As much as we always want to explore new places, we also love returning to our favourite spots and Idaho is one of them. It was a hell of a long, lonely drive heading west from Wyoming, through Montana and then finally into the Famous Potato State. We passed ranches with cowboys corralling their cattle and waving our way as we let out loud “wahoooooo’s” and “yeehaaaaaw’s” out our window. But mostly it was a very quiet road through barren high desert with rolling hills and deep valleys. We bought a $1 Hawaiian ukulele cd from a charity shop to keep us entertained but we must’ve inserted it on top of another cd and we were left with some awful club anthems. Then it became jammed and we had to pull over and shove our spatula inside to stop it frantically creaking. The cd is still stuck to this day and we’ve been left with country radio as usual.
We fell in love with Idaho when we first visited the Sawtooth mountains. They had everything we needed to keep us happy: mountain hikes, lake swims, undeveloped hot springs and free camping. On our way back there we stopped at a hot spring that we had no idea existed on our first trip. It involved a steep uphill hike in the scorching sun but at the top we were rewarded with a variety of rock pools dropping down the valley and filled with crystal clear spring water. The last thing I wanted after a hike was a hot soak though, so we found some intermediate temperature pools to cool off in before delving into the hotter areas. Hot water gushed down rocks and formed massaging waterfalls to sit under and that’s where Craig spent most of his time while I lounged in a pool that had half river water and half spring water which was a strange sensation.
It was a pretty popular spring though and eventually a huge family of 10 arrived, much to everyone’s annoyance. The parents were so busy chatting to one another that they didn’t keep an eye on all of their kids which meant a two year old boy came into my pool and grabbed my shoulder with his dirty mitts to stabilise himself and then he just sat opposite me and kept saying something about it being cold. I didn’t fancy sitting in a pool of his piss so he left me no choice but to abruptly get up and find another pool to myself.
We continued our drive towards the mountains, following the Salmon River the entire way. As soon as we saw the river we were shocked at how swollen it was, last time it was late summer and it was clear and flowing over rocks, now it was spread wide and we suddenly realised the hot springs we had planned to revisit might well not exist in the big spring melt. Our suspicions were confirmed when we reached the first one beside the road – the perfect hand made rock pools where the scorching water trickled into were barely visible beneath the gushing water. There were other springs nearby so we continued onto our favourite one, which we nicknamed the witches cauldron. It was made from a vintage metal buoy that was cut in half and welded together right beside the river. A pipe led from the springs below the road directly into the pool but it was unbelievably hot so a bucket was connected to a rope and dangled in the river for fresh water to be poured in. There were rock pools around the tub which were cooler so some nights we’d arrive under a sky filled with stars and I’d lay in a cooler rock pool while Craig melted in the hot tub and we both gazed up watching shooting stars and listening to the roaring river. It was dreamy, so we couldn’t wait to return but it didn’t look quite how we remembered it. Sadly the river had washed out the rock pools and the pipe bringing in the hot water had broken and been temporarily replaced with swimming noodles so water could flow through the center of them. When I say ‘flow’ I mean barely trickle. It was terrible and the family that were in it before us pulled all the tubes to the side so it wasn’t too hot for the kids and they didn’t put them back in place. So we spent a while positioning them back into the tub and trying to refresh the water. Before we’d even got in a couple of cyclists spotted us from the road, GODDAM. You can fit about four people in the tub but it would be way too much of a squeeze with strangers, so it was basically a two person tub. Instead of them letting us enjoy our soak they got changed into their swimmers and sat on the rocks not far from us. We just relaxed though, we’d waited thirty minutes for the previous people so they would just have to wait for us. But then one of the girls came over and politely asked “would it be ok if we just dipped our feet in?”. The devil and angel on my shoulders had quite a debate about what to say, the devils reply was “you mean those feet that have been in sweaty, stinky trainers pushing the peddle on your bike for hundreds of miles and are yet to be washed for the entire week of your camping holiday?” But the angel butted in and I just said “we’ll just be another five minutes if that’s ok” and when we walked back to our van I let it all out to Craig “‘CAN I JUST DIP MY FILTHY FEET IN RIGHT NEXT TO YOU?!’ What were they thinking? Maybe we should go back to the tub and say ‘I forgot to say, watch where you sit, my boyfriend has a tendency of letting out wet farts”.
