Small town America holds multitudinous appeals. The laid back pace of life, the personability of the various patrons, the palpable proximity to the past, the ease of which the city limits can be breached and the empty landscapes embraced, and on and on the list goes. But one thing that cannot be ignored is the charm of a well-presented and pragmatic downtown drag. Idaho brings a lot to the table in this regard. There are modest strips with touches of local flavor, sociable streets with plenty of old-fashioned, home cooked grub, and even dashes of eccentric novelties that give the locals a source of pride, and the tourists a source of entertainment. These seven Gem State towns are known for their vibrant main streets.
Only 32 miles South of Bonners Ferry, Sandpoint also enjoys a waterfront core, this time on the Northern wing of Lake Pend Oreille (i.e. Idaho's largest body of water), just as it transitions into the Pend Oreille River. This small Bonner County city shines brightest as Cedar Street rounds into First Avenue. There are taverns, coffee shops, eateries, local markets, ice cream parlors, boutique shops, and more, just a literal stone's throw from Sand Creek (which slips in from the lake). Connected to this main strip via the aptly named bridge street is Sandpoint City Beach Park – a fun and cozy spot to sprawl out on a sunny day.
Bonners Ferry is nestled in the Kootenai River Valley and is encompassed by three mountain ranges. Its downtown core, while modest in nature, therefore enjoys a lovely riverside setting and epic scenery. This Boundary County city has a population of only 2,543 but it sits near the top of Idaho's geographical chimney, and sees lots of traffic going to and from Southeastern British Columbia, Canada. Because of the potential tourism draws, Bonners Ferry has recently revamped its main drag, making it a cool spot to grab a pint, dine by the river, or even catch a show at the Pearl Theater, all while rubbing elbows with friendly townies.
While exploring the small towns of Bonner County, follow the Pend Oreille River West for 22 miles to its junction with Priest River and the cute town of the same name. This place is best-suited for those keen on outdoor recreation and with broader explorations in mind. Priest River is part of the Panhandle Historic Rivers Passage Scenic Byway, and the International Selkirk Loop. The Selkirk Mountain range offers plenty of hiking opportunities, with the grunt up Gisborne Mountain being a particularly attractive option. Fans of foraging should time their visit for the huckleberry and mushroom picking seasons. But when not busy engaging with the natural environment, the cozy Main Street offers a chance to connect with the locals on a humble stretch that perfectly accommodates the less than 2,000 residents.
Located next to the beautiful Payette Lake (and just West of Little Payette Lake), close to the ski slopes, hot springs, golf courses, and Ponderosa State Park, McCall is a fun-loving spot if there ever was one. So it makes sense that this Valley County, former logging community would have a walkable downtown that showcases the best of lake-life leisure. One such novelty is the McCall Ale Trail, which includes ten breweries near the junction between Lake Street and 3rd Street, or otherwise nearby (everything in McCall is nearby). Adults can snag a passport from any participating establishment and get unique stamps as they sample some local suds. This is likely to get you in the mood for the regular pop-up concerts and rotating summer festivals that take over the lakeside downtown.
Salmon is a beautiful and friendly mountain town on the state's East-Central border with Montana. This Lemhi County community has a Main Street that crosses the abundant Salmon River (so bring your fishing rod), in the heart of the breathtaking Salmon Valley. One's gaze will rotate between the impressive hills and smiling faces in this place that embodies the Wild West, but without the old-school hostilities. Salmon is all about feeling good in nature, and appreciating the advantages of an isolated yet modestly developed small town. Spend the first part of the day rafting, fishing, or scratching the surface of the 2.367 million acres of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, and then nourish your body at one of the wholesome establishments along the main drag.
Over in the Southeast corner of the state sits the Bingham County city of Blackfoot. This quirky community straddles the Snake River, and is only a short distance East of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. But it is the Main Street, combined with some side street detours that give this place its character. For starters, many of the buildings look like something out of a retro movie, including the Blackfoot Movie Mill – an independent cinema that plays the latest blockbusters as well as the classics. Next up is the Idaho Potato Museum & Potato Station Cafe (Blackfoot is, after all, the Potato Capital of the World). And finally, follow the jovial screams and laughter to the Eastern Idaho State Fair, towards the North end of the downtown core.
No talk of notable main streets can conclude without citing the longest Main Street in the world, which oddly enough, can be found in Idaho's Fremont County. Island Park, though it averages a width of 500 feet, stretches for 36.8 miles along the Eastern portion of the state, close to the Northwest border of Wyoming. The North end of town therefore leads one close to the West entrance of Yellowstone National Park, while the South end kicks you towards Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The aberrant dimensions of this long, narrow community were quite intentional when the town was incorporated back in 1947. This was a plow to circumvent the touchy liquor laws that prohibited selling any hooch outside of the incorporated limits. So if you want to check off a cool world record site on your way to exploring the surrounding wilderness, head for Island Park.
It is interesting to see how much the main streets, or downtown cores can vary from place to place. And yet, there remains a quintessential, small town (or small city) vibe that is curiously magnetic. A family-run restaurant, or a cute ice cream parlor, or a crisp craft brew go a long way when accompanied by a smile and genuine attempt at connection. So when you head for these seven communities and make sure to linger on the primary stretch.