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We love Idaho. Although we have visited Idaho before for unforgettable river rafting trips on the Main Salmon and Middle Fork, in 2009 we combined rafting with other outdoor pursuits and had a fabulous time. My husband and I were traveling with our 14 year old son and 12 year old daughter. We only scratched the surface on what you can see and do in this magnificent state. I will share our exploits, but encourage you to explore even more of this great state. We flew in to Boise. Our itinerary included time in McCall, Stanley, and a river trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
McCall is a 2 to 3 hour drive from Boise on Highway 55 depending on traffic. 21 miles outside of Boise we stopped in Horseshoe Bend for lunch at the Longbranch Restaurant and Saloon. Highway 55 is the Payette River Scenic Byway, where the Payette River meets the Highway in Horseshoe Bend. The drive north along the road is through a narrow canyon and the river is gorgeous, with lots of rapids. Just south of Cascade the road opens up into a wide river valley all the way to McCall. We stayed at the Hotel McCall, which is right on Highway 55 by Payette Lake. We loved McCall. There are endless outdoor activities (boating, canoeing, hiking, biking etc.) and the town itself is very laid back.
There are numerous coffee shops (Moxie Java, Mountain Java) and eateries (Crusty's Pizza, Toll Station Pizza, Fogg Lifter Cafe, Bistro 45) and ice-cream everywhere.
We were very pleased that we chose to stay at Hotel McCall. The hotel itself was very nice, newly renovated but with a lot of character. We stayed in a 2 BR condo in the new wing, overlooking the bocce courts and Bistro 45. The beds were comfortable, the kitchen was very well-equipped (although we did not use it much), and we loved having a washer/dryer. While breakfast was only a continental breakfast, the management seems to be listening to guest recommendations, as they have added a toaster with English muffins and mini-bagels. The granola was also excellent, and chock-full of nuts and dried fruit.
Our kids enjoyed the pool, and the lobby and library were very inviting. The hotel has an extensive movie collection on DVD and guests can borrow them at no charge. Beyond the hotel itself, we loved being in downtown McCall. The hotel is directly across the street from Legacy Park, which is a very well maintained local park with a sandy beach, grassy knoll, fountain and swimming area. Coffee shops, ice-cream shops, restaurants a retail shops are all within walking distance, as are bicycle rentals and a marina for boat rentals. As we sat in the courtyard of Bistro 45 the first evening waiting for our grilled Panini sandwiches to arrive, listening to a guitarist play and watching our kids play bocce ball we knew we would enjoy our stay in McCall.
Stephanie and Chris Woods run Backwoods Adventures LLC. Located 8 miles up the Warren Wagon Road by the North Shore of Payette Lake, they offer a wide variety of rental canoes and kayaks for some fun, tranquil paddling on the Payette River. They are open from 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM. Rental prices vary - we rented a canoe for $40 for a half day and 2 glass-bottom kayaks for #30 each. You can also rent by the hour. There are a few places along the river with sandy beaches that make good picnic/swimming stops. There are also occasional interpretive signs describing the river and local wildlife.
Ponderosa State Park encompasses a lovely peninsula that juts out into Payette Lake. We rented mountain bikes at Gravity Sports in downtown McCall and went biking through the park. The charge was $15 per person for a half day ($20 for a full day). The ride from downtown McCall was under 2 miles and very easy. People arriving on bike or foot do not need to pay an entrance fee for day use (day-use for cars is $5.00 per vehicle). We stopped at the Visitor's Center for a map. The first part of our route was very easy - a paved road leading to a paved bike trail that started opposite the activities center and wound around behind the campsites along the lake shore. The bike trail emerged on a road which became a dirt road. We stopped to admire Lily Marsh and then tried the Huckleberry Bay bike trail. We were told that most bikers took this trail in the opposite direction. It was a very pretty but challenging single track trail through the woods that had many narrow sections, turns and roots, and some steep uphills. I have never mountain-biked before, so spent a lot of time pushing my bike. This section is only mile or so (maybe 1.3) so it was still a lot of fun. An experienced single tracker would probably find it mildly challenging.
Our next stop was Stanley, Idaho, population 71 (according to the Visitor Information website). The drive from McCall took about 3 hours. We followed Highway 55 back toward Boise, then in Banks, we went east on the Banks-Lowman Road, also know as the Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway. Gorgeous Route! This 33 mile road connected with Highway 21, also known as the Ponderosa Scenic Byway. FYI -- the drive between Stanley and Boise on Highway 21 is a 3 hour drive. Stanley is a very picturesque but very small town on a high plateau at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains and alongside the Salmon River. Be sure to eat at the Stanley Baking Co. and Cafe and the Bridge Street Grill. We alos enjoyed several shopping trips to Riverwear.
