The Sawtooth Mountains are legendary.
Rising up more than 10,000 ft., the Sawtooth’s jagged peaks give this range both its name and its jaw-dropping views. People all over the world visit the Sawtooth National Forest for its iconic camping and hiking. As amazing as the Sawtooths are, it turns out that the journey to the Sawtooths is as much fun as the destination.
Getting to the Sawtooths
Most out-of-towners use Southwest Idaho as their basecamp for driving to and through the Sawtooth Mountain Recreation Area. They fly or drive to Boise, then take the approximately 3.5 hour trip northeast into the mountains.
Your route will follow three different scenic byways. While the roads are safe and well-maintained, the drive to the Sawtooths includes plenty of opportunities for adventure… be sure to plan enough time — we recommend a full day or two — to fully enjoy it.
Don’t pass up Boise’s great downtown dinning experiences
If you’re flying into Boise, pick-up a rental car at the airport. You can overnight in the city or head straight out of town and find a stay in Garden Valley (1 hr from Boise) or Lowman (1 hr 40 min from Boise).
Whichever you choose, your trip will take you up Highway 55 along the Payette River, one of the most popular family-friendly stretches of whitewater in the lower 48. At Banks, turn right on Hwy 21. This stretch follows the more daring South Fork of the Payette River. Day trips on this river include hot springs, a “surf” wave, and even a portage around a waterfall.
Stop for lunch or the night in Crouch, a rustic and friendly town in the heart of Garden Valley. By now, you’ll already be up in the trees and feel like you are away from it all.
Hot springs can be found all through the Garden Valley area
Locals’ Tip: Garden Valley makes a great stop for an hour or a week. Check with the Garden Valley Chamber to see what’s happening during your visit.
Stanley + Redfish Lake
Photo Credit: Idaho Tourism
Stanley is a lot like Jackson Hole must have been before the hordes of tourists changed it. It’s just three hours from the urban buzz of downtown Boise, but a world away in spirit. Fewer than 100 people call Stanley home year-round, though the area swells in the summer and fall with visitors.
Stanley marks the starting point for exploring the Sawtooths. Accommodations range from rustic cabins to modern hotels. Some, like the Mountain Village Resort, even include access to private natural hot springs. Others are set along the scenic Salmon River or feature stunning mountain views.
Locals’ Tip: Need provisions? Riverwear in downtown Stanley (such as it is) has necessities like sunscreen, souvenirs, and snacks, as well as SUP and kayak rentals.
From Stanley, Redfish Lake is just a 15-minute drive away. Redfish Lake is the largest lake in the Sawtooth National Forest. And it is breathtaking nearly any time of day. Wake up early to see the morning light bouncing off the nearby peaks or stay late to catch the moonrise reflecting off the clean mountain waters.
Photo Credit: Idaho Tourism
Redfish Lake is filled with activities. Boating, fishing, swimming, hiking and just taking in the view are among the most popular.
Rent pontoon boats, stand-up paddleboards, and more at the marina. Or if you’re up for a true only-in-Idaho experience, take the ferry across the lake for some remote day hiking or backpacking.
If you’re staying the night (or nights), Redfish Lodge offers hotel rooms and cabins. And there’s lots of camping nearby. No matter what, it’s important to book early.
Into the Wild
Photo Credit: Idaho Tourism
With many hundreds of thousands of wilderness acres to explore, seeing all of the Sawtooths would take a lifetime.
Our recommendation for first-timers? Find a small mountain lake, stream, or peak, and hit the trail. Even the shortest Sawtooth backpacking or hiking adventure is certain to be unforgettable.
From Redfish Lake, Fishhook Creek trail takes you through ponderosa pines and across broad meadows to a very rewarding view of the Sawtooth Range. A bit further afield, Goat Lake, Bridal Veil Falls or Bench Lake are all accessible and stunning.
Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Elk, mountain goats and bighorn sheep frequent this area and the surrounding crags.
For more adventure, head deeper into the wilderness by following Hwy 75 north towards Challis or go south on Hwy 75 south to Sun Valley and Ketchum.
To loop back to Boise, reverse course on Hwy 21 towards Lowman. But instead of going west to Garden Valley, stay south to Idaho City.
Don’t miss out on The Springs near Idaho City
This historic mining town is filled with relaxing and interesting activities. Learn something at the Boise Basin Museum. Grab lunch (and a sarsaparilla) at one of the local “saloons.” Or just chill out at The Springs Hot Springs Resort. Wandering the wooden sidewalks, stopping in at the little antique and knickknack shops that line Main Street can easily fill a couple of hours.
Forty-five minutes further down Hwy 21 you’ll find Lucky Peak Reservoir. Drive the dam or stop by the scenic overlook to check out the view of this towering embankment dam.
Wrap your Sawtooth trip where it began: Boise.
It’s easy to see why so many visitors choose to use Boise as a basecamp for their Sawtooth Mountain vacation. This lively mid-sized city gives you plenty of options to recover or keep the adventure going.
We recommend spending at least a couple of nights in Boise on one or both ends of your trip. Here, you can eat well, play hard, and still get a good night’s rest.
For many, visiting the Sawtooths isn’t just fulfilling their bucket list, it fills their cup, providing an increasingly rare opportunity to get up and personal with a place that is still wild. Hopefully, you can find the time to experience it for yourself.