If you’re anything like us, you’re always on the hunt for postcard worthy beauty…the more untouched the better. If that’s you, then add the Sawtooth Mountains to your bucket list STAT. We’re going to walk you through an epic day in this lesser known destination. What to do in the Sawtooth Mountains, the best places to eat, where to stay, and family friendly hikes not to be missed.
I know, I know when you think of Idaho, the first thing that comes to mind is probably potatoes, right?! But did you know that Idaho has more wilderness than any other state in the lower 48? A mega 60% of the state is covered in forestland!
Compared to its more popular neighboring states of Washington and Oregon, Idaho is a hidden gem! Anyone that lives there is loud and proud about that (and wants it to stay that way:)). We spent a month in Idaho last summer, and it is shockingly beautiful. Filled with jewel-colored lakes, alpine peaks, towering forest, and sparkling rivers.
Sawtooth National Recreational park is such an idyllic US destination that is sure to not disappoint!
About the Sawtooth Mountains
The Sawtooth Mountains are said to rival the Tetons…with a fourth of the crowds! Located in east Idaho, only about 2.5 hours drive from Boise, it is truly a must see when visiting this hidden gem of a state. Nestled right next to Boise National Forest and charming (tiny) no frills Stanley, ID, this portion of the Rocky Mountains reaches a maximum elevation of 10,751 feet at the summit of Thompson Peak. The Sawtooth National Recreational Area is home to some of the most gorgeous hikes in the Western United States, and most definitely in Idaho.
We stayed in Idaho for a month last summer and driving out to the Sawtooth Mountains was hands down our favorite thing we did (Don’t miss our Road Trip Essentials the next time your family hits the road here!). The beauty and almost untouched feeling of the area was just truly majestic. If you are in the Idaho area, the Sawtooth Mountains CANNOT be missed. As beautiful as the National Parks, without the crowds. AND endless postcard worthy views to boot…just wait!
Family friendly hikes in the Sawtooth Mountains
This hike is near the entrance of the Sawtooth area and a great super straightforward option for families with little ones. It starts at the Redfish Lake trailhead and it is 4 miles round trip. There is a total of about 400 feet of elevation gain, and follows the gorgeous Fishhook creek until it ends at a beautiful meadow and beaver pond.
The trail is used by both bikers, hikers and some sections you may see some horses! This is a favorite trail of many and one of the most popular in the area, so during the summer months plan accordingly when visitors are at a peak. In September and the Fall you can also catch glimpses of the gorgeous changing leaves. There is a large parking lot very close to the trailhead, so navigating to this family friendly hike in the Sawtooths is easy breezy.
Lily Ponds and Waterfalls (Redfish Lake)
This is our favorite hike for families in the Sawtooth Mountains! To access the trailhead you have to take the Redfish Lake Lodge boat shuttle. Our kids thought this quick 5min boat ride was a BLAST (not so much when we got caught in a storm on the way back…but MEMORIES right?!). AND it cuts off over six miles of hiking for you in only ten minutes! The boat both leaves on demand, and has set pick up times.
Once the boat drops you off, simply follow the signs for the Lily Lake Trailhead. (not forgetting to making your way down to the shore area, pictured below…the color of that water!). The hike is only 1.5 miles round trip, but there is some moderate elevation gain. Our girls (6 and 4 at the time) did great with this hike and it really was the perfect enjoyable challenge…with a very worthy reward at the end!
After spending some time at the lake (filled with lily pads, hence the name of this trail), you will want to look for the small wooden sign that will point you towards the waterfalls (south of the lake). Just 3 more minutes down the trail and you’ll run into the falls! The waterfall is gorgeous and intimate and we had the whole thing to ourselves when we visited in July.
Also keep your eye out for Huckleberry bushes, during the summer they dot the entire trail and can be picked and eaten straight from the bush! This was SUCH a fun memory for the kids, and they totally delighted in picking the huckleberries and eating them straight from their hands! Be sure and stop in at the Lakeside Grill on your way back to reward the fam (and yourself :)) with a delicious ice cream cone. This hike was hands down one of our most memorable experiences while in Idaho.
4th of July Lake
This hike is a bit deeper into the Sawtooth Mountain area, but well worth the extra drive. (And really any drive that looks like this…sign me up) Off of highway 75 (the main highway in the area), about 15 miles south of Redfish Lake Lodge you will turn east on 4th of July road and drive 10 miles to the 4th of July trailhead.
