The Sawtooth-Stanley Basin

Harlan Hague




The Old West of memory is a blend of history and fiction, a dreamy sort of never-never land that still captures the imagination. Americans East and West remain nostalgic for a past that never really existed outside the movies and western fiction.

There is one reality about the West: the land. Most people have a rather good impression of the look of the West in the nineteenth century. Forget the unfortunate stereotypes of moviemaker John Ford. He made most of his movies in Utah's Monument Valley, thus creating the public perception of Indian Country. Monument Valley is hauntingly beautiful country, but any Indian or cowboy who lived there would have been afoot unless his pony could eat sand.

The wide open spaces, like everything else, has changed in the last century.

The look of the land has been altered by fences, power lines, roads, vacation homes, and various other manifestations of planned and unplanned development. Mostly, you must use your imagination to conjure up the look of the Old West.

There are some happy exceptions. The best place I have found to glimpse the western land as it was in Sawtooth Mountainsthe last century, without squinting too much, is in the Sawtooth-Stanley country in south-central Idaho. The Stanley Basin is cattle country. Split-rail fences enclose pastures watered by snow-fed streams. The basin is bordered by three mountain ranges with forty peaks over 10,000 feet and 300 high lakes. Streams flowing from the Sawtooth Mountains merge in the valley to form the Salmon River, the legendary "River of No Return."

The Sawtooth-Stanley country was first seen by whites when a party of John Jacob Astor's fur trappers under Alexander Ross explored it in 1824. They were impressed by the beauty of the country and the abundance of game, including the valuable beaver. Others followed, American and British.

The fur trappers were transients. It was gold that eventually opened up the region. Placer gold was first found in the Stanley Basin in 1863. Hard rock mining followed. Some mining towns of respectable size were founded. Vienna on Smiley Creek had a population of 800 in 1882. Nearby Sawtooth City in Beaver Canyon in the same year numbered 600 hardy souls. The two towns of Custer and Bonanza on the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River had a combined population of 5,000. They are all gone. The miners and their towns vanished when the gold played out.

The largest town in the region now is Stanley, with a year-round population of a few hundred. There is still the look of the old West about it, with its rustic buildings and wide, dirt streets.

Dredging also was used to extract the basin's gold. My wife's grandfather, Henry Willis, an electrical engineer from New York City, owned a dredge that worked the valley of Stanley Creek. Another, the Yankee Fork dredge, operated until 1953, working 7,000 tons of earth each day for a handful of gold dust. It was abandoned at the head of the valley when it ran out of ground to work.

The Yankee Ford dredge is still there and is open for visitors. The road to it is built on miles of stone tailings. After visiting the dredge, drive a mile further to the ghost town of Custer. The schoolhouse, now an interesting museum of Custer artifacts, and a few other scattered buildings remain.

The Sawtooth-Stanley country in the early 1970s was a paradise waiting to be discovered and loved to death, the fate of too many American beauty spots. After considerable debate on how the region could best be spared destruction by unplanned, unsupervised use, protection was assured by the creation in 1972 of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA).

The SNRA includes 754,000 acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. Recreational opportunities here include fishing, some of the bestSawtooths meadow floatboating in the country, hiking in the 216,383 acre Sawtooth Wilderness Area, an integral part of the SNRA, horsepack trips and trail rides, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing on groomed trails, swimming and boating and just plain relaxing at the NRA's dozens of campgrounds and picnic areas.

Tent camping is a bit chancy. I have tent camped with my family twice at Iron Creek campground at the foot of the Sawtooths and saw more rain than sun. Sites located some distance from the mountains should be a bit drier. Throughout the SNRA, though, there are more campers, trailers and recreational vehicles than tents.

The last time I visited the SNRA, it rained only once, but it was a humdinger. I love a good lightning and thunder storm, but I must admit that I felt very snug in my motel cabin the night it hit. The storm announced itself with an explosion that shook the walls and, I was positively convinced, removed the cabin next to ours.

I stepped outside at first light and stood in the gentle rain, absolutely entranced. I looked down the line of the Salmon River, which runs behind the motel, to the distant Sawtooths. Double rainbowThere were dark, billowing clouds overhead, but the mountains were bathed in a soft sunlight that flowed through a break in the clouds. A rainbow with its foot at the base of the mountain arched to the right toward the highest peaks. As I  watched, it continued to move in its arc until it touched the ground.

Immediately a second rainbow appeared just above the first, moving again from left to right until it reached the ground, completing a perfect double rainbow. But the dark clouds instantly lowered and it was gone, as if mere mortals were permitted but the slightest glimpse of heaven.

Private development in the SNRA is closely controlled, but not prohibited. Much property is still in private hands. Remember that this is not a national park where the objective is to eliminate private ownership following the creation of the park. Americans who have traveled in Britain will recognize that the American NRA is similar in concept to the British national park.

Redfish Lake in the SawtoothsThere are a variety of accommodations in the SNRA. Most people camp, albeit in waterproof shells. There are more tents around Redfish Lake than elsewhere, suggesting that there is less rain there. Redfish Lake Lodge is comfortable, log-built, providing all the services that even the most fastidious vacationer might require, from restaurant and lounge to horseback riding and boating. They will even smoke your fish with mountain hickory flavor. Motels, stores and shops are located in and around Stanley.

The Sawtooth-Stanley country is still relatively unknown. Sixty percent of the visitors are from Idaho, twenty percent from California, and twenty percent from elsewhere. Usage is light, compared to the heavy pressures on other like recreation areas in the West. Spaces are usually available in campgrounds outside the Redfish Lake area with its lodge and store and boating facilities.

This inevitably will change. Since the creation of the SNRA, publicity has been sent throughout the United States, and license plates from distant states are being seen with more frequency.

If you are entering the SNRA from the south, stop by the headquarters and main visitor center at the south entrance, a few miles north of Ketchum on state highway 75 for interpretive exhibits and brochures. If instead you are coming in from the north, drop by the visitor center at Redfish Lake. There is also an office just south of Stanley where you can get information and directions.

For general information about vacationing in Idaho, write to The Idaho Travel Council, State Capitol, Boise, Idaho 83720, or telephone (800) 635-7820, and ask for "The Vacation Planner." For brochures and questions about the SNRA, write to The Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Star Route, Ketchum, Idaho 83340, or call (208) 726-8291. For information and reservations at the lodge, contact Redfish Lake Lodge, Stanley, Idaho 83278, or telephone (208) 774-3536. You'll find information on lodging and services at the website of the Stanley-Sawtooth Chamber of Commerce.


Caveat and disclaimer: This is a freelance travel article that published some time ago. Some data, especially prices and contact information, may not be current. The author will be glad to respond to comments or questions. Also see the author's web site.

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