Creeks and Peaks: Fly Fishing and Hiking in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14258A, Lodge


  • Fish in the famous rivers, streams, and alpine lakes of Idaho on three days
  • Hike along wilderness trails that take you right to the feet of the soaring Sawtooth peaks on two days
  • Enjoy fly fishing and hiking at any level -- beginners are welcomed and encouraged


  • All lodging in large, comfortable vacation homes on the Salmon River with views of the magnificent Sawtooth Range
  • All meals made from a hearty, healthy menu
  • All fishing and hiking guided by your trip leaders


DatesSep 7–13, 2014
StaffTom Brown

Trip Overview

The Trip

“The spectacular beauty and varied world-class recreational opportunities [of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area] are arguably unmatched anywhere in the world." -The Sawtooth Society

Eighty million years ago the earth convulsed as two mighty tectonic plates collided. During this collision the continental plate slid under the oceanic plate. Along the seam created by the impact of the two plates, in an area that would later become known as Idaho, colossal pressures were released and gigantic plumes of molten magma began rising to the surface of the earth’s crust.  As the plumes of magma rose they lifted up the overlaying crustal material above them. The magma cooled to become the Idaho Batholith -- the very roots of most of the state. Part of the overlaying material that was lifted up by the plumes of magma became the 40-mile-long Sawtooth Mountain Range.

Ever since the Sawtooth Mountains were lifted up they have been shaped and sculpted by nature’s relentless forces. Rain and the combined effects of repeated freezing and thawing eroded the mountains. Glaciers ground and polished them as they gouged out over 400 alpine lakes. And the swift violence of earthquakes re-shaped them. Today these crenellated peaks are considered by many to be the most stunning mountains in all of the United States.

As the Sawtooth Mountains grew, rivers and streams carved them. The Salmon River, designated as a Wild and Scenic River, has its headwaters in the Sawtooth Mountains and runs for 425 miles before it joins the Snake River. The Salmon is one of the finest fresh water fisheries in the country: it’s famous as a fly fishing destination and is the culmination of a 900-mile salmon migration -- the longest in the continental United States. 

Life abounds along more than 3,000 miles of streams that drain the mountains, making this pristine watershed a hotspot for diverse flora and fauna. At least 25 species of fish are believed to occur here, along with numerous other amphibians and insects that spend all or most of their lives within the water. The area's forests, valleys, and alpine ridges are home to over 300 species of wildlife -- mountain goats, elk, moose, wolves, bears, sand hill cranes, and more. The presence of eight threatened or endangered species attests to the important role the area plays in conservation efforts. Flora includes pine and spruce forests, fir, and alpine tundra. Lodgepole pine forms nearly monotypic forests in lower elevations of the wilderness, while Douglas fir and quaking aspen can also be found. Wildflowers and berries are prolific. 

Recognizing the importance of this magnificent land, Congress sought to protect it from development by creating the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) in 1972. The U.S. Forest Service was directed to manage the area in a way that would restrict development, while simultaneously respecting private property rights and allowing for varied uses of the land. In 1964, the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Johnson and became the framework for designating wilderness areas. Under this Act, the Sawtooth Wilderness was created in 1972. The wilderness area covers 217,000 acres and includes almost 300 miles of backcountry trails. You will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by walking on the backcountry trails of the Sawtooth Wilderness. 

All levels of fly fishing and hiking experience are welcome. The trip is suitable for beginners who want to learn new skills, and it's also suitable for intermediates who want to polish existing skills. At the start of the trip we'll feature how-to workshops. Then we’ll fish on the rivers, streams, and lakes within SNRA.  Note that all of our fishing will be catch-and-release using barbless hooks or hooks with crushed barbs. Finally we’ll hike on breathtaking trails in the Sawtooth Wilderness.

When you join this trip you’ll venture into the SNRA to personally experience its overwhelming beauty.  You will witness its geological history, wade in its crystalline streams, fish and swim in its alpine lakes, and walk on its glacial moraines. When you return home at the end of an unforgettable week you'll have a new appreciation for what John Muir meant when he said, "Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own." 


