Stanley is one of the most beautiful places in Idaho. Situated at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains, this destination is a haven for adventure seekers. From hiking to hot springs, horse-riding and hanging lakeside, you won’t be short of awesome things to do in Stanley, Idaho!
Sitting on the banks of the Salmon River, one of the most beautiful rivers in the United States, and surrounded by rugged mountain peaks is Stanley, a small mountain town with a population of only 600 year-round residents.
Stanley is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque towns in the USA! The Sawtooth Mountain National Recreation Area which surrounds Stanley is home to stunning alpine lakes, gorgeous wildflower-filled meadows and impressive peaks that tower above 10,000 feet.
This dreamy destination is a mecca for outdoor lovers and boasts endless outdoor recreation opportunities from hiking to backpacking, white-water rafting, fishing, and so much more. If you’re looking for outdoor adventure, this is a place that needs to be on your Idaho bucket list!
A weekend here will give you just enough time to scratch the surface of everything Stanley has to offer. The first time we visited, we planned for a two night trip which turned into a week-long stay, and the second time we visited we planned for only a week and that trip turned into a month-long stay. More than likely you’ll fall in love with Stanley too and will find that it’s a place that is hard to leave.
Where Is Stanley, Idaho?
From Boise: 133 miles – 3 hours
From Ketchum/Sun Valley: 62 miles – 1 hour
From Twin Falls: 143 miles – 3 hours
From Missoula: 256 miles – 5 hours
Stanley is located in central Idaho three hours northeast of Boise, three hours north of Twin Falls, and five hours south of Missoula. The town sits at the intersection of Highway 21 and Highway 75, better known as Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway and Sawtooth Scenic Byway, two of the most scenic drives in Idaho!
Whichever route you decide to take to reach Stanley there is no doubt you are going to be completely astounded by the beauty of central Idaho!
The road from Twin Falls to Stanley will take you through the heart of the Sawtooth National Forest and over Galena Summit where you can stop to see panoramic views of the Sawtooth Range. Coming from Boise, you’ll travel through beautiful Boise National Forest and have the opportunity to stop in historic Idaho City, one of the coolest ghost towns in Idaho.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Stanley?
Did you know Stanley is one of the coldest places in the USA? It’s true, look it up! The lowest temperature ever recorded here was -54 degrees on December 23, 1983. And get this, Stanley consistently experiences more than 270 days a year of below freezing temperatures!
Now you’re probably thinking low temperatures only occur during winter in Stanley but a vast majority of the lowest summer temperatures recorded in the country also happen here.
Stanley’s proneness for low temperatures is due to its location. This small mountain town is nestled in a valley at an elevation of 6,253-feet and surrounded by the towering peaks of the White Cloud Mountain Range and Sawtooth Mountain Range. Every night the cold, dense air from the mountains creep down into the valley resulting in cool to very cold nights.
Basically, you should always be prepared for cold weather in Stanley! Yes, even in summer. Seriously, it can snow in July which we have experienced firsthand. A few years ago on a camping trip in Stanley during July we woke up one morning to snow after enjoying a week of warm, sunshine-filled days.
|January||28° / 11°|
|February||35° / 15°|
|March||49° / 26°|
|April||58° / 32°|
|May||67° / 40°|
|June||75° / 47°|
|July||85° / 52°|
|August||84° / 49°|
|September||73° / 41°|
|October||58° / 31°|
|November||40° / 22°|
|December||27° / 12°|
The best months to visit Stanley are July through September for the summer season. If you’re here for outdoor adventure, summer is the best time of year to visit Stanley due to longer daylight hours and less chance of snowfall (although it could still happen). However visiting during the shoulder season is better if you prefer to be around less people.
Best Things To Do In Stanley, Idaho
1. Hike To Goat Lake
The hike to Goat Lake is one of the best hikes in the Sawtooth Mountains. In case you haven’t heard about this fairy-tale like lake yet, it is an alpine lake with unreal turquoise-colored water that is cradled by jagged mountain peaks.
Because this trail is difficult and involves some climbing, it is not as popular as some of the other hiking trails in the Sawtooth Mountains such as the hike to Sawtooth Lake. But if you’re up for a challenge, this trail will lead you to one of the most beautiful lakes in Idaho.
If you’re looking for adventurous things to do in Stanley, the hike to Goat Lake can’t be beat! Now keep in mind that this trail is steep and strenuous, but if you love challenging hikes, this is the hiking trail for you!!
