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Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway

Lakes, Rivers, Hot Springs and Bonus Byways

Gail Newbold | Photos by Kevin Kiernan Sep 12, 2019

It was 5 p.m. at a dock in front of the Redfish Lake Lodge when we hopped an outboard motorboat to the opposite side of Redfish Lake to hike. We hadn’t intended to start so late, but the day ran away with us. We’d taken our time enjoying the Sawtooth Scenic Byway, stopping in Sun Valley for lunch before arriving in the mountain town of Stanley and checking into the Redfish Riverside Inn.

The sky was cloudy, the air cool, and we were the only passengers onboard the shuttle boat — weather and hour of day evidently discouraging other lake visitors. With trepidation, we climbed off the boat on the opposite shore and watched it pull away, leaving us alone in the Sawtooth Mountains with no way back until its return two hours later.

The trails and sandy beaches were completely empty. As we wandered, increasingly awed by the beauty, the complete isolation began working its magic. The underbrush on the Lily Pond Trail was ablaze in reds and oranges. Views of the tree-lined shores called for repeated photos. The cascading waterfall further up the trail was mesmerizing and soothing. With time to spare before the boat’s return, we settled in at the Redfish Inlet’s sandy beach at dusk, