Idaho’s Stanley Basin runs wild

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Special to the Los Angeles Times

Just an hour north of Sun Valley, Idaho’s celebrity hot spot, lies the Stanley Basin — an amazing region surrounded by snow-capped mountains, spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife, with the Salmon River — also known as the “River of No Return” — running right through the middle.

Some 20 years ago, I spent serious time in this basin skiing and backpacking in the surrounding mountains, first with acclaimed Idaho mountaineering guide Joe Leonard and later alone or with various backpacking buddies. But for reasons unknown, I had not returned until one of them suggested a reunion of sorts with a small group of friends in this extraordinary place.

When I first traveled to Stanley, the sign outside of town said “Population 100.” Today, the sign remains unchanged, and people who live here say the true year-round number may be more like 89 hardy souls. They certainly are outnumbered by elk, deer and maybe even by bald eagles and wolves, plus some mountain lions, bears and sandhill cranes. Much of the Old West is alive and well in this wild basin.

The landscape unfolded dramatically beneath us as we slowly descended from Galena Summit. The Salmon River sparkled in the afternoon light, and green meadows sprawled at the feet of jagged mountains. The Sawtooth Range is very aptly named. Before long, my partner Gloria and I turned off the paved highway onto a dirt road leading to a campground on the edge of Pettit Lake — a large lake popular for trout fishing and as a jumping-off point for backcountry trips into the high mountains.

Planning your trip

From LAX, nonstop service to Boise is offered on United and Alaska, and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on United, Delta and Frontier. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $312. The drive time from Boise is a little more than two scenic hours.

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Stanley veteran Greg Edson describes the area as “a mix of cowboy boots and river sandals.” He adds, “The views. The vistas. The sense of solitude. The most magnificent opportunity to experience lands as they’ve always been.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been changes. Antelope now graze in the meadows, driven north by continuing development in the Sun Valley area. Long-necked sandhill cranes are a fairly recent arrival, and the area boasts three viable wolf packs, which were nonexistent until just a few years ago and are a subject of controversy, especially among ranchers and elk hunters. In addition, the depredation of bark beetles has killed large swaths of pines much as they have done in the Lake Tahoe area.

However, the greatest impact has been the establishment of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area that covers 756,000 acres, including the Sawtooth Wilderness Area, and virtually bars development. It encompasses four mountain ranges with more than 50 major peaks topping 10,000 feet, more than 1,000 high-mountain lakes and 250 miles of trails. It also is the headwaters for four major rivers, including the famed Salmon River, whose waters stretch all the way to the Pacific Ocean and are a major destination for salmon swimming upstream to spawn.

The Salmon is a premier location for whitewater kayaking, rafting and canoeing. Every summer, as many as 10,000 people take commercial rafting trips down the river, while an additional 5,000 make private trips. A couple of miles down river is a bridge that crosses over onto a road leading to Robinson Bar Ranch, which is owned by singer/songwriter Carole King. Interestingly, about 30% of the people who journey under the bridge and down the River of No Return come from California, which is surprising when you consider that the area is relatively unknown.

We hopscotched our way down the river, stopping at various viewpoints to watch kayakers, rafters and canoe paddlers thread their way around some rocks and through fairly mild rapids. One of the most popular group trips is a four- to five-day wilderness excursion on the River of No Return with the rafts stopping at natural hot springs and resting on sandy beaches. Jared Hopkinson, who runs the Sawtooth Adventure Co., told us, “I dig watching people push themselves. There is a lot of bonding, and families become lifelong friends. It is kinda like going on a cruise, but more exciting.”

For many visitors, the crucial lure is the region’s well-deserved reputation for trout fishing. Brook, rainbow and cutthroat trout rise to the surface of hundreds of streams, all snapping hungrily at colorful flies on the end of a line or snagging shiny spinning lures beneath the water. For those headed to the high mountain lakes, the best catch of any day is the spectacular golden trout. They may be California’s state fish, but they have been transplanted to Idaho’s icy mountain lakes, where they grow larger and seemingly more hungry.

Our visit coincided with a special annual event in Stanley: the Sawtooth Mountain Mamas Arts & Crafts Fair. For 34 years, artisans from throughout the West have brought their finest work to town to support a truly important charity. The tented booths contain such things as handmade quilts, knives and other items made from elk bones and antlers, spicy barbecue sauce and lots of items in between. Buyers travel annually from New York and other cities to sample the wares and make purchases. The income supports scholarships for local students, emergency medicine and search-and-rescue training, and people in need or who are stranded in Stanley. The Mountain Mamas are the only service organization in the valley.

Our big event was yet to come — a trip into the Sawtooth mountain backcountry. Because several stream crossings were running quite high, we decided not to hike in. Instead we contacted the Mystic Saddle Ranch to reserve a horse pack trip from Pettit Lake up to extraordinarily beautiful Alice Lake, which sits at 8,500 feet surrounded by multiple mountaintops and is renowned for gorgeous sunsets and sunrises. We wanted to be there for both.

Wrangler Nick Wetherbee — looking as though he had just stepped out of a Western version of GQ magazine — fitted the packs on the horses, tightened the cinches on our two animals and led the way up a trail that varied from hot and dusty to tree-lined and rocky. Alice Lake is 6 1/2 miles into the high country and 1,500 feet higher than the trailhead. It wasn’t long before we were totally absorbed in the ever-changing scenery that unfolded before us.

The horses were a little skittish crossing a couple of the fast-running streams, but Nick nudged them along and we reached the lake in time to set up our tent, fix dinner and settle in for sunset. Jumping trout snatched mosquitoes out of the air, and a Cub Scout troop arrived to share the scene. Clouds prevented what could have been a great sunset, so we called it a night and waited for sunrise. It was well worth the wait. My alarm shrilled at 5:30 the next morning, and by 6 a.m. the rising sun was painting the clouds, sky and mountaintops. The display lasted for 20 minutes and just got better and better. When it was over, I lay with my head propped up on my pack and gazed out over Alice Lake. It took some definite nudging from Nick and Gloria to get me to saddle up and start the ride back to our base camp.

Jeff Bitten, a lean, soft-spoken, thoughtful rancher whose father started horse packing out of Mystic Saddle Ranch 42 years ago, says that he still enjoys getting on a horse and sharing the experience with other people but that fewer people are taking advantage of the opportunity. He adds, “What we’re losing is not having people have these experiences. If your memories now are only of the gas fumes from the city bus in front of you, then you are losing quality of life.”

You do not have to camp here to experience the Stanley Basin. There are motels and a few guest ranches available. I was stunned at the growth of the old Redfish Lake Lodge. It has doubled, perhaps tripled, in size, and the lakefront was awash in people. When I last saw it, a mother bear and two cubs were frolicking in a sudden autumn snowfall, and a few cabins were being hand-hewn from local timber. Those cabins remain, but many more have been added. Everyone did seem to be having a good time.

Sara Baldwin, the veteran U.S. Forest Service area ranger, dropped by our campsite while checking out conditions at Pettit Lake. Sara has been a ranger at Lake Tahoe, in Alaska and, now, here. I asked what makes this place so special, and she replied, “It’s a great place to restore yourself. The big highlight is the backcountry experience where you can reconnect with nature. That’s what people love about it. When people drive into the basin today, they know there is something different about this place.”

Amen to that. We don’t plan to wait another 20 years to return again.