It is a bit of a bumpy dirt road, but totally doable in most cars. Once you arrive at the trailhead, you will see restrooms and a parking area. The trail is close to 4 miles round trip and will take you straight to 4th of July Lake. This family friendly hike is is perfect for a quick little dip if you’re visiting in the summer and is untouched Sawtooth Mountain beauty at its finest.
Where to Eat in the Sawtooth Mountains
Stanley Baking Company & Cafe
The perfect spot for a quick breakfast before a full day of hiking and soaking up the mountains. This gem is in the heart of Stanley, right outside the entrance to the peaks. Sit on the patio, sip a latte, and grab the kids a couple of homemade cinnamon rolls….YUM.
Peaks & Perks
If you want to head straight to the really good stuff (i.e. all the nature goodness), we recommend this little pop-up coffee shop for your morning brew. Be prepared- when we were there, they only were accepting cash!
Redfish Lake Lodge
In the heart of the Sawtooth Mountain Recreational Area, this is a easy super family friendly lunch or dinner stop. There is tons to do around the Redfish Lake Lodge- grab ice cream at the outdoor grill (more on that next), let the kids splash in the small sand-lined beach, rent a paddle board for the afternoon. This is our top pick for a mid-day meal during your time in the Sawtooths!
Also, on the Redfish Lake Lodge property, Lakeside Grill is a must stop for a little afternoon treat. Stop by the outdoor grill to get their famous “living the dream” ice cream cones and sit waterside while the kids cool off in the water. This is a great option for a quick outdoor lunch that is easy on the wallet. Afternoon delight FOR SURE.
This is where we had a quick bite to eat at the end of our day of adventure in the Sawtooth Mountains. A completely no frills type of down to earth joint, that just seems like the perfectly fitting end cap to a day of hiking in the mountains. Grab a burger and a beer and revel in the epic day you just had!
Stanley Supper Club
Alright this is a unique find (that books up quickly mind you), but well worth the planning ahead if you can swing it! Just love this special dinner spot and the sweet story of how they started the restaurant. This is more of a “fine dining” experience but in a perfectly Idaho relaxed unpretentious way.
Ok, I am going to give it to you straight…we’re not millionaires. We honestly don’t even have thousands of extra dollars in disposable income. Here in lays the problem- we LOVE to travel…and we LOVE to travel as a family…
Where to Stay in the Sawtooth Mountains
The tinnnnyyyy town of Stanley (population only 68!) is the gateway to the Sawtooths. For a hotel stay in Stanley, Idaho we recommend Mountain Village Resort and Stanley Town Square. We personally think the best place to stay when exploring the Sawtooth mountains is hands down Redfish Lake Lodge, right next to Redfish Lake. It’s right in the heart of the mountains and the perfect cabin, family-friendly camp type feel. There are restaurants, activities, fun events on site, and it is pretty much the ONLY option if you want to stay in the actual Sawtooth recreational area (except for camping that is).
Also of course always check out Airbnb for a cabin or other independent rental. The options are very limited in the area, but worth checking out! Lastly, for additional hotel options, check out stays in Sun Valley and Ketchum, the closest ski resort towns to the Sawtooth National Forest.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous with little ones, there are also tons of camping options in the area. It can get popular (in the summer especially) so make sure to reserve at least 6 months in advance! Camping around Redfish Lake is a top pick, but other amazing spots include Stanley Lake (our FAVORITE! See below), Pettit Lake, or Iron Creek.
A MUST SEE!
Justttt before you’re about to head out from your epic day (or days) in the Sawtooth Mountains, you must stop at Stanley Lake! We tacked this on as we headed out as somewhat of an after thought, and it was probably our favorite views of the day. Pristine jewel-toned waters, towering trees, a gorgeous mountain backdrop…I mean you can’t make this stuff up. Easily rivals the National Parks we’ve seen…but with half the crowds.
Bonus points if you can get there around golden hour. Nearly all the visitors had cleared out for the day. the water was so still, and it was just truly MAGIC. A family memory I will absolutely never forget.
We hope this was helpful and gives you a little bit of direction to what we are confident will be an unforgettable trip! The Sawtooth Mountains (and Idaho in general for that matter!) are a hidden gem and somewhere we can’t recommend visiting enough!