The vibrant aquamarine-color of this glacial lake is absolutely breathtaking and you will probably not find another lake quite like this one. One of the only other lakes I have come across that looks similar to Goat Lake is Iceberg Lake in Glacier National Park which also sits at the base of a towering mountain and has brilliant turqouise-colored water.
At only eight-miles return trip, the hike to Goat Lake can easily be completed within a few hours so you can get back to town and enjoy your evening soaking at a hot spring in Stanley.
2. Hike To Sawtooth Lake
The Sawtooth Mountains are one of the most impressive mountain ranges in the United States and while marveling them from a distance is enough for most visitors to Stanley, I am here to tell you they are even more spectacular up close.
One of the most popular hike’s in the Stanley area is the hike to Sawtooth Lake. The hike to Sawtooth Lake is ten miles roundtrip and considered difficult but well worth the effort!
It’s guaranteed that you will be amazed and overwhelmed by the beauty and size of Sawtooth Lake which sits at an elevation of 8,435 feet and is almost one mile long and a half mile wide. Rising high above the lake is Mount Regan (10,190 feet) which adds to the incredible visuals here.
The trail to Sawtooth Lake begins at the Iron Creek trailhead which is only a five mile drive from Stanley.
3. Take A Guided Horseback Ride With Mystic Saddle
One of the most memorable things to do in Stanley is to take a guided horseback ride with Mystic Saddle. This company offers a range of horseback riding options that cater to riders of all levels from beginners to intermediate and advanced.
The most popular trail ride option with them is the two-hour loop around Little Redfish Lake where riders can take in views of Little Redfish Lake, Redfish Lake, and glimpses of the Sawtooth Mountains.
They also offer half day and full day rides that head into the Sawtooth Wilderness where you will get to visit some beautiful spots at higher elevation! Some of these trail rides include visiting sparkling alpine lakes and stunning wildflower-filled mountains.
Horseback riding at Redfish Lake is one of our favorite activities when visiting Stanley! We have done several different trail rides with Mystic Saddle Ranch and I cannot recommend this business enough!!
4. Enjoy A Day On The Water At Redfish Lake
Redfish Lake has to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the United States. Ask anyone who’s been there and they’ll tell you that it’s true.
This stunning and surreal alpine lake sits at 6,547 feet above sea level and has some of the clearest water you’ll ever see. The entire lake is comprised almost entirely of snowmelt with very little sediment entering the waterways contributing to it’s clarity.
The lake was named for the brilliant sockeye salmon that once returned from the Pacific Ocean in such large numbers that the lake shimmered red during spawning season.
Alas, those days are gone and it’s unlikely that wild salmon will ever return in such large quantities again given that much of their natural habitat has been destroyed and the difficulty they have in trying to navigate the several dams constructed along their migratory route. The lake is now stocked with hatchery salmon and trout species including Rainbow and Dolly Varden, Brook, Bull and Kokanee.
Besides fishing, there is plenty to do at Redfish Lake both on and off the water. You can rent kayaks, paddleboards, and motorized boats from the marina, or spend the day sunning on the lake’s shores and cooling off in the refreshing clear water.
If you enjoy hiking there are quite a few trails that begin in this area but the most popular would have to be the Bench Lakes trail which leads to a series of alpine lakes.
You can even catch a hiker boat shuttle that will drop you off on the other side of Redfish Lake so that you can get into the wilderness area quicker without the additional miles. The shuttle boat leaves on demand and no reservations are required. The tickets are inexpensive at $14 one-way or $19 for round-trip.
Redfish Lake is only five miles south of Stanley off Highway 75. A paved road will take you right to the lakes north shore where you’ll find a lodge, restaurant, general store, and boat marina.
5. Have Dinner At Limbert’s
Limbert’s is a rustic restaurant set inside an authentic log cabin built in 1929. This restaurant is only steps away from the shores of Redfish Lake and has some of the most spectacular views than any other dining establishment in the country! Where else can you look over a dining table and see a stunning alpine lake and craggy mountain peaks?!
But if the beauty of the Sawtooth mountains and the gorgeous interior of the lodge wasn’t enough to impress you, the food most certainly will. The food at Limbert’s is locally grown and the menu has been inspired by the ingredients and culture of the Northwest.
For breakfast you can enjoy healthy fresh fruit, house-baked granola, grilled Idaho trout, and chorizo. For dinner, I recommend the local mushroom tart, the cast iron cornbread with candied jalapenos, and the cauliflower soup with thyme brown butter and pine nuts to get you started. For your main, you can’t go wrong with the prime rib or ricotta gnocchi.