Day 1: Arrival Day

Your Creeks and Peaks adventure begins this afternoon with your arrival at our vacation homes located a few miles outside the historic small town of Stanley, Idaho. After you’ve settled into your room, you’re invited to enjoy a refreshing welcome reception on the riverfront deck where you can relax after your travels, meet the rest of the group, and learn more about our week together at the orientation meeting. Following our meeting, we’ll have a short indoor fly fishing clinic followed by an outdoor casting clinic on the lawn at the river’s edge. Then we can step off the lawn into the Salmon River to put new casting skills to work. (Please see notes about fishing licenses in the “Equipment” section below.) 

Our first meal together will be our kick-off dinner at 6:00 p.m. We will observe the Sierra Club’s tradition of sharing in the preparation of meals and the clean-up afterward. After eating dessert and after washing dishes, the rest of the evening will be free to enjoy as you please.

Day 2: Highlight Day

After a hearty breakfast we’ll get an early start on a full day of fishing and hiking that will highlight the week to come.  Today’s fishing spot is on a sparkling creek so beautiful that it’s easy to get distracted and forget about your fishing technique. Conway Bowman, who fishes all over the world as the host of the Sportsman Channel’s Fly Fishing The World program, was interviewed in the Spring 2013 issue of Trout magazine, the journal of Trout Unlimited.  The interviewer asked Conway, “If you had one day to trout fish anywhere in the world, where would it be?”  He replied by naming the very creek we’ll be fishing today.

After a morning of fishing we’ll have a creekside picnic lunch and then drive to a nearby trailhead for our first hike. This first hike is the perfect way to begin our hiking agenda: it offers the first opportunity to experience close up the grandeur of the Sawtooth Mountains. It’s a short hike with little elevation gain, and you’ll walk through several ecosystems -– sagebrush, mixed forest of aspen and pine, and meadow.   

On the way to our vacation homes we’ll stop in “downtown” Stanley to pay a visit to the iconic McCoy’s Tackle Shop. You’ll have the chance to meet Jane McCoy, the Queen of fly fishing on the Salmon River. You can shop for favorite local flies, check out the latest gear, or pick up a souvenir. After dinner, we will be visited by a guest speaker from the Sawtooth Society, who will tell us about the environmental challenges faced by the SNRA and what’s being done to manage them.

(Today’s hike stats: 4.4 miles out and back; 242 feet of elevation gain; highest elevation 6,800 feet.)

Day 3: Alpine Lake Day

“Many people go fishing all their lives without knowing that it's not the fish they're after.” – Henry David Thoreau. Today we hike to one of the hundreds of alpine lakes formed by the glaciers over 10,000 years ago. The lake sits in the Sawtooth Wilderness at the base of the mountains, and is home to several varieties of trout. The hike will take two to three hours, then we’ll spread out along the shore to test our fishing skills. Perhaps we’ll catch and release some of the rainbow and cutthroat trout that live in this alpine jewel. Perhaps we won’t, and that’s okay; simply standing on this lakeshore surrounded by the early autumn splendor of this wilderness is our real reward. After a lakeside picnic lunch, some of our group may be tempted to go for a swim. We’ll enjoy some more fishing time and then begin our return hike.

After dinner the rest of the evening is free to enjoy as you please.

(Today’s hike stats: 10.0 miles out and back; 1,720 feet of elevation gain; highest elevation 8,430 feet.)

Day 4: River Day

“The Salmon River defines the splendor and indomitable spirit of Idaho’s wild heart.” – Fly Fishers Guide to Idaho. Although today is called “River Day,” it will offer many more activities than the planned fishing on two famous rivers:  the Salmon and Yankee Fork. We begin with visiting a favorite stretch of the Salmon River, where we’ll wade and fish for cutthroat, rainbow and bull trout. We’ll eat our picnic lunch on the shore and begin our next adventure.

