The Rocky Mountains form the spine of North America. Stretching from northern British Columbia to New Mexico, the vast chain is an imposing wall of earth and stone that divides the continent. A drop of rain falling to the east of the great mountains will flow toward the Great Plains and might travel all the way to the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. A drop falling on the west of the Great Divide will head toward lush Western forests and might take a journey to the largest of all oceans, the Pacific.
Early settlers of the continent cursed this natural barrier for complicating westward passage. Today’s travelers marvel at the mountain range’s scenic beauty and seemingly limitless recreation possibilities.
If you’re itching to explore the Rockies, you might have one question: Where to begin? Well, a good place to start is the Sawtooth Mountain region of Idaho, a scenic part of the Rockies where visitors will find craggy mountain peaks, pristine lakes, steaming hot springs, historical treasures and three spectacular Scenic Byways.
Where the Byways Meet
The gateway to this region is the town of Stanley, located high up where the Rockies pass through central Idaho. With a population of about 100, Stanley is remote by most standards. The nearest population centers of any size, the upscale resort communities of Ketchum and Sun Valley, lie more than 60 miles to the southeast. The word isolated comes to mind. In the winter, at 6,260 feet, Stanley often lays claim to the coldest temperatures in the continental United States.
Stanley’s political scene is just as interesting as its geographical distinction. In 2005, Stanley voters elected 22-year-old Hannah Lee Stauts, a graduate of Boise State University and former member of a Forest Service fire crew, as the youngest female mayor in the country. Stauts, who also carries the title of police commissioner, rides herd on the diverse collection of vegans, hunters, environmentalists and hard-core paddlers that characterizes this rugged and vibrant mountain community.
If your RVing life includes a love of scenic drives, Stanley rates near the top of the list. The three roads leading to and from the town are all designated Scenic Byways. In fact, it’s the only place in the country where three National Scenic Byways converge.
• The Salmon River Scenic Byway begins at the town of Salmon, which lies at the foot of the Beaverhead mountain range near the Montana border. The Lewis and Clark expedition crossed the Continental Divide within 30 miles to the southeast of Salmon, and Sacagawea, the American Indian guide for their journey, was born in the Lemhi Valley near Salmon. Visit the Sacagawea Interpretive Center in town to learn more about this legendary woman and the expedition she helped guide.
After Salmon, the byway follows U.S. Highway 93 along the Salmon River through Challis, where it joins State Route 75 and continues into Stanley. Along the way, watch for Sunbeam Hot Springs at milepost 210. Stop for a refreshing soak in the mineral-rich, 170-degree water that bubbles out of the banks and mingles with the cool water of the river.
• The Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway enters Stanley from the west on State Route 21 from Boise, Idaho’s state capital, 135 miles away. From the capital, this byway follows State Route 21 north to the historic mining town of Idaho City, which was the site of one of the largest gold strikes in the history of the Old West. Today, you can still pan for gold in a nearby streambed or explore parts of the restored town.
• The Sawtooth Scenic Byway begins in Stanley on State Route 75 and follows the Salmon River—the longest free-flowing river in the United States, nicknamed River of No Return—south toward its headwaters in the Smoky Mountains (not to be confused with the Great Smoky Mountains in the Southeast). In addition to the Salmon, three other major Idaho rivers begin in the area’s mountains: Boise, Big Wood and South Fork of the Payette.
The Sawtooth Scenic Byway is the only road passing through the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA), which Congress officially designated in 1972 to preserve and protect the region’s natural resources, scenic beauty, historic heritage and indiginous plant and animal life.
This is one of the largest and most scenic recreation areas in the United States. It can be traversed by several paved and gravel spur roads that lead to scattered recreation sites and campgrounds. There are 37 in all with over 700 campsites. Within the recreation area lies the 217,000-acre Sawtooth Wilderness Area, which can be accessed by hiking trails that branch off a few miles from the byway. Keep in mind that only foot transportation—human or horse—is permitted in designated wilderness areas. No wheeled vehicles of any kind, including mountain bikes, are permitted there.
Living the High Life
Stanley serves as the northern gateway into the Salmon River Valley, with the mountain tops of the Sawtooth Range, so named because of their resemblance to a woodsman’s blade, rising to the west. With one glance at the towering, sharp peaks, you will see why this range earned the moniker America’s Alps. The horizon in every direction is filled with spectacular mountains, with the White Cloud Peaks and Boulder Mountains to the east and the Smoky Mountains to the south. In total, there are more than 50 peaks that reach over 10,000 feet in the region.
