Between its snow-capped mountains, pine-tree forests, and rushing rivers, Stanley, Idaho is one of the most picturesque towns in the Western United States. If you’re looking for an offbeat destination and outdoor adventure, look no further. Here’s 11 incredible things to do in Stanley, Idaho.
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How to get to Stanley, Idaho
Stanley, a teeny town of just 63 residents, is located a little less than a three hour drive northeast of Boise, Idaho. If you’re flying into Boise, you’ll definitely need a rental car to get around, as there’s no public transport to or around Stanley. I’d also suggest hanging around a bit to explore the city- there’s way more than enough awesome food, beer, and interesting history to keep you busy for a day in Boise!
The journey to Stanley is almost as good as the charming town itself (almost!)- you’ll drive along the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, which is nothing short of breathtaking, with valleys strewn with Ponderosa pines, sparkling rivers, and craggy mountaintops.
Things to do in Stanley, Idaho
So now that you’ve made it to Stanley, what kind of adventures can you get up to? Tons, my friend!
Stanley and its surrounding land is part of the largest federally managed wilderness area in the contiguous United States. Add in the dramatic peaks of the Sawtooths and hundreds of alpine lakes, left behind by melting glaciers and it should be no surprise that Stanley has some out-of-this-world trails.
- Bench Lakes: Along this moderate 8.0 mile trail, you’ll hike along a chain of lakes, with jaw-dropping vistas of the Sawtooths along the way. And come summer, it’s a fantastic place to see vibrant wildflowers!
- Alice Lake: This incredible trail, which can either be done as a 12.5-mile day hike or a 21.3-mile backpacking trip, will take you past turquoise alpine lakes, cartoonishly jagged mountains, and sweeping views of the surrounding pine tree forests.
- Sawtooth Lake: Hike along this 10.0 mile trail, where you’ll hike up to the shores of a tranquil lake, sitting in the shadow of a colorful mountain, streaked with snow.
Pssst… Stanley is home to black bears, so be sure to bring along some bear spray (which does not injure, but temporarily deters aggressive animals) on any hikes you go on.
2. Relaxing in hot springs
Most visitors flock to the Sawtooths for one reason- the incredible hot springs in Stanley. That’s right- on top of being, like, stupid beautiful, Stanley is also bursting at the seams with nature’s own hot tubs for you to soak in!
We had so much fun checking out all the hot springs in Stanley that we wrote a whole article about them, but for now, here’s some of my favorites:
- Boat Box Hot Spring: This is undoubtedly the most unique hot spring in Stanley, consisting of a cauldron perched on the banks of the Salmon River, with geothermally heated water piped in.
- Sunbeam Hot Springs: Water from a hot stream is piped directly into the Salmon River, where bathers are free to build their own pools out of riverstones to mix the hot water with the chilly river water.
- Kirkham Hot Springs: Kirkham offers dozens of natural pools, a waterfall of steamy water cascading over a cliffside, and jaw-dropping views of the Payette River and the surrounding rolling hills.
Did you know that Idaho is nicknamed the “Whitewater State”? And Stanley is the perfect place to get to know Idaho’s white waters, sitting directly along the banks of the Salmon River and just 30 miles from the South Fork of the Payette River.
Whether you want to do a family-friendly half day rafting trip or go on a six-day backcountry white water adventure, Stanley’s got you covered. The Sawtooth Adventure Company and White Cloud Rafting Adventures have a variety of tours you can choose from, ranging from scenic paddling trips to runs down Class IV rapids.
Just note that the more hardcore rapids are frequently only available when there are high water conditions due to spring run-off, so if you’re seeking an adrenaline rush, you should try to aim your trip between May and June.
Minnesota may be known as the Land of a Thousand Lakes, but Stanley is not far behind, boasting over 300 lakes in the Sawtooth Basin. And the variety of the lakes here is absolutely stunning, ranging from huge, deep pools you can drive right up to, to alpine lakes you have to hike high into the mountains for. So why not explore these beautiful bodies of water by kayak?
The most popular and easiest place to kayak is the sprawling Redfish Lake, which is a whopping 4.5 miles long and up to 400 feet deep! Beyond just being massive, it’s super convenient for visitors, with kayak, canoe, and standup paddleboard rentals and even an ice cream shop right along its shores at the Redfish Lake Lodge.
There are quite a few other lakes that you can drive up to with your kayak, like Pettit or Alturas, but you’ll need to rent a kayak offsite, like at Riverwear or the Sawtooth Adventure Company, and haul it to the lake with your vehicle.
Most of the rentals available in Stanley are inflatable kayaks, which run about $50 per day. Since you can purchase some decent inflatable kayaks for under $200, like the Intex Explorer K2 kayak, I’d suggest considering purchasing one before your Stanley trip if that will be a better value for you in the long run (curious to hear how our inflatable 2-person kayak has held up over the last year? You can check out our review of the Explorer K2 kayak here!).
