Snowmobiling the Sawtooths: Stanley to Smiley Creek


In the depth of winter, when the mercury drops and the snow drifts up to the door, one becomes acquainted with the merciless will of nature and the blessings of a warm stove and a pot of soup. Winter in the mountains can be quite the chore at times. In all the bounds of technology in modern times, it is easy to take for granted those comforts that have become so reliable. Times were much different the turn of the 20th century. Living at the feet of these mountains was a daily struggle for survival.

Beautiful snow covered mountains Stanley, ID | Stanley Chambers

Of all the advents, post-industrial revolution, life in Stanley, as it does today, lagged behind the rest of the world. With the internal combustion engine, came great minds rethinking the means in which to travel in the snow. After some less successful prototypes, the snowmobile was born!..., or at least an ancestor of what we think of today. It wasn’t until the 1950s when the modern snowmobile became more widely manufactured and distributed. I can’t imagine a single invention that changed the way of life more for this sleepy winter town.

Clouds coming over a snowy mountain Stanley, ID | Stanley Chambers

Over the years, snowmobiling has grown not only as a mode of transportation but as a recreational sport, drawing adrenaline junkies to these treacherous mountain slopes in winter. The town of Stanley has adapted right along. Thanks to the joint effort of the Salmon River Snowmobile Club, the community, and The US Forest Service, Stanley has become a renowned snowmobile recreation destination. Alongside thousands of acres of plunder for powder hounds and advanced riders, hundreds of miles of groomed trail, intertwine, running right through the middle of Stanley. This groomed trail begins, or ends, in the upper end of the salmon river, near Smiley Creek Lodge, connecting riders to hundreds of miles of groomed trails, leading through the Central Idaho mountains, all the way to Cascade, Idaho. The entire breadth of the trail is way beyond most of our means and expectations, but cradled between Stanley and Smiley Creek is a 30-mile excursion of inspiring winter landscapes along smooth riding groomed trail!

Beautiful sunset behind the Sawtooth Mountains Stanley, ID | Stanley Chambers

Starting out, the trail heads south from Stanley between the grocery store and service station of Mountain Village Resort. From here, it climbs the hill out of town, past Pioneer park and into the wide-open Stanley Basin. The Sawtooth Mountains jut up from the valley floor, unobstructed behind a sea of snow. At approx. 3 miles, the trail cuts behind the Stanley Ranger Station before dipping into the lodgepole pines extentinf off the foothills of the Sawtooths. The trail emerges, closely paralleling the highway for a short distance, dips back into the trees, passing by the Redfish Rock Shelter(a primitive hunting cave,) crossing a narrow bridge over Redfish Lake Creek. Here you’ll meet a 4-way junction.

Sun peeking through the clouds Stanley, ID | Stanley Chambers

The left trail takes you immediately back to the highway, where backcountry skiers and snowshoers access the backcountry yurts and wilderness via Redfish Lake. Hang right for a necessary side trip to the most scenic lake in Idaho(IMHO), Little Redfish and the popular summer destination, Redfish Lake. The view at either lake is worthy of cracking a hot thermos of cocoa over a Sawtooth sunset!

Rver bank running through the snow covered mountains Stanley, ID | Stanley Chambers

To continue to Smiley Creek, cut across the road and up the adjacent ridge, passing by a few cabins on the left, merging onto Decker Flat Road carving through the forested glacial escarpment, before opening into Decker Flats. The frigid waters of the Salmon River come into view on the East side of the trail with the scar of the Hellroaring fire to the west. The trail crosses the bridge across the river near Hellroaring Creek, then cuts cross Highway 75 in another ¼ mile. Use caution and yield to traffic!

Several snowmobilers riding through the pass Stanley, ID | Stanley Chambers

The route now cuts onto Valley Road as you travel further into a widening Sawtooth Basin. As the trail skirts closer to the foothills of the White Clouds at the base of Horton Peak, the southern end of the Sawtooths reveal themselves. The entire west horizon is dominated by the range expanding from Thompson Peak to the headwaters of The River of No Return.

The snowmobile trail parallels private property boundaries along Valley Road. It is important to stay on the trail in these areas, to ensure future cooperation. Toward the end of Valley Road, the trail humps up and drops down to Pole Creek drainage. One of the more prominent streams draining the White Clouds opens the views deep into the heart of the mountains. Ungroomed riding opportunities abound up Pole Creek! Continue, stay right and cross the bridge over Pole Creek. From here, the trail turns west, passing by Dead Cow Ranch, returning to Highway 75 and Smiley Creek Lodge.

Snowmobile trail heading up the Mountains of Stanley, ID | Stanley Chambers

This trail can be traveled round trip or one-way, provided shuttle arrangements are made. Start at Smiley Creek and have lunch in Stanley; or start in Stanley and have lunch at Smiley Creek. Snowmobile rentals are available in Stanley at Sawtooth Traxx or at Smiley Creek Lodge . Reservations are recommended.

Don't Forget! The annual Salmon River Snowmobile Club’s annual Snowmobilers Ball and Fun Ride is February 5th-7th in Stanley, Idaho. Stanley's Winterfest is the following weekend, February 12th-14th. There is still plenty of winter left to get out and enjoy snowmobiling the Sawtooth Basin! 

Blog and Photography by Adam Gulick