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On The Road In Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains

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Best things to do on a road trip through Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains

The Road Less Traveled In Idaho

When I find myself at home between trips, most of my encounters with other people begin with a question about where I’m headed next. Without pausing for me to answer, this is almost always immediately followed by a common refrain, an unsubtle, sarcastic listing of exotic locations. “Bali? Maldives? Ooohhh… The Moon?” So, when my response was Idaho, I wasn’t surprised that the predominant response was confusion. Why? What would I do there?

Taking in views of the Sawtooth Mountains from Stanley, Idaho.

Taking in views of the Sawtooth Mountains from Stanley, Idaho.

Despite its stunning mountain ranges, world class outdoor recreation opportunities, and paucity of crowds, Idaho has managed to remain, relatively speaking of course,  off the tourist radar. I think in large part this is due to the fact that the Sawtooth Range is remote, and it takes time and effort to truly do them justice. It’s not the type of place you just swing by. That’s not to say you’ll be the only person at some of the more picturesque spots. But you just might be. And that’s something I can’t say for many other places.

Which brings me to my last point. I’m dedicated to sharing beautiful places at home and abroad so that people might be able to foster the type of connection with nature that I enjoy. In turn it’s my hope that these connections will inspire others to protect this beautiful world that we all share. With that comes a responsibility to educate readers on how we can enjoy these places respectfully, leave places better than we found them, and always abide by Leave No Trace Principles.

Idaho hot springs

Soak In Some Hot Springs

Better known for potatoes and hunting, Idaho isn’t generally the first place people think of when hot springs come up. Nonetheless, this largely forgotten state is a hot spring mecca. You’ll find no shortage of natural hot springs tucked away on mountain paths, down dirt roads, and even steaming off the side of the highway. So when in Idaho, make sure to schedule in time to explore these hidden gems, and get ready for some serious soaking!

Pine Flats Hot Springs

I was probably most excited for Pine Flats hot springs, and it did not disappoint. There’s just something about a natural geothermal waterfall cascading down into a rock walled soaking pool that really captured my imagination. I mean, who hasn’t dreamt of taking a “shower” under a waterfall? Throw in the views overlooking the South Fork Payette River, and there’s not much to complain about.

Pine Flats Hot Springs in Idaho.

Pine Flats Hot Springs in Idaho.

Mountain View Resort

Known as the gateway to the Sawtooth Mountains, Stanley Idaho seemed like as good a place as any to base ourselves for this trip. Wedged between the jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Range and the banks of the Salmon River, Stanley is nestled in an amphitheater of rarely found natural beauty. It’s also home to some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered while traveling. We stayed at the Mountain View Resort because it was the least expensive accommodation option available to us at the time. Little did I know when I booked the room, that it is also home to a nifty little hot spring located inside a cozy wood shed overlooking the not so distant mountain.

Time in the hot spring is complimentary if staying at the resort. Non guests can also reserve a time slot for the spring for a small fee.

The hot spring at Mountain View Resort is set up in a small shed with beautiful views of the Sawtooth Mountains in the distance.

The hot spring at Mountain View Resort is set up in a small shed with beautiful views of the Sawtooth Mountains in the distance.

Boat Box Hot Springs

Boat Box Hot Springs is located about 5 minutes outside Stanley, right off Highway 75. The pull-off can only fit about two or three cars and is easy to miss, so be on the lookout for steam rising from the direction of the river. This particular spring flows into what appears to be an old mining cauldron – it’s a COZY fit for more than a couple people. The water in the tub is scalding hot, so don’t just jump in! There’s usually a white bucket next to the cauldron that can be used to blend cold river water into the tub until it’s juuuust right.

This location is run and maintained by locals and is extremely small. Take extra care when visiting Boat Box and be courteous of others who may be waiting for their turn in the cauldron.

Boat Box Hot Springs is a great little spot just outside Stanley. If it’s already occupied tried coming back at a different time.

Boat Box Hot Springs is a great little spot just outside Stanley. If it’s already occupied tried coming back at a different time.

For more great Idaho hot springs inspiration check out Reckless Roaming’s Post!

Soaking Essentials

You really don’t need much to enjoy hot springs, but there are a few essentials that will help you get the most out of the experience. I always take along a Hydro Flask full of cold water to stay hydrated, bathing suit, and my super soft Pendleton oversized towel. It just makes getting out a little bit easier!

Take A Hike In The Sawtooths

Every time I visit Idaho I leave promising myself that next time I’ll give myself more time to explore the mountains. Some places are well suited to day hiking. And the Sawtooths are no exception. There are some beautiful day hikes. But to truly experience the remote solitude the Sawtooths offer, backpacking is the way to go. That being said, these two hikes will give you a good taste of what this extraordinary place has to offer.

