There is more to Hemingway's favourite state than the humble potato – as Simon Calder discovered in the dramatic gorges, towering ski hills and rushing falls of America's greatest outdoors

Why the funny name?

The name for this richly rewarding state in the north-western US is said to derive from ee dah how – the Native American phrase for "sun coming up the mountain". Whatever the veracity of this story, there are few rewards in travel as dramatic as to stand with your back to the rising sun and the eastern plains and watch the Rockies dramatically illuminated.

Idaho – which in the early days was called the Colorado Territory – is off the beaten track for many British travellers. However, it provides a superb mix of fascinating mining history, small and friendly towns and, best of all, some of America's greatest outdoors.

You can camp, hike, bike, climb, fish, ski or just stand and stare at the startling mountains, valleys and waterfalls. This summer marks the centenary of State Parks in Idaho; a $25 (£13) sticker covers admission to all of these for the rest of the year (001 208 334 4199; www.parksandrecreation.idaho.gov).

Who first charted the territory?

Two young men named Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who embarked on an epic exploration of the lands west of the Mississippi-Missouri river system in 1804. They passed through what is now Idaho, and today there are plenty of mementos of their journey. South-east from Salmon, for example, there is a 39-mile gravel road called the Lewis and Clark National Back Country Byway, which leads to the Lemhi Pass on the Continental Divide, the border with the neighbouring state of Montana; the pass is open only from July to October. You can follow some of the Native American trails that the explorers took, such as the Lolo trail – which leads neatly to Lewis county. The legendary lads also got a pair of towns named after them: Lewiston in northern Idaho looks across the Washington state line, facing Clarkston.



Where do I start?

In Boise, the state capital – at least if you are arriving by air. Idaho has no direct flights from the UK, but there are plenty of connections – most easily on United (0845 844 4777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk) from Heathrow via Denver. You will arrive at a manageable airport with an hourly bus link for the four-mile journey to downtown Boise ($1/£0.55). A depressingly standardised range of hotels is concentrated around the airport, with few options downtown – though one place that stands out is the JJ Shaw House at 1411 West Franklin Street (001 208 344 8899; www.jjshaw.com), a handsome B&B in a historic house, where rates start at $79 (£42) for a double room.

Boise is the hub of the state's extensive Basque community. Immigrants from northern Spain and south-west France settled in the area because of their expertise raising sheep.

The city has a "Basque Block" – the 600 block of Grove Street, in the south-east of downtown. At its heart, at 611 Grove Street, is the Basque Museum and Cultural Center (001 208 343 2671; www.basquemuseum.com). This small but fascinating museum charts the history of the Basque people and their diaspora. It opens 10am-4pm from Tuesday to Friday and 11am-3pm on Saturdays, admission $4 (£2.10).

After your visit, choose from any number of Basque shops and restaurants, such as Gernika (named for the historic capital of Spain's Basque country) at 202 South Capitol Boulevard (001 208 344 2175). Specialities include chorizo sandwiches, beef tongue and Basque cheese.

Next to the city's library at 800 South 8th Street is the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial. It contains a life-size statue of the young victim of Nazi oppression and the complete text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (001 208 345 0304; www.idaho-humanrights.org).

Boise is also the unlikely home of a celebration of England's greatest writer. The Idaho Shakespeare Festival (001 208 336 9221; www.idahoshakespeare.org) runs from early June to late September.

An excellent time to be in town is next month, when the Western Idaho Fair takes place (001 208 287 5650; www.idahofair.com).



Can I hit the road?

Good idea: Boise has limited charms, and indeed is disparagingly regarded by many Americans from bigger cities. To see much of the state you will need a car. The only inter-city public transport in Idaho comprises Greyhound buses along the largely uninteresting Interstate 84 from Salt Lake City through Twin Falls to Boise and into Oregon. Boise has an impressive train station, but it has long been neglected by passenger services. The only working railroad runs across the far north of the state, and Idaho has only one station on the Amtrak network: Sandpoint, on the line between Chicago and Seattle.

