Photograph by Michael Melford
Photograph by Michael Melford

Road Trip: The Sawtooths, Idaho

Climb more than 5,000 feet into the terrain of the Sawtooths where elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats await.

Discover what Ernest Hemingway came to love in Idaho's spectacular Sawtooth wilderness.

This outstanding scenic drive through south-central Idaho climbs more than 5,000 vertical feet (1,524 vertical meters) from a desert canyon near Boise into the rugged, spectacular mountain terrain of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. In the Sawtooths you can hike, fish, paddle white water on the Salmon River, check out a ghost town, and watch for elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. Not surprisingly, this striking mountain landscape was a favorite playground of Ernest Hemingway, who is buried in the area.


Sights along this exceptionally scenic route of some 260 miles (418 kilometers) include an 1860s gold-mining town, a seductive natural hot spring, the ski towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley, a world-renowned trout stream, and lava tube caves.

Start in Boise

An old mining center and military outpost during the Idaho gold rush days of the 1860s and '70s, Boise today is the state capital, a university town, and home to most of Idaho's museums. Must-sees include the Idaho State Historical Museum, with exhibits on the state's history from prehistoric times to the fur trade to the present; the imaginative Morrison Knudsen Nature Center, for a close look at trout and their environment; and the World Center for Birds of Prey, which runs captive breeding programs for endangered raptors all over the world, including its own stable of Harpy eagles, California condors, and peregrine falcons.

Idaho City

From Boise, follow Idaho Rte. 21 east-northeast past Lucky Peak Lake, climbing through desert hills into the mountains. As you leave the sagebrush behind for cooler surroundings, the grass thickens and ponderosa pines gather. You'll know you're approaching the 1860s gold-rush town of Idaho City when the ground levels off and heaps of white cobblestones appear—leavings of gold dredges that worked the creek bed in the 1890s. Gold was discovered in Idaho City is 1862 and drew a swarm of miners. Many of the city's 19th-century buildings have been repurposed into homes, restaurants, and shops.

Kirkham Hot Springs

Continuing northeast on Rte. 21, you'll pass through Boise National Forest, where roadside exhibits explain what you'll see around you: little forest canopy, the result of the 1989 Lowman fire. A few miles farther sit Kirkham Hot Springs, among the state's best natural hot springs, which cascade over low cliffs into a series of pools—a beautiful spot for a soak.

Sawtooth National Recreation Area

Nicely relaxed, climb Rte. 21 through evergreen forests to 7,056-foot (2,151-meter)-high Banner Summit. Here the terrain flattens and broad meadows push back the forests. Look for elk, deer, coyotes, and hawks as you glide into the northern fringes of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. This sprawling preserve encompasses four mountain ranges, several large lakes, the Salmon River headwaters, and dozens of hot springs. It's the sort of place that begs you to pull over, lock the car, and put some ground under your feet or a trout stream around your knees. At its scenic heart stands the splintering crest of the Sawtooth Range, a chaos of crags, razorback ridges, and small alpine lakes that extends south for 30 miles (48 kilometers). For a terrific view of its jagged northern edge rising over a wetland meadow, stop at the Park Creek Overlook.


Drive on to Stanley, an outfitting center at the base of the peaks. You'll be leaving Rte. 21 for Rte. 75 south, and the approaching plunge into the Salmon River's first chasm. The road pitches down a forested gorge studded with granite outcroppings and follows the swift, clean Salmon as it drops 15 feet (five meters) to the mile. Along here is Sunbeam Hot Springs, which burbles over the rocks. At the crossroad town of Sunbeam, pause at the dynamited remains of the only dam ever built on the Salmon. Here the river stalls out in emerald pools warm enough for a summer swim.

Redfish Lake

Continue on Rte. 75 into the Sawtooth Valley, a broad tongue of prairie that cradles the Salmon River and stretches between the Sawtooths and the foothills of the White Cloud Peaks. The bony pinnacles of the Sawtooths, which reach a height of 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), may seem remote, but trails put you into their heart. Follow signs to Redfish Lake Visitor Center, a rustic stone building with a stunning view of Redfish Lake, the largest of the recreation area's 300-plus lakes. Ringed with beaches and lodgepole-pine forests, the lake is almost overwhelmed by two massive, fractured peaks rising abruptly from its turquoise waters. Stop in Redfish Lake Lodge for some smoked salmon with red potato chowder—the lodge also offers guest rooms, a marina, and sunset boat cruises—then head over to another lake highlight.

Sawtooth Hatchery

Redfish Lake takes its name from the thousands of sockeye salmon that once spawned here. Today Chinook salmon and steelhead live on the brink of extinction, due largely to a series of dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Track the decline of these fish and learn about attempts to revive their spawning runs at the Sawtooth Hatchery, which raises steelhead trout and Chinook salmon.


Head south across the valley and climb 2,000 feet (610 meters) to the Galena Overlook, which offers an expansive vista of the mountains. Just beyond the overlook you top Galena Summit (8,701 feet/2,652 meters) and tilt down into the Big Wood River Valley. The Big Wood River, heartbreakingly beautiful, winds through increasingly arid foothills on its way to Ketchum. Miners mobbed the valley during the 1880s, and the gold, silver, and lead they hauled out of the mountains built the town of Ketchum. The town nose-dived after the silver market collapsed in 1894 and remained relatively depressed until the 1930s, when Union Pacific Railroad chairman Averell Harriman (later governor of New York) built the Sun Valley Resort. Today Ketchum is a fairly typical Western ski town crowded with gift shops, art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and expensive houses sprawling up the valley. Check out the Ketchum Sun Valley Historical Society Heritage and Ski Museum, which gives a general rundown on the valley's history, from mining to ski resort, and offers a walking-tour brochure. Then strap on your in-line skates (or sneakers) and explore Ketchum's extensive system of paved pathways.

End at Sun Valley Resort

Finally, drive over to "America's original ski resort," Sun Valley Resort, which was created to bring the allure of European ski resorts to the U.S. and boasts a 1936 lodge that hosted stars from Clark Gable to Errol Flynn. Roam the resort's highbrow shops and admire the upscale vacation houses, keeping an eye out for such present-day glitterati as Demi Moore and Clint Eastwood. Then pay your respects to one of the first celebrities to recognize this special corner of Idaho: Ernest Hemingway. The writer's grave, inscribed "Ernest Miller Hemingway, July 21, 1899-July 2, 1961," sits in the Ketchum Cemetery; a Hemingway Memorial, a small bust of the writer, sits tucked into the cottonwoods along Trail Creek, as simple and natural as the writer himself.

Road Kit

Do this drive from late spring into early autumn, checking weather postings for updates (snow can come early or late). For more information on Boise, visit For the Sawtooths, visit For Ketchum and Sun Valley, visit

—Text by Thomas Schmidt, adapted from National Geographic Driving Guides to America: The Rockies