Nothing prepares you for your first sight of the Sawtooths.
For me and my family, it was the summer of 1987. We were driving along Idaho 21 toward the tiny town of Stanley, Idaho, the jumping-off place for vacationing in the mountain region three hours north of Boise. Ahead I saw tips of granite spires peeking above the horizon line. Then we drove up a hill and at the top —BANG!— there they were. Ten-thousand-foot jagged peaks that went on for miles. It was like that moment in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture when the cannons fire off.
The thrill hasn’t subsided in three decades.
While the mountains never seem to leave you, watching their changing shades as the light passes over them is far from the only thing to do in Stanley and its surroundings.
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If you’re looking for a place that will draw the kids away from video games, cell phones and other modern-day distractions, this is it. There is no McDonald’s, museum of oddities or aquarium stocked with fish that have no natural reason to be there.
Instead, there are natural hot springs, cool ghost towns and fresh mountain air. There are fun places to swim, hike, rock climb and fish. You can go on a wild raft ride — after a breakfast of possibly the finest fresh-baked cinnamon roll you’ve ever put in your mouth.
One important note: The Stanley area is going to be especially popular around Aug. 21, the date of the first total solar eclipse in the continental United States since 1979. The center line of the path of totality — where a total solar eclipse will be visible for more than 2 minutes — runs between Idaho 75 and Redfish Lake Lodge, just south of Stanley. Many Stanley-area hotels are already full during the time around the eclipse, but you can still drive up for the day.
Here’s my guide to Stanley and the Sawtooths for kids.
Getting wet: Redfish Lake, about six miles south of Stanley, features a sandy beach back-dropped by Redfish Lake Lodge. The log-cabin-style inn and its cabins front the impossibly beautiful lake. Get ready for crowds. It’s nearly SRO during summer’s peak. Get there early and carve out your place at the beach. Popular spots include the dock, where you can rent kayaks, paddle boats and other watercraft. Kids can use many of the boats right near the beach in shallow water. Don’t forget to get a net at the nearby general store so your kids can scoop up minnows. Just treat them gently and get them back in the lake quickly. Look for the floating deck a ways out from shore. It’s an unofficial gathering place for teens who can’t resist playfully pushing their friends off into the cold, crystal clear water.
If the Redfish Lodge area is too crowded, try North Shore Picnic Area just down Redfish Lake Road. It has bathrooms, picnic tables, a beach and a great view of the lake. Day use fee is $6.
Want more choices? The Stanley Basin is filled with many lakes. Try Alturas Lake, about 25 miles south of Stanley on Idaho 75, and Stanley Lake, a few miles outside the city off Idaho 21. Check the Stanley Ranger Station about three miles south of town on Idaho 75 for more information. The Ranger Station is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday during the summer.
Getting warm and wet: Sunbeam Hot Springs, 12.6 miles northwest of Stanley on Idaho 75, is a popular place to soak in the warm water at the Salmon River’s edge. Be careful; the water trickling down the bank toward the river is hot. You’ll find spots where people have created rock pools in the river that intermingle the right amount of hot and cold water. There is a bathroom and changing area.
Chilling cemetery: Just beyond the hot springs, take a left turn and follow the signs to Custer for a trip through some mining history. First stop is Bonanza. There isn’t a lot left of the town laid out in 1877. But it features an old cemetery worth a visit. You will find a sign where the causes of death of many of the inhabitants are recorded. It’s a tad creepy but also an unmistakable tribute to the harshness of early mining life in Idaho’s backcountry.
Dredging up wealth: A short drive toward Custer from Bonanza is the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge. It’s a product from a less environmentally sensitive age when miners plowed their way up the Yankee Fork scooping out tons of rock from the stream bed and pulling out gold. The dredge plied the Yankee Fork from 1939 to 1952. You can see its effects from the miles of rock gouged of the river and strewn along on the bank. Kids love seeing the machinery and climbing through the dredge as part of a guided tour. You can tour the dredge, whose buckets slamming into the stream were said to be heard two miles away, beginning in May. Tour costs: adults, $5; children 6-12, $1 according to the dredge website at Yankeeforkdredge.com.
Custer: The town was laid out in 1879. There are several old buildings to peek in, and the area is filled with old mining artifacts. Stop by the “saloon” for a soft drink and get some info on what to see.
Learn about where you are: Redfish Lake Visitors Center, just steps from the Redfish Lake Lodge, has naturalists who will explain the area. Boat tours of the lake are available. Kids have special activities, too, including a junior ranger program.
Go take a hike: Fishhook Creek Trail is a 4.4-mile round-trip hike on an easy trail to a meadow that offers a sprawling view of the Sawtooth Wilderness. You can play in the creek along the way or at the meadow. The hike starts at the Redfish trailhead off Redfish Lake Road, near the lodge. If you’re looking for more rigorous hikes or a backpacking trip, get info at the Stanley Ranger Station or at the Redfish Visitors Center.
Go see a salmon: You will get an up-close look at the trapping and spawning of Chinook salmon and steelhead at the Sawtooth Hatchery five miles south of Stanley on Idaho 75. These salmon migrate 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean up the Columbia River to their Idaho spawning grounds. You can see Chinook being trapped from June through early September and the spawning in August and September. Fish trapping happens at about 9 a.m. Guided tours of the hatchery are at 1:30 p.m. during the summer. There is even a fishing hole where you can try your luck for rainbow trout. The hatchery provides gear and bait. All fishing regulations and licenses apply. And don’t forget to feed the fish. There are feeding machines around where you can pay to get a handful of food to toss into the fish runs.
