Nickname: The Gem State

Statehood: 1890; 43rd state

Population (as of July 2016): 1,683,140

Capital: Boise

Biggest City: Boise

Abbreviation: ID

State bird: mountain bluebird

State flower: syringa


Idaho state flag


Archaeologists recently made a huge discovery in Idaho: a blade-like tool made of rock. What’s the big deal? It turns out the blade is more than 13,500 years old, proving that people have lived in the area at least a few thousand years longer than experts previously thought. Thousands of years after the blade’s makers lived, other Native American tribes including the Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai, Shoshone, Bannock, and Blackfeet lived on the land.


The first non-native people known to have reached this land were American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who crossed through in 1805. Both the United States and Great Britain claimed the region until 1846, when the two governments signed the Oregon Treaty, transferring ownership to America. The land became part of the Oregon Territory, then part of the Washington Territory. But once settlers discovered gold there in 1860, thousands rushed in, and in 1863 Idaho became its own territory. Seventeen years later, in 1890, Idaho became the 43rd state.


The Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai, Nez Perce, Shoshone-Paiute, and Shoshone-Bannock tribes still live in Idaho today.



When officials first suggested Idaho’s name, some people thought it came from a Native American word meaning “gem of the mountains.” But it turns out the word “Idaho” was actually made up!


The nickname the Gem State might have grown out of the myth of the state’s name. It may also refer to the many precious metals and gems mined in the mountains of the state, including star garnet (the state gem.)


Idaho is bordered by Canada in the north, Montana and Wyoming in the east, Utah and Nevada in the south, and Oregon and Washington in the west.


Idaho can be divided into three major geographical regions. The Rocky Mountains region rises across the north and center of the state. It includes Borah Peak, the state’s highest point at an often snowy 12,662 feet, as well as the “panhandle” in the narrow, northernmost part of the state. This region also has deep river-cut canyons and glacial trenches. That includes Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America. It’s even deeper than the Grand Canyon!


The Columbia Plateau spreads across the southern part of the state. Volcanic eruptions that occurred between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago made this area almost entirely flat, with a few mountains.


The Basin and Range Province lies in southeast Idaho, with valleys with grassy plateaus. It also contains part of the fertile Bear River basin and some high ridges.


Idaho’s mammals can be big: Black bears, moose, bighorn sheep, and woodland caribou are all found in this state. So can smaller animals, such as Idaho pocket gophers and Idaho ground squirrels. And don’t forget the 400 species of birds. Yellow-billed cuckoos, great horned owls, downy woodpeckers, Lincoln’s sparrows, and bobolinks (a small blackbird) fly across the region.


A few of the area’s amphibians include Idaho giant salamanders, Coeur d’Alene salamanders, and tailed frogs, and reptiles such as painted turtles, northern alligator lizards, and western terrestrial garter snakes crawl and slither through the state.

State Tree: western white pine; State Bird: mountain blue bird; State Animal: Appaloosa horse; State Quarter

Idaho has the largest stand of western white pines in North America, and it’s also home to the world’s tallest western white pine (219 feet—taller than Cinderella’s castle at Disney World!) Other common Idaho trees are Douglas fir, western hemlock, ponderosa pine, and western redcedar. Idaho trillium, pinkfairies, orange daylily, sticky purple geranium, and crown-vetch are a few of the colorful wildflowers that grow throughout the state.



Though “the Gem State” might come from a fake word, the state is actually full of gems. Idaho produces 72 types of gemstones, including rare star garnets, amethysts, rubies, and diamonds. The state is also known for mining silver, zinc, lead, and travertine, a type of marble.



  • At the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, visitors can get a tuber-themed tour about one of the state’s best known crops. The museum is easy to spot—there’s a giant baked potato statue in front of it!
  • Idaho’s famous potatoes have inspired some weird treats. Made with vanilla ice cream that’s coated in cocoa and topped with whipped cream, “ice cream potatoes” look like baked potatoes with sour cream. And one candy company makes a treat called the “Idaho Spud.” It’s a marshmallow covered in chocolate and coconut!
  • Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in central Idaho feels like a lunar walk, but it’s actually a massive, dried lava flow that formed over thousands of years. The eight eruptions that created the lava field took place about every 2,000 years … and it’s about time for another one since this volcano is dormant, not dead.
  • Sacagawea, the Native American guide for explorers Lewis and Clark, was born in what is now Idaho.
  • Bitterroot National Forest straddles Idaho and Montana.
  • The old mining town of Silver City looks almost exactly the way it did more than a hundred years ago. Today it’s a tourist stop, but in the 1860s its mines produced at least $60 million worth of precious metals. Visitors can stay in the same hotel where old-time miners slept.
Map of U.S. showing location of Idaho

Text by Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh

Photo credits: Pancaketom, Dreamstime (quarter); FrankvandenBergh, iStockphoto (flag); RCKeller, iStockphoto (bluebird); Zuzule, iStockphoto (appaloosa); Spondylolthesis, iStockphoto (pine)

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