Your next great summer vacation

Sawtooth Mountains: The hidden Rockies

The Idaho Sawtooths are as pretty as any national park—minus the crowds. Here's where to go and what to do

Sawtooth Mountains view
Photo: Thomas J. Story

By Rachel Levin

I am in Lemonade Heaven. Rocking in a wooden chair, on a wide front porch lit by the late-afternoon sun, pointed at a picture-perfect row of 10,000-foot granite peaks.

Oh, if Norman Rockwell could see me now, he’d bail on the Berkshires and hightail it out West to the Idaho Rockies. To the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. To the dusty gateway “town” of Stanley (population 100). And up a long gravel drive to Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, where the fresh-squeezed lemonade—which I pour from the spout of a big oak barrel, and mix, whenever I feel like it, with iced tea from the equally cold barrel beside it—tastes particularly good. Like, I’m addicted good.

Things to do in the Sawtooth Mountains

I didn’t intend to come to the Sawtooths to lounge around all day. I mean, this is an alpine lake–studded, river-running, lupine-covered adventureland—presided over by snow-caked spires that rival the Grand Tetons.

Imagine, a national park–level wilderness without national park–level crowds. No bus tours. No traffic. No entrance fees. Just pure, unadulterated—and drop-to-my-knees gorgeous—land inhabited by more cows than people and waiting to be tackled. The hiking trails are calling. The hot springs are steaming. The trout, I’m told, are biting. And the mountain bikes, lined up to my right, are ready to be ridden. Still, I’m finding the pull of this porch too hard to resist.

Especially when my husband, Josh, walks up with two of those bikes. “Let’s go!” he says, beaming about the fact that you can access the best mountain biking trail in the West, the Fisher Creek Loop, from our backyard. I hike up mountains, I run marathons, but I don’t mountain bike. I don’t even banana-seat bike. He knows this. I reluctantly follow him (on foot) to the meadow behind the lodge. And then, maybe it’s the friendly-looking wildflowers or the puff of bright-white clouds in the big blue sky or the meditative silence broken only by muted moos, but suddenly, in Sawtooth fairyland, anything is possible.

Helmet firmly on head, I hop on. “Wait, is this single-track?” I ask, before the pedals make one rotation. I realize it must be, because this tire-thin dirt path is no easy fire road. Molehills literally become mountains. A branch across the trail becomes a downed redwood. A grassy bank becomes a full-on cliff drop. White knuckles are an understatement. I’m afraid to switch gears—so I don’t. I’m as wobbly as a just-born calf and I have an itch on my ear that I don’t dare scratch.

“There’s no way in hell that I’m crossing that ocean of a creek!” I yell to my husband. “Look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go,” he instructs from up ahead.

Good advice, except I can’t follow it. Grass whips my legs; I veer into the sagebrush and brake, hard, and slam against the seat. Ow. An eternity—or 7 miles—later, we reach the tail end of the trail (not the famed Fisher Creek, mind you, just, uh, a path that links to it). I’m riding a ridge. Balancing in the breeze. Josh looks back. “You’re loving it!” he exclaims. Surprising myself, I realize I sort of am.

When we get back to the lodge, I walk right up to the porch. I bypass the barrel of lemonade and reclaim my rocking chair. The craggy peaks of the Sawtooths look prettier than ever. I kick up my feet and order a nice cold beer.

Next: Plan your Sawtooth adventure

 

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