Clayton and Sunbeam
Though US-93 swings to the southeast from Challis, the original alignment, now Hwy-75, winds west into the mountains through the more than 2,000-foot-deep canyon carved by the Salmon River. You’re deep in the forest by the time you reach Clayton (pop. 6), a riverside wide spot with a gas station and a biker-friendly tavern. Farther west, some 45 miles from Challis, you come to the small but pleasant year-round resort of Sunbeam, which overlooks the confluence of the Yankee Fork and Salmon Rivers. There’s a café and campground at the junction, and just a half mile upstream you’ll find the area’s greatest attraction: the natural hot springs, steaming wildly on cold days and forming rock pools of varying temperatures in the Salmon River, marked by a stone bathhouse built during the New Deal 1930s but no longer in use.
From Sunbeam, it’s only another 14 miles to Stanley, heart of the glorious Sawtooth Mountains.
If you’re here in summer and have a few hours to spare, take the rough (no RVs, please!) but scenic alternative to Hwy-75, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and called the Custer Motorway, which winds west from Challis into the Yankee Fork mining district, passing the remains of old stagecoach stations and stamp mills before reaching the ghost town of Custer. Custer now consists of a half-dozen mining shacks and log cabins, the Empire Saloon, and a small but engaging museum housed in the old one-room schoolhouse. Beyond Custer, a well-maintained gravel road follows the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River south to Hwy-75, passing an abandoned gold dredge and other relics of mining operations, past and present, before rejoining the highway at Sunbeam, on the banks of the Salmon River.
Further details, and free maps of Custer and the Custer Motorway, are available from the Land of Yankee Fork State Park visitors center (208/879-5244) in Challis.
Set in a broad basin at the eastern foot of the angular Sawtooth Mountains, 58 miles west of Challis, Stanley (pop. 68; elev. 6,250 feet) is a tiny, isolated town that makes an excellent base for exploring the surrounding two-million-plus acres of alpine forest. In summertime, the population swells to around 500, including visitors, so although it’s just 60 miles north of busy Sun Valley, there’s still plenty of room to move. Hikers and mountain bikers in summer, and cross-country skiers in winter, should have no trouble finding solitude among the 10,000-foot peaks; the ranger station (208/774-3000), four miles south of town on Hwy-75, can supply details of trails and campgrounds as well as rafting trips along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
Places to eat, drink, and be merry stand along Ace of Diamonds Street, the main street of Stanley proper, southwest of the Hwy-21/75 junction. Log cabin breakfasts and great freshly baked goodies are available at Stanley Baking Co. & Café (250 Wall St., 208/774-6573). Later in the day, make your way to the Kasino Club (34 Ace of Diamonds, 208/774-3516), serving steaks and chops and frequent live music on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Sawtooth National Recreation Area
Stanley and Sunbeam both stand along the northern border of the more than 750,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which extends south for over 20 miles of untrammeled meadows, forests, and lakes and includes the headwaters of many major Idaho rivers. It also holds one of the nicest places to stay in the Rockies: the historic Redfish Lake Lodge (208/774-3536 or 208/644-9096, May-Oct., rooms $76 and up, cabins $138-598), seven miles south of Stanley on Hwy-75 on the east shore of Redfish Lake, which has rustic log-walled rooms in the main lodge and spacious cabins. The lodge also has a good restaurant.
There are two main visitors centers for the Sawtooth NRA: a summer-only one near Redfish Lake and the headquarters (208/727-5000) on the north side of Ketchum.
South of Redfish Lake, Hwy-75 switchbacks steeply up to 8,707-foot Galena Summit, which gives a grand view over the surrounding mountains before dropping steeply down toward Sun Valley along the headwaters of the Wood River. About 5 miles south of the pass, 20-odd miles before you reach the resort area, there’s one last stop worth making: Galena Lodge (208/726-4010), which dates back to the mining era of the 1880s and has been resurrected as a cross-country ski lodge, with food service, ski or snowshoe rentals, and the Sun Valley area’s most extensive system of groomed trails. The community-owned lodge also maintains four backcountry yurts ($100-165): tentlike structures with wood-burning stoves and bunks for up to eight people.