Stunning and Scenic Stanley, Idaho

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All the hype we’d heard about Stanley, Idaho turned out to be absolutely true – and then some!  We spent a fabulous week experiencing its unforgettable stunning scenery, breathing its crisp clean air and enjoying its unspoiled landscapes.  And frankly, we couldn’t get enough of those mountain views.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Cruising Sawtooth Scenic Byway, toward the base of towering mountain peaks

Betsy got a good workout as we headed along the Sawtooth Scenic Byway (Hwy 75).  We drove through sagebrush valleys to the heart of Sawtooth National Forest, and climbed up and over the high mountain pass of Galena Summit at 8,701′.  Then down we went into Sawtooth Valley, which is the headwaters of the Salmon River (the River of No Return).  We stopped at an overlook and were treated to panoramic views of the still snow-capped Sawtooth Mountains with lush Sawtooth Valley below:

Sawtooth Mountains

First glimpse of the Sawtooth Mountains from an overlook

At the base of the Sawtooth Mountains lies the tiny town of Stanley, home to less than 100 permanent residents.  It’s also at the intersection of three very picturesque scenic byway routes: Ponderosa Pine Highway (Hwy 21 from Boise), Salmon River Highway (75N and 93 from Montana) and Sawtooth Highway (75S from Shoshone).

Approaching the town from either direction, a jaw-dropping view of those jagged Sawtooth Mountains unfolds before you, the gorgeous landscape that is the wilderness area of Sawtooth National Forest.

Dramatic skyline over Stanley and Lower Stanley

The visitor center host told us she’s one of the hardy souls living here year round.  Even if it is one of the coldest places in the U.S. outside of Alaska, she believes Stanley is the greatest place to live in Idaho.  It’s hard to argue after seeing the area, but no way could I tolerate the mind-blowing winters here!

Conversely, the mild summers host a tourist season that peaks in July, and our June 6-13 visit enabled us to miss the big crowds while enduring reasonable weather swings.

Stanley, Idaho

Chilling at Mountain Village, but no jacket required on this day!

Our first 3 nights were spent dry camping at beautiful Sockeye Campground on Redfish Lake, where sites are first-come, first-serve. The campground is situated in a lodgepole pine forest, where it was very quiet when generators weren’t running – including ours.  We hated interrupting the serenity by using it for hours every day, but with a residential refrigerator and no solar panels we didn’t have a choice.

We loved our spacious site with a large sitting area

Most of you know we always hike early in the morning, but the need to recharge our batteries got us off to late starts here.  While Steve handled the recharging, I was in full photographic bliss at Redfish Lake as the sun rose.  I wish all mornings could be like this – calm, tranquil and so beautiful!

Catching the alpenglow of the Sawtooth Mountains, thanks to Nina of WheelingIt for the tip on where to get the best shots!

The still waters of Redfish Lake

Several trailheads were within walking distance of our site, making the hikes super convenient.  First we tackled Redfish Ridge Trail, a beautiful but steep trek along a moraine crest through Douglas Fir forests.  It offered awesome views of Thompson Peak, White Clouds and Grand Mogul massifs.  We weren’t equipped to complete the entire loop around the lake, so we turned back after 4 miles to make it an 8-mile roundtrip.

Next we followed the popular Fish Hook Creek Trail, a 5-mile roundtrip hike.  It was a dreary day as we meandered across a meadow and along the fast-moving creek under a canopy of pine trees:

Our next Stanley stop was at at Elk Mountain RV “Resort”, a short and scenic 12-mile drive for Betsy.  More and more RV parks are calling themselves resorts, making the term meaningless – this one was more like a storage facility!  But it did have very friendly tenants and a tiny laundry room with free machines, so we’ll overlook it this time 😉

From our gorgeous and spacious site at Sockeye Campground to this!

Folks here were so friendly that when our neighbor saw me with a dangling camera he urged us to take a scenic drive on the Nip and Tuck Road for another perspective of the imposing jagged mountains.  We made the drive, but only after taking a wrong turn onto a county road.  We finally figured out our error, enjoying a beautiful drive in blissful ignorance.  After turning around we got back on track as a Western Tanager and a Red Crossbill watched the lost humans with curiosity:

The Pronghorns were curious as well

Stanley’s proximity to Sawtooth National Forest makes it a recreational paradise in central Idaho, and with over 2,000 miles of trails to choose from we were in hiking heaven.  It also sits on the banks of the Salmon River, and Steve mentioned that a rafting trip might be in order.  But the cold mornings and frigid river curbed our enthusiasm, and instead we strapped our hiking boot back on to explore 2 more trails – Bridal Veil Falls and Iron Creek.

Our hike to Bridal Veil began in fog and light snow flurries.  Then after 3 miles an obstacle came into view – no way could we cross the deep and fast-flowing waters of swollen Stanley Creek.  So after confirming there was no other way to cross the creek from where we were, we headed back while telling other hikers the bad news on our way 😦

We caught sight of a Badger on our way back – only the second one we’ve seen…


This guy was playing hide and seek with us before finally running off

…and wildflowers too!

We just had to hike the moderate but long Iron Creek Trail, which lead us to 2 glacial lakes – partially frozen Sawtooth Lake, and Alpine Lake which had already thawed.  We climbed over 1,760′ in 5 miles up to Sawtooth Lake at 8,435′ and played in the snow as we enjoyed our lunch.  The beautiful views there and the overlook of Alpine Lake on our return trip made the 10 miles of huffing and puffing worth it!

Getting a close-up view of jagged granite peaks

We hit the snow line at around 7,600′

Partially frozen Sawtooth Lake

Looking down at thawed out Alpine Lake – it brought back memories of Alaska!

The little town of Stanley from far above

On another day we drove to the Yankee Fork Historic Area off the Salmon Scenic Byway.  It’s an area that was established in 1990 to preserve and interpret the rich mining heritage of Central Idaho.

It was snowing lightly when we reached the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge

The four-level Yankee Fork dredge floated for miles as it extracted gold and silver from the river bed

Six miles of dredge piles are preserved as evidence of Idaho’s mining heritage

An informational plaque taught us that these peaks were once molten rock under the earth’s surface.  Through slow cooling they became granite, and tremendous forces later thrust the rock through earth’s surface.  Erosion and glaciers exposed and shaped what we see today, jagged peaks that inspired the name Sawtooth Mountains.

Our wonderful week in Stanley had come to an end far too quickly.  The weather while we were here was a mixture of warm and cold, sun and clouds, light snow and rain.  But it didn’t hamper our activities; we had fun scheduling outings around the next day’s conditions.

Salmon River passes by Stanley

As is usual in our lifestyle, upcoming reservations and the need to replenish supplies urged us to move on.  Leaving the area, we posed Betsy in front of the incredible mountains as we took a few last breaths of the amazing mountain air.  We agreed that we’ll always have special memories of this magnificent place.

Goodbye, Sawtooth Mountains!

If you haven’t done it yet, try to make Stanley a summer destination – you won’t regret it!


Next up:  Back to civilization…