The best place to pick up a rental car is Boise airport (hire depots are thin on the ground elsewhere in the state). I rented a small car from Avis (0844 581 0147; www.avis.co.uk) for $65 (£35) a day with no advance booking and free drop-off at the company's branch in the north of the state at Coeur d'Alene. Cheaper deals are possible if you book in advance through brokers such as Holiday Autos (0870 400 4468; www.holidayautos.co.uk). You can call 511 from anywhere in the state for information on weather and road conditions.



Surprise me

Just 75 miles south-west of Boise, along I-84 and then Highway 51, the Bruneau Dunes are the closest you will ever get to mountains of sand. Amid classic Western scenery a pair of natural sculptures rise up to almost 500ft. As this is a State Park, you are required to pay $5 (£2.80) – unless you buy the annual State Park sticker mentioned above.

Between here and the dull town of Twin Falls there are a couple of other minor miracles. First, the Malad Gorge – which crouches beneath the Interstate overpass. OK, it's not quite the Grand Canyon, but it is a dramatic fissure that you can stand astride thanks to a metal footbridge at the freeway end of the gorge. You can also drive around and see the gorge from various angles – and get a glimpse of your next target, the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway, which drills through the Badlands between here and Twin Falls.

The falls that comprise the only reason to come to Twin Falls are known as the Shoshone Falls, and – considering they are on the scale of Niagara – are incredibly difficult to find. In the absence of any sensible signposting, drive to the main exit for Twin Falls (I-84/Highway 93) and ask. Admission is just $3 (£1.60) for a car and its occupants, between 7am and 9pm. The reward: a horizon-filling panorama of shattered rock ledges, over which very variable quantities of water flow.

The falls were created as a result of the Bonneville Flood, which tore through the canyon 13,000 years ago. In spring and early summer, the spectacle can be extremely impressive – at other times, it is the haunting scenery that provides the interest.

For more visual stimulation, drive north on Highway 93 and then Highway 75 through a field of volcanic rock that looks as though it has been ploughed that morning, in the direction of Idaho's leading ski resort.



Downhill fast?

"Wake up and smell the snow-flakes" is a slogan used by the state for its winter sports. Idaho has 18 resorts –though a dozen of these are classified as "local" or "regional" and have limited facilities. Of the six "premier ski destination resorts", Brundage has the best snow, with an average of 30ft in a year; it is located halfway up the state, due north of Boise. But the biggest and best equipped is Sun Valley (001 800 786 8259; www. sunvalley.com), more or less in the middle of the state.

Skiing was established here, on the edge of the historic town of Ketchum, in 1936, when the Union Pacific Railroad decided to create a reason for people to come to central Idaho. The superb location boasts a vertical drop of 3,400ft and has 78 named runs. It has seen substantial investment in lifts – including nine high-speed quads.

Ketchum is a small, friendly town with plenty of interest. The best source of information is the Chapter One Bookstore on Main Street (001 208 726 5425; www.chapteronebookstore.com), where you can pick up some interesting local history material.

The ski industry means there are plenty of places to stay, and away from the ski season you can expect good rates; I paid $80 (£43), without breakfast, for a good room at the Tamarack Lodge at 291 Walnut Avenue North (001 208 726 3344).

Out of season, Ketchum-Sun Valley is a delight. The hiking opportunities are endless, and a free local bus will shuttle you around to the trailheads. You can also go in search of Ernest Hemingway, who took his own life here in 1961 (see panel above).



A walk In the wild?

Take a scenic drive first. The Sawtooth Scenic Byway heads north-west from Ketchum, clawing its way to Galena Summit – a pass where an ambitious lodge has been planted. On the far side you can descend to Red Fish Lake, the most enticing location in the Sawtooth Mountain Range. From the Ranger Station on the highway, you can walk over the hills to the lake, in whose steely surface the incisor-like Sawtooths are reflected. This is also a very good place to meet the extensive birdlife of the mountains, with an interpretative trail around the marshes beside the lake. From here you can go deeper into the mountains, but seek reliable local advice on terrain and ensure you are properly equipped – the weather is extremely changeable. You can camp at one of nine sites dotted around the lake, but some require advance booking (up to eight months ahead) on 001 877 444 6777.

