As suspected, the Stanley Visitor Center in “downtown Stanley” is closed for the season. I ask one of Stanley’s 63 residents, a handsome man next door doing some carpentry, if he knows of any campgrounds in the area that are still open. He directs me down about a mile out of town to the lovely Stanley Ranger Station for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Much to my relief, the Ranger explains that are several campgrounds still open. They seem to leave one open per location until winter, so there is one at Stanley Lake, Petit Lake, Alturas Lake, and one along the river. I tell her I have my heart set on Redfish Lake, so she recommends Sockeye Campground.
Both Redfish Lake and the Sockeye Campground are named for one of the longest fish migrations in North America. During migration, fish swim up to 900 miles upriver to spawn, producing what was once 45% of all the Chinook and Sockeye Salmon in the Columbia River basin. The lake is named for the salmon’s brilliant red color during spawning season. However, the number of wild sockeye has dwindled over the years. They are now protected under the Endangered Species Act, therefore must be released immediately if caught.
Don and I use a set of walkie-talkies to communicate from rig to rig, so we make jokes as we circle through the Sockeye Campground about whether or not we will be able to find a spot….there is not another soul in the entire 23 site campground. We choose the two sites closest to the “Beach Trail,” or path down to the waters edge. The Sockeye Campground is beautiful, with level, paved sites, many which overlook the lake. Given that the campground is over 6,500 ft elevation, it’s a relief to see there is no snow. The campground is faced with the warming western afternoon sun, being on the eastern shore of Redfish Lake.
Having read Wheelingit Nina’s post this summer about getting up in the middle of the night to photograph the Sawtooth Range at sunrise, how could I resist the urge to do the same? If Nina got up at 3:30am and drove from Ketchum over the Galena Summit just to see the mountains in their “alpenglow,” surely I could roll out of bed and walk down to the waters edge at 7:30am, as the sun does not rise until 8am this late in the year.
My first morning in the Sockeye Campground, I get up before daybreak. My outdoor thermometer indicates it’s 28 degrees outside, and 50 inside, which makes poking my feet out from under the covers almost unbearable. I put on two layers of everything, and head down the Beach Trail. But it becomes evident early on that the morning sunrise is going to offer nothing but disappointment where photography is concerned. The low cloud layer is beautiful floating across the still lake, but it makes for dismal photographs of a hazy shade of winter. Still not a waste, as the sounds of the bird calls echoing across the lake interrupting the deafening silence, and occasional glimpses of the mountain peaks through the clouds is worthy of my effort. I take a few shots and head back to the Winnie to curl back up beneath my two layers of down.
The second day, however, is a different story. I awake unprompted in the early morning hours and look out my Winnie window to see star-filled skies. I don’t wait for sunrise, but instead stumble out of bed into the stillness and dark, breathing in cold crisp air followed by billowing exhaust from my lungs. I want to try some night shots of the stars.
The skies are completely clear over the Sawtooths, so I leave Don a note telling him I am heading toward the Mountain View Campground on Little Redfish Lake. This was Nina’s recommendation for best place to photograph the entire Sawtooth skyline. The little Mountain View campground is closed for the season, but being right alongside the road, it’s still possible to park and walk through the campground to the lake’s edge.
I wish I had the words to adequately express the feelings of sitting on a log, all alone, apparently not another person within the sound of my voice. I watch the show unfold, first the lavender shades of the snow covering the deep purple mountains jutting up against the cobalt blue sky. It’s so still, there is not a ripple on the surface of the Little Redfish Lake. Then, the sky lightens to a soft, pale blue as a warm glow appears over my shoulder. Finally, the first fluorescent orange shock of light punctuates the tallest peak, painting downward strokes until the entire mountain range is glowing. It’s as if the mountains are putting on a show, and I have the theater all to myself.
I have given a lot of thought to this late season trip down through Idaho, the compromises that come with traveling during the “off season.” I seem to have moved from one extreme to the other…not being able to find campsites due to overcrowding on the coast to not being able to find campsites because they’re closed for the season. Somewhere in between lies the sweet spot of September.
But of the extremes, which do I prefer? Definitely the off season, despite the trade-offs. Yes, it’s been cold. And there has been rain and even threats of snow. And it gets a bit frustrating finding out the places I planned to visit months ago closed the week before I got there. But if you look beyond the typical tourist attractions, the rewards are rich. Imagine having a place like Little Redfish Lake…or Payette Lake in McCall…or Kirkham Hot Springs…or Heaven’s Gate Overlook all to yourself. Many of my friends have asked “Isn’t it a little late in the year for Idaho?” Well, yes. But it has netted experiences I wouldn’t trade, and hope to never forget.
“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”
~ Henry David Thoreau