Idaho Heaven: Camping in the Sawtooths

It was bittersweet to leave Red Elephant Ranch. Our four days there had exceeded our hopes, but another week of Idaho exploration lay ahead of us…and, though the bed was bigger and the bathroom was a few steps away at the cabin, we were looking forward to some quality time with Betty!

We drove north, stopping in Ketchum for fabulous burritos at KB’s before winding up and over Galena Pass. From the summit, the entire Sawtooth Mountain Range was in view, and we had a perfectly clear and sunny day in which to enjoy it. Our destination for the night was Redfish Lake, tucked somewhere near the base of the range. The closer we got, the more impressive the sharp peaks became. The Sawtooths are seriously rugged and stunning mountains.

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Redfish Lake is a popular spot with multiple campground options and a lodge. It’s no surprise that people flock to this lake; the water is glacier blue and the jagged mountains almost rise right out of it. Being post-Labor Day weekend, we assumed we’d have our choice of prime spots to park for the night, but the jockeying for the best camp sites was unexpectedly competitive! Campers, trailers, and RVS of all sizes circled around each campground like sharks, dropping off coolers and chairs to save potential winning sites while they continued the hunt.

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We quickly began our own camp spot quest and, not satisfied with the lake view/access combo options on Redfish Lake, ventured to Little Redfish Lake. We found a site (lucky #13) at Chinook Campground with plenty of space between us and the next camper with a trail that led right to the water. The view of the Sawtooths was maybe better than the one from the big lake, and the campground was much smaller and quieter. WINNER.

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With only one night planned at Little Redfish Lake, we wasted no time in setting up camp and moving on to more important things: recreating on the lake. We took turns paddleboarding on the water, soaking in the amazing view. Whoever wasn’t on the water played swim/fetch with a wet and happy Cholula.

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As the sun started to set, John started a fire and got started on dinner- chimichurri steak sandwiches made with leftovers from the cabin. Nothing says camping like cooking over a fire in a cast iron skillet! The sandwiches and the fiery sky were simply delicious.

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The little lake was even more beautiful in the morning. The water was like glass, reflecting the majestic Sawtooths in a mirror image. These are my favorite mornings: rolling out of a cozy sleeping bag and seeing your breath in the brisk air, heating water on the stove for a warm washcloth (nothing better) and hot French-pressed coffee, stepping outside into a wilderness wonderland, breathing in the mountain air, and breakfast with a view. Thank you, Little Redfish Lake.

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We rolled out of camp by mid-morning and toward the little town of Stanley, Idaho to stock the coolers. After such a peaceful night of camping, I was surprised at how close town was! With the essential supplies replenished, we remembered the recommendation of a friend and popped into the Stanley Baking Company for a bite. One of my favorite things about traveling to new places is discovering fabulous and unexpected places to eat, and this is one of them. Wow! In a teensy town with mostly dirt roads, this joint had a line out the door- and we were told it was “slow at the moment.” We snagged a booth and thoroughly enjoyed a plate of migas and a turkey-brie-cranberry sandwich before moving on. If you’re ever in Stanley, don’t miss the bakery!

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Our destination was less than a half an hour away, just on the other side of the Sawtooths from the previous night’s campsite. Stanley Lake Campground was quiet and mostly empty, more of what we’d expected after the Labor Day crowd had gone home. Despite the small size of the campground, we basically had our pick of sites. We opted for a large one scattered with tall, skinny pine trees with space between us and the other sites and perfect access to the water. What a cool experience, to view the mountain range from the other side!

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We settled into our home for the next two nights and then took off to explore the area. We checked out the other (busier, hotter) side of the lake, spied a trailhead to explore the next day, discovered a remote campground on itty bitty Bull Trout Lake (bookmarked for another vacation), took a bump photo or two, and wandered around an old homestead (which, of course, reignited my cabin girl daydreams).

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We returned to camp to discover that the campground had mostly filled up and we were thankful we’d snagged such a spacious spot. We spent the afternoon enjoying the lake, the view, the hammock. We’d been pretty successful at our goal of having no set plans for our days, and it was delightful. We made burritos for dinner and our evening entertainment was checkers by candlelight. Heaven.

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Come morning, the mountain reflection on Stanley Lake was just as impressive as the one at Little Redfish Lake. While Cholula and I were still blissfully tucked into our sleeping bag, John snuck out to do a little paddleboard fishing on the smooth water. When I brought my coffee down to the lakeside, I couldn’t resist a couple laps on the paddleboard myself. Every day should start this way!

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Our main objective for the day was to explore the trail we’d seen the day before. I packed us a tasty picnic lunch and off we went, unintentionally starting our hike at the hottest part of the day. Our trek was mostly flat, and the trail was well-maintained. The mountains were spectacular, but as with the rest of Idaho, I was saddened to see how many of the pine trees had succumbed to beetle infestation.

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We passed a few fellow hikers but mostly had the trail to ourselves. One of the groups we passed mentioned a waterfall ahead, which we could hear, so we pointed ourselves toward it. Our only indication that we’d arrived was a small wooden sign with an arrow pointing at a smaller, less-obvious trail. Then, below us, we could see the teal blue water pooling at the base of the falls, protected by steep, sheer rock cliffs. While we couldn’t see the actual falls very well (without risking a serious tumble down the cliff), we could hear the water crashing into the pool. We found a shady spot and shared our picnic with Cholula. The view was dessert.

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The hike felt longer than its five miles, mostly because of the heat on the way back. Close to the trailhead, John found a deep spot in the creek and dove in, filling Cholula with glee. Back at camp, I had time for a preggo-mama nap in the trailer before watching the pine tree shadows grow long from the hammock. We opted for a simple (read: lazy) dinner of boxed mac n’ cheese with bacon and jalapeno and toted our dinner bowls to the water for a lakeside meal.

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The light reflecting off of the tippy tops of the mountains was pretty special, and when the light from the sun was gone, we retreated into Betty for card games before bed. It was a peaceful ending to our time camping under the magnificent Sawtooth Range. In the morning, we’d continue our northward trek, switching gears to camp and fish on the Salmon River.

Stay tuned for the final installment of our heavenly Idaho adventures!

Part One of our Idaho fun can be found here.

Bit by the travel bug? See more of our travels here!

One year ago: Photo Walk- Autumn in Park City


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