It can be difficult to find land that is truly wild these days, but the Sawtooth Mountains and Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness near the town of Stanley, Idaho are just that. They’re everything you dream of when you think of the getting away for a mountain adventure: rugged snow-capped peaks, deep canyons with rushing rivers, trees blanketing the hillsides, and not a building or sidewalk in sight. I spent most of my last trip to the area fishing on the scenic Salmon River, with stands of pine trees lining the banks and mountains towering in the distance. It’s a place you could spend a lifetime exploring, but—unfortunately—most of us don’t have unlimited vacation time.
But a three-day weekend is reasonable, right? Three days in Stanley gives you just enough to time to scratch the surface and experience the essence of both the wilderness and the welcoming summer community.
So lace up your hiking boots, string up a rod, and get ready to explore all day and enjoy the food and nightlife until you hit the pillow.
Start the Day off Right
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and you’ll appreciate a well-stocked backpack and cooler as you burn calories and soak up the sun.
I was told that the Stanley Baking Co. & Cafe is a local favorite for hot coffee and a filling breakfast. Open from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. daily, they offer breakfast in addition to a hearty lunch menu and grab-and-go baked goods. Try the Basque scramble if you like chorizo—you won’t be sorry.
Make a pit stop at the Mountain Village Mercantile or Lower Stanley Country Store to grab extra trail snacks and supplies for the day. We found that the Mountain Village Merc has a great selection of local craft beers and ice to toss in your cooler for later.
Find Your Adventure
Stanley has no shortage of adventure opportunities, but settling on one or two for the day can be a tough decision. Here are a few of your best bets for a wonderful weekend.
The Salmon River is an easy starting point with the option to raft and/or fish, with the biggest whitewater flow during the early summer runoff when snowmelt raises the water level. Whether you’re new to whitewater or an experienced paddler, rafting trips can be easily customized for groups with a mix of mild or fast and furious floating options.
If you’re up for reeling in dinner, grab a rod and simply walk the river banks searching for trout. Better yet, hire a guide to take you out on a boat or help you find that perfect fishing hole. I’ve caught beautiful cutthroat trout on the Salmon River during the summer months and steelhead during the fall, winter, and spring. Rainbow trout are also abundant and stocked by the state. Chinook salmon also make an incredible journey from the ocean to the headwaters of the river where they spawn (Check out the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s website for when and where to catch these fish).
Spend another day exploring Redfish Lake and the many trails that spur off into the mountains. The Bench Lakes Trail is accessed from either the Fishhook Trailhead near Redfish Lake Lodge or the Inlet Trail (you’ll have to take a short boat shuttle across the lake for this one). The trail leads to two of the five Bench Lakes, offering incredible views of surrounding mountains and wilderness.
The Bench Lakes are great for adults, but families with younger kids should avoid the long, difficult day hike. Instead, try the Fishhook Creek Trailhead for a 5-mile round-trip hike with minimal elevation change and a clear view of Heyburn Peak at the turnaround point. The trail winds through forests until reaching a distinct meadow with beaver ponds and mountain views. Expect to take about one hour each way and the meadow is a perfect picnic site.
Mountain bikers love the 17.5-mile Fisher/Williams Creek Loop Trail, which is ideal for skilled riders who can handle singletrack. It runs along a forest service road for part of the ride, hits some great singletrack and connects to Highway 75 for a short stretch. The 1,500 feet of elevation gain comes with a few steep downhill runs, moderate climbs, and a trail that cuts through mountain forests and meadows.
If your trip coincides with a Thursday night, join the party on Ace of Diamonds Street. You’ll find live music, great food, and fun with the locals that make this weekly gathering a fun time all summer long.
Don’t forget to take advantage of one of the area’s great draws after sunset—the night sky. Stanley is located in Central Idaho’s Dark Sky Reserve, where pristine skies offer unobstructed views of the stars. The lack of light pollution enables visitors to enjoy some of the most inspiring stargazing in the lower 48 states.
Time to Unwind
Pushing your adventure limits all day requires a good meal and some serious unwinding when you get back to town. On a three-day trip, you have two solid nights to absorb the charm of Stanley while treating yourself to some great food.
If you spent the day around Stanley Lake, drive the Nip n Tuck Road (FS #633) on the way back to town and catch the sunset with the Sawtooths towering in the background. Wildlife sightings are common on this short detour.
For dining options, the Bridge Street Grill is a local favorite, known for its burgers, steaks, ribs, seafood, buffalo wings, and desserts. Its outdoor deck overlooking the Salmon River is a scenic spot to savor your meal and enjoy some live music. Keep an eye out for nesting bald eagles as well!
The Redfish Lake Lodge Restaurant features a beautiful rustic dining room and a chef-inspired menu with its take on Idaho comfort food. Using local ingredients as well as the region’s wild resources, the restaurant specialized in salmon, trout, wild game, and other local favorites. If you’re in the mood for pizza, Papa Brunee’s is your spot. To relax and recount your day’s adventures over a drink, stop in at the Kasino Club, where chances are you’ll also be treated to some excellent live music.
If you hit the trails a little too hard, head to the Meadow Creek Spa and book a massage to ease those tired muscles. Starting the trip with a hard hike and ending with a spa trip is the perfect way to relax before returning back home.
Another option is to soak in one of the many hot springs around Stanley. The area is rich with natural hot-spring pools that are perfect for relaxing in the evening. A little over three miles north on Highway 75 is a sneaky turn-off with room for a few cars. The old mining cauldron is fed by a pipe with hot spring water. The pool has room for 2-4 people and it overlooks the Salmon River. The proximity to town makes this a great way to end your day.
The Mountain Village Lodge has a private pool that you can reserve, a private hot spring that sits on the river with views of the Sawtooths. (The hot spring sits under an old barn for shelter from snow and rain.)
Lodging Any Way You Like It
You can find lodging just about any way you want here. Rooms and cabins can book up quickly, so plan ahead and reserve in advance if possible. A last-minute trip, however, does not rule out finding a great lodging option. Renting a private cabin on the Salmon River is a good way to find solitude and comfort. More inclusive options like the Redfish Lake Lodge and Mountain Village provide food, lodging, and everything you need in a one-stop shop.
The abundance of forest service campgrounds really makes it easy to pitch a tent or park a trailer. Private RV parks are also available if you want hookups, and campgrounds are located very close to town with several options right on the river. Camping at Stanley or Redfish Lake is a great alternative with easy access to hiking trails and lake fishing.
Three days in Stanley? You’re right, it’s not enough time to do it all, but it is plenty of time to create an unforgettable getaway in this incredibly scenic section of the state. As for me, I’m already planning for my next trip!
Written by Zach Lazzari for RootsRated Media in partnership with Stanley Sawtooth CoC.