Blanketed with more than 220 inches of snow on average each year, the Sawtooth Valley of central Idaho is a winter wonderland that should be at the top of your adventure bucket list. Over 185 miles of groomed snowmobile trails fanning out in every direction make the town of Stanley ground zero for sledheads. You’ll see snowmobiles all over town, but the full-time population of under 100 and miles of national forests that surround Stanley give you plenty of room to roam.
Bordered by the Salmon River mountain range to the north, White Clouds to the east, and Sawtooths to the south and west, you don’t have to go far to find highmarks topping out over 10,000 feet, crystalline alpine meadows, and lofty vistas for Instagrammable sunrises and sunsets. Hushed glades open up above treeline to vast bowls where your tracks through fresh pow are the only sign of civilization.
Ride the most popular routes and discover some hidden gems with our guide to snowmobile paradise in Stanley, Idaho.
Classic Trails Not to Be Missed
Start with a local favorite just outside Stanley, the Kelly Creek Loop. This groomed trail through the Kelly and Stanley Creek drainage climbs to views across the Sawtooth range, then descends through meadows frequented by herds of elk. After your warm-up, head to Redfish Lake, nine miles south of Stanley. A popular destination all year, the lake freezes over in winter for a peaceful beauty you might have all to yourself. Lodges and restaurants close down, so all you’ll see are fellow riders, Nordic skiers, and maybe even a few fox and mule deer.
The lake road is typically groomed, giving you a wide-open pathway to soak in the snow-draped forest as you cross over the bridge at Redfish Lake Creek and turn to Little Redfish Lake. Linger at your turn-around point on the shores of Redfish Lake to enjoy views of 10,229-foot Mt. Heyburn in the distance. If weather conditions cooperate, a sunrise ride will put you there just in time to catch the peak in rosy alpenglow glory.
Follow the Salmon River straight through the turn to Redfish Lake and, 30 miles down the trail, you’ll come to Smiley Creek. It’s a smooth, groomed trip for all levels of riders with the extra bonus of a hearty meal and warm mug of coffee or cocoa at Smiley Creek Lodge before you head back to Stanley. Take breaks to savor the sights and sounds of the frigid Salmon River rushing through the Stanley Basin. If time allows, drop down into the Pole Creek drainage for some backcountry exploration on ungroomed terrain. With lodging, gas, snowmobile rentals, and a general store at Smiley Creek, you can start and finish your ride, or spend the night, at either end of the trail.
More powder and fewer people are the norm as you ride into the Challis-Salmon National Forest north and west of Stanley. It’s 10 groomed miles to Stanley Lake under the imposing backdrop of 9,860-foot McGown Peak. Ride on to Elk Mountain Overlook, then double back to loop around the Nordic trails at Park Creek and ride another 36 miles to Dagger Falls Junction.
Take a break at the warming hut on Bear Valley Creek at Bruce Meadows to pick your route from here. North leads through ungroomed backcountry to Dagger Falls, while groomed trail to the west stretches another 16 miles to Deadwood Lodge and 34 miles to the unincorporated town of Lowman on the South Fork Payette River.
If you’re a seasoned backcountry powder hound, pick Lowman and venture off the groomed pathway into hundreds of acres of untouched wilderness. If a rustic cabin, home-cooked meal, and wood-fired hot tub sound more appealing, take the groomed trail and settle in at Deadwood Lodge, where the only winter visitors arrive by snowmobile.
Where to Stay and Eat in Stanley
A cozy inn or cabin in Stanley is a convenient hub for all your central Idaho winter adventures. Book your own private log cabin at Triangle C Cabins or a river or mountain-view suite at the Redfish Riverside Inn. A stay at the Mountain Village Resort comes with soaking privileges in their semi-enclosed natural spring-fed hot tub.
Don’t curl up by the fire without grabbing a craft beer and hearty meal at one of Stanley’s locally-owned restaurants first. Redd Square Restaurant serves cocktails and a Pacific Northwest-focused selection of beers and wines alongside fresh starters, burgers, and mains. Order a local microbrew and pizza pie at Papa Brunee’s, and Stanley High Country Inn has a Brunch & Dinner that is not to be missed!
How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit
While most of the snowmobile trails out of Stanley are a half to full-day ride, you can easily link sections and add loops to cover more ground and increase the adrenaline rush. Refuel your gas tank, and your stomach, at Stanley, Smiley Creek, and Deadwood Lodge and, if you don’t have your own sled and gear, you can rent everything you need at Sawtooth Traxx in Stanley and at Smiley Creek Lodge. If it’s your first time out, the experienced guides at Smiley Creek will lead you through the powder and show you the ropes.
Written by Ann Gibson for Matcha in partnership with Stanley Sawtooth CoC.