Sawtooth Country Road Trip: Tour the Remote Splendor of Idaho
Travelers in the largely untrodden domain of Sawtooth country are all but guaranteed a surfeit of scenic splendors. As this
Travelers in the largely untrodden domain of Sawtooth country are all but guaranteed a surfeit of scenic splendors. As this drive climbs into the rugged mountains of the backcountry—a realm of forests and alpine meadows, rivers and jewel-like lakes—it soon becomes evident why Ernest Hemingway, for one, praised these wilds as being among the most beautiful anywhere.
1. Shoshone Falls
In the city of Twin Falls, an eastward detour on Falls Avenue is rewarded with a look at Shoshone Falls. Plunging an impressive total of some 210 feet, the cascade roars loudest in spring, when snowmelt floods down from the uplands. By summer, though, moderation takes the place of tumult as the Snake River slows down and the once-rampaging falls are tamed.
Heading north from Twin Falls, Rte. 93 leaps across the Snake River Canyon on a lengthy bridge that arches 486 feet above the abyss. Beyond the bridge the drive enters a stark, striking landscape, with sagebrush and rumpled lava beds flanking the road. At Shoshone, an old mining center, continue north on Rte. 75 (the Sawtooth Scenic Byway), which leads to Shoshone Ice Caves, chilly lava tubes that are open for tours.
The pink granite peaks of the Sawtooth Range, rising in the northwest, soon make their appearance. If you’d like to venture off the main road, a short side trip to the west leads to Magic Reservoir, a favorite with local anglers. A bit farther along, near the village of Bellevue, visitors in spring and fall sometimes encounter a quaint pastoral scene: shepherds busily tending their flocks.
3. Ketchum and Sun Valley
Encircled by long, steep slopes, these two towns—amply supplied with restaurants, shops, and lodging—spread across part of the Wood River valley, a popular resort center. When the snows come, visitors head for Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain, a world-famous ski area. In the warmer months the nearby wilds come alive, inviting nature lovers to linger and explore.
Ernest Hemingway, a onetime resident of this area, often stayed in the opulent Sun Valley Lodge, where he penned portions of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Admirers of the novelist can pay their respects at his grave in northern Ketchum’s small cemetery.
4. Sawtooth National Recreation Area
Wildflower enthusiasts will want to time their visits for early summer, when the slopes of the Sawtooths are abloom with the brilliant colors of such beauties as lupines, scarlet gilias, fireweeds, bluebells, and columbines. Miles of trails thread through the forests of firs, pines, and aspens, and crystal-clear streams and rivers lace the large recreation area. If you decide to stay awhile, the visitor center is a valuable resource; located eight miles north of Ketchum, it offers trail maps and guidebooks. When exploring, be on the lookout for mountain goats, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and elk.
5. Galena Summit Overlook
A half-mile past Galena Summit, which stands at an elevation of 8,701 feet, this overlook, perched near a terraced hillside with aspen groves and willows, commands a not-to-be-missed view. In the distance to the north lies the Sawtooth Range. Nearer at hand the Salmon River dominates the scene: some 2,000 feet below, the Salmon Valley spreads out like a vast rumpled cape, its rounded contours molded by the same slow passage of glaciers that honed the jagged peaks thousands of years ago.
A five-mile descent leads to the valley floor and the Salmon River, where chinook salmon hatch in the spring, then begin their long journey—about 400 miles—to the Pacific Ocean. To learn about the remarkable fish, visit the Sawtooth Hatchery on the river’s western bank. Another springtime sight, the sandhill crane, can often be found high-stepping through the wetlands that line portions of the highway. If you’d like to take advantage of local camping, consider Alturas Lake, good also for picnics and swims. 6. Redfish Lake
Named for the sockeye salmon that spawn there, Redfish Lake, nestled as it is among tall peaks, resembles a polished mirror ringed with mountain gems. Redfish Lodge offers a relaxing escape from civilization, and if you feel like roughing it, several campgrounds are available. Little Redfish Lake, just up the access road, bans motorized craft, a rule that makes for a particularly peaceful day spent fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and exploring.
7. Elk Mountain Overlook
The drive continues north to the town of Stanley, then switches onto Rte. 21, the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway. For one of the finest vistas in the area, take Stanley Lake Road—about five miles farther along—to Elk Mountain Overlook. The view includes Stanley Lake, a shimmering alpine oasis in a forest of lodgepole pines.
Back on Rte. 21, the drive threads a pathway through the jagged peaks of the Sawtooths. Blocks of lightly colored granite are exposed at intervals along the road. A close look at these rocks reveals dark veins embedded in their faces—evidence, geologists say, of past upheavals.
8. Sawtooth Overlook
Past Cape Horn, as Rte. 21 nears the edge of Boise National Forest, it loops abruptly southwest toward Banner Summit, then descends through a narrow, steep-walled canyon. Before long, you’ll come to Sawtooth Overlook, not only a favorite with photographers but also a spot that offers a last chance to glimpse the Sawtooth Range, now cresting in the east.
This part of the drive, battered by heavy snows, is sometimes closed in winter. Yet, even during the chillier months, Kirkham Hot Springs remain open. Held in tubs, their thermal waters can refresh the weary traveler, and the Forest Service provides a soothing dip free of charge.
If you prefer flowing water—and cooler temperatures—sample the South Fork Payette River. Popular for its trout fishing, it can be just as satisfying for those who are content to simply wet their toes and watch the rapids. About 800 elk live in the river’s canyon, which also serves as a wintering area for hundreds of mule deer.
In July 1989, lightning ignited three separate blazes in the forests near the town of Lowman. Feeding on the thick forest, the fires grew unabated, eventually merging into a super storm that sent flames 200 feet into the sky. It took nearly three weeks for more than 2,300 firefighters, working around the clock, to tame the inferno.
At final count some 46,000 acres were devastated by the Lowman burn. The damage to the forest, in spite of the fact that much clearing and replanting has been done, is quite evident as you drive through the area. As an aid to understanding the blaze, interpretive signs, placed at intervals along the highway, detail the fire’s path and its aftermath.
10. Idaho City
Outfitted with powerful hydraulic pumps, large dredges were once a common sight in Idaho City, where one of our country’s largest gold booms occurred in the 1860s. Remnants of those early times flank the byway: century-old gravel mounds and neatly piled cobblestones that were left behind at old excavations. For insights into the past, visit the Boise Basin Historical Museum, which traces the history of local mines. Rte. 21 then leads travelers back to city life in Boise, but not before unveiling a succession of scenic views that include rivers, lakes, forests, and boundless skies.
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