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Fun fact: way back when I was in high school, I took one of those “Where Should You Live?” quizzes, and one of the top answers was this tiny town called Stanley, Idaho. I looked up some pictures, and when I saw the scenery, I was like, “DONE. Totally living there when I grow up.”
Somewhat ironically, we were living in Michigan at the time, and our eventual move to Idaho wasn’t even on the radar. And even after we did move, I didn’t see Stanley with my own two eyes until just a few years ago, when Brett and I took the long route through central Idaho to visit my folks on the west side of the state. The entire drive along highways 75 and 21 was absolutely breathtaking, but neither of us could contain our excitement when we came around a bend to this view:
Since we were on a bit of a schedule, we only had time for a quick peek at one of Stanley’s most iconic attractions, Redfish Lake. Redfish is the largest lake in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and it’s a popular summertime destination for swimming, boating, fishing, and hiking. It’s also ridiculously picturesque.
We promised ourselves that we’d go back to camp there one day, and in May, we finally made it happen. It was an absolute blast. If you’re looking for a great place to soak up some nature, Stanley should be at the top of your bucket list.
Weather in Stanley
Stanley is actually the coldest spot in the continental US. It gets cold enough that Redfish lake will sometimes freeze over. Even during the warmest months, the average high is 79°F, and nights can still drop below 40°F. This means that Stanley’s more accessible season is fairly short (generally mid-May to Labor Day). We went the first day Forest Service campgrounds were open this year, and there was still ice on the lake and patches of snow throughout the campground. During the day, it was a beautiful 60°, but the nights did get pretty cold. Regardless of when you plan your visit, be sure to bring plenty of layers.
Where to Stay
Forest Service Campsites
There is no shortage of camping spots around Stanley, ID. The Forest Service manages a number of campsites, ranging in price from $14-$22/night for single sites to $108/night for group sites. Most of the campgrounds have tent pads, picnic tables, and fire pits, and the more developed sites have vault toilets and potable water.
If you’re planning on camping, many of the Forest Service campgrounds are first-come-first-serve through the end of May, and then open for reservations through the rest of the season. But since it’s such a popular destination, those reservations do fill up quickly. If you’re unable to secure a reserved spot and decide to try to snag a FCFS campsite, you’ll likely have the best luck early in the season and midweek.
There are a few campgrounds that remain FCFS for the whole summer (like Sockeye Campground, where we stayed), but the camp host told me that people will start lining up for available spots as early as 8 AM during peak season. There were plenty of available spots for us to choose from, but I was surprised by the number of people who were already there so early in the year. But then, many of our neighbors cleared out come Wednesday and we had most of the campground to ourselves for our last two days.
One thing to note if you go early in the season: while most developed Forest Service sites provide potable water, it gets tested at the beginning of every season. We did not have running water in camp for the duration of our stay because they were still waiting on the water test results, but we were able to fill our cooler at a water station behind the one gas station in town. The water is provided for free, but as a courtesy, you might consider making a purchase from Mountain Village, the company that maintains the water station, gas station, and mercantile. Stanley is a small town with only about 120 year-round residents, so supporting a local business is a great way to thank the residents for sharing the place they call home.
If tent or RV camping isn’t quite your style, there are plenty of options for roofed lodging available in and around Stanley. Redfish Lake Lodge is right on the lake and has fantastic views and a marina if you want to bring your boat. For riverside lodging, check out Redfish Riverside Inn or Lower Stanley Country Store and Motel. And aren’t the cabins at Triangle C Cabins just the cutest?
What to Do
I was still recovering from surgery, so we weren’t able to do any hiking, but next time we go, I definitely want to check out some of the trails. There’s a good range of easy to difficult trails in the area, so there’s something for every level of hiker. Check out these lists from Stanley Chamber of Commerce and Visit Idaho for some inspiration.
And while we didn’t do any hiking, we did enjoy a nice walk from our campsite down to the lake that took us along a habitat restoration area.
Stanley has a lot of wildlife ranging from birds to bears and everything in between. We saw a moose and a bald eagle on the drive up and enjoyed watching the ground squirrels zipping along the logs around our campsite. We didn’t see any bears, but there were “bear aware” signs everywhere and we locked our food and smellables in our truck at night. We had ospreys and a flock of Sandhill cranes fly right over us, and on our last night, we heard loons calling across the lake. But perhaps our favorite wildlife encounter of the trip were the shameless scrub jays who would perch in the trees by our campsite and beg for scraps. (But no, we didn’t feed them—at least not intentionally. I did catch one of them stealing food out of Maisie’s bowl before she finished her breakfast. I made sure to pack up any leftover kibble quickly after that.)
