Where we’re at: I’m jumping ahead to share my trip in late August 2020 with Visit Idaho. I’ll jump back into chronological time eventually!
And PS: Did you know Wander Women On Demand is live? If you missed either of our virtual retreats, or ever wished you could gift one to a friend, don’t miss this opportunity to enjoy our signature yoga classes, meditations, journaling prompts, and workshops at your own pace!
Confession: I had no idea what to expect from Stanley, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town north of Sun Valley, which made it all the more magical to spend a day discovering. Unlike Sun Valley, I’d never even heard of Stanley — it had no reputation that preceded it, at least for me.
Which perhaps made our day trip there all the more delightful. From jaw-dropping views of The Sawtooth Mountains, hot springs all to ourselves, the cutest little mountain eateries ever, and the perfect high altitude lake to paddle board on, there was little more two Gem State-lovin’ gals could ask for.
Ironically, it was here, in Stanley, the town I’d never heard of, that I really felt that surge of “ah yes, this is the Idaho I imagined.”
We woke up before sunrise in Sun Valley to get a full day in Stanley before pushing onward back to Boise. Going back to Boise via Stanley is the long route but dang, is it the scenic one. Normally I’d dread a day with nearly four hours of driving in it but the fact that we were breaking it up into two parts, and that the view from the window looked like this one, I was less than bothered.
The California wildfires were raging while I was in Idaho, and my personal guide slash bestie Katie constantly expressed shock at the obscured views in the distance. Having nothing to compare it to, I still thought the vistas were stunning — but later, comparing my photos to others’, I understood her dismay. By the time I’d returned to the East Coast, the smoke had reached all the way to New York. Climate change is terrifying, especially when you can see it with your own eyes.
Our first stop was one that I’d almost written off in my mind: soaking in Boat Box Hot Springs. Surely on this beautiful day, in this year where everyone was flocking to the outdoors, there’d be a wait for hours to get into this obscenely photogenic Idaho spot?
When we pulled over on the side of the Salmon River, I peeked over the edge of the banks and found, to my delight, there was just one group in the tub, and no one on deck. We waved to them, a group of girls sipping morning coffee with wooly hats on to combat the morning mountain chill, and nestled into the natural spring overflow on the riverbanks to stay warm — and stake out for our turn.
The hotspring fits just three or four people (even that is a stretch!), meaning each group that arrives gets it to themselves. The girls before us soaked for a long time, but we didn’t mind — we were pretty content just kicking around the river. And the timing turned out to be perfect — they ceded the box to us just as the sun peeked over the mountain tops and into this bend of the river valley.
The name of Boat Box Hot Springs, it turns out, stems from a past old wooden box tub that once sat in the same place we were currently soaking. After the river swept it away, a replacement was crafted from an old ocean buoy, and cables now hold it in place.
A pipe carrying water naturally heated by an underground spring can be placed to either add water to the “cauldron,” as we called it, or off to the side. There’s a valve if you need to drain some water out, and a plastic bucket tied to the side with string allows you to dump chilly river water in, creating your own bliss. Depending on when you visit and who was there before you, the tub may or may not be filled. If it’s empty, don’t stress — just fill ‘er up! If you’re planning to come this way, I’d also recommend a microfiber travel towel for when you pop out (it will be chilly!) and an insulated water bottle for sipping a cold drink in your hot tub (I’ll leave the contents up to you — wink wink!)
By the time we got in, there were two more groups waiting. The turnoff actually only holds space for a few cars (and needless to say do not park on the road if it is full), which made my nightmare scenario of a line of a hundred people unlikely. And everyone was chilled out, giving us plenty of space and waiting patiently. Still, we were glad we arrived early and on a Friday morning, rather than a Saturday or Sunday. Boat Box Hot Springs, for such a remote-looking spot, is actually very easy to access from the main road, under ten minutes from the heart of Stanley.
We took giggly photos, chatted about the day ahead, waved to a couple that passed by on a raft salmon fishing, relaxed our tired muscles, and marveled at our luck in being in such a beautiful place.
There’s something a little bit magic about Boat Box Hot Springs. Somewhere along the way, someone built this whimsical structure in this beautiful setting. Not because they hoped to profit from it, not because they planned to benefit from it. Just for the joy of it. It reminded me a bit of Burning Man, where folks pour time, money and soul into creative projects well, just ’cause.
We tried to honor their intentions by leaving the area the same if not cleaner than we found it, parking courteously, being respectful of the time of others who may be waiting to enjoy the springs, and avoiding any shampoos, soaps, or chemicals that could pollute the river or compromise the metal structure of the tub. And gosh, we enjoyed it.
And so, with a wave to those waiting for their own turn in the beautiful Boat Box, we were off to explore the rest of Stanley.
We drove slowly, enjoying the sight of the town we’d driven through in the dark earlier, drenched in sunlight. Our next destination was brunch at Stanley Baking Co, an institution in this part of Idaho.
While their namesake baked goods looked divine, I went for the Bear Breakfast Bowl with quinoa, poached eggs, seasonal veggies, and a coconut amino-tahini dressing. We also couldn’t resist an order of their cricket flour pancakes — which are made of exactly what you think they are. When in Stanley…?
So far, everything that Katie and my hosts at Visit Idaho had suggested for Stanley was divine — so I couldn’t pass up their final recommendation to check out Redfish Lake.
As we pulled up to the lake, I got a familiar feeling — despite having never been there before. With cabin rentals, a marina, a general store, and big beautiful lake beaches, Redfish reminded me of some of the state parks and popular lakes where I grew up in Upstate New York; a summer camp experience at your fingertips.
Katie and I mulled our options. The $20 pontoon boat tour, my first pick, was temporarily on hold for the summer. A hiker shuttle service, which I also found intriguing, shuttles passengers to trails on the other side of the lake for $14 one way or $19 round trip — plus a $3 fee for dogs. Be still my heart!
Horseback riding, mountain bike trail riding, and salmon fishing were all on offer. And there were rentals of any and everything from kayaks to canoes to motorboats and beyond. I was starting to see why Katie said the cabins here filled up so early each summer.
We settled on renting stand up paddleboards for the bargain rate of $15 an hour each. Idaho is refreshingly affordable. And then we were off!
The water was so clear, I felt like I was in Tahoe! I took my Canon G7x underwater housing out on the water with us and was intrigued by trying to capture an over under shot of the lake and the unique surroundings.
The results were artsy and fun (can you see the outline of the bottom of my paddleboard in the above shot?) though not exactly what I envisioned. This day is probably what inspired my eventual GoPro Dome Port purchase!
We may not have stayed long, but I’m so glad we spent the afternoon at Redfish Lake. What a gem I never would have expected, nestled up in the Sawtooth Mountains.
It was time to make our way back to Boise. But first, a caffeine fuel stop. We paused at Peaks & Perks, which had caught my eye earlier, and grabbed coffee and chai lattes for the road.
Of course, I never met a regional ice cream I didn’t like, and so needless to say I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try huckleberry ice cream from the state fruit of Idaho! It was an incredibly fitting goodbye to our short but oh-so-sweet time in Stanley.
Stanley reminded me there’s a whole big country out there in my backyard that I still have to discover. I have lots of big US cities still on my bucket list (Seattle! Portland!) but what’s fun to think about is all the small towns I don’t even know I’m going to uncover someday.
Give me some hints — what are a few of your favorites?