5. Brewery hopping
After visiting Stanley a couple of times, one thing I’ve noticed is that the weather can be quite unpredictable, to say the least. And since most of the things to do in Stanley are largely around exploring its incredible outdoors, what can you do when the weather totally sucks?
Breweries, my friend! Take a little field trip to the neighboring towns of Ketchum and Hailey and check out some of the local microbreweries, like Sawtooth Brewery, Warfield Distillery and Brewery (the only brewery/distillery in the entire state!), and Sun Valley Brewing Company.
Not only is beer delicious (at least in my book!), but visiting microbreweries can be a great way to get to know the local culture a bit better. For example, given that Idaho and its neighboring states of Washington and Oregon are the biggest producers of hops on the planet, you’ll find lots of IPAs and other hop-forward beers on tap here.
As an added bonus, the drive to Ketchum is gorgeous- so gorgeous, in fact, it’s called the Sawtooth Scenic Byway, a 116-mile road snaking past soaring mountains and dense forests. Plus, Ketchum and Hailey are both adorable, with streets lined with historic brick boutiques and coffee shops- definitely worth a visit while you’re in the Stanley area!
6. Admiring the views at the Galena Overlook
If you’re headed to the Ketchum area, be sure to plan a stop at the Galena Overlook, approximately halfway between Stanley and Ketchum along Highway 75. The overlook is at the peak of a mountain- actually, at 8,701 feet above sea level- and is believed to be the highest summit of a highway in the Northwestern United States.
Thanks to the incredible vantage point, you’ll be able to see the headwaters of the Salmon River, before it travels over 900 miles to flow into the Pacific Ocean, as well as sweeping vistas of the Sawtooth Valley and the Sawtooths. While you’re up here, try to see if you can spot any wildlife, like deer, elk, or pronghorn antelope, down in the valley below.
7. Skiing and other snow activities in the wintertime
While most of the activities on this list are geared more towards the summertime, Stanley turns into a white powdery wonderland, come winter.
If cross-country skiing or snowshoeing are your jam, Stanley offers two areas, the Park Creek Ski Trails and the Alturas Lake Ski Area, each with ten miles of trails that are groomed and maintained by local volunteers.
If you’re looking for something a bit more adrenaline inducing, try your hand at backcountry skiing. Sawtooth Mountain Guides can show you some of the best chutes and couloirs Idaho has to offer and even has a backcountry yurt to make your homebase while you hone your winter mountaineering skills.
If downhill skiing is what you’re after, Stanley is just an hour from Sun Valley Lodge, with 13 chair lifts, 65 runs, and a full-featured terrain park. And I don’t know about you, but Stanley’s hot springs sound like the perfect apres-ski treat, no?
8. Visiting the Stanley Historical Museum
While you’re visiting Stanley, it’s hard to ignore the town’s pioneer vibes, thanks to the rustic log cabins and split rail fences lining the tiny town square. You can learn all about Stanley’s first white settlers at the Stanley Historical Museum, with plenty of artifacts, photographs, and even a few historical buildings to peruse.
This stop won’t take you long, but it’s a great way to learn about Stanley’s roots and how it became the quirky outdoor mecca that it is today.
9. Trying the restaurants
Listen, y’all. I didn’t think a town of 63 residents in Idaho would have killer food (especially for my husband, Justin, and me, who are both vegan), but the food is INCREDIBLE here.
In particular, be sure to check out:
- Stanley Baking Company: Dishes up hearty breakfast and lunch offerings and homemade pastries in the cutest historic old cabin.
- Sawtooth Luce’s: Elevated burgers and other bar food, with a great patio.
- The Sawtooth Hotel: If you’re only going to have one meal in Stanley, make sure it’s here. The service is on point, the food is seriously some of the best I’ve ever had, and in the summertime, there’s live music outside, with the Sawtooths as the backdrop.
10. Exploring Yankee Fork Gold Dredge and Custer Ghost Town
If you’re a history buff, consider taking a tour at two nearby sites tied to the old Western mineral rushes, Yankee Fork Gold Dredge and the Custer Ghost Town.
The Custer Ghost Town houses the remnants of a teeny town that sprung up in 1879, with the hopes that the land was rich with iron and gold. While the miners’ dreams were dashed long ago, you can still see many of the town’s buildings, like the Empire Saloon (including a bullethole-laden poker table!) and schoolhouse, which are restored back to what they looked like in their glory days.
Yankee Fork Gold Dredge does not offer any Wild Western saloons, but it is one of the best preserved and presented gold dredges in the continental United States. In the 1940s, investors opened the dredge, believing there was $11 million dollars worth of gold lying beneath its soil. But the dredge produced less than 10% of the gold expected and ceased operations in the early 1950s. Now, you can live out your old-timey prospector dreams and learn all about gold mining here, thanks to lots of informational signage and the knowledgeable volunteers who keep this place running.