The Salmon River contains the longest salmon migration in the continental US. Part of that migration turns out of the Salmon’s main channel and goes up the Yankee Fork, which flows through the tribal lands of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes.  We’ll stop at a salmon research facility on the Yankee Fork, where we’ll learn more about how the salmon migration is being helped by a fish and game department research project.  Although the peak of the migration will have passed, we may still see salmon that have been trapped for weighing, measuring, and tagging. 

Evidence of past gold mining activity is seen all along the Yankee Fork. Gold was discovered here in 1870. Panning was followed by placer mining, and then tunnel mining. In 1940 a massive gold mining dredge was built; it measured 112 feet long, 64 feet high, and weighed in at almost 1,000 tons. Today it sits on the edge of the Yankee Fork where it’s been converted into a museum. A mile or two up the road from the dredge is the ghost town of Custer. Custer was home to a large mill that processed the gold ore extracted from the river and valley, but when the gold ran out the town shut down. After leaving the site of the salmon project, we’ll step back into history to discover the height of gold mining fever.  First we’ll stop at the Gold Dredge Museum for a short self-guided walking tour, then we’ll drive up to Custer for a walking tour of about one mile through this very picturesque old town.  

When we leave Custer we’ll stop along the Yankee Fork to wet our fishing lines before we return to our vacation homes. This evening we’ll have a short clinic about different ways to use hiking poles and alternative lacing patterns for our hiking boots, then we'll walk to a nearby restaurant where we can enjoy dinner on the riverside deck. NOTE: this dinner IS included in the trip price; however, alcoholic beverages are not. 

Day 5: Hiking Day

Now we switch gears: the fishing tackle can be put away and the hiking boots taken out. Today’s destination is a pair of alpine lakes at an elevation of 8,000  feet. We begin by following the course of a bold creek running with transparent water. Next we zigzag up a ridge to walk on top of a glacial moraine overlooking one of the largest glacial lakes in the SNRA. Then we’ll leave the moraine to enter the forest until we reach the end of the trail at the lakes. We’ll devour a picnic lunch lakeside, take plenty of photos, and then make our way back to the trailhead. 

After dinner at our vacation homes the evening is free to enjoy as you please.

(Today’s hike stats: 8.1 miles out-and-back; 1,202  feet of elevation gain; highest elevation 7,760 feet.)

Day 6: Hiking Day

The final day of our adventure includes a shuttle by motor boat to the trailhead. At the scenic overlook, our heads will be on swivels as we take in views of jagged peaks, delicate granite spires, hanging valleys cut off by ancient glaciers, cirques that gave birth to those glaciers, and the massive bulks of Mt. Heyburn, Grand Mogul, and The Saddleback.

Our picnic lunch will be beside a cascading stream that rambles and rumbles around huge flat rocks that are perfect for sunning, napping, and relaxing. Swimming holes abound. We’ll make our way back to the trailhead in time to meet the shuttle boat. If we arrive early at the dock, there will be an opportunity to swim in the cool, clear water of the lake.

Tonight we’ll have our farewell dinner. Following dessert, the evening will be free so you can begin packing up and reluctantly preparing for your departure in the morning. 

(Today’s hike stats:  7.1 miles out-and-back; 1,002 feet of elevation gain; highest elevation 7,400 feet.)

Day 7: Departure Day

“He loved the warm sun of summer and the high mountain meadows, the trails through the timber and the sudden clear blue of the lakes. Best of all he loved the fall … the fall with the tawny and grey, the leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams and above the hills the high blue windless skies.”  - Ernest Hemingway, who lived nearby in Ketchum, writing about Idaho. 

It is hard not to be affected by the mystical beauty of the Sawtooth Mountains. After a week of experiencing the creeks and peaks of the Sawtooths, perhaps all of us will have an appreciation and clear understanding of Hemingway’s words.

This morning’s breakfast is our final meal together and check-out time is 10 a.m.  When you pack your suitcase, be sure to leave room for new friendships and special memories. Safe travels.



