Snowshoeing the Boise National Forest

In the mid 1860s, at its peak during the gold rush, Idaho City was the biggest city in the northwest with about 200 businesses and 7,000 residents. If you’ve been to the small mountain town in the last 130 years, you’ve probably noticed it’s changed a bit.

With about 500 residents, according to the 2010 census, Idaho City is a remote stop along scenic Highway 21. But even during the blisteringly cold winter months, Idaho City is the base camp of memory for adventure seekers like myself who crave the beauty and peaceful solitude of Idaho’s mountainous wild.

So after snatching up a few pairs of snowshoes during our weekly Costco visit, my girlfriend and I decided to enjoy a winter slice of outdoor Idaho on the trails just north of the small mountain town. 

The trails near Idaho City provide great access to more isolated areas in the backcountry.

Busy Day Outside

It was a Saturday and sunny with plenty of snow in mid-January. As you can imagine, the big parking lot for Whoop Em’ Up trailhead was packed with trucks towing snowmobile trailers. Boiseans snowshoeing or nordic skiing on the nearby trail clogged the entrance in and out of the lot, and we decided to leave after a lady yelled at me for allegedly blocking her from getting out with her huge snowmobile rig. 

I defend my parking choice. My father is a truck driver, I know what space she needed. Anyhow, I didn’t want any trouble so I headed just down the road where there was a small pull-out parking lot on the right with trail access and an available space.

(Make sure you get a Park N’ Ski Pass before you head up to the trails, otherwise you could be fined by the Boise County sheriff’s deputies)

Into the Quiet Woods

We pulled on our snowgear and snowshoes, first following a nearby snowmobile trail and occasionally seeing a pair of snowshoers, we soon found ourselves alone with the only sound being the crunching snow under our feet and the buzz of a snowmobile in the distance. We looked up at the snow-covered hills on all sides and chose a nearby summit to ascend. 

The snowshoes offer an immense advantage traversing snow compared to trying to get through in boots, but I couldn’t imagine walking all day in snow that deep, even with modern gear. I wondered if Shoshone natives or any other tribes made their way into the mountains during winter on hunting expeditions in snow shoes during near zero degree temperatures. 

The climb was difficult. My athletic vegan girlfriend set the pace and I heaved and sweated up and down hills leaning on my poles and trying to stay abreast of the deep snow. My hat was soaked with sweat and I steamed like a clam when we reached the summit and I pulled off my coat for relief. 

But it was all worth it. The view toward the Atlanta/Grandjean side of the Sawtooth Range was breathtaking with the snow creating contrasts of white, green, and gray on the sea of evergreens and distant mountain peaks. 

My modern snowshoes look like they’re based on a modified “Bear Paw” traditional design. 

A Brief History of Snowshoes

Snowshoes are believed to have been invented and first used 4,000 years ago in Central Asia. They were first designed as a solid piece of wood with a simple foot strap made of animal skin. People wearing snowshoes likely crossed the Bering Land bridge and are the ancestors of Native American tribes. 

Several different designs for all types of snow conditions and depth have been used throughout the centuries. Check out this snowshoe design guide from Snowshoe Magazine. 

The modern snowshoes we bought from Costco are smaller in width and length than traditional snowshoe designs, and I think wider traditional designs offer a better float on the snow and are better suited for long distance travel. From what I can tell, modern snowshoes are based on a modified “Bear Paw” design. 

Sweating in the Snow

I can’t imagine trying to traverse several miles through deep snow in our modern snowshoes. My shirt and hat were soaked with sweat. The snowshoes didn’t provide much float above the snow, and if I had to travel several miles, they might have found my remains the next spring. 

We reached the top of the hill and I couldn’t help but pack a few snowballs for an assault on the camerawoman. 

Once back to the car, we warmed ourselves with the heater, but I shivered on the drive back home until I was relieved by a hot shower. Despite the cold and having to stuff my face with mixed nuts due to the intense workout of uphill climbing in the snowshoes, I loved the experience. 

We are really lucky to live in Boise, a mere hour away from pristine wilderness. If you get really ambitious, you can even tow a toboggan into the backwoods and do some winter camping with a roaring fire under the stars. But for those just looking for a great way to get outdoors on a Saturday during the winter, snowshoeing is highly recommended. 

Just make sure you have plenty of warm, moisture-wicking winter gear, pack snacks, have a solid game plan before you head out so you don’t turn a day in the snowy woods into a search and rescue operation. If you don’t have snowshoes, most ski shops rent them for pretty cheap, and they don’t require the learning curve involved with other winter sports like Nordic skiing.