Stanley, Idaho and The Sawtooth Mountains

Sawtooth Mountains from Iron Creek Trail

My cousin, Ron Walker, has lived in Boise, Idaho for 50 years, having migrated north after early life in Texas. He’s been there long enough to watch house prices skyrocket from new residents looking for quality of life and affordability of homes. His children grew up with the great outdoors almost in their backyard and the family took full advantage of the setting. It made sense to ask him his favorite place in Idaho for our trip out West last summer. His answer – the small town of Stanley in the Sawtooth Mountains. It was great advice.When I write small town of Stanley, I mean small. In 2010, the town sported 63 citizens, down from 100 in 2000. It is a remnant from early trapping days that just happens to be in a stunning location at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains with the Salmon River flowing through. Some of its wooden buildings look straight out of Hollywood’s Western sets with flat fronts and planked porch entries. The few side roads off the main highway are dirt and there are no street signs.

View of Salmon River from our cabin

Most of the classic log cabin lodging in the area is along the Salmon River where we were most lucky to find one cabin for the one night we had available. It fronted the river allowing us to wave at the rafters headed out for a day or a week. Across the river, cows lazily feasted on the abundance of grass meadows and an occasional fisherman threw in his line. A fresh trout dinner on the riverside porch of the restaurant next door sealed the mountain air experience.We didn’t want the day to end as the descending sun illuminated nearby mountains in rust and white against the darkening blue shadows.

The highly recommended Stanley Baking Company, found simply by the numbers of cars parked around it, had a group of early risers the next morning waiting on the front porch for the bakery to open. We chatted with a group of women who had just finished a six-day run down the Salmon River. It was their 4th year they had crossed the country for the experience, and they were already talking of next year’s run. I envied their obvious sense of accomplishment. After breakfast, my husband and I drove to the Iron Creek Trailhead to begin the “hike of a lifetime” according to Ron.

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Sawtooth Wilderness lay side by side with a long history of protection.  As with many areas in the West, we would be walking on highly politicized paths. In 1968, the proposal of the American Smelting and Refining Company to dig an open pit mine for the extraction of molydenum (a chemical element used in steel alloys) spurred Idaho Congressmen, including Senator Frank Church, to have Congress create the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in 1971. President Obama signed an act expanding the wilderness area in 2015. The Sawtooth Wilderness is characterized by high granite peaks, separated by narrow valleys, giving a “sawtooth” look. Fifty of the peaks are over 10,000 feet with hundreds of high mountain lakes scattered throughout.

After filling out our wilderness permit, we began the relatively easy first three miles, passing from the Recreation area into the Wilderness. We passed signs that prohibited bicycles and drones, a rather odd combination.

Despite the July date, snow remained on the mountain side and more appeared as we ascended. At a sharp left turn, the path changed dramatically as the elevation increased, taking us upwards toward our Alpine lake destination. Young hikers passed us, but we had no reason to hurry. With a view at every turn, we found many excuses to stop, look, and listen.

At the sign for “Alpine Lake”, we veered off the main path that then continued to Sawtooth Lake. Most hikers, especially the younger ones, had the larger lake as their destination but not us. Hiking in your late 60’s is different. We’ve learned there are many possible turn-around points, depending on your stamina, the heat of the day, and how your hip is feeling. This Alpine Lake had the classic mountain lake ambiance – a quiet that seemed to amplify the human voice, birds flying above, slight cool breeze, clean air, blue skies and big boulders fronting the clear water. We rested near a couple of tents whose occupants were apparently out exploring.

After a snack of apples and nuts, we reluctantly turned around as we were expected in Boise that afternoon and the hiking traffic was picking up. There’s always a sense of satisfaction descending from a strenuous hike, noting the heavy breathing of the hikers ascending. And, the views are different and often more beautiful on the way down. Checking my phone at the end of the trail revealed a 9 mile hike, 20,325 steps and 32 floors of elevation. My orthopedic surgeon would be proud.

How Stanley has avoided the extreme development of nearby Sun Valley, I don’t know. But my cousin was right. It is a jewel of a location abounding in outdoor opportunities and beauty. It is my hope that such a small community can continue to hold out against any large-scale expansion. Its beauty deserves protection.

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