Getting There

Please plan your travel to arrive by 2 p.m. on Sunday arrival day.  Please note that participants are responsible for getting to and from our base in Stanley, Idaho, and for getting from our lodging to our fishing spots and trailheads. Closer to the trip, the leader will send a trip roster to facilitate carpools from Boise to Stanley. At the start of the trip, carpools will be formed to ensure that everyone gets from our lodging to our daily activities. All trailheads and fishing spots are approximately 30 minutes or less from our lodging.

Note that this trip takes place at high elevations: our lodging is at 6,250 feet and the highest point on our hikes is almost 8,500 feet. It would be a very good idea to arrive a day or two early to acclimatize. If you decide to arrive early, the trip leader can provide information about lodging options and costs. 

If you fly - Boise (airport code BOI) is the best choice. BOI is served by Southwest, Delta, US Air, United, Alaska, and all major car rental companies.  Here’s the link for airport information: Please do not purchase airline tickets until your trip application has been approved by the trip leader.

If you drive - Stanley is located about 130 miles northeast of Boise and takes about three hours of drive time. The suggested route from Boise is I-84 east to Idaho Highway 21, which ends in Stanley.  It’s a beautiful drive through the mountains and along several rivers, but the road is two lanes and very winding with few services along the way. Take your time and drive carefully. 

Accommodations and Food

Accommodations – We’ll be comfortably lodged in two large vacation homes.  Home #1 has been dubbed “Trout House."  This house will be trip headquarters, where the trip leaders and a part of our group will be housed and where meals will be prepared and served. 

Home #2 has been nicknamed “River House." It will house the remainder of our group and be the site of most social activities because of its fabulous riverfront location.

All lodging will be in shared rooms with shared baths. Couples traveling together will have a room to themselves; single men and women will share rooms with same-sex roommates. Depending on the number and type of reservations, single supplements may be available for additional cost, but availability of single supplements cannot be guaranteed.

Trout House is located across the street from the Salmon River and offers stunning river and mountain views. The  three-level home has five bedrooms along with a bunk area. There are two and a half baths, two living rooms, and two kitchens, making this the perfect home for a group of our size. The home features a spacious wrap around deck large enough for everyone to gather and enjoy the view and a barbecue. Amenities include a propane BBQ, wood-burning fireplace, a propane stove, picnic table, dishwasher, washer & dryer, WI-FI internet, TV/VCR/DVD combo with satellite service.

River House is set on the grassy banks of the Salmon River. The riverside location is complimented by a gazebo at the water’s edge and a separate deck whose pilings are set in the river bed itself. River House has four bedrooms and two full bathrooms. Most bedrooms have river views. It also features a large kitchen with an island, a washer and dryer, a wood-burning rock fireplace (with firewood provided), and free WiFi Internet.

Rooms will be assigned in the order that trip applications are approved by the trip leader. Rooms in River House will be assigned first, and then rooms in Trout House will be assigned. Please make your reservation early and send your trip application forms promptly to insure that you will have priority of room assignments. 


All meals, except one dinner, will be homemade and served family style. All menus are hearty and healthy, and vegetarian options will be available for those who prefer them. Most food preferences can be accommodated; please be sure to notify your trip leader about your preferences. Pre-trip communications with approved participants will include a survey about dietary preferences. All lunches are picnic lunches that will be prepared by participants each morning and eaten on lunch breaks taken in the field.  One dinner will be in a popular local restaurant.

Trip Difficulty

Beginners are encouraged on this trip, however everyone who joins the trip should be physically active, in good health, and have an above average level of fitness. Those who are physically prepared for the trip will have the greatest level of enjoyment.

Because our fishing activities will require us to wade in creeks, rivers, and lakes, it is a requirement of this trip that all participants know how to swim and are comfortable swimming in outdoor conditions. 