Alice + Twin Lakes

The backdrop to Alice Lake is one of the most stunning in the entire Sawtooth range. For that reason it’s easy to understand why many people stop at Alice and call it a day. But if you’re up for it, just 400 feet higher, you’ll find Twin Lakes. The extra effort will earn you a little more solitude and equally awe inspiring views. If you have the time, it’s worth packing a tent and sleeping under the stars.

Taking a dip at Alice Lake.

Taking a dip at Alice Lake.

Our camp site for the night up at Twin lakes.

Our camp site for the night up at Twin lakes.

Bench Lakes

This hike was quite the odyssey because there was a fresh layer of snow covering the trail starting a few hundred yards below the first lake. However, under normal conditions this relatively easy hike takes you to a series of five alpine lakes set in a spectacular alpine environment. The main trail ends after the second lake, and many people turn around at that point. But the real show stoppers are higher up, nestled below the towering peaks above.

The Bench Lakes are a chain of five small alpine glacial lakes in the Sawtooth Mountains. The trail is beautiful and starts near the Redfish Lake Lodge.

The Bench Lakes are a chain of five small alpine glacial lakes in the Sawtooth Mountains. The trail is beautiful and starts near the Redfish Lake Lodge.

Hiking Essentials

Alpine environments are unpredictable, and it’s important to always be prepared when you hit the trail – regardless of how long you plan on being out, or how easy you expect the trail to be. For a more detailed list of my favorite hiking and backcountry camping gear check out my Backpacking Gear Guide.

Pull Over & Enjoy The View

When I think about road trips, I think about spontaneous adventures, little known places, and the freedom to experience life at a slower pace. It’s important to allow time for making wrong turns and getting lost in all the right directions. The best moments are often the unplanned ones.

Redfish Lake

It’s hard to top the views at Redfish Lake on a nice calm day. Snow-capped mountains reflect in the crystal-clear water, surrounded by evergreen forest and hiking trails. In the summer you can rent any kind of water toy your heart desires from Redfish Lake Lodge, or access miles of backcountry hiking trails by taking a ferry across the lake. During the off season, you can more or less have the place all to yourself.

Redfish Lake, Idaho.

Redfish Lake, Idaho.

Stanley Lake

Located in the heart of Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest, like Redfish Lake, Stanley Lake is yet another alpine lake with possibilities for outdoor enthusiasts.

Stanley Lake, Idaho.

Stanley Lake, Idaho.

Pettit Lake

Although arguably less picturesque than Redfish or Stanley Lakes, Pettit Lake is still a beautiful place to hang out for the afternoon, or set up camp. And again, there are tons of recreational opportunities available on the lake. There are also a number of cabins around the lake that can be rented for an extended stay.

Pettit Lake, Idaho.

Pettit Lake, Idaho.

Hanging out on the “boat ramp” at Pettit Lake, Idaho.

Hanging out on the “boat ramp” at Pettit Lake, Idaho.

Road Essentials

Living on the road, even for brief periods of time, has its ups and downs. But most of the downs can be combated with a few simple items. First, a clean car is a happy car. The best way I’ve found to keep all my gear organized and in one place, is to consolidate it in one giant duffle like The North Face Base Camp Duffel. Having a cooler that will actually keep your drinks cold, and your food fresh for days, is also a must. Similarly, cozy blankets come in handy for chilly sunrise missions, backseat naps, and impromptu picnics – and the Rumpl makes the COZIEST blanket out there. Lastly, if you’re anything like me, sometimes you just need a little alone time. And when that’s not possible, a good pair of headphones can be a life saver!

Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and I may earn a small commission on any purchase made – at no additional cost to you. As always, all ideas and opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own. Thanks for your support! – jess

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  1. Sally Tafft says:

    Wow I need to go to Idaho and experience the hot springs! Great blog, thanks Jess

  2. Alice Lee says:

    Amazing. Thank you so much for sharing this. Always! You are giving me alot of reasons to live my life longer<3

  3. Kat says:

    So beautiful! I would never have thought to add Idaho to the list so thank you. And thank you for sharing your gear!!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Idaho is such an underrated destination! But for outdoor lovers it’s definitely worth checking out. I’ve barley scratched the surface, and it always leaves me wanting to come back for more!

  4. LZY says:

    Do you travel alone? And do your recommend travelling in small groups or large groups for new travellers?

  5. Tia says:

    Thank you for sharing! I have a few questions for you: Where would you recommend flying into for this trip? Are these activities close to each other? How many days would you recommend taking to do this trip? Thanks so much!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Tia, thanks for your questions. I would recommend flying into Boise. I believe that would be the largest airport with relatively close access to the Sawtooths. You could also look into Sun Vally, but that would likely be much more expensive. All of the activities in this blog are relatively close to each other – I’d say within about an hour. The amount of days would really depend on how many hikes you want to do. I personally would probably want 5 days, but you could do it in less if you were really pushing.

