Sawtooths Getaway Diary
by Marcia Franklin, Producer
Sawtooth mountains reflected in Redfish Lake
The first time I saw the Sawtooth Mountains they took my breath away. The second time I saw the Sawtooth Mountains they took my breath away. The third time; well, you get the point. I've lived in Idaho since 1989, and the Sawtooths continue to inspire me with their rugged beauty. Each time I visit the Stanley basin, the jagged spires of this beautiful range, as well as the folds and crevasses within its peaks, take on a different light, both literally and figuratively.
Needless to say, it was not hard to choose this "Heart of Idaho" as my getaway.
As Abby Smith, a precocious 8-year old girl I interviewed for my piece, said:
"The best thing about Idaho I think is the Sawtooth Mountains. They're pretty cool. I like the way they range; they're high, they're cool! And the sun always changes, making it look a little different - darker, lighter, cloudier - whatever it wants to be."
One of the best views of the ever-changing Sawtooths is at the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch. I had passed the ranch for years, but had never been up its road. Then, I learned that a childhood friend of mine had purchased it with his extended family. I decided to learn more.
Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch
The 1,000 acre ranch off of Highway 75 was built in 1929 by an executive of the Frigidaire Company, was originally an invitation-only hunting lodge. Built by craftsmen eager for work in the Depression, the lodge and its surrounding cabins are filled with sturdy, yet artistic touches. Wood, rock and iron (which was forged onsite) predominate. The ranch was also the first building in the valley to get electricity, from a small hydropower plant still visible.
The ranch was for sale not too long ago, and staff, clients and local residents worried it would fall into the hands of a wealthy owner who would keep it private. But the new owners decided to keep it as guest ranch.
Ranch manager Sandra Beckwith
"Many of our guests have come year after year after year and have a proprietary interest in the ranch and we were all very concerned what would happen to this," says manager Sandra Beckwith. "Would it become some movie star mogul's private showplace? And we're all greatly relieved that it has remained open."
Of course, there's a price to enjoy this unique place. Accommodations at the ranch run from $305-$385 a night. And while the buildings are well-constructed, the cabins are split into two units, and the walls are not thick. So if you're a light sleeper, bring some earplugs. There is one free-standing cabin, the Honeymoon Cabin, but it's routinely booked a year in advance.
Activity here is unstructured. You can sip a cool one on the porch, read a book in a rocking chair, or you can have the ranch suggest some options.
I decided to try out the fishing lessons from expert Julie Meissner of Sawtooth Fishing Guides, and once again learned that fishing is just not in my genes! Julie was patient with me, but let's just say that fish are very safe in my presence! I couldn't even catch one in the ranch's stocked pond.
I did better on a kayak trip down the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River with White Otter River Adventures. Despite my fear of water and concern at all the instruction we were getting in how to hold onto our kayaks when we would "inevitably" capsize, I actually made it down the 10-mile stretch unscathed, and with a bit of a high at my accomplishment. That's not to say my cameraman was happy. He actually wanted me to capsize, so he could get pictures!
After working my arm muscles out, it was time for a hot stone massage at the Meadow Creek Inn and Spa in Stanley. Owner Bill Hart puts basalt stones, which have been sitting in hot water, in "chakra" points on your body, and also uses them to really dig into sore muscles and relax them with heat. The massage can be done in an outside teepee, making it more unique.
The spa, which also enjoys an incredible view of the Sawtooths, has six rooms for rent as well.
Riding to the dutch oven dinner
After my massage, it was back to the ranch for one of its signature events, the Dutch Oven dinner. After a short ride by horse-drawn wagon, guests are treated to a multi-course dinner outside, all cooked in Dutch ovens. There's just something about eating food slow-cooked in cast-iron pots, with the scent of sagebrush wafting through the crisp air, that makes it all taste better. Plus, it's an excellent way to meet your fellow guests.
The next day, I enjoy a mountain bike ride on one of the ranch bikes, through scenery that looks like a movie backdrop. For me, a bicyclist, this is a highlight of being in this area, because the temperature is cool enough to make it comfortable to ride for a long time. Back in the Boise valley, I would have been sweating it out.
