highway 55 and launch at the boat ramp in Cascade or along the south end of the lake. Drive 90 miles to Donnelly and head over to the west side of the reservoir and launch at any of the campgrounds or boat ramps on that side of the reservoir. Before heading out on the paddling adventure, stop for breakfast at Grandma’s Homestead Restaurant in Cascade, whose down-home cooking draws locals.
5. Stanley Lake
Golden aspens and red and orange underbrush add to the color of the evergreen forests along the shores of this beautiful lake at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains and Wilderness Area. The lake is very popular with paddlers and fall colors only add to the adventure. Boaters can launch anywhere along the lake’s northeast shoreline near U.S. Forest Service campgrounds. This is an alpine lake experience without having to pack into the high country. Paddlers can circle the whole lake in less than an afternoon and enjoy a picnic on the secluded side opposite the campgrounds. It’s also fun to beach the boat on the opposite side and go for a short hike on the edge of the wilderness.
The lake is about seven miles northwest of the town of Stanley, which is three hours from Boise on state highway 21. The place to go before heading out on this trip is the Stanley Baking Company and Café, whose scones, cinnamon rolls, sticky buns, croissants, and muffins are to die for. The cafe also serves breakfast and lunch, but many boaters don’t get past the pastries.