The Sawtooth National Forest near the Sun River Valley in Idaho is a perfect summer getaway for those who live on the West Coast. Why go to Sawtooth National Forest, you may ask? Not only does it lack the massive crowds that most other national parks have, but it also offers equally stunning hikes and activities.
Skip to the four day itinerary at the bottom if you want to go straight to the logistics!
Never heard of the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho? Me either.
My friend in Utah and I were looking for a nice halfway vacation in between Portland and Salt Lake City. When I opened google maps and scanned the geography, I saw that the Sawtooth National Forest was right smack dab between Oregon and Utah.
A follow up google search showed me some jaw dropping mountain ranges like below — and I was sold.
The Sawtooth Mountain Range — A Quick History
Tucked behind the towns of Ketchum and Hailey is the Sawtooth Mountain Range, which towers over the Idaho plains at a mighty high elevation of 10,000 feet. This area was designated a National Forest by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, and since then has served as a playground in the Mountain West with over 40 hiking trails and a host of ski trails in the winter.
This area of Idaho, locally known as “Sun Valley,” is similar to Park City in Utah: a ski haven for the rich and famous. A host of celebrities have multi-million dollar ski homes in this valley (supposedly Tom Hanks was there while we were in town) and use it as a base to glide down that winter powder on the mighty mountains nearby. In the summer, the high altitude makes it cooler than neighboring Boise, creating a perfect environment for escaping the heat.
Day 1: Getting to Sawtooth & Enjoying Boise
The closest commercial airport to the Sawtooth National Forest is in Boise, Idaho. It takes about two hours by car to drive from Boise to Hailey (the closest town). From Hailey it’s another one hour drive to reach the park entrance and many trails.
Husband and I set off early from Portland so we could make it to Boise by dusk and explore the town. If you haven’t heard, Boise is now the hippest city this side of the USA — in fact, the Boise area was listed twice as the fastest growing areas in the US in 2021. I wrote about Boise seven years ago before it was discovered, and even then the locals were telling me to keep this charming city a secret.
We only had a short time in Boise, but it was enough time to fully explore downtown and walk the famous Boise River Greenbelt — a public walkway that hugs the river and loops around downtown and the university. With a host of great restaurants, breweries, and an entirely walkable downtown core, it’s easy to see why Boise has become such an attractive hub for many Californians. It’s an intimate and warm environment that feels more like a small town than a city.
Day 2: Bench Lake Trail (7.8 miles)
Rested after a night’s stay in Hailey, Idaho and ready to go, we made the hour long drive from Hailey to our trailhead: Bench Lake Trail.
This hike is long but steady with an elevation gain of almost 1,200 feet. We chose this hike as it was rated ‘moderate’ according to All Trails and offered a variety of stunning views. The base of the mountain is filled with trees as you zig zag up the switchbacks, the midway point offers views of the long and narrow lake within the mountain, and the end of the trail presents you with hidden lakes at the peak surrounded with leftover snow from the long winter. I enjoyed this hike for the variety in sights and its steady pace of difficulty. It was a fairly straightforward walk with no scrambling required.
The most famous hike at Sawtooth National Forest is the Sawtooth Lake Hike at a whopping 10 miles. We opted to do Bench Lake Trail instead since it was a little easier on the legs. However, if you want to push yourself to summit the #1 trail and see the best of Sawtooth — then do it!
Day 3: Fishhook Creek Trail (4.4 miles)
Our wobbly legs were still feeling the 8 mile hike from the day before, so we opted for an easier trail on our second day in Sawtooth. Fishhook Creek Trail is short, sweet, and gives you a fantastic reward at the end — and for little pain on the trail. Not only is this hike entirely flat, but it’s only four miles long and gives you this stunning view at the end.
Husband said this view rivaled some of the hikes he did while vacationing in BANF, Canada. If you want stunning views without the suffering, then this is the hike for you. We packed a lunch, found a comfortable rock, and ate our humble sandwiches in awe of this magnificent view. It was fantastic.
