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The Sawtooth, a biped's paradise

With a woodsy cabin to retire to each night, hikers find their bliss in a sprawling playground of mountain lakes and majestic scenery.

August 10, 2003|James T. Yenckel | Special to The Times

Stanley, Idaho — Like any proper ranch, Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch keeps horses, but this place, in the heart of central Idaho's immense Sawtooth National Recreation Area, is also a haven for two-footed creatures. My wife, Sandy, and I, both avid hikers, spent a week here, mostly on our own two feet, exploring the trails of an area that's less frequented than the big national parks.

We did succumb to the equine allure one evening, climbing aboard a wagon drawn by Belgian draft horses that hauled us over sagebrush foothills to a sunset cookout. A starry sky twinkled romantically, and, true to our best-foot-forward philosophy, we hoofed it back to our cozy log cabin in this sprawling mountain wilderness.

More than 40 jagged 10,000-foot peaks resembling Wyoming's Grand Tetons rise abruptly from the valley floor of this U.S. Forest Service preserve, and 300 glacially carved lakes dot the steep slopes through which 750 miles of trails thread their way. As a veteran hiker, I rank the Sawtooth as one of America's great outdoor playgrounds.

We certainly came to play, although we didn't plan to scale those awesome summits. We are city dwellers and, frankly, semi-softies, despite our accumulated trail miles. The snow-tipped peaks, called the Sawtooth Range, provided the majestic backdrop for our outings. Mostly we trekked less challenging paths, content to make a sparkling alpine lake or a sun-drenched meadow our modest goal.

No matter. After each hike, we returned to our cabin on the 1,000-acre Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch as exhilarated as if we had topped Everest. Our reward: a soothing soak in the outdoor hot spring pool. Later we sipped wine on the lodge's big front porch, listened to a cowboy singer and watched the orange sun disappear behind the mountains. This is our style of hiking.

Donning sturdy boots, we plunged into the wilds toting a trail mix lunch and plenty of water. We could hardly resist this surprisingly untamed land. Dusty little Stanley (population 70 or so), nine miles north of the ranch, is the biggest town within 50 miles. Trout streams fed by summer snowmelt cascade through meadows thick with wildflowers. The famed Salmon River gets its start here. From the Salmon's slender valley, where the ranch sits, or high above on a mountain trail the wide-open spaces seem limitless.

Civilization in the wilderness

As early as 1911, the distinctive Sawtooth Range -- the peaks really do look like the sharp teeth of a saw -- was considered for national park status. That estimable idea failed because of local opposition, but perhaps the next best alternative was achieved. In 1972, 754,000 acres were designated a Forest Service recreation area, which means some commercial uses are permitted. About a third is officially classified as wilderness, open only to hikers, backpackers and horseback riders.

Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch is the Sawtooth region's most appealing lodging. A dozen years ago we spent another week here. We hoped nothing had changed, and it hadn't. The main lodge building, an artwork in log architecture, looked just as we remembered it. Stanley's main street, Ace of Diamonds, remained unpaved. The only evidence of urbanism I detected was sleek Meadow Creek Spa, which features resort-style body wraps, hot stone treatments and aromatherapy massages.

The ranch's pine lodge (four rooms) and the cabins (eight duplex, one single) were completed in 1930. During construction, logs for the lodge and cabins were cut on the property, and a crew of 60 camped on site, including a mason, who crafted floor-to-ceiling stone fireplaces, and a blacksmith who forged door latches and other wrought-iron trim. The original log and hickory furniture and porch rockers still adorn the place, which began life as a private club. "What you see now," a brochure says, "is what was here from the first."

In 1977 it began welcoming dudes. For us city folks coming to the country, it's a nice blend of elegant and rustic, wonderfully apt for the ranch's majestic setting. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an early example of Idaho's guest ranch industry.

Our cabin (No. 14), tucked beneath shady pines, had two comfortable hickory chairs (one rocker, one armchair), a large dressing room with plenty of storage and a stone shower in the bathroom. A handmade quilt covered the bed, and wood was stacked high alongside the fireplace. Even in summer, overnight temperatures can drop into the low 30s, so the fireplaces come in handy. A fire blazed daily at breakfast in the lodge dining room.

This is a ranch for independent folks. Almost any outdoor activity you want is readily available, usually without the summer throngs. Take your pick: mountain climbing, mountain biking, kayaking, fishing, sailing, trail riding, swimming, white-water rafting, sailboarding, water skiing on two of five lakes accessible by motor vehicle, bird-watching and wildlife spotting.

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