If you’ve got a trip planned to Stanley you are in for a huge surprise because this small community is located not only smack bang in the middle of Idaho, but also in the midst of a wilderness playground.
In our opinion, Stanley is the most beautiful place in the entire state of Idaho. It is so stunning it seems surreal. Visitor’s to Stanley are almost always dumbfounded by how much natural beauty there is here and usually in disbelief they have never really heard of the destination earlier.
But Stanley is slowly becoming the headquarters for all types of outdoor adventures including hiking, backpacking, rock-climbing, mountain bike riding, fishing, and so much more. There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails to explore and backcountry to get lost in.
And even if you are not looking to spend your vacation time taking on strenuous activities, it’s enough to just be in Stanley. You’ll understand what I mean by that once you’ve been there.
The town of Stanley sits at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains, an impressive rugged mountain range home to stunning alpine lakes and gorgeous wildflower-filled meadows.
The majority of visitors to Stanley are traveling through on the way to or from Montana and either stop by for a few hours or plan to stay as an overnight on their road trip. But there are so many cool things to do in Stanley that you could easily spend a week here and not run out of things to do.
The first time we visited, we planned a trip for two nights which turned into a week long stay, and the second time we visited we planned for only a week and it turned into a month long vacation. Yes, by the third visit we were exploring more permanent options. If you are wondering how long to plan your trip for, the answer is as long as possible! Especially if you love the outdoors.
Where Is Stanley?
Stanley is located in Central Idaho about three hours northeast of Boise and five hours south of Missoula in Montana. The town sits at the intersection of Highway 21 and Highway 75, both of which offer an incredibly scenic drive along the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway and Sawtooth Scenic Byway.
No matter which route you choose to travel, you will be captivated as you drive through stunning mountain passes and picturesque valleys.
The drive from Twin Falls to Stanley will take you through the heart of the Sawtooth National Forest and up and over Galena Summit which offers panoramic views of the Sawtooth Range, and the drive from Missoula travels beside the scenic Salmon River and through the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
Coming from Boise, be sure to stop in Idaho City to explore the historic downtown area and then soak in some of the hot springs that can be found along the way.
From Boise: 133 miles – 3 hours
From Sun Valley: 62 miles – 1 hour
From Twin Falls: 143 miles – 3 hours
From Missoula: 256 miles – 5 hours
Weather In Stanley
Stanley sits at an elevation of 6,253 feet so it experiences a much cooler climate in general than surrounding areas such as Challis or Lowman. Because the town sits at the base of the Sawtooth peaks, you can expect cool to very cold temperatures at night when cold dense air from the mountains creep down into the valley.
You should always be prepared for cold weather in Stanley, especially if you are camping or backpacking.
Even in July you could experience freezing temperatures and winter could possibly come as early as late September. As an example, we came on a camping trip in early July one year where we woke up to snow after a previous day where temperatures were soaring in the 80’s.
|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°|
Best Things To Do In Stanley
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.
Hike In The Sawtooth National Forest
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 town.
Another hiking trail to consider putting on your Stanley hiking bucket list is Goat Lake.
While this hiking trail is quite challenging to say the least, it is almost certain you will never see such a magical place quite like this. The vibrant aquamarine color of the glacial lake in contrast with the matte grey rock walls that rise steeply from the waters will absolutely blow you away.
There are lots of easy family-friendly hike’s surrounding Stanley too so you don’t have to be an experienced hiker to enjoy the trails around here.
Horse Riding At Redfish Lake
One of the most memorable things to do in Stanley is to take a guided horseback ride with Mystic Saddles at the Redfish Corals. They offer a range of riding options that cater to beginners, intermediate, and advanced riders.
The most popular trail ride is the two hour loop around Little Redfish Lake where you’ll also see Redfish Lake and glimpses of the Sawtooth’s along the return trail.
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 without having to hike up!
There is no other place in the country that we know of where you can ride up to wonderful alpine lakes and stunning wildflower-filled meadows like you can here in Stanley, Idaho.
Horseback riding here at Redfish Lake is one of our favorite activities when we visit Stanley. We have done several different trails now with Mystic Saddles and we highly recommend them.
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.
Spend A Day 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.
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 fruit, house-baked granola, grilled Idaho trout, and chorizo. For dinner, I recommend the local mushroom tart, the cast iron cornbread with candied jalapeno’s, 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.
Find A Hot Spring
A little known fact about Idaho is that the state is full of hot springs. And they are especially concentrated in the Central Idaho region. So if you love hot springs you will love Stanley because there are plenty of them in Stanley or really close by.
One of the best hot springs in the area is located right in town at the Mountain Village Resort. This hot spring is a big, deep pool that has spectacular views of the Sawtooth Mountain Range.
The Mountain Village Resort’s hot spring is open to the public, however unless you are staying in one of their hotel rooms or camping at their campground, there is a small fee.
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.
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.
Visit Land of the Yankee Fork State Park
At Land of the Yankee Fork State Park you can visit ghost towns while exploring Central Idaho’s back country.
In the 1870’s, the sister cities of Bonanza and Custer were thriving as the quest for gold drove hundreds of miners to the area. Bonanza was the first settled (1877-1910) and had a population of over six hundred people. Custer was founded in early 1879 and reached its peak population of six hundred in 1896. However, the gold eventually dried up and by 1910 both towns were abandoned.
There isn’t much left of Bonanza however the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge is very close by and definitely worth a visit. This 988-ton barge recovered an estimated one million dollars in gold and silver over its time in use. Visitors are permitted to tour the barge and there is a small gift shop located inside where you can get tickets.
A few short miles north of the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge is the ghost town of Custer which has several buildings that still remain including a general store, a museum with artifacts and antiques from the mining era, a blacksmith shop, and assorted pieces of mining equipment that have been left behind.
The Land of the Yankee Fork State Park is about twenty miles north of Stanley down Yankee Fork Road, a dirt road that leads into Idaho’s back country. There are several primitive campgrounds in the area and if you really want to get off the beaten path you can drive the entire Yankee Fork Road which eventually comes out just north of Challis.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 were the 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 somewhat 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 Stanley on a weekend night. The Mountain Village Resort also offers RV and tent camping.
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.
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