After two days of driving along lonely Idaho roads we were greeted with the mighty sawtooth mountain range with its jagged peaks rising above the plains. Stanley is the main area where we based ourselves, it’s a little village of just 63 people living in absolute paradise – although it is said to get the coldest winters in America. The area is surrounded by national forest and we were given a map that was literally too big to open inside our van and it gave locations of all the roads to disperse camp for free.
We stopped by the visitor center to get information on hiking and were told a lot of the trails were still inaccessible due to the snow but we still had plenty to keep us busy. We couldn’t remember if the area was bear country so we double checked and the old lady assured us that it wasn’t. She said there are no bears around unless you go deep into the wilderness, like really far away with a 4×4.
We still had the afternoon to play with so we set off on a hike to Marshall Lake. It was a bit of a steep incline but after that we traversed a steady trail along the ridge with amazing views of the mountains. There was hardly anyone else hiking the route and eventually we reached the section leading to the lake. We hadn’t expected it to be down in a deep basin which involved snow covered switchbacks. The snow was unavoidable and hiking sandals seemed like a pretty poor choice of footwear. I was sinking through the snow and my feet became so cold that they actually got that brain-freeze feeling. The snow was up to two meters thick in areas and we climbed up and down it until we reached an opening and headed for the lake shore. It was a tranquil little spot with clear, green water and mountains rising high above it. When we headed back I spotted what looked like a bear skat near the trail, which obviously seemed odd as the lady told us they don’t have bears here. We started the dreaded snowy switchbacks uphill when Craig stuck his hand out to tell me to stop. Ahead of us was a little black bear and he was running like a hooligan away from us!! So much for it not being bear country.
The following day we hiked up to Sawtooth Lake. It was a long steady climb through pine forest with a few creek crossings but we soon got to an opening with a cracking view of the spikiest of ridge-lines. It really was like the jagged blade of a sawtooth.
The next section involved switchbacks through snow but the reward was the first of two lakes – Alpine Lake. Sadly it was completely frozen, how could we be fooled into hiking to a frozen lake yet again. To be fair the edges were starting to melt and break into slabs of ice which offered some pretty turquoise hues. The climb continued up to Sawtooth Lake and we came to a sort of snow covered plateau with mountains all around. There were no trail markings and just the odd human footprint to follow so it was all guess work but we soon made it to the lake, which was even more frozen than the last one. It was very pretty though with melting aqua coloured edges so we stopped for a quick lunch before the brutal wind became too unbearable.
After every hike we’d drive to a free hot spring. There was one by the river that’s not as popular as the others, in fact I haven’t seen it on any online blogs so I’m keeping the location a secret for the locals to enjoy. It’s not the hottest pool and it’s pretty murky as soon as you disturb the base but after a long day hiking it’s the perfect remedy to sooth the muscles and enjoy the mountain views.
On a hot sunny day we took Roland the rowboat out on Redfish Lake. It’s a huge lake but we pumped Roland up till she was really firm and it made paddling much easier so we quickly made it to a bend in the lake revealing a spiky mountain view. We enjoyed a relaxing lunch of veggies and hummus dip while bobbing in the wake of passing boats and then we pulled up onto a beautiful secluded beach with a teepee made from driftwood and we ran into the lake for a well needed cool-off.
We hiked a few more trails around the area, up to the Bench Lakes and along the Fisher Creek trail which offered incredible views at the end. But a lot of the hikes were pretty long and tiring 15+ kilometres everyday. The end was always worth the hike but the journey back seemed to take so damn long. On the plus side the forests were filled with balsam so the smell was delightful to walk amongst.
We slept in many different free camping areas, some beside roaring rivers and others up lonely dirt tracks with mountain views. One evening we noticed the sunset was looking promising so we wandered across the road and onto a meadow where we watched a tornado-shaped cloud turn candy pink. Our favourite spot was a peaceful clearing in the forest, we seemed to be the only people around and we carried our chairs and dinner plates filled with freshly made risotto up a hill so we could enjoy the sawtooth view.
When we weren’t hiking we were spending the hot days relaxing at the dreamy Redfish Lake, basking in the sun with occasional dips in the frigid water. The lake looked like the Caribbean with its turquoise edges and deep blue center.
On our final day we decided to give the witches cauldron hot spring another try. The good news was someone had fixed the pipe so the ugly foam noodles were banished and the water was the usual melt-your-skin-off temperature. A few buckets of icy river water did the job and we enjoyed a wonderful dip with a sneaky little plunge in a section of river protected by rocks. Even after a full week in the area we felt like we could spend longer hiking and relaxing but we had to force ourselves to leave and continue north.