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

Rachel Levin

Getting to the Sawtooths: With dusty streets and not a single stoplight, you’ll likely drive right through the teeny town of Stanley, at the intersection of super-scenic Statehighways 21 and 75. It’s one hour from Sun Valley and three from the Boise Airport. More info on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area:

Where to stay: I know I keep raving about the porch at Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch (open Jun 11–Sep 12; rooms and cabins, $294–$488; rates include all meals, evening hors d’oeuvres, hot springs pool, horseback riding, fishing, and mountain biking). But really, I love everything about this historic, meticulously renovated lodge, 9 miles from town. A stay in one of the 17 TV/Wi-Fi/phone-free cabins has turned me into a wannabe annual guest.

For a summer camp-y, lakefront scene, try Redfish Lake Lodge (open May 28–Oct 3; rooms and cabins, $70–$500; two-night weekend minimum; offers boat rentals, lake shuttles, dining). The 6 rooms at the Meadow Creek Inn & Spa (open May 7–Oct 9) fill fast. Why? Through June 27, $99 per person buys one night, a massage, and a beer or glass of wine. Additional night’s stay from $85.

Adventure time in the Sawtooths

Hiking: “This is kinda crowded for the Sawtooths,” says a local who shows me to “Shangri-La” (or, as the map says, Saddleback Lakes). Seriously? We see four people on this leg-busting 7-mile hike, accessed by a boat shuttle across Redfish Lake.

Less strenuous is the 10-mile Sawtooth Lake Trail, the area’s most popular ... yet on a summer Saturday, it’s empty! So at the first lake, I jump in. Family fun? Try Fourth of July/Washington Lakes. On this 4-miler, we bring our babe in a backpack. Sawtooth National Recreation Area:

Fly-fishing: I’m standing thigh-high in the Salmon River, learning how to cast with longtime guide Julie Meissner. There’s an art to it, she says, as I swat my line against the bank. “It’s not in the wrist,” Meissner explains. “It’s in your arm. Like flicking water off a paintbrush.” At first, nothing. Before long, Was that a bite? I picture a big trout and can’t wait to squat with my catch for a triumphant photo. Nope; I lift too fast, too high. But eventually, I land my first fish! Just an 8-inch rainbow—but I’m hooked. $325 half-day for two; reservations required; or 800/732-5687.

Rafting: The drive downriver to Sunbeam Village—to White Otter Outdoor Adventures’ base—is so beautiful, I consider skipping the raft trip and continuing on State 75 to Sun Valley. But then I remember I’m on the upper main fork of the Salmon River: prime rafting territory. Owner Doug Fenn runs a good operation, and not just because his mother-in-law bakes a killer zucchini-raisin bread. We ride the class III–IV rapids and pull up to a 10-foot boulder called Jump Rock—and do just that. $75 half-day; $85 full day, including lunch; 877/788-5005.

Soaking: Most of the Sawtooths’ natural hot springs can be tricky to find—the best kind, in my mind. On the way back from rafting, steam rises off the side of State 75, just like the river guide said it would. Sunbeam Hot Springs is a cluster of rock pools of varying temps; the best “hot spot” is occupied by a couple who say they soak here daily, so I find another.

Two miles south of Lower Stanley is Elkhorn Hot Springs, aka “Boat Box,” an old redwood tub tucked in the river. Back at Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, the naturally fed hot springs pool is (sorry) guests-only. More info on area hot springs: 208/774-3411.

Eating: Stanley Baking Company ($; open May 14–Oct 17; 208/774-6573) does scones, and sandwiches too, till 2.

For supper, I refuse to skip the local, seasonal spread at IRMR (dinner $50 for nonguests; reservations required; 208/774-3544). One night, it was a surf-and-turf barbecue on the lawn, followed by to-die-for chocolate–peanut butter pie, served fireside inside.

Next: 4 more hidden ranges worth exploring