Award for the wildest town in Idaho arguably goes to the brave, bleak community of Stanley, which has grown up around the lonely intersection of Highways 75 and 21.

From here you can return to Boise on a couple more Scenic Byways, or throw a loop via the town of Salmon and a bit of Montana to reach the north of Idaho.

Frontier country?

Take the highway to Salmon and you find yourself driving beside the Salmon River, through an engrossing valley. At the settlement of Sunbeam, the relics of a 20th century dam are strewn across the river. It was constructed to provide power for the silver mines, but soon they became unviable – and the dam was destroyed to allow the salmon to swim up their river.

At Sunbeam you can take a free soak in the local hot springs, or venture deeper into mining territory; a track leads across the hills to Challis, though beyond the first five miles you will need a 4x4.



Good food and drink?

Besides the Basque specialities in Boise, you can expect good, fresh food across the state, with a particular predeliction for the potato; the humble tuber is the state symbol. Bertram's Brewery at 101 South Andrews Street (the main drag) in Salmon (001 208 756 3391; www.bertramsbrewery.com) offers excellent beer and salmon.

The state has a scattering of wineries in an area called Sunnyslope (between Caldwell and Marsing), with names such as Snake River and Sainte-Chapelle, though better wines can be found from just across the border in Washington State.



Any more city life?

The closest you will find in northern Idaho is in the alluring lakeside of Coeur d'Alene (pronounced "cor da lane"). It has a profoundly Alpine feel, perching prettily alongside a lake. There are plenty of easy and rewarding hikes and biking trails on the lakeshore and into the hills.

The town's social hub is the convivial Java on Sherman (Sherman Avenue being the main thoroughfare; Java is on the corner of 4th Street), which serves good coffee and fresh food from 6am to 8pm daily. A rudimentary free but infrequent bus service operates around the city, run by the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.

East towards the Montana border (defined by the watershed of the Bitterroot Range), Kellogg is a former silver-mining town that has discovered tourism – and provides the best skiing in northern Idaho.



More information

A good place to start is www.visitidaho.org, though if you prefer human advice call 001 208 334 2470; bear in mind Idaho is seven hours behind the UK. The most useful guidebook is The Rough Guide to the Rocky Mountains (£14.99).

Additional research by Laura Jones

State Lines: Idaho

Population 1.3 million
Area 10 times the size of Wales
Capital Boise
Date in Union 3 July 1890
Flower Syringa
Motto "It is perpetual"
Nickname Gem State

The Hemingway trail

On his journey from middle-class Chicago suburb to mountain retreat in Sun Valley, Ernest Hemingway covered an astonishing amount of ground in terms of not only geography but romance and literature.

He first came to Sun Valley in September 1939, with his third-wife-to-be, Martha Gellhorn. They stayed in suite 206 at the Sun Valley Lodge (001 208 622 2151; www.sunvalley.com), opened three years earlier; the peak room rate is $559 (£285). It is said that he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls here – though this honour is also claimed by the Ambos Mundos hotel in Havana.

For the next two decades, Hemingway kept returning – and became a regular at the Casino at 220 Main Street, Ketchum (001 208 726 9901). This still exists, and feels like a rough-and-ready Western bar – though gambling has been outlawed in Idaho. He also drank at the Alpine, which has since become Whiskey Jacques, and the Tram Car, now the Baldy Bistro.

Twenty years after his first visit, he finally bought a house in Idaho, just north of the centre of Ketchum; it is not open to the public. On 1 July 1961, wracked with depression, deep into alcoholism and despondent about having to flee his beloved Cuba, Hemingway ate his final meal in the Christiania restaurant, at 303 Walnut Avenue (001 208 726 3388), then returned home with his fourth and final wife, Mary. A few hours later he turned his shotgun on himself.

Despite this tragic end, Ketchum-Sun Valley celebrates America's greatest 20th-century writer with enthusiasm. The elementary school is named after him; he has a handsome memorial in a small copse on Sun Valley Road (on the south-east side, about half-an-hour's walk from Main Street in Ketchum); and he is buried in Ketchum Cemetery, alongside Highway 75 as it heads north.

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