Redfish Lake Lodge is like comfortable camping. We love camping, so this was perfect for us. If you are expecting an upscale wilderness lodge, you may want to change either your plans or your expectations. Most of cabins are not actually on the lake, but are fairly close together along a dirt road that leads away from the lake. There are also lodge rooms in the main lodge. We stayed in Kokanee Suite #37, which is one half of a duplex cabin. This cabin would have been perfect for just my husband and me. The cabin appeared to be either new or newly remodeled. The Tempurpedic mattress was wonderfully comfortable, the tile bathroom and shower was clean and spacious, and there was a mini-fridge. Fishhook Creek ran behind the cabin. Unfortunately, when I made my reservation, this suite was the only room left. The person taking our reservation gaily announced she could set up the room with 2 cots for our children. What she failed to mention was that the cots were really aerobeds, and to set them up we would have to move the furniture (bench seat and chair) into the entry cubicle, and we would be left with no walking space at all, so that we would have to climb over each other to reach the bathroom at night. To their credit, when I complained to the manager on duty that we weren't made aware of this in advance, she listened amiably and offered to compensate us with a dinner on the house. Also, the aerobeds leaked air so by morning they were almost fully deflated. Housekeeping did replace them and the new ones were fine. I'd recommend testing them early if you are using one.
We were at Redfish during a cold front, so we were more worried about being cold at night than whether or not there were fans. Luckily the cabin had radiant heat in the floor, so that the cabin stayed warm, even down on the floor. One morning it was 24 degrees and the daytime temperatures were high 50s to low 60s.
The lake itself is beautiful. The beach is lovely and the water has a sandy bottom with nice shallow sections to start. The lawn is a lively place. We were there for the live music both on a Friday and Sunday night. There were Frisbee games, children running around blowing bubbles, people spread out on blankets - a very pleasant atmosphere.
The wait staff in the restaurant is all young people. I found them to be very friendly, so even when they made an occasional error (forgetting to bring a meal for example), it was easy to forgive them. The food was acceptable, but I'd recommend getting into downtown Stanley for some variety. Breakfast at the Stanley Bakery and Cafe in Upper Stanley was excellent (they also serve dinner), and we also enjoy a burger at the Bridge Street Grill in Lower Stanley, where you can sit on the deck overlooking the Salmon River.
In Stanley, we booked Sawtooth Mountain Guides for a full-day of hiking and climbing the Super Slabs, also known as Redfish Slab. If I had known the details ahead of time, I probably wouldn't have booked this trip, but I am SO GLAD I DID. My suggestion is to read no further -- book your trip and find out for yourself! No climbing experience is needed; you just need a moderate level of fitness and the guts to try it. If you feel you must know more, then read on.
I describe the Super Slabs climb as "unbelievably awesome in a totally terrifying kind of way". Keep in mind that I have never done any rock climbing beyond a 30' climbing wall in a gym for a birthday party. There were 4 of us - my husband and I, my 14 year old son and 12 year old daughter.
We met one of our guides at Redfish Lake Lodge in the morning and tried on climbing shoes. Then we took a short boat across the lake. If you have never been to Stanley before, be aware the temperature can vary quite a bit. The day we climbed there was a cold front, which meant below freezing temperatures at night, and maybe hitting 60 F during the day (which was perfect for climbing). Layers, a fleece top, a hat and a windbreaker are all good items to bring, especially for the morning boat ride. Bring your lunch and a water bottle. There is a spring at the base of the slab so one water bottle per person is plenty.
From the lake, we hiked for about an hour or so to the base of the slab. It is not a difficult hike, but with Redfish Lake at 6550' and being from CT where we happily live a sea level, I was breathing hard to start out. Our guides were Taylor and Drew. The rest of the morning we were in training. We practiced walking on a short section of the lower slab first in our regular shoes, and then in our climbing shoes, so we could feel the difference. We learned to put on our own harnesses, how to tie our own figure 8 knots and clove hitches, and how to manage the ropes. We then learned how to belay and how protection pieces are used. After that, we paused for lunch, and started our climb.
This is a 7 pitch climb (which I learned referred to the length of a rope and how many times the ropes needed to be set up to make it to the top. The slabs are not vertical - but they cover 600 vertical feet over a distance of 1000 feet, and some of the sections are pretty darn close. My husband and daughter climbed together with Taylor, using a single rope with a cow's tail. My son and I climbed with Drew, each with our own rope and with Drew belaying us both. With each pitch, Drew scrambled up the slab like a billy goat and told us when we were "on belay". We then started climbing to the top of the pitch. On the steeper sections, my son belayed Drew as he climbed. Drew would set protection pieces (to act as anchors of sorts) as he went, and my son would remove them as he went by.
