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Stanley, Idaho, Is the Ideal Base to Explore the Wild Beauty of the Sawtooth Mountains

Idaho National Parks Hiking
by Hayden Seder Jun 16, 2021

With a population of less than 100, the unsuspecting small Idaho town of Stanley is just a blip on the radar. But it’s this town’s proximity to the Sawtooth Range of the Rocky Mountains that makes it a destination for adventurers of all kinds, most notably hikers and backpackers. Stanley is a great jumping-off point for exploring all manner of hikes in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and throughout the two-million-acre Sawtooth National Forest — from easy day hikes to overnight sufferfests to multi-day backpacking trips. In addition to offering views of imposing, jagged peaks, hikes lead through dense forests of spruce, fir, and aspen to cascading waterfalls and impossibly blue alpine lakes above them.

Prepare for weather and bring a map

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Even the most seasoned adventurer will need to know a few things before hitting the trails in Idaho. Idaho weather notoriously changes on a whim, with a beautiful, sunny day suddenly turning dark and rainy in the afternoon. Pack your day bag with layers, sunscreen, water, and a physical map if you’re new to the area — there’s little to no cell phone service in the mountain area. Even if you only plan to hike a short while, make sure someone at home knows your itinerary. And anything you pack in, be ready to pack out (leave no trace).

The five best hikes from Stanley, Idaho

Lady Face & Bridal Veil Fall

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From the Stanley Lake trailhead, try this moderate hike with beautiful views of McGowan Peak and a destination of the beautiful Bridal Veil waterfall. The 7.9-mile round-trip passes Lady Face Falls as well. The elevation gain of 350 feet makes this a fairly easy hike though the distance might be a bit much for children. An alternative is to take a side trail about 2.5 miles into the hike and work your way down an arroyo toward five Lady Face falls — for a shorter five-plus-mile out and back trek. The trail winds through dense forests and meadows before coming out at the base of the waterfall.

Fishhook Creek/Meadow

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The mild elevation gain of 200 feet and distance of 4.2 miles total (out and back) makes this a great hike for the family or those still adjusting to the altitude. In the early summer, you’ll see beautiful wildflowers, as well as views of nearby peaks of Horstmann, Heyburn, and Thompson. Much of the trail is in the shade of lodgepole pine forest so if you get a later start, you won’t be in too much sun.

Goat Lake/Goat Falls

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Goat Falls is the largest waterfall in the Sawtooths, cascading 650 feet down over a rocky mountainside. Like anything worth experiencing, it’s going to be a bit of work to get there. The hike is 8.2 miles total with an elevation gain of 1,814. The trail varies from moderate to strenuous but is well worth the effort. Some parts of the trail are not well-maintained or well-marked — particularly the last part to the top of the falls, which is a bit of a scramble. Be sure you feel confident scampering up the final stretch and, in any case, bring a map. The falls spill from stunning Goat Lake, with blue water so clear you will want to stay longer to admire it. Consider making this hike an overnighter so you can do just that.

Sawtooth Lake

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The Sawtooth Recreation Area has hundreds of lakes, and Sawtooth Lake is the largest among them. It is also the most photographed lake in Idaho. Considered difficult at 10 miles roundtrip and a gain of 1,740 feet, the trek to Sawtooth Lake is nonetheless among the most popular hikes in the Sawtooth Mountains. Just 5.5 miles out of Stanley, the path starts at the Iron Creek Trailhead and has great views of Iron Creek for the first couple of miles. Like other hikes in the area, this one is a mix of mountain views, meadows, and picturesque vistas. About four miles in, you’ll pass a sign to Alpine Lake, which is a great spot for camping or stopping for lunch. If you’re hiking early in the season, you might run into snow on the last part of the trail or find a frozen lake. Even when there’s still snow on the ground, the trail can get quite hot in the afternoon so getting an early start is recommended.

Fourth of July and Washington Lakes

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While more of a drive from Stanley, at 14.5 miles south of town, this hike will give you the chance to explore the White Cloud range. Fourth of July Lake is just 2.25 miles in, with 400 feet of elevation gain, so it can be a great spot to backpack into and then used as a base to explore the other trails that are accessible from it. You’ll also be camped right on the lake with views of Patterson Peak watching over it. If you choose to continue on to Washington Lake as a day hike, it’s just a 200-foot descent to this larger lake.

Activities after hiking

Once you’ve exhausted yourself on these hikes in the Sawtooth wilderness, you’ll have plenty of fun activities to do in Stanley. Enjoy breakfast or lunch at the crowd favorite Stanley Baking Company. Opened in 2000, this family-owned operation often has lines out the door on busy weekend mornings, as in-the-know locals and visitors wait for the homemade baked goods and tasty menu offerings.

No visit to the Stanley area would be complete without a stop at Redfish Lake, located about a 10-minute drive from Stanley. The lake is synonymous with Redfish Lodge, located on its shores. Visitors can grab burgers and hotdogs outside or sit down in the lodge’s restaurant. Sunbathers line the warm, sandy beaches and on the water you’ll find boaters, paddleboarders, and kayakers; all equipment can be rented. Along with Stanley Lake, Redfish Lake is also among our favorite places to camp in Idaho.

For a bit of warmer water and to ease your tired muscles, head to one of the area’s natural hot springs. For the ultimate Instagramable moment, visit Mountain Village Resort’s private hot springs, available for rent by the hour for $25 (or free if staying at the resort). The pool sits on the riverbank in a small log building with views of the mountains. Other natural hot springs abound in the area so just ask around for the best spots to dip.

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