Northwest of Great Salt Lake, across the Snake River Plain and into the mountains of central Idaho, the famously spiked peaks of Sawtooth Range cut into the horizon.
But beneath the jagged panorama, a dense playground of lakes and rivers invites visitors to enjoy nearly every manner of water sport. With world-class whitewater, epic fish drama and a trove of glittering alpine lakes, the area is well worth the 6-hour drive from the Salt Lake City metro area.
Stanley, Idaho, is the jumping-off point for one of the world’s most renowned whitewater trips, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The multiday journey winds 100 miles through pristine mountain wilderness and loads of Class IV rapids. The U.S. Forest Service administers the required permits, which are competitive. Boaters can enter a lottery at recreation.gov. This is not a novice trip; guided excursions are available.
For those who want to try a shorter, easier float, there are exciting day trips on the main Salmon River, east of Stanley. From the Elk Creek put-in, 14.5 miles east of Stanley on State Highway 75, to Torrey’s Hole is a 7.7-mile stretch with two Class III rapids. Those were wet, cold and exhilarating from my vantage point at the front of my inflatable duckie; friends with more river experience took kids as young as 3 in their raft, and kayakers played in the riffles of water.
Novices in small craft likely will find the two big rapids a bit overwhelming without an experienced companion. You can book guided trips in rafts or duckies. The Stanley Chamber of Commerce lists outfitters at its website, stanleycc.org/do/river-trips/.
Fishing and Fish Viewing
Idaho is a special place for fish. Steelhead and salmon make long runs from the sea to end up in the Salmon River. Salmon have arrived and are spawning right about now, with fishing in the midsummer. Visit in early spring for steelhead fishing.
The Sawtooth Fish Hatchery is open year-round, with tours from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Meanwhile, cutthroat and rainbow trout can be found in the rivers along with mountain whitefish, with rainbows in several of the lakes.
My family and I tried fly fishing a bit in Smiley Creek, just over 24 miles south of Stanley. Although we caught nothing, we saw dozens of trout swarming in the stream. For information on licenses, visit idfg.idaho.gov/licenses.
At Alturas Lake, I watched an osprey make a productive dive and then fly its fish into the conifers near the shore. But the bird was not to enjoy its meal for long; soon it reappeared over the lake with an eagle close behind. The two birds of prey circled dramatically overhead for at least a minute or two before the eagle gave up the chase and the osprey retreated into the trees again.
The birds of the Sawtooths can put on a good show, and with so much water, there is plenty of opportunity to view them. The sandhill cranes were favorites of mine, with their funny, rattling noises.
Two major lakes are in the Stanley area: Alturas and Redfish. Both have motorboat access and beautiful views, though Redfish boasts the more dramatic scenery.
Redfish also is more developed, with a lodge, restaurant, boat tours and rentals for motor boats, kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, paddle boats and pontoons. Visit redfishlake.com/marina/ for details.
Alturas is more rustic, with secluded beaches just a short hike from free parking if you don’t require the amenities at the fee area.
There also are a number of lakes with hiking access only, and the peaks of the Sawtooths will have a magnetic draw for anyone with boots and a backpack. But the water in the valleys is enough to fill several days with beauty and adventure.