Wandering the West
May 12, 2009
Many a Parkite has made the pilgrimage north to the birthplace of ski resorts in America Sun Valley. I could go on and on about Sun Valley’s many summer charms (not to mention restaurants), but that’s not what this is about.
Those who head to Sun Valley get one kind of summer experience (think Aspen North), but those who drive past Ketchum/Sun Valley just another seven miles reach the gateway of Idaho’s nirvana the Sawtooth Mountains.
The Sawtooths are a self-contained, stand-alone mountain range, about 43 miles long (north and south) and about 25 miles wide. The Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters north of Ketchum anchor the south end, and the small village of Stanley anchors the north. Inside those boundaries is the American West as Lewis and Clark saw it, plus a few amenities like campgrounds, dude ranches, and a fancy lodge or two.
Visualize a saw blade’s teeth and you’ll get the picture. Peak after pyramid-shaped peak rising from the valley floor, covered in forest halfway up, giving way to glacially carved rocky tops a lot like the Tetons without the crowds. Mixed within its boundaries are 1,100 lakes and 3,000 miles of rivers and creeks, including the headwaters of the Salmon.
The Sawtooth NRA divides roughly into thirds. The western section is the Sawtooth Wilderness, the middle is the Sawtooth Valley corridor where Highway 75 rolls from Ketchum to Stanley, and to the east lies the White Cloud Peaks area, where the country opens up a little more and attracts ATVs and 4-wheel drivers, although you can still get away from internal combustion engines by hiking a little. I have not explored the wilderness area or the White Cloud Peaks but, like most visitors, have stuck to the valley corridor, where the hub of activity is.
I say "hub" but there’s really no mob scene here anywhere, except maybe at Redfish Lake and "mob" overstates it. Redfish is big enough for a lake lodge, boat ramp and campgrounds, and low enough for a quick swim. How long you stay in the water depends on your tolerance of 62-degree water. Kids in the shallows can splash for hours on a hot day. Redfish at 4.5 miles long and a little less than a mile wide attracts power boaters and sailors and plenty of paddle-powered watercraft. Hike a mile upstream and you’re at Little Redfish Lake, a mellower place for quiet paddles and picnics.
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The name "Redfish" comes from past salmon migrations which turned the waters a shimmering red each fall as sockeye salmon returned 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean to their birthplace. The Columbia River dams pretty much ended that chapter, but some still manage the journey. The trophy fish in the drainages of the Sawtooths are steelheads an ocean-going trout that can reach rod-breaking proportions. Fly fishermen will find trout in most any stream they care to investigate.
The Salmon River itself is the stage for whitewater rafting, although trips require advance planning and up to a week of your time. The main and middle forks of the Salmon are must-do river runs for people working their way down a list of great whitewater adventures.
Back at Sawtooth NRA headquarters, get maps for hiking trails. It doesn’t take five minutes of hiking off a trailhead to be away from the sounds of the highway and back to land exactly as Lewis and Clark saw it as Sacajawea led them through. I recall one late-fall hike to a glacially carved basin that bottomed out into a large backcountry lake. All the way to the horizon I knew no one else was in the scene, and as I left it started snowing, leaving me with the thought that I’d seen a tableau no one else would see for another nine months. Nice moment.
There’s a ghost town or two, and ripped-apart creek bottoms pummeled by mining dredges that tore gold from the gravel in the days before environmental-impact statements, and not much else but pure mountain adventure. There are dozens of other remote islands of mountains like the Sawtooths the Big Horns, the Tetons, the Uintas and the Wind Rivers come to mind.
So many mountains and so little time.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
THE VITALS: Park City to Ketchum 326 miles
Insider tip: Easiest way to the top of the Sawtooths’ Thompson Peak is from the trailhead at Redfish Lake