Just as the winter doldrums begin to set in—those often-dreary few weeks of the New Year before the snow really starts to get good—something remarkable happens in Stanley, Idaho. As a launching point for adventures in the rugged Sawtooth Mountains and on the breathtakingly beautiful Salmon River, this tiny town—it has a population of just 63!—is a popular summer outdoor destination. But Stanley also has a few tricks up its sleeve during the colder months, too.
“We’ve got the snow,” says Jason Bosley, festival organizer and Stanley-Sawtooth Chamber of Commerce director. He’s not kidding: Thanks to its elevation of just over 6,200 feet above sea level, the Stanley area has ample snow for skiing, fat biking, and snowmobiling well into May most years.
All that snow makes for the ideal setting for Winterfest, a highlight of the season. The mid-February extravaganza is the perfect excuse to come out any play—or, as the organizers put it, keep cabin fever at bay. Whether you’re itching to crank your fat bike pedals or try your hand at snowmobile skijoring (more on that in a moment), or you just like to watch the action with a warm beverage in hand, there’s something at Winterfest to tickle your fancy. Here’s how to do it up right, whether you’re bringing the whole family to enjoy the festivities or hanging with friends for a fun winter getaway.
Stanley may be a little sleepier during the winter months, but several local accommodations stay open for Winterfest. Once you’ve settled into your home away from home for the weekend, it’s time to find the action—and in a town as small as Stanley, you won’t have far to look. They say you should always be fashionably late to a party, but you won’t want to miss a minute of the action the Friday night lineup at Winterfest. Things kick off at 7 p.m. with a Beach Party Pub Crawl in the Stanley Town Square—bonus points for rocking a floral Hawaiian shirt under your winter coat. Go easy on those fruity cocktails, though: You’ve got a big weekend ahead.
The biggest challenge as Winterfest kicks off is narrowing down which events you’ll get to (or, if you can’t bear to miss any, the right order to hit them all). The Fat Bike Fondo gets going at 10 a.m. on Saturday (remember, this is Idaho; the sun doesn’t come up all that early during the cold-weather months). The race offers 30K and 40K distances, depending on your winter bike stamina, and the course provides phenomenal views of the Sawtooths throughout. (Be sure to layer appropriately so you don’t overheat.)
If a two-wheeled sufferfest isn’t your thing, check out one of the northwest’s only ski plane fly-ins, which allow visitors to get a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding mountains. There’s also the Howlin’ Wolf Raft Ride. Nope, it’s not on the river—instead, those rafts double as giant inner tubes, pulled along the snow (free of charge) by an ATV. This one is a hit with all ages.
“The outhouse races through downtown Stanley are a riot,” Bosley suggests for an afternoon activity. If you’re feeling even more adventurous, the Wild and Woolley Drag Race is just the event for you. Don’t come expecting to see cars racing down the quiet Stanley streets; this is more of a “come dressed in your finest drag” event.
Throughout the day, you’ll find skating and pickup hockey at the Stanley Ice Rink, cookies and hot chocolate at the library, and wine and art at the Gerheim Gallery. Then, at 4 p.m., the Winterfest King and Queen are crowned, kicking off the shindig for the evening. The Mountain Village Resort Saloon and Stanley Kasino Club have live music starting at 9 p.m., with no cover charge.
Kick off the day with one of the most unique winter activities out there: snowmobile skijoring. Skijoring, an event in which dogs (and sometimes horses) pull a single skier behind them, gets a little more horsepower with this version, in which sleds give skiers a literal run for their money. You’re almost sure to work up an appetite simply by spectating, so head over to Mountain Village afterward for a hearty brunch on the back porch: the Wild West omelette is a rib-stickin’ choice that will power you through the rest of the weekend, and the signature cinnamon roll is an irresistible must-do for sweet-toothed types.
Bellies full, it’s time to head over to the K9 Keg Pull, in which trusty mutts pull a beer keg across a snowy field. If you (or your pooch) aren’t up for joining in, no worries: It’s almost as much fun watching the competitors show their stuff, and there are plenty of hot drinks (and snacks, should you somehow find yourself hungry again) to keep you cozy.
And if you’re not quite ready for all the frigid fun and festivities to end, there’s a last call and “Wind Down” event, which runs from 8 p.m. to midnight at the Kasino Club. (In other words, you might want to save that drive back to Boise for Monday morning.)
Before You Go
From Boise, Stanley is just over 2.5 hours on Highways 55 and 21, both two-lane roads. Prepare for “typical winter driving considerations” advises Bosley of the road. You won’t be sorry to have AWD, but a passenger car can make the trip, too—just take it slow and be prepared.
Make hotel reservations as soon as possible.
The festival itself is free, but you’ll have to pay for food and drinks at some events.
Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with Stanley Sawtooth CoC.