Reaching the top was thrilling, and we were able to hike down to bottom around the perimeter of the slab. Our guides were experienced, very professional and fun. I liked that they taught us the basics and didn't just tie all our knots for us (no worries - they did check them carefully). Sawtooth Mountain Guides offer a wide variety of guided adventures, including instruction. I highly recommend them.
My all-time favorite family vacation is the 6 day rafting trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River with Mackay Wilderness River Trips. We have done this trip 3 times - and each one is uniquely wonderful. (I also highly recommend the trip on Main Salmon, especially for families with younger children). Depending on when you go, the put-in is either at Boundary Creek (mile 0) or Indian Creek (approximately Mile 25). Since this trip was mid-August, we put in at Indian Creek. During the day we floated down the river, often encountering fun rapids (up to Class III and IV). Options included riding as a passenger on an oar boat, paddling with a guide on the paddle boat, taking a single or double ducky (inflatable kayak) or, on this trip, a 9 foot paddle boat that fits 2 - 3 paddlers plus a guide. You arrive at a different camp each afternoon, where tents are already set up for you. The guides cook amazing meals. Every day brings unbelievable scenery, new opportunities for visits to hot springs and short hikes, and a new campsite, until you finally reach the takeout at the confluence of the Middle Fork and the Main (around mile 96). Six days without phones, motorized vehicles and electricity does wonders for the soul. This particular trip had the perfect convergence of perfectly clear water, perfect weather, and a group of guides and guests that really clicked. Older children enjoy the thrill of kayaking, meeting new friends, and telling stories around the campfire. I highly recommend this trip!
From the takeout we took a bus to Salmon, Idaho, where our rental car was waiting for us (shuttled up from Stanley). The drive from Salmon to Stanley is along Highways 93 and 75 -- the Salmon River Scenic Byway -- and it takes approximately 2 1/2 hours.
IRMR is an upscale but wonderfully rustic vacation ranch about 10 miles south of Stanley. Prices include breakfast, a packed lunch and dinner. Accommodations are either cabins (mostly duplex) or lodge rooms. The rooms are simple, and there are no phones, clocks or TVs. The wide porch of the lodge, where you can sit in rocking chairs sipping complimentary iced tea, coffee or lemonade, offers an incredible view of the Sawtooth Mountains. The main lodge has a fireplace which is used on chilly evenings and mornings, a giant chess table, a large supply of board games and a bucket of balls and Frisbees. They even have guitars that the guests can use! You can borrow a mountain bike to ride around the ranch - or to go to the lower ranch where the hot springs swimming pool is located. You are also free to use the laundry at the lower ranch, which was a big plus. There are a number of lovely hikes right on the property, and the ranch offers numerous guidebooks and maps for planning hikes in the area.
For breakfast you can have eggs, pancakes, French toast, has browns etc. plus there is a continental spread with breads and fruit, yogurt and cereal. Breakfast is served from 7:00 ? 10:00 (with hot breakfast available from 7:30 on). One disappointment was that the lodge would not accommodate us with any breakfast food on our last day when we had to leave at 6:15 AM to catch a plane. Sandwiches, fruit and cookies are available at breakfast to pack for lunch. The dinner that was served in the Dining Room was delicious. On Saturday there is an outdoor BBQ. The meat was overdone (we arrived toward the end of the BBQ hour) but the sides were good. On Mondays they take you in a horse-drawn wagon to a Dutch Oven cookout. This was delicious!
We enjoyed staying in the lodge for the convenience. The downside is that the walls are not well insulated for sound between the hallway and adjacent rooms. This didn?t bother us, but if you are a light sleeper I?d recommend a cabin. The other very minor annoyance was the shower head in the bathroom. I am 5?-7? and had to duck to get my head under it.
Pioneer Outfitters is located on the property of the Idaho Mountain Ranch, and offers 1 ½ hour, 3 hour, full-day and multi-day rides, as well as specialized adventures. We chose to do a full-day ride up to the casino lakes. Pioneer Outfitters trailered the horses to the trailhead at Boundary Creek (a few miles north of the Ranch) where we met them at 9:30 AM. The horses were well cared for, and good with guests. Our guide, Ben, was excellent. The 2 1/2 hour ride to the lakes took us up high with incredible views of the Sawtooth Mountains and Redfish Lake. When we reached the ridge, we also had great views down the other side of the White Cloud Mountains and another range. We had a leisurely lunch by one of the lakes. You can fish here, too, if you like to fish.
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