Magazine article Sunset

In the Shadow of the Sawtooths: These Idaho Mountains Offer the Essential Summer Vacation-Smack in the Middle of Nowhere. (Travel)

Magazine article Sunset

In the Shadow of the Sawtooths: These Idaho Mountains Offer the Essential Summer Vacation-Smack in the Middle of Nowhere. (Travel)

Article excerpt

The sun is getting low, yet it's still warm on the porch of Redfish Lake Lodge--a lazy kind of warmth tempered by lengthening shadows, a soft breeze, and a cold drink. Kicking off my boots and settling into the creaky row of rope-slung chairs leaning against old log walls, I am, after another day of high-mountain hiking and fishing, happy.

Down by the water, kids are playing tag on a long, sandy beach and splashing in the brisk, gin-clear shallows of Redfish Lake. The water's still surface perfectly mirrors the ragged spires of the aptly named Sawtooth Range stacked against the western horizon. Standing in the shade of a couple of pines, local country singer Muzzie Braun--a frequent visitor to the lodge--strums his guitar and sings of the year-round glories to be found in the shadow of the Sawtooths in Idahooo-ooo-ooh.

My wife, Jill, joins me, and as we listen, the wind shifts a degree and a whiff of smoke from the king-size lodge barbecue, stacked with a smoldering heap of slow-cooked ribs, drifts over the porch like a benediction. "This," I say as I head toward the feast, "is the kind of evening summer was made for."

Grand scenery without the glitz

Come to think of it, central Idaho's Sawtooth National Recreation Area is the kind of country that summer was made for. Located due north of (and about an hour's drive from) Ketchum and Sun Valley, the 756,000-acre Sawtooth NRA has something for just about everyone. It's split by the fishable--and raftable--Salmon River, dotted by lakes (many big enough for boating), and ringed by as inviting a jumble of rugged mountains as you'll find anywhere in the West. The area has the scenic grandeur of Wyoming's Grand Tetons, but without Jackson Hole's glitzy development--or crowds.

Tucked on the edge of the mountains, you'll find a couple of historic and old-fashioned lodges: rustic Redfish and country-chic Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch. For motels you'll have to head to Stanley, which is also the region's main stop (actually, the only dependable one) for gas and groceries. Stanley offers the tourist essentials: You can book a rafting trip on the Salmon River here, buy a fishing license ($10.50) at McCoy's Tackle & Gift Shop, or stop for espresso and home-baked pastries at the Stanley Baking Company. Still, compared to the celebrity-filled galleries and shops of Ketchum and Sun Valley, Stanley seems, blessedly, like the middle of nowhere.

Even in late summer, the fanged peaks of the Sawtooths are dappled with glistening white pockets of ice and snow, some the remnants of ice-age glaciers. The mountains, seldom out of sight, are constant reminders that summer here--like the shrinking mound of ribs on the barbecue--vanishes all too quickly.

Gold and ghosts

Like many Western mountain regions, the Sawtooth and surroundings weren't settled, exactly; they were overrun. The 1863 discovery of flecks of gold set off a stampede that brought thousands of pick swingers and pan swishers. By 1875 towns on the Yankee Fork like Bonanza and Custer were booming.

Today the area is surprisingly well preserved. Drive up the river canyon from State 75 east of Stanley, and the mountain scenery quickly gives way to naked heaps of raw gravel, the legacy of the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge. Stranded on a gravel pond of its own making, the 112-foot-long dredge--a Rube Goldberg contraption with a gengly, riverbed-eating, 71-bucket boom--processed 51/2 miles of canyon bottom in its search for gold until it shut down in 1953. The dredge, one of the few left outside of Alaska, has been restored.

Another museum of sorts is the ghost town of Custer, just up the road. The ramshackle town in the narrowing canyon, now softened with conifers and aspen, is deceptively picturesque. The old school has pictures and artifacts from the region's mining days. A walking tour takes you past a number of old buildings, homes, and businesses, most of which bear stark witness to hardscrabble lives, failed dreams, and violent deaths. …

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