Stanley is part of a 1,416-square mile Dark Sky Reserve and is the only Gold Tier dark sky reserve in the entire United States (with only 11 others on the planet!). Because of the limited light pollution in Stanley and the surrounding area, you’ll be able to see, with your naked eyes, planets, thousands of stars, and even the Milky Way on clear nights.
In the summertime, the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association hosts star parties for adults and kids alike, to learn a little about astronomy and to gaze up at the incredible heavens above.
Where to stay in Stanley, Idaho
Given that Stanley is an itty bitty town, it probably isn’t too surprising that accommodations are pretty few and far between and the available ones are, frankly, a bit on the outdated side.
That being said, if you’re in Stanley, you should definitely be out exploring the beautiful outdoors, not stuck in your hotel room- and there’s plenty of places that fit the bill as a clean and comfy spot to rest your head at night, like:
- Valley Creek Lodge: Spotless rooms, awesome customer service, and nice perks, like patios or balconies and kitchenettes in almost all of the rooms.
- Redwood Cabins: Rustic cabins along the Salmon River, with onsite kayaking and rafting.
- Mountain Valley Lodge: To be honest, I wouldn’t classify the beds here as comfy, but if you’re not particular about that, this motel has something quite special- its very own hot spring! Housed in a rustic barn overlooking the Sawtooths, this may just be the most Instagrammable spot in Stanley.
Tips for visiting Stanley, Idaho
- Be sure to consider the weather while planning your trip. Because most of the activities in Stanley are tied to exploring the great outdoors, it’s important to make sure you’re visiting in the right season to enjoy the activities you’re interested in.
For example, May and June are typically the best months for white water rafting, while high elevation hikes usually are not snow-free until about July. Starting in mid-October, Stanley has some fairly intense winters, receiving over 75 inches of snow each year and with the average low temperatures dipping below zero in December and January.
So December may be a great month for those hearty souls who want to check out that fresh pow on those sick Sawtooth couloirs, but probably not so good for kayaking on Redfish Lake.
It’s also worth noting that Stanley’s busiest in the summer and pretty quiet in the wintertime- so quiet, in fact, that lots of businesses have shortened hours or are even closed throughout the wintertime. As such, if you’re wanting to experience Stanley in full swing, I’d recommend visiting in the summer.
- Follow the Leave No Trace principles. Listen, Stanley has somehow managed to largely fly under the mass tourism radar, which somehow makes the town feel just a bit more magical. The land surrounding Stanley feels like true, pristine wilderness- let’s be sure to keep it that way by adhering to the Leave No Trace principles. These principles outline seemingly pretty common sense stuff- like pick up your trash, don’t carve your initials into living plantlife, rocks, and recreational structures, and refrain from harassing wildlife- to make sure places like Stanley can retain their natural beauty for future generations to enjoy.
What to Pack for Stanley, Idaho
I trust you have the socks and underwear portion of your Stanley packing list figured out, but here are some things you should be sure to throw in your suitcase before heading here:
- Hiking sandals: If you’re going to be visiting any hot springs, hiking sandals (I have these Tevas and Justin has these) are a must. They double as water shoes, protect your feet from stabby river rocks, and provide additional traction and support on wet and slippery surfaces.
- Water bottle: If you’re visiting Stanley and not getting sweaty outside, you’re doing it wrong. While you’re off adventuring, be sure to stay hydrated and bring along a refillable water bottle- Justin and I each have one of these giant Nalgene water bottles, which ensures we have plenty of water, whether we’re out on the trail or in the water and is better for the planet (and much easier on our wallets) than single use plastic bottles.
- Dry bag: From hot springs to kayaking and rafting, there’s tons of opportunities to have fun out on the water- and also to totally drop all of your expensive electronics into it. With a trusty dry bag, though, you can store all of your gadgets, keys, and anything else you don’t want to get wet, while you’re living out your best life on the water. As an added bonus, it’ll float on the water should your kayak or raft tip over.
Justin and I have this dry bag that you can wear like a backpack and we use it all the time, both for its intended purpose and also for a variety of other uses (like a bear bag while we’re backcountry camping or even a makeshift beer cooler for late night beach campfires!).
- Travel Towel: Water activities and quick-dry towels, like this one, go hand in hand, right? I’m constantly forgetting to bring a towel along for our adventures and usually have to get out of hot springs, a sad, sopping mess. Don’t be that guy!
- Offline maps: Cell signal in and around Stanley is quite spotty, at best. Download offline maps on your Google Maps app before heading here to make sure you’ll be able to get around, even without cell service. And if you’re a hiker, download trail maps on the AllTrails app ahead of time to ensure you have GPS tracking while out on any hikes.
I hope you love Stanley as much as I do- it’s seriously such a gem! Are there any awesome activities in Stanley that I missed? Sound off in the comment section below!