Your Own Private Idaho
Sunday, August 24, 2003
National parks have their charms, but solitude is not one of them. I've walked in Wyoming's Tetons, where trails can feel like a Starbucks queue, and I've trudged up paths in Montana's Glacier with a gaggle of tourists, all of us yelling "Hey bear!" in case Mama Grizzly should be lurking around the next bend.
That doesn't happen in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. In fact, you may be more likely to meet a bear than another human.
I was sold on the area during my first visit there a couple years ago, when we huffed and puffed up 8,000 feet of peaks. On the way we met only five other hikers -- one of whom was a baby riding on his father's back. At the top, we faced a sparkling lake overhung by a sheer expanse of granite on one side and a wildflower meadow on the other. Snow-frosted peaks lay ahead in the distance. Now, this was hiking.
Two thousand feet below was home base: little Stanley, Idaho, pop. 100, looking like so many Monopoly houses flung out alongside the glittering blue ribbon of the Salmon River.
Stanley sits about 60 miles north of -- and a world away from -- tony Sun Valley (where there are lots of people). It's a rough-and-ready town thrown up at the junction of Stanley Creek and the Salmon more than a century ago by trappers and hopeful gold prospectors.
Today it's a convenient jumping-off place for whatever outdoorsy pastime appeals in the surrounding 217,000-acre Sawtooth Wilderness. You can do everything you'd do in the great national parks of the West -- hike mountains with spectacular scenery, cast into a clear trout stream, take a white-knuckle rafting or kayaking trip down river rapids -- but without the crowds.
The town offers a range of lodging, including several comfortable and reasonably priced motels as well as acres of campgrounds tucked in among the moraines and woods around Stanley. There's also a general store, a couple of outdoors shops, a handful of restaurants, some bars, a bakery, an airfield, a library and a dozen or so outfitters eager to guide anglers, rafters or horseback riders.
Hikers can, of course, operate without guides. All we need are well-marked trails, hot showers, firm mattresses and good food and wine at the end of the day. Stanley delivers on all counts. I've sampled in-town accommodations, which were economical and had kitchens and good restaurants nearby. But my first choice is a guest lodge south of town called the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch.
Built as a hunting lodge in 1930, the log structure is on the National Register of Historic Places and looks as if it hasn't changed much over the decades. In the lobby, comfortable leather chairs cluster around a roaring fire in a big stone hearth. Cozy guest cabins are spread out around the grounds, and a front porch faces the broadside of the Sawtooths and one of the West's prize views. On a June Sunday, when friends and I arrived for a return visit to the lodge, an inch of snow had fallen, so enjoying that view from a porch rocking chair meant first wrapping up in one of the dozen or so quilts stacked near the front door for just such chilly occasions.
"Many of our guests live very busy lives," said lodge manager Sandra Beckwith. And many of them, as we did, find something special and usually quite simple in the world of Stanley. "One of our guests told me he would get up just to go outside in the middle of the night and look up at stars," she said.
Although every room has a fireplace and full bath, the ranch proudly touts the fact that there are no telephones or TVs in the 21 rooms. There is only one courtesy phone for guests, tucked away behind a wood stack just off the lobby. The only Internet connection is a snail-like link on a computer in the laundry room next to the inn's spring-heated pool.
Although billing itself as a guest ranch, the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch will not organize the day for you. "We're here and we'll make suggestions," said Beckwith. "You have the opportunity to select your own adventure."