  6. Amy says:

    Wow! I always look forward to reading your blogs! It’s always so exciting and encouraging!! One question though, I always see you in secluded places but most natural parks that I go to forgot people from straying off paths. How do you know when it is OK to go to places for instance in the hot springs? Thank you so much!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Amy. Thank you so much! I’m so glad that you enjoy the blog. Most of the places that I go do have paths, or trails to them, and you are correct that it’s important to stay on designated paths. All of the places I go I research on line, so they are already designated tourist or hiker destinations. I hope that helps!

  7. Sophia says:

    I’ve seen and read about pine flats. Looks beautiful! Was it difficult to get/climb to? I read that the ‘trail’ is difficult/steep? Thanks for always writing such great, easy, informative and approachable blogs!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Sophia! The trail is short, so in that respect it is not difficult. However, there is a small section at the very end that has a steep incline/decline that you need to be careful on. It wasn’t an issue for us, but we are pretty comfortable in the outdoors. Hope that helps!

  8. Tara says:

    I’ve been very interested in visiting Idaho. Very excited that you made this post!

  9. Zhanna says:

    I honestly had no idea that Idaho is so beautiful. That’s really a shame when you live relatively so close to such a gem. Thank you very much for sharing it, Jess!

    • Jess Dales says:

      There are so many beautiful places out there, you can’t know about them all! I hope you get the chance to visit the Sawtooths someday. They are really very pretty.

  10. Jenna says:

    Looks incredible! I have the Idaho hot springs book and it’s on my list to check out. I live in Seattle, WA so I have endless exploring here but hope to get out there in the next few years. What time of year did you go/recommend? I would go solely for mountains and hot springs. I enjoy your blog and posts. I also enjoy your simple style.

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks so much Jenna. The pictures here (with the exception of Alice Lake), were taken at the beginning of October. It snowed while we were there, and I probably wouldn’t have wanted to be camping or anything like that. Ideally I think August and September would be the best months, if you are looking to get up into the mountains and do some hiking. But October was nice because there were no people.

  11. Brittany Schaar says:

    Hi Jess! Oh my gosh- what a beautiful state Idaho is, and I had no idea. I need to build up some camping gear and hit the road, all in good time. But man! That Redfish Lake kind of stole my heart for a few seconds, such a beautiful photo- so I’d probably just not know what to do with myself standing at the actual lake, haha! What are your favorite activities to do at lakes? Thank you for sharing and always being so inspiring <3 I truly mean that! You rock!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you so much Brittany! I’m so happy to hear that this post inspired you. Idaho really is such a beautiful and under appreciated state! I absolutely love spending time at lakes, and there are so many great activities that I enjoy doing at them. But some of my favorite are camping, kayaking, and paddle boarding. And of course photographing them! 🙂

  12. Absolutely fantastic blog and photos

  13. Kyle says:

    Your blog is amazing! 🙂 I have been wanting to check it the sawthooths for awhile now… your pics sealed it!

    • Jess Dales says:

      I’m so glad you like it! Thank Kyle. The Sawtooths are amazing, and I have really only scratched the surface. Next summer I’m definitely going to head out that way for some more backpacking trips. Hope you make it out there too!

  14. Mustapha says:

    I’m from malaysia…your journey is perfect

  15. Dave says:


    Well done blog, informative and interesting.
    Keep it up!

  16. Alex says:

    Hi Jess,

    I have been following you a for a little while on Instagram and really enjoy your posts. I’m new to your blog and have just begun reading through them, but I was curious if you have any direction for me as I am interested in where to begin with hiking and being outdoors more. Unfortunately I didn’t really grow up with/around nature lovers so I’m not the most confident person out in nature, but I would like to start learning so I can take in the beauty that I know exists.

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Alex! Thanks so much for checking out the blog. I’m so happy to hear that you enjoy the posts. I think that the best way to start getting outdoors more is to do a little research into easy hikes in your area. There are lots of online resources, but you could also buy a book about local hikes. There might also be a hiking Facebook group in your area. Sometimes you can meet other people with similar interests through those forums. If you are curious about gear you can check out this blog post! https://www.jessdales.com/blog/backpacking-gear-guide

  17. Izabella says:

    This looks like a great natural museum! How exciting that you were able to discover a place that’s new to you and isn’t too far from where we live!)

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks Izabella! I was definitely excited. In fact now that I’ve had a little taste of the area, I’m really hoping to make it back there next summer to get a little further into the mountains. 🙂

  18. Andrew says:

    Hi Jess!

    What a wonderful article! I’m excited to check these places out this summer. Are the trails you mentioned accessible with a sedan, or do they require a more rugged vehicle to reach the trailheads?

    Thank you for your amazing content!

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Hi, I’m Jess, an outdoor enthusiast based in Seattle. I grew up exploring the Pacific Northwest, and early on was infected with the travel bug. I tried to suppress my wanderlust in pursuit of a traditional career path, but after a short stint as a lawyer, I left the confines of my office to get back in touch with my roots. Now, I wander the world taking photos, making memories, and sharing my love for travel with others!

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