Redfish Lake road, trail projects to transform visitor experience

Hiking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley

There was no sign of smoke this week on two popular hiking trails accessed from the Sawtooth Valley: Redfish Inlet and Fourth of July Lake.
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There was no sign of smoke this week on two popular hiking trails accessed from the Sawtooth Valley: Redfish Inlet and Fourth of July Lake.

Visitors to the Redfish Lake recreation complex aren’t finished seeing road construction, and what’s to come will transform the experience.

One stretch of road to be built next year at Redfish Lake — higher than the route it’s replacing — will give drivers better views of iconic scenery than they’ve ever had from their cars. A pullout will invite them to stop for photos.

“Isn’t that something?” Sawtooth National Recreation Area landscape architect Matt Phillips said in August, surveying a sweeping scene dominated by Mount Heyburn from atop hummocky glacial terrain near the Outlet Campground.

The future road to the recreation complex’s east side will pass through the high point where he stood, but the route’s design was more about eliminating creek crossings, rehabilitating wetlands and protecting troubled fish species than creating an easy photo opportunity for tourists.

“It’s kind of one of those things that just happened,” Phillips said. “It’s just a happy added bonus.”

The old road from Idaho 75 to Redfish Lake’s developed North Shore crossed Redfish Lake Creek twice, and both bridges were failing. Also, a significant portion of the road cut through wetlands, impeding natural hydrology.

The old route first reached the west side, where the visitor center is, then crossed the North Shore to reach the campgrounds and day use areas on the east side.

The road’s new route — bypassing wetlands and requiring only one creek crossing — leads instead to a roundabout that will give drivers a choice: one road to the North Shore’s west side, and a separate road to the east side.

Visitors have seen some of the overhaul already.

The Sawtooth National Forest in 2014 and 2015 built a new 110-foot bridge over Redfish Lake Creek, incorporating a pedestrian walkway for the lake’s proposed trail system; rerouted a stretch of road, giving it wider shoulders for bicycles; and built the roundabout. It decommissioned a portion of the old roadway by removing asphalt and gravel, recontouring the land and strewing dead branches and logs.

But for now, the east side of the roundabout is just a stub. In mid-August, crews were clearing trees in the path of the future east-side road, and construction there will start next spring.

When that’s finished, Phillips said, the stretch of road that follows the North Shore will be turned over to pedestrians. The North Shore day use area will get a new parking lot, and the forest will expand day use parking at the lake’s outlet. The visitor center’s parking lot — which floods in springtime — will be relocated out of a wetland, a move that will also enable the center to meet accessibility standards.

Those changes are all cleared to proceed, he said. In addition, the forest is in the scoping process for a proposal to expand and improve the Redfish Trailhead parking lot.

Internal trail network

The Redfish Lake recreation complex could see even more change soon.

The Sawtooth National Forest is conducting its internal scoping to assemble a proposal for an expansive, all-new trail network for pedestrians and bicycles. Public scoping is likely to begin next spring, said Phillips, project manager for the trail proposal.

The recreation complex has minor segments of existing trails, but they’re connected by roads — with shoulders too narrow to be safe for the bicyclists and pedestrians who populate them.

“It’s dangerous and frightening,” Phillips said. “This plan will get families and visitors off the roads.”

The proposed internal trail network would begin at the Redfish Lake entrance station — where it would connect with a separately proposed trail from the city of Stanley — then head south near the newly rerouted road and cross the new bridge over Redfish Lake Creek. One trail spur would head to the west and one to the east; both would connect with the existing lakeshore road that will be turned over to pedestrians.

The east-side trail would continue to the Sandy Beach boat launch area and would connect with a new trailhead for the existing Grand Mogul Trail; that trailhead would be relocated out of Sockeye Campground to avoid conflicts with overnight campers and day users. A loop of the west-side trail would access Redfish Lake Lodge and its marina.

In short, Phillips said, the trail network would connect every facility at Redfish Lake.

It’s too early to know whether there will be major obstacles to the trail proposal, he said.