Come enjoy an incredible meal in an incredible setting. Try to arrive early if you want a table with the best view. This restaurant is very popular and it’s not unusual to wait up to an hour to get a table.
6. Soak In Dreamy Views At Boat Box Hot Springs
Boat Box Hot Springs is a hot spring near Stanley that is situated right beside the beautiful Salmon River! This hot spring offers adventurous souls a truly unique soaking experience not only because of its iydillic location but also due to the hot springs’ unusual “witches cauldron” shaped tub.
A soak in this tub comes with dreamy views of forest-covered mountains and mint-green hills. Relax while listening to the gushing sound of the river; one of the original eight rivers protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968.
If you’re looking for a place to soothe your tired muscles after a long day hiking in the Sawtooth Mountains, this is the place for you! You can find Boat Box Hot Springs a few short miles north of Stanley.
6. Visit Stanley Lake
A visit to Stanley Lake is a great introduction to the Stanley area because not only is it one of the most magnificent spots in Stanley, but it is also very accessible for the non-hiker.
This gorgeous alpine lake sits at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains and offers outstanding views of the mountain range. Things to do here include hiking, swimming, fishing, kayaking, and paddle boarding.
The cool waters of Stanley Lake are stocked with a variety of trout species that include rainbow, bull, cutthroat, and brook which you can fish for along the north and western shores of the lake.
You can find Stanley Lake off highway 21 about seven miles west of town. There are three campgrounds here (with a nightly fee) if you want to stay nearby.
7. Take A Tour of Yankee Fork Gold Dredge
Yankee Fork Gold Dredge is one of the best preserved gold dredges in the United States! This historical attraction hidden in the central mountains of Idaho was built in 1940. The construction of the gold dredge was funded by a company from New York after they discovered there was an estimated $11 million dollars worth of gold here in the valley and surrounding mountains.
Visitors can take self-guided tours of the gold dredge during the summer months anytime between 10am and 4:30pm. Members of the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge Association will be available during the tour to answer any questions you might have about the machinery or history of the dredge.
The Yankee Fork Gold Dredge is located in the Salmon-Challis National Forest only 22-miles north of Stanley. Nearby is Custer Ghost Town so if you do plan to visit the dredge, don’t skip visiting one of the best ghost towns in Idaho too!
8. Discover Custer Ghost Town
Custer Ghost Town is one of the best preserved ghost towns in the United States and a place that needs to be on your Idaho bucket list. This ghost town, like many other ghost towns in the west, was founded by gold speculators.
Custer was established in 1879 following the discovery of what became known as the General Custer Mine, the mother lode of Yankee Fork. The town reached its peak population of 600 people in 1896 however it wasn’t long after that gold became scant and the mining dried up. By 1910, residents had completely deserted this place and Custer turned into a ghost town.
If you’d like to experience what life was like in a 19th-century prospecting town, a visit to Custer will certainly give you some insight. This ghost town is filled with clues of its former activity. You’ll find rusted mining equipment and machinery scattered throughout the old mining district.
The abandoned mining town is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places which also includes the nearby historic Yankee Fork Gold Dredge. There are several buildings remaining that you can enter and explore. Some of the highlights include a museum full of antiques, a blacksmith shop, and a 19th century home with original period furniture.
Custer is located in Land of the Yankee Fork State Park which is situated inside the beautiful Salmon-Challis National Forest. I highly recommend planning a day trip to Custer from Stanley because not only is this a really cool ghost town, but also because visiting Custer will give you a good excuse to explore Idaho’s backcountry.
9. Bayhorse Ghost Town
If you love visiting ghost towns, you will love Bayhorse Ghost Town. Not only is this former town very well preserved and full of interesting buildings, but the location is quite remarkable too.
Bayhorse is located four miles down a dirt road off Highway 75 in the Salmon-Challis National Forest. Driving out to the ghost town is quite the adventure because the road travels through a beautiful and rugged canyon.
This ghost town was established as a gold mining camp around 1864 after a few gold veins were found in the area but the place didn’t really start booming until 1877 when miners discovered a lead-silver vein too. Bayhorse then became the longest running silver producer in Idaho reaching its peak production in 1888 but that would be the last year that the smelter and mines operated at full capacity.
Declining silver and lead prices eventually caused a shutdown of the Bayhorse mines and the town was abandoned by 1925.
