Idaho Scenic Drive: Payette River Scenic Byway

A drive along the Payette River Scenic Byway can be distracting for motorists. Rather than watching the road, you may be more inclined to watch the river as it crashes and tumbles its way over rocks and through the narrow river valley. Be sure to take advantage of the occasional pull-offs that allow you to view wilder parts of the river and treat your senses to the sights, sounds, smells, and rhythms of Idaho's famous white water.

Enjoy the scenic drive along the river through the Boise and Payette National Forests before arriving in the high, picturesque mountain valley dotted with the resort towns of Cascade, McCall, and New Meadows. Between the thunderous roll of the white water and the quiet serenity of the valley landscapes, you will find a thrilling adventure as you travel this mountain byway.


Historical Qualities of Payette River Scenic Byway

The people and events associated with this river stretch thousands of years back in time, creating generational ties between the past and present and between old-timers and new arrivals in Idaho. But most of the recorded history of this area started only a couple hundred years ago.

Fur trappers of the early 1800s, working for Hudson's Bay Company, named the Payette River in honor of their comrade, Francois Payette, a French-Canadian who explored much of southwestern Idaho. After explorers mapped the territory, pioneers began to settle the area.

Later, people began the construction of a bridge now called the North Fork Bridge, although locals refer to it as the Rainbow Bridge because of its arch. It crosses the North Fork of the Payette River north of Smiths Ferry. Built in 1938, it displays an open-spandrel design introduced to Idaho in the 1920s. Unlike other bridges of this type, the North Fork Bridge has not been altered over the years and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Qualities of Payette River Scenic Byway

Along the Payette River Scenic Byway rests the Idaho batholith, which offers a wealth of knowledge for geologists as well as precious samples for gemologists.

This unique geological feature covers much of the area and

is primarily made up of granite.

A lot of this batholith formation began millions of years ago, when magma pushed up on Earth's crust and created many

of the Idaho mountains. The magma eventually hardened

below the surface and is now known as the batholith; through erosion, you can see the cooled rock today.

Yet much has happened to the land in the last 12,000 years, making Idaho a geologically active place. Quite recently (relatively speaking), magma oozed out of Earth's crust in many places and has also shot out of volcanoes, warping the land and changing the environment.

Due to differences in the magma's cooling times and conditions, the Idaho batholith contains many rare and valuable minerals, including the star garnet, jasper, and opal, making Idaho an ideal place for gemologists to collect gems. (Idaho is, after all, known as the Gem State.) The area also boasts many gold, silver, copper, and zinc veins.

This Idaho batholith created a unique landscape that interests sightseers as well as geologists. There are mountains made out of solid granite and valleys carved out of this hard mineral. And because many areas near Payette River Scenic Byway are still quite new (geologically speaking), several rugged peaks have not bowed down to the effects of gravity. Furthermore, people can see the traces of glaciers, as these, too, have not yet disappeared.

This map details Payette River Scenic Byway.


Of all the activities available here, white-water rafting ranks perhaps as the most popular. People find braving the rapids on the Payette River especially enjoyable.

There is an abundance of white water along the Payette River Scenic Byway, and rafters rarely experience a boring moment. The rapids range in sizes, so rafters with less adventuresome spirits can usually avoid the more commanding waves. As you raft in the Payette River, you'll witness sparkling clean water and gorgeous, jagged peaks looming high above the canyon.

Other than rafting, you can find numerous places to settle down for a relaxing picnic, enjoy world-class trout fishing, and hike or bike the plentiful mountain trails. Many enjoy viewing wildlife in the wetlands around this area, which attract bald eagles, ospreys, and Canada geese.

During the cold winter months, snowmobiling replaces rafting as the most popular activity, although skiing and snowshoeing follow close behind.

Find more useful information related to Idaho's Payette River Scenic Byway:

  • Idaho Scenic Drives: Payette Scenic Byway is just one of the scenic byways in Idaho. Check out the others.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.


Highlights of Payette River Scenic Byway

The natural beauty of rushing water visible from Payette River Scenic Byway.

The scenic beauty found along the Payette River Scenic Byway is one of the road's strongest features, an aspect most people remember years after traveling here. Travelers are lulled by the flow of the Payette River.

Cascade Reservoir, with its calm serenity and abundant wildlife, can be glimpsed around the corners of the mountains and through the valley surrounding it. Visitors can pull off into access areas, watch the trout anglers, and gaze at bald eagles and ospreys flying overhead.


Several picnic grounds also offer you clean mountain air and an opportunity to soak up the natural scenery. Nestled among mountains and trees is a spectacular view of Payette Lake.

Not all scenic features along the byway are natural, however; constructed features such as the Old Tate Barn are reminiscent of old-time America. The agricultural and Finnish culture of the area is preserved on Farm-to-Market Road and Elo Road. An old Finnish church, with a cemetery next to it, gives a glimpse of what the area was once like.

The Payette River Scenic Byway's southern end begins in Boise, the Idaho state capital. Start there, and end in Ponderosa State Park.

Boise: Boise is the home of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, with exhibits about the local Basque community, the largest in the United States; the Idaho Botanical Gardens; the Idaho State Historical Museum (with exhibits on fur trading, ranching, mining, and other historical aspects of Idaho and the Pacific Northwest); and nearby 1,100-foothigh Table Rock.

Payette River: Take Route 55 north to the old mining town of Horseshoe Bend on the Payette River. Between Horseshoe Bend and the town of Banks to the north, the Payette River offers white-water rapids of moderate difficulty, with several easy access points. There are also good swimming beaches south of Banks.

Rainbow Bridge: North of the town of Smiths Ferry is the Rainbow Bridge, built in 1938. Also called the North Fork Bridge, it forms a 410-foot span across the North Fork of the Payette.

Cascade State Park: Continue north to Cascade State Park on Cascade Reservoir, which is popular for fishing, boating, swimming, camping, and wildlife viewing.

McCall: Farther north is the old timber town of McCall, settled in the 1820s and now a resort town on the shore of Payette Lake. You can find good boating, sandy beaches, and mountain scenery here.

Ponderosa State Park: Near McCall, Ponderosa State Park occupies a peninsula that juts into Payette Lake. Besides scenic overlooks of the lake, the park has boating, swimming, hiking, biking, camping, and winter skiing amid ponderosa pines and Douglas firs.

If white-water rafting is what you're after, the Payette River can't be beat. For those less adventuresome, however, the Payette River Scenic Byway is still a can't-miss drive, with beautiful mountain peaks and other unique geological features.

Find more useful information related to Idaho's Payette River Scenic Byway:

  • Idaho Scenic Drives: Payette Scenic Byway is just one of the scenic byways in Idaho. Check out the others.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.