When you visit Stanley, you may not become aware of its lofty elevation until you lace up your hiking boots and hit the trails. Unless you’re a seasoned high-altitude trekker, you’ll soon find yourself puffing like a steam engine. This reminder of the thinner air at higher elevations is a signal to slow your pace until your body acclimatizes to the thinner air. Pace yourself, and allow time to get used to the thinner air.
Those seeking less-strenuous pursuits might want to try angling. If you took the time to count, you would find more than 500 mountain lakes in the SNRA and hundreds of miles of cold streams, offering some of the best trout and steelhead fishing in Idaho.
If you simply like to soak in the many sights of nature, this region won’t disappoint. The high mountains, river valleys, deep forests and wildflower meadows provide a habitat to a variety of wildlife, from scampering chipmunks to grazing mule deer and howling coyotes. You may also spot the more elusive black bear, elk, beaver, mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Bird watchers may catch glimpses of sandhill cranes, golden eagles and Idaho’s state bird, the mountain bluebird.
Camping in the Sawtooths
Camping options range from a limited number of full-hookup RV resorts to primitive, dispersed, undesignated campsites. The majority of campgrounds are administered by the Forest Service. Many can be found in Wood River Valley on the south side of the Galena Overlook (milepost 158.9), at Alturas (milepost 168.5), Petit (milepost 171.4), the Redfish Lakes (milepost 185.1) and at Stanley Lake (milepost 125.9).
Formed by glacial activity, Redfish Lake is the largest body of water in the SNRA and the surrounding area is highly developed. It has a visitor center, lodge, grocery store, marina, boat launch and dump station. The campground has water, tables, fireplaces, grills, trash collection, restrooms and ranger patrols. Golden Age Passport discounts apply to all Forest Service campground fees.
Dispersed camping areas also can be found on the edge of the wilderness area and are accessible by spur roads off the Sawtooth Scenic Byway and to the east of the byway at the base of the White Cloud Peaks and Boulder Mountains. I camped for several days at a pretty spot along Prairie Creek (milepost 146.8) along the well-graded dirt road to Prairie Lakes at the south end of the SNRA, and also at Decker Flats along Decker Creek, where you can camp right on the riverbank in widely dispersed campsites.
Hiking and Biking
More than 250 miles of designated trails wind through the SNRA, and many of them stretch into the wilderness area from the end of spur roads or from campgrounds and dispersed camping areas. You won’t have to worry about having no elbow room in your adventure. Although the SNRA attracts many recreationists, you won’t find the crowds often encountered in our most popular national parks. Once you stride or pedal away from the main recreation centers, you’ll find that it is mostly just you and the solitude provided by lakes, trees, mountains and wildlife.
A couple hikes I particularly enjoy are the 4.5-mile round-trip hike to Mill Lake off Prairie Creek Road and into the wilderness area on the Farley Lake and Alice Lake trails from Petit Lake Campground.
Paralleling the Big Wood River for 18 miles between the base of Galena Pass at Galena Lodge and the Sawtooth NRA Headquarters to the south, the level Harriman Trail is an easy-to-ride bicycle path winding through riparian areas, wildflower meadows and campgrounds.
Visitor centers at Stanley, Redfish Lake and the SNRA headquarters at the southern gateway can provide maps and descriptions of hiking and biking trails.
Fishing and water sports are popular with SNRA visitors. Sailboaters, anglers and water-skiers frequently head to the four largest lakes—Alturas, Petit, Redfish and Stanley—each of which allows motorboats. Motorized craft, however, may not operate on Perkins, Little Redfish and Yellow Belly lakes, nor on the Salmon River or Valley Creek.
Several times I paddled my kayak around Petit Lake, with jagged mountains rising all about me, and its western shoreline offering a peek into the wilderness area. The quiet splash of paddles dipping into the mirror-smooth surface easily muffled the drone of a distant motorized boat on this large lake.
You can swim in the cool waters off a sandy beach at Redfish Lake, as well as rent motorboats, pedal boats and canoes. Guided boat tours and boat shuttles to distant trailheads also are offered. Stanley-based outfitters take visitors to half- and full-day float trips on the Salmon River.
If you schedule all this physical activity so you end it with a bike ride on the Harriman Trail, you can reward yourself with a nice cool drink on the deck at Galena Lodge, a fit ending for a great day in the Sawtooths.