Visitors to Bayhorse Ghost Town can still see several buildings along what was once the main street through town, an old stamp mill that was constructed in 1882, and the remains of charcoal kilns which were used to make charcoal for the smelter.
10. Find Goldbug Hot Springs
Hidden in the rolling, sagebrush-covered hills of central Idaho is the coolest hot spring you will ever come across! Goldbug Hot Springs offers a soaking experience unlike any other hot spring.
What makes these hot springs so special? Well for starters, Goldbug Hot Springs are perched high up on a cliffside from where you can see the most spectacular valley and mountain views.
Goldbug Hot Springs consist of six pools that overlook the Idaho wilderness. Getting to the spring-fed pools is not an easy thing to do. It involves a moderately strenuous hike up the side of a mountain but the effort is truly worth it!
The hike up to Goldbug is another reason these hot springs are so unique because getting to them is an adventure in itself!
11. Fly Fishing On The Salmon River
If you are a fly-fisherman then you probably already know the Stanley area is an incredible destination for anglers. For those of you reading this who have never fly-fished before, this is a great opportunity for you to learn in one of the most breathtaking places in the United States.
Stanley is perfectly located on the headwaters of the world famous Salmon River and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The fly fishing opportunities along these two iconic Wild & Scenic Rivers and their tributaries are endless.
The Middle Fork and Upper Main Salmon River offer endless opportunities for wade, bank, and float fishing. You will find Westslope Cutthroat, Rainbow, Brook, and Bull trout as well as Mountain whitefish. In the spring, fishermen congregate here for the steelhead run, which is the longest steelhead run (over 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean) in North America.
Not only is it fun to fish the river in Stanley, but the high alpine lakes are also a lot of fun to fish and part of the challenge and adventure is getting up to them.
Stanley is where we first learned how to fly-fish and where we fell in love with the sport. I mean what’s not to love about fly fishing in Stanley? Even if you don’t have a successful day, you’ve had a successful day because you are in a mountain paradise! Fly-fishing is a great excuse to spend more time outside and to explore the Stanley and Central Idaho area in a more intimate way.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t have your own gear. Just stop by the Stanley Fly Shop and the guys there can help you out with everything you need plus give you all the information you need to know such as what to fish for, best type of flies to use, etc.
There are also several outfitters in the area who can supply you with all the gear and take you out on guided trips to their secret spots.
12. Go White Water Rafting
If you’re looking for adventure and a fun day out that you’ll never forget, organize a whitewater rafting trip with one of the local outfitters in Stanley!
Idaho is known for being ‘The Whitewater State’ so there is obviously no better place to get out on the rapids. Thousands of river rafters and boaters flock to the area every summer to paddle or float the world-renowned Middle Fork section of the Salmon River where you can travel through 100 miles of wilderness canyon on the “River Of No Return’.
Whether it’s your first time or you are an experienced adrenaline junkie, there is a trip for you! Sawtooth Adventure offer family friendly trips including a twilight dinner trip on class II and class III rapids, The River Company offers class IV trips in May and June, and White Cloud Rafting Adventures can provide half day trips on class III and class IV rapids along with scenic floats.
13. Explore The White Clouds Wilderness Area
The White Clouds Wilderness Area preserves 276,000 acres of high mountain backcountry. This gorgeous area is special due to its combination of sub-alpine lakes, abundant creeks, and the limestone and metamorphic silicates which give the mountain peaks here their striking white appearance.
There are numerous outdoor recreation opportunities here including hiking, hunting, fishing, backpacking, and camping.
One of the best things about visiting the White Clouds is how easy it is to find great vistas and solitude. Because this destination is off-the-beaten-track, you won’t find as many people on the hiking trails or at the campgrounds like you will in the Sawtooth Recreation Area. A word of warning though, the road out there is rough going but adds to the sense of adventure.
14. See Pettit Lake
There are so many stunning lakes in the Stanley area it’s hard to choose which is the prettiest but Pettit Lake definitely deserves to be in the top five.
This pristine glacier-made lake is the third largest lake in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. It sits at an elevation of 6,996 feet and is a brilliant turquoise green color. The Sawtooth Mountains provide a stunning backdrop so needless to say this place is a photographer’s dream.
Pettit Lake is a great destination for relaxing, swimming, kayaking, and paddle boarding. More than likely you will want to spend a few hours here so be sure to bring a couple of camping chairs and some food for lunch.
There are lots of amazing hiking trails that begin from this location. Consider getting here early so that you have enough time to take on a hike and be able to enjoy the lake afterwards.