Hiking will take place on established trails that are well maintained. Trail surfaces range from wide,  smooth, and almost flat to narrow, rocky, and very steep. We will hike over gravel, steep, rocky terrain, sometimes over boulders, and make small stream crossings. In some areas, footing may be unstable. Occasionally the trails will cross mountain sides with steep drop-offs. Hikes will vary from 4-6 hours, with a lunch break around noon. You will need comfortable, well-broken-in hiking boots. We plan to hike at an average pace of two miles per hour, but there will be ample opportunity to take photos and breaks along the way. Trail descriptions such as “easy, moderate, and strenuous” have been omitted from this brochure because they are subjective.  In the itinerary above, the distance and elevation gains, and general trail conditions have been described. Keeping in mind the average pace, the length, and elevation gains of the hikes, it’s expected that each person can judge their individual ability and whether these hikes are appropriate for them.

Keep in mind that we will be hiking at elevations up to almost 8,500 feet where the air is thinner than at sea level, so more exertion is required. It is very dry in the Sawtooths; bring water bottles that will carry at least two liters/quarts total. Plan to drink lots of water. Temperatures will range from the 60s-70s during the day to the 30s at night. We have had thunderstorms, rain, and light snow on past trips.

All hikes and programs are subject to change depending on a variety of factors including trail conditions, permits, weather and availability of speakers. Please understand that your leader will try very hard to meet this itinerary. However, please come with an open mind and a flexible attitude.

This is a group hiking experience, which is very different than hiking or fishing by yourself, and group preferences will take priority over individual preferences. The group can only hike as fast as the slowest person. Tardiness is inconsiderate. If an individual is ten minutes late for our departure to a fishing hole, then everyone else loses ten minutes of their precious vacation time. Participants owe it to themselves, and to the other hikers, to be on time and in good physical condition. Together we’ll have a great time.

Equipment and Clothing

  • Wading shoes, sandals, or boots. You can use wading footwear that is specifically designed for fishing, but footwear similar to Keen water shoes will do. Note that many brands of specialty footwear specifically designed for fishing are no more expensive than Keens, but are more functional -– especially in providing more secure footing on slippery rocks. Waders are optional, however the water we’ll be fishing in can be very cold.  If you’re uncomfortable in cold water, or if the weather is cool, then waders will be very helpful.

  • Day pack, fanny pack, or vest, to carry your fishing gear on fishing days, and your lunch, water, and clothing on hiking days.

  • Rod, reel, leader, line. This equipment does not need to be expensive. Here's a link to fly fishing starter kits that cost under $50:

  • Tippet, flies. Starter kits usually do not include tippet (a part of the leader) and only include a couple of flies. You will need to purchase tippet, which is inexpensive, and additional flies. A list of the most appropriate flies to buy will be sent closer to the start of the trip. Here’s the link to an affordable source of tippet and flies:

  • Idaho fishing license:  $12.75 for first day, $6.00 for each additional consecutive day. You’ll need a license for a minimum of four days: days 1, 2, 3, 4 of the above itinerary. Please do not buy a fishing license until your trip application has been approved by the trip leader.

  • Eye protection is required to protect eyes from sharp fish hooks. Polarized sunglasses are the preferred form of eye protection because they have the added advantage of helping to see through the glare of the sun on the water.

A detailed equipment list will be sent closer to departure date. 



Relevant conservation topics will include challenges and solutions affecting SNRA, human impact on salmon migration, the role of fire in the forest, and the geology of the mountains.  With the exception of one presentation by a guest speaker, conservation topics will not necessarily be discussed in a formal setting. Rather the trip leaders will offer “Conservation Moments” that are inspired by the activities taking place during each day.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.



Tom Brown has a lifetime of outdoor experience. He's a hiker, fisherman, paddler, bicyclist, and skier. Tom is certified in Wilderness First Aid, he's active as a trail maintainer on the Appalachian Trail in his home state of Virginia, he's an Ambassador for the World Fishing Network, and a certified snow skiing instructor. Tom made his first fly rod. He started with an eight-foot stalk of bamboo and finished with a 6'6" 3/4 weight split bamboo rod that he calls the Tenaya Taper. He has a passion for sharing the outdoors with others and believes that the best way to instill a spirit of conservation is simply to spend time with nature. Tom invites you to heed John Muir's advice: “Keep close to Nature's heart...and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” Come, spend a week in the woods with Tom.

Assistant Leader:

Richard Johnson

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