Although we could have easily fit another hike in after Fishhook Creek Trail, we instead opted to head back to town early and explore Hailey and have a drink at Sawtooth Brewery. If you have a family with kids, there’s a lakefront beach that offers swimming, kayaking, and other water activities nearby. We decided to steer clear of the busy beach at this time (since it was pre-vaccine days) and instead headed back to town.
Day 4: Farewell Idaho, Hello Flat Tire
On our final day we left Hailey, Idaho bright and early and tried to make it back to Portland as soon as possible.
For those of you who don’t know, I absolutely hate driving — road trips included. While the road home offered stunning views of desert and forests, I put pedal to the metal in an effort to wrap up the drive as quickly as possible. As we were nearing the finish line home with an estimated one hour left on our journey, husband felt our car jolt. The car trembled with an intense wobble, like it was shocked by a bolt of lightning.
And then the tire blew up on the freeway.
Despite being in the middle lane and driving at high speeds, husband was as cool as a cucumber and gently steered our car off the freeway and out of harm’s way. After a few deep breaths, I then called our car insurance where a tow truck took both husband and I and our little Hyundai back home.
It was a scary end to a great trip.
Where to Stay in Sawtooth
We booked an Airbnb in Hailey, Idaho so that we could stay together with our friends. Hailey and Ketchum offer a host of airbnbs, but there are also a ton of high-end, mid-tier, and affordable hotel options in both towns. Summer is actually ‘low season’ for the sun valley, so hotel prices for a summer vacation should be more than affordable.
Both Hailey and Kethcum are about one hour away from the nearest trailhead in the Sawtooth National Forest, so if you are staying in hotel/airbnb accommodations be prepared to make that 2 hour round trip drive each day. If you’re hardcore and want to pack in as many trails as possible, then I suggest pitching a tent and backpacking around the park.
Final Words on Sawtooth
I really enjoyed Sawtooth National Forest because it felt like I discovered a hidden gem off the beaten path. The views in Sawtooth are some of the most stunning backdrops I’ve ever seen on my many hikes, yet the park itself is virtually unknown to most Americans. There is something satisfying about finding your own little empty nook of nature and taking in that view uninterrupted. Similar to my day trip to Tarragona, Spain; I felt like I could easily rest and relax here because I didn’t have to worry about battling crowds or adjusting my schedule to avoid the tourists. It was an authentic and up-close experience that left me at peace.
The Ruby Ronin’s Itinerary
Day 0: Drive to (or fly into) Boise and spend the night there. Use the evening to explore the downtown and spend the next morning strolling the greenbelt. Stay downtown so you can minimize on driving. Most downtown hotels offer free parking.
Day 1: After taking a leisurely stroll around Boise and eating lunch downtown, hop in the car and enjoy the two hour drive to Hailey/Ketchum, Idaho (it’s actually a cute drive that passes many farms and forests). Once in Hailey/Ketchum, settle into your accommodations, have dinner, explore the town, and go to bed early for the next day.
Day 2: Drive to the park and Hike Bench Lake Trail or Sawtooth Lake Trail (bring a pack lunch to eat, as there are no restaurants nearby the park/trailhead). These trails should take the entire day and get you home to Hailey/Ketchum just in time for dinner.
Day 3: Again, do the long drive to the park and start your day at Fishhook Creek Trail (and again, bring a lunch). After finishing the hike you can opt to do a shorter hike nearby, go to the Sawtooth Lake front to enjoy the beach or kayak, or head back to town to relax with a beer at Sawtooth Brewery.
Day 4: Head back home! But first, grab coffee and breakfast at the best coffee joint in Hailey, Idaho: Black Owl Coffee
PS: Ernest Hemingway is buried near Hailey, Idaho. Crazy, eh? Not only was he a great writer, but he had like 10+ cats. Mega bonus points in my book.
Have you been to Idaho?? Any other great road trips you recommend!?