Outdoors Blog

Don’t let smoke stop you from exploring Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley

Sometimes, it pays not to have a plan.

I decided several months ago to take my son camping somewhere in the Sawtooth Mountains this week. When fires and smoke threatened our trip, we were able to adjust our camping target from Stanley/Redfish Lake south to Alturas Lake.

It helped that we had friends already camped at Alturas Lake who provided a scouting report: It was smoky in Stanley but the issue lessened the farther south they went.

So we joined them Sunday evening and camped till Wednesday. The turnoff for Alturas Lake on Highway 75 is about 25 miles south of Stanley. We stayed at the Alturas Inlet Campground, which had walk-up spots available even late in the evening.

On Monday, we drove to Redfish Lake, took the shuttle boat ride across the lake ($40 for two adults and a child) and entered the Sawtooth Wilderness with no signs of smoke.

The trail system from the boat dock requires long hikes to reach any particular destination. But we enjoyed a simple out-and-back hike through the valley and along Redfish Lake Creek, which provided some stunning views of Sawtooths peaks, plenty of cascading water and a section of boulders unlike anything I’d ever seen — massive rocks that tumbled down the mountain at some point and stopped in some strange spots, including one that mashed two trees and another that hung over the trail. One word of warning: There were many downed trees on the trail that had to be hopped, ducked or otherwise avoided. We went 2.6 miles in, climbing 635 feet, and then returned to the dock.

It’s a busy trail, which helps if you’re worried about a first trip into the wilderness. It’s also well-defined and easy to walk. Several people took advantage of the time waiting for the shuttle boat to jump in the lake.

On Tuesday, we changed directions and headed toward the White Clouds on another popular hike: Fourth of July Lake. The turnoff for Fourth of July Creek Road on the east side of Highway 75 is about 10 miles south of the turn for Redfish Lake.

You’ll have to endure 10.4 miles of rough, one-lane gravel road to reach the trailhead — but it’s worth the effort. The trail to the lake is 1.77 miles with 615 feet of elevation gain. It was in great shape but there are a couple of water crossings that require stepping on rocks or balancing on a log.

A word of caution: The sign at the trailhead says it’s 1.25 miles to the lake. Unless my GPS is crazy, that number is way off.

Again, there was no impact from the smoke. The mountain views across Fourth of July Lake were terrific.

Later in the day, we made a spontaneous stop at the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery off Highway 75 near Redfish Lake. There’s a kids fishing pond with loaner poles and worms (saved us a trip back to the truck), where my son caught a fish within seconds on every cast. And we watched some big fish in the Salmon River at the hatchery’s weir.

We ended with dinner in Stanley, where the smoke was much more evident.

I’ll have more on these hiking trails in upcoming Playing Outdoors sections, which appear on Wednesdays.

I’m spending the rest of this week at City of Rocks National Reserve and Castle Rocks State Park. They’ll be the focus of next week’s Playing Outdoors cover story.