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Idaho is located in the western United
States, forming the eastern section of the Pacific Northwest.
Idaho is an area of striking physical diversity and natural
beauty. The state’s many natural resources have long been
the basis of its economic output and development, and they
remain a key to its future progress.
Idaho is primarily a mountainous state,
much of it covered by the Rocky Mountains. High, often
snowcapped peaks, broad expanses of plateaus and upland
slopes, and some of the finest forestlands in the United
States occupy central and northern Idaho. The mountains of the
central portion of the state have long formed a barrier to
communication between north and south and between east and
west. North of these mountains lies a narrow section known as
the Panhandle, noted for its numerous lakes and forests and
abundant mineral resources.
South of the central mountains and in
contrast with the rest of the state is the Snake River Plain.
The plain, which is the dominant feature of southern Idaho,
curves across the width of the state as a broad treeless
expanse of land. It includes the most densely and most
sparsely settled sections of the state. The plain includes
most of the state’s principal cities and accounts for much
of Idaho’s farm output, but it also includes some of the
most desolate areas in the Pacific Northwest. Sheets of
hardened lava, volcanic craters and cinder cones, and desolate
crags and pinnacles form an almost totally barren landscape.
Nevertheless, even these desolate areas are not without
economic value, for they attract numerous tourists and contain
some mineral wealth.
Economic development has proceeded at a
rapid pace in Idaho since the 1940s. Agriculture, along with
other primary activities, continues to be the basis of the
economy, but gains have been made in manufacturing,
particularly in food processing, the manufacture of wood
products, and high-technology industries. Tourism and
recreation are also important sources of income. Boise is
Idaho’s capital and largest city.
Idaho entered the Union on July 3, 1890, as
the 43rd state. Its name was for many years popularly held to
be a Native American word meaning "gem of the
mountains." However, some believe the name was actually
coined in 1860 by white politician George M. Willing, an
unsuccessful candidate for congressional delegate from the
mining region of Pikes Peak in Colorado. He proposed Idaho as
the name for the Colorado territory, but it was rejected when
it was revealed that the name was not a Native American word.
But the name took hold in the mining regions of what was to
become Idaho, and the Congress of the United States designated
the territory with the name when it was formed in 1863. The
popularly accepted meaning of the word Idaho gave rise to the
state’s nickname as the Gem State. Idaho also is known as
the Potato State, after its leading crop.
Idaho, the 14th largest state in the Union,
has an area of 83,574 square miles including 823 square miles
of inland water. In shape, Idaho consists of a broad
rectangular area in the south, based on the line of latitude
42° north, and a long narrow strip in the north that is known
as the Panhandle. The state has a maximum length from north to
south of 483 miles, and it varies in width from 308 miles
along its southern border to only 45 miles in the Panhandle.
The mean elevation is about 5,000 feet. In the mid-1990s 63
percent of Idaho’s total land area was controlled by the
The plains, basins, and valleys of Idaho
generally have a dry climate, with cold winters and hot
summers. Cooler and generally wetter conditions prevail in the
mountains throughout the year.
In winter, temperatures in western Idaho
are generally higher than those in eastern Idaho. Average
January temperatures in southern Idaho range from 29° at
Boise to about 18° at the eastern end of the Snake River
Plain. In the mountains of the southeast, near Yellowstone
National Park, the January average is only about 12°.
Temperatures of extreme cold rarely occur in Idaho because the
high mountains along the eastern border protect the state from
the icy blasts of Arctic air that frequently bring bitterly
cold weather to the lands east of the Rockies.
In summer southwestern Idaho is the warmest
part of the state, with average July temperatures of more than
74° F at many places. Lower summer temperatures prevail in
the mountains and in most of the Panhandle. In the valleys and
plains of Idaho, daytime highs sometimes are in the lower
Precipitation (rainfall and snowfall)
varies greatly from place to place. It averages between 8 to
20 inches in most valley and plain areas. The high mountains
in central Idaho and the Panhandle are the wettest sections,
receiving as much as 50 inches of precipitation a year. Most
precipitation falls in the winter months, mainly in the form
of snow. Snowfall is especially heavy in the mountains, and
the remote areas of the state may be inaccessible for months.
The snow melts quickly in western Idaho, but in the colder
areas of the state it often lies on the ground for the entire