Marcia on a mountain bike ride
Speaking of temperatures, Custer County is often the coldest county in the country, and one of our mornings at the ranch, it was in the 20s when we woke up. Remember, this is July! So I took full advantage of the natural hot springs just across the highway, also owned by the ranch.
If you're looking for an educational side trip, try the nearby Sawtooth Fish Hatchery, where several times a week during the summer you can see staff open the weirs and remove the salmon that have made it back from the ocean to spawn and die at their birth site.
Marcia enjoying the hot pool
It's moving to see these elegant creatures, which have fought their way some 1800 miles roundtrip to the ocean and back, through many dams, to return to Idaho. I was even able to touch one while it was in the process of getting a shot of antibiotics before being put back in the hatchery raceways, later to be "milked" for its eggs. The eggs would then be mixed with sperm to hopefully procreate more fish.
And we were fortunate enough to see one of the rare "wild" fish return. That's a fish that was not raised in the hatchery, and so was returned to the river instead of the raceways.
Marcia checks out a large salmon
You can also hear the squeals of little children, as they watch trout rise to feed on handfuls of pellets they can drop in the raceways for them. The trout are being raised to put into high mountain lakes for anglers.
If you want to go see where the fish used to return in numbers, visit Redfish Lake, so named for the sockeye salmon, which used to return in such numbers that the lake was red.
Redfish Lake Lodge is the focus for most visitors. Here you can rent a cabin, enjoy a hearty meal, sip a cool one on the grass, rent any number of boats to take out on the lake, or take a boat across the lake to get to numerous hiking trails into the wilderness.
Redfish Lake Lodge
A regular troubadour at the lodge is Idaho legend Muzzie Braun. Braun, who with his sons used to travel the country singing their own brand of Idaho "country," even appeared on the Johnny Carson show.
Today, he and his wife JoAnn own White Cloud Mountain Inn, 25 miles from Stanley up Slate Creek, with a gorgeous view of one of the peaks in the White Cloud range. The Brauns lovingly built every part of the Inn, mostly with nearby materials, such as wood from the forest, rock from a nearby quarry, and even old appliances from an abandoned mine site. It's chock full of fun antiques, and their boys chose the themes for each bedroom.
If you don't slow down here, you might consider a visit to the doctor. This is a place where you can truly just "veg" out, reading on the porch, playing a game of "balls" with Muzzie, or eat of JoAnn's decadent breakfasts.
It's a place to recharge your own internal batteries, so to speak, but if you're looking to plug in your computer, or have a lot of water pressure in your shower, better hit the Hilton. The inn runs on solar power and a gravity flow system. When I was there, the water system was acting a bit finicky, but it all got worked out.
And that's part of the whole experience. Heck, this is the first time the Brauns have had any indoor plumbing or electricity. They were off the grid for 25 years. So they've got a backup for just about anything. The first building they constructed was the outhouse, which Muzzie says still gets regular use, and has the best view on the property.
For guest Mary Lee Barton of Chico, CA, it was just what she needed.
"I was looking for a place that was remote, that was right within nature. For my business for probably the last ten years I've been doing a lot of traveling, so my idea of a vacation is not to go to a chain hotel. I want to go to some place that is unique."
Mary Lee was headed next to the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch. Like me, she found the combination of a high-end ranch with a low-key inn to be just what she wanted for a well-rounded vacation in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.
Guest Mary Lee Barton
There are so many things that make this area unique. The mountains and valleys themselves, the lack of development, the mountain air. But it's also the people. The people who come to the Sawtooth Valley do so because they are truly looking to get away, not only to recreate, but also to "re-create" themselves.
One such person is Dr. Robert Painter of Hartford, CT. Dr. Painter, a surgeon and a Hartford city council member, first came to the area as an 18-year old dishwasher for the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch in 1952. He calls that trip one of the "defining moments" of his life. And so he's tried, no matter how busy he gets, to re-visit the area every few years.
"There's a whole set of different feelings out here," he says. "The dryness of the air up here, the high desert, the clear air."
"As we're talking here behind you on the top of a tree was an osprey sitting there. If you are busy going to an office every day you are not going to see an osprey. You have to leave a little time in your life for the ospreys."
If you haven't been to the Sawtooths yet, be prepared for wonder. If you have been, you know what I mean.