An hour north of Boise, the canyon widens and the river relaxes. Sandbar islands host ducks, geese, and eagles. Cabins peak through the forest canopy, smoke curling up from their chimneys.
Welcome to Smiths Ferry.
At the heart of Smiths Ferry is Cougar Mountain Lodge. For nearly 80 years, the lodge has been the landmark halfway point on the Payette Scenic River Byway drive to McCall, and a popular place to stop on the way.
Cougar Mountain Lodge is a throwback to the traditional mountain lodge. It’s the kind of place where the person who checks you in, Ginger, is also the one who takes your dinner order that night. It’s the kind of place where the lodge’s cook, Patrick, also happens to own the place.
“The hamburgers are the best around,” Ginger said. “Patrick grinds the tri-tip himself.” She wasn’t kidding. Patrick’s burger was the best I’ve ever tasted. Add crispy fries, a fresh side salad, and an IPA and it’s the perfect lodge dinner.
Looking for a new weekend retreat, our group of four booked a weekend getaway at the lodge. The agenda was open — maybe hike and soak in hot springs, or whatever came our way.
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The rooms upstairs are country, rustic and gradually being renovated. Some share common bathrooms and a couple have private baths. But we had everything we needed — including solid Wi-Fi — and were warm and cozy all night.
The next morning, after filling up on platter-sized pancakes, one of the lodge’s staff members drove us upriver to our recommended hiking route along a historic railroad corridor. The two-mile hike amid endless mountain views was just right to get our muscles working and blood pumping.
After a good workout in fresh mountain air comes nature’s muscle relaxer—hot springs!
Gold Fork Hot Springs, 36 miles up the road from Cougar Mountain Lodge, draws locals and visitors year-round. Mist rises from five pools of alkaline, mineral-rich waters. With temperatures ranging from 85-110°F, even Goldilocks will find one that’s “just right.”
Settling in to the warm waters of Gold Fork, with bald eagles circling overhead, was the perfect way to end our day.
The weekend getaway was exactly what we needed: simple, affordable, friendly, and fun.
And there’s so much more to explore next time: High Valley is just over the mountain; the Cabarton whitewater stretch on the Payette ends at the lodge; fishing and hunting; hiking and relaxing – it’s all there. Best of all, we were hosted by new friends that made us feel like we were a part of their family, if only for a weekend.