If you’ve never been to Idaho, prepare to be surprised. This northwestern state, known almost comically for its potatoes, offers far more than a starchy staple for those willing to explore. Pristine waterways, world-class recreation and untapped wilderness await in Stanley, a tiny town in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.
There are three ways to reach this outdoor hub in Idaho’s center: from the south on 75, from the northwest on 21 or from the northeast on 75. All roads offer stunning views, but anyone seeking unparalleled beauty should consider a start in Sun Valley. This route leads along the Sawtooth Scenic Byway and takes just over an hour in travel time.
Sun Valley, with its well-stocked grocery stores and ample lodging options, is a smart place to rest for a night before embarking on the scenic trip north. Plan on hitting the road early, but not before grabbing coffee and a quick breakfast at one of the city’s many cafés. The Kneadery, Maude’s Coffee and Clothes and Java on Fourth are local favorites.
The drive will take you to Galena Summit, a scenic overlook where travellers can get their bearings before driving into the valley. When the road levels out and the landscape opens into wide stretches of farmland, you’ll know you’re getting close.
Have one priority upon making it to Stanley: finding a place to camp. Since most sites are first-come, first-served, you’ll have the best luck stopping by a campground after the last night’s campers have left, but before new ones have arrived (between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.).
Redfish Lake—which gets its name from the sockeye salmon that travel over 1,400 kilometres to spawn here—is the most coveted camping spot in Stanley. Take one look at the clear waters and jagged mountain peaks, and it’s easy to see why the sites here fill up fast. If you can’t find an empty spot at Sockeye, Glacier View or Mt Heyburn Campgrounds, you’re still in luck.
More campgrounds can be found a 20-minute drive heading north on 75. Salmon River, Casino Creek, Riverside and Mormon Bend comprise a cluster of well-marked sites featuring water and vault toilets. Payment for these campgrounds ($14-16 USD) includes access to the Redfish Lake Day Use Area, where you can swim, boat, hike, fish or simply relax.
Another perk of staying at these less-popular campgrounds is that they’re close to Boat Box Hot Springs (look for a turnoff at the first 30mph speed zone). Before you conjure images of steaming rock pools, Boat Box consists of a retrofitted ocean buoy in which people sit and a plastic pipe that funnels water from the spring into the tub. It isn’t for everyone, but its function-over-frills approach is apt for the type of adventurer that Stanley draws.
In fact, it’s the same type of person that’s been exploring the Sawtooth Range for centuries. Everywhere in Stanley are echoes of these old West homesteaders: abandoned barns, saloon-style structures and hand-hewn fences—each with a story to tell. The best way to learn these histories (and how to survive in this unforgiving landscape) is to visit the Stanley Museum.
The former ranger station has been converted into a memorial of Sawtooth history, anchored with photographs, artifacts and replicas that illustrate the rugged life of the area’s early settlers. Be sure to step foot into the ranger station’s cold cellar—a large shed insulated with 18,000 pounds of saw dust—to learn how frontiersmen kept food cold throughout summer.
Make it back to your site with ample time to build a fire (in designated areas when allowed), watch the sun set and catch the encore show: stars aplenty. Stanley rests within the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, meaning visitors have unfettered views of the stars, planets and constellations often obscured by light pollution in other parts of the country.
Persistent darkness and quiet guarantee a good night’s sleep, but if you wake up after a night in the great outdoors longing for a hearty meal, treat yourself to dine-in at Mountain Village Resort. Hot coffee, fresh breakfast classics and hash browns made from thick-cut Idaho potatoes make this stop well worth your time. Plus, it’s one of few places you can find strong cell service and Wi-Fi to map out the rest of your trip.
On your way out of town, head north on 21 toward Boise and make one final stop at Stanley Lake. Smaller and quieter than Redfish, Stanley Lake offers a less trafficked hub for exploring the Sawtooths. The Lakeshore trail winds through Stanley Lake Campground for an easy, accessible walk; more extreme outdoor enthusiasts can take the 11.7-kilometre hike from the Stanley Lake Trailhead to Bridal Veil Falls.
No matter how you spend your last hours in the Sawtooths, take a good, long look at them before you leave. It’s a sight you’ll miss once you’re gone.