From river rafting on the Salmon River to taking a boat out on Redfish Lake, Stanley is a water sport lover’s dream destination. If you don’t own a boat but want to get out on the water, you can rent motorboats, kayaks, canoes, and stand up paddleboards from Redfish Lake Lodge marina. And if you’d like to get away from motorized watercraft, you can enjoy a quieter lake experience at Stanley Lake, where only human-powered boats are allowed.
You can book a trail ride at Redfish Lake Corrals. They offer hourly or full day trail rides for a variety of skill levels.
If you’re a braver soul than I am, you can visit Stanley in the winter and enjoy a variety of winter sports, including cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, or ice skating on an outdoor rink.
If all you want is a stress-free, no-frills vacation to get back to nature and forget about the rest of the world for a bit, Stanley is perfect for you. We honestly didn’t plan any activities for our visit and just enjoyed sitting around the campfire, walking around the lake, and reading. It was absolutely blissful, and I’d highly recommend it.
We’ve heard lots of great things about the restaurants in Stanley, but we decided to do our own cooking. We did a few of the obligatory camping meals and desserts (hotdogs, breakfast mix, roasted marshmallows, dutch oven cobbler), but we also tried a few new-to-us recipes that were fantastic. We had to tweak some of them to work over a campfire, but these recipes were definitely keepers:
- Easy Salmon and Potato Foil Packet Dinners (we used pre-seasoned salmon for even easier prep) and Caramel Apple Crumble from Averie Cooks
- Sausage and Potato Foil Packets from Damn Delicious
- Biscuit and Gravy Ring from Spicy Southern Kitchen – We didn’t cut up the biscuits and just layered them on top of the gravy in our dutch oven. Worked great!
We were also careful to adjust the recipes so that we wouldn’t have leftovers, since storing them would be difficult.
Food Prep Tips
Since we camped for four days without electricity, we had to plan our meals carefully to avoid food spoiling. We packed our food into two coolers lined with big ice packs, with all of the ingredients for the first two days in one cooler and all the ingredients for the last two days in the other. Then we didn’t open cooler #2 until day 3 so that the food inside would stay cooler longer.
I measured and mixed all dry ingredients at home before we left, packing them into small Snapware containers and Stasher silicone bags. I labeled each container or bag with some masking tape with the recipe name and step (if the recipe required mixing ingredients at different times) and packed them with any non-chilled ingredients in small tupperware bins organized by meal.
Cast Iron Cooking
We loved using our Lodge Dutch Oven and thrifted cast iron skillet for cooking. Clean up is made much easier if you line your cast iron with tin foil, but if you don’t want to do that, cast iron is super easy to clean. Simply boil some water in the pan to release any food stuck to the sides, scrape it clean, set back on the fire to dry, then reseason with some cooking oil.
Brett and I have amassed a small collection of plastic dishes from the thrift store that are a permanent part of our camping kit. We also picked up a few plastic bins from the thrift store to use as wash and rinse basins. We used Campsuds concentrated soap for washing up, and it was easy to get our dishes clean with just the tiniest bit of soap.
Make It Easy to Pack Up
Because there are bears in the area, plan on locking up your food and smellables at night or any time you leave your campsite. (This includes any pet food and water bowls, dishes, and cleaning supplies.) We used a big gray tote to pack most of our food and food prep supplies so that we just had to move a few things into the cab of our truck at night for safe keeping.
Bringing Your Pet to Stanley
This was Maisie’s first camping trip with us, and she had a blast! She loves playing with sticks and pinecones, so camping in a forest was heaven for her. If you’d like to bring your pet along on your visit to Stanley, here are few things to keep in mind.
Lodging v. Camping
If your goal is to stay on Redfish Lake, camping is going to be your only option. Redfish Lake Lodge has a strict no-pet policy, but all of the Forest Service campgrounds allow pets. If you opt for roofed housing during your stay, try Mountain Village Resort, Redwood Cabins, and Lower Stanley Motel.
There are ticks in the area, so talk to your vet about tick medication for your pet. And if you do find a tick on your furry friend, make sure you know how to remove it safely. We picked up a pack of easy-to-use tick removal tools before our trip.
At Forest Service campgrounds, dogs are required to be on a leash or tether at all times. We got a tie out stake and 20′ cable for Maisie so that she had more room and freedom to explore around our campsite than her regular leash would allow.
Just be aware that if you have a big dog, tie out stakes can be pulled out of the ground, especially if the ground is soft. Next time we go camping, I think we’ll invest in an overhead dog line like one of these.
Dogs are also allowed on most beaches around Redfish Lake, but they must be leashed. There are also a few areas where they aren’t allowed, so be sure to watch for signs stating whether or not your pup is permitted. There is also a dedicated dog beach behind the visitor’s center on the north shore of the lake.
And as always, remember to clean up after your pet to keep the area clean for other visitors.
Have you ever been to Stanley, Idaho? Share your tips for first time visitors in the comments below!
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