Pettit Lake is seventeen miles south of Stanley and forty-five miles north of Ketchum. The lake is accessed via Highway 75 down Forest Road 205. There are picnic tables and a restroom available and if you would like to camp there is a first come first served campground too.
15. Take A Drive Along The Salmon River Scenic Byway
If you are visiting Stanley on a day trip from Boise, do not let your adventure end here! The Salmon River Scenic Byway will take you to Salmon then all the way up to Missoula along a stretch of road that travels through some of Idaho’s best country.
This route follows the same path Lewis and Clark traveled twenty years ago winding its way north beside the Salmon River, America’s first Wild and Scenic River.
The drive will take you through the Salmon-Challis National Forest offering plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities along the way. You can also visit several fascinating ghost towns and many hot springs along this stretch.
Head north to Salmon, North Fork, then Missoula, where you have several options to continue your road trip either north to Glacier National Park, west to Spokane, or east to Bozeman and then down to Yellowstone National Park.
Another possible road trip option from Stanley is the Peaks To Craters Scenic Byway which features high desert landscape, some of Idaho’s tallest mountains, and massive lava flows.
This drive begins in Challis and runs adjacent to the impressive Lost River Mountain Range finishing up in Arco where you then have the option of visiting Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.
16. Listen To Live Music At The Velvet Dance Hall
The Mountain Village Resort has been known to have the best entertainment in Stanley. If you love live music this is the place you need to be.
Stop by after a day filled with adventure and kick back over a cold brew from the saloon while listening to live music at the Velvet Dance Hall. Shows happen on a weekly basis and you can check out their events calendar here.
You can also catch a movie here in the Velvet Dance Hall every Tuesday night throughout summer. Admission and popcorn is free!
17. Backpack The Alice & Toxaway Lake Loop Trail
If you are a serious hiker you may have already heard of the Alice & Toxaway Lake Loop Hiking Trail, but if not you should definitely put this trail on your hiking bucket list!
To say the hike is just beautiful is an understatement. It is incredible, surprising, challenging, and rewarding. The trail will lead you to a mountain paradise full of alpine lakes and wildflower-filled meadows.
The hike starts at the Tin Cup trail head at Pettit Lake and is 18 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of 3,285 feet.
If you’re not into backpacking you can hike the loop as a day hike. It is a long and strenuous day hike but definitely possible. We have done the Alice and Toxaway Lake Loop as a day hike but you need to be prepared for the possibility of hiking back in the dark.
Another option is to hike up to Alice Lake as an out and back hike instead of doing the loop which would only be 12 miles roundtrip. Many of the best parts of the Alice-Toxaway Lake Loop trail can be found along this stretch so you wouldn’t be missing out on too much.
Where To Eat In Stanley
Stanley Baking Co. is a good place to have breakfast and lunch. They offer pastries early in the morning, sandwiches, and salads. For breakfast try their chai spice pancakes or the breakfast burrito. For lunch you can’t go wrong with the meatloaf sandwich or the turkey sandwich with brie and cranberry-apple chutney.
Mountain Village Resort offers good food in big portions. They’ve got omelets, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, and waffles for breakfast but our favorite is their chicken fried steak. The lunch and dinner menu features nachos, burgers, chili, pasta, salmon, steak, and ribs.
Papa Brunees is the place to go for pizza and subs. It’s especially a good place to fill up after a long day hiking in the mountains. Good quality dough and toppings is what you’ll find here and our personal favorites are Blue Apple (blue cheese, apple and bacon) and the Howlly (creamy garlic sauce, pepperoni, jalapenos, pineapple and bacon).
Where To Stay In Stanley
Lodging in Stanley is limited. If you are looking for affordable accommodation your best bet is the Mountain Village Resort. Be sure to book your stay in advance if you plan on visiting during the peak summer period especially for weekend stays. If hotel rooms are booked out you can try searching for vacation homes in Stanley.
Mountain Village Resort – Offers inexpensive hotel rooms right in the heart of town and within walking distance to the general store, restaurants, and bars. A bonus of staying at this property is the complimentary one hour soak at the Mountain Village Resort Hot Spring. The Mountain Village Resort also offers RV and tent camping.
Redfish Lake Lodge: Redfish Lake Lodge offers a range of rustic lakeside accommodations including standard motel-style rooms, lake suites, and stand-alone log cabins. The log cabins were built in the 1930s and feature king-sized beds, kitchens, dining tables, bath tubs, a fireplace, and private deck.