Ride the river: Stanley has lots of rafting companies to get you on the river. Float trips usually feature a bit of whitewater, or more, if your taste rises to the challenging. There are too many companies to pick from to list them all here. Go to the Stanley-Sawtooth Chamber of Commerce for more info.
A breakfast tradition: The Stanley Baking Company, 250 Wall St., opened in 2000, and I think there has been a line to get in for breakfast ever since. But this is one line worth standing in. Tim and Rebecca Cron, who purchased the bakery in 2004, dish up a variety of breakfast items, including oatmeal pancakes, a veggie-based platter and a Basque egg scramble, just to name a few. The cinnamon rolls are created each day starting at 5 a.m. My grandson’s favorite breakfast is a cinnamon roll and a side of their juicy, spicy sausage. Breakfast starts at 7 a.m. Breakfast runs from about $8 to $13.50.
The restaurant also serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., but I’m not sure we’ve ever made it there for lunch — too full from breakfast. But my editor assures me lunch is just as delightful and as filling as breakfast.
The bakery opens for the season in this year on Friday, May 19.
You can also roam the city of Stanley. (Although calling it a city is a stretch. About 63 people make their home here year-round.) With its wooden sidewalks and dusty roads, you’ll feel like you’re a cast member in an old-time Western movie. For a more modern adventure, there is a disc golf course up the hill at the city park near the school.
A final thought: If you find a moment when you aren’t doing something in the Stanley Basin, stop. Look at the mountains. Our family often stays at a hotel in Lower Stanley, a mile from Stanley proper. Our hotel offers a balcony with an unobstructed view of the Sawtooths.
Whenever we arrive, I go immediately to that balcony, sit down and spend a few quiet minutes just watching the mountains.
When to go
Information from the Stanley Chamber of Commerce. Be sure to check for date changes and other updates.
May 27: Redfish Lake Memorial Run; a family run that takes place every year at Redfish Lake.
June 10: Sawtooth Relay, a 62-mile run from Stanley to Ketchum (Teams start between midnight and 9 a.m. and are done by around 5 p.m.)
June 18: Come Fly A Kite, Father’s Day event held each year. Make your own or bring a store-bought kite. There are prizes.
July 4: Stanley Fourth of July Parade, Street Dance and Fireworks
July 15-16: Mountain Mama’s Arts and Crafts Show, artists and crafters.
July 28-29: Sawtooth Valley Gathering, large music event, featuring several musicians
Aug. 20: “Awesome Solar Eclipses from Ancient Time Until Tomorrow” presentation at the Stanley Community Building
Aug. 26: Sawtooth Salmon Festival, salmon spawning tour, activities, salmon dinner
Sept. 1-2: Stanley-Sawtooth Cowboy Gathering, cowboy poets present in multiple locations
More info: stanleycc.org
Stanley is about 135 miles northeast of Boise. You can take Idaho 21 all the way there, going through Idaho City to Lowman and then to Stanley; or go north on Idaho 55 and then east on Idaho 17, the Banks to Lowman Highway, until you hit Idaho 21 at Lowman. The latter is the preferred route for many. You also could take the long way around and go through Sun Valley. The trip will take anywhere from 2 1/2-3 1/2 hours depending on traffic, road conditions, time of day, etc.
You might also want to take in the Sun Valley-Ketchum area during your visit. About 60 miles from Stanley, these famous Idaho resort towns offer beautiful scenery and fabulous fishing, hiking and other outdoor opportunities as well as top-notch dining and accommodations. visitsunvalley.com.
Plan your trip
WHERE TO STAY:
Redfish Lake Lodge: Perched on Redfish Lake under the 10,299-foot Mt. Heyburn. You can catch a boat to take you across the lake for hiking and backpacking. There is has a main building with rooms above and a restaurant. There are also cabins available surrounding the lodge. Lots to do, including bike rentals, boating, swimming. A row of cushy chairs across the front of the lodge facing the lake may be the best place in Idaho to sink into and read a book. redfishlake.com.
Lower Stanley Country Store and Motel: Nine motel rooms in a two-story building have panoramic views of the Sawtooths from the balcony. The Salmon River flows by just feet from the motel. The complex also has 15 cabins. Many cabins and motel rooms have kitchenettes. Lower Stanley is about a mile from Stanley, north on Idaho 75. facebook.com/JerrysCountryStoreCabinsAndMotel.
Mountain Village Resort: 3 Eva Falls Ave., Stanley. Standard hotel rooms, start at $79. Guest have access to a covered hot spring about a 10-minute walk behind the hotel. Doors open to a great view of the mountains. Check with the front desk for details. mountainvillage.com.
Camping: Lots of places for lakeside and riverside camping. Some are first-come, first-served. Others by reservation. Camping around Redfish Lake is popular and typically books early. But you’ll also find quiet campsites at Alturas Lake, Stanley Lake and along the Salmon River. Information is available on the U.S. Forest Service website. You can download a visitors guide at https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5370806.pdf. Other camping info is available at the Stanley Chamber of Commerce site at stanleycc.org.
WHERE TO EAT:
Stanley Baking Company: Breakfast, lunch, fresh pastries. Often a line to get in, but well worth the wait. 250 Wall St. 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. stanleybakingco.com.
Papa Brunee’s: Pizza and sandwiches. 645 Ace of Diamonds St., Stanley. 208-774-2536. papabrunees.com.
Bridge St. Grill: Steaks, ribs, trout, burgers, all served at the Salmon River’s edge. Outdoor dining offers yet another one of those breathtaking view of the Sawtooths. Highway 75, Lower Stanley. 208-774-2208. bridgestgrill.com.
More info: There are many more places to eat, stay, camp and explore. Visit the Stanley Sawtooth Chamber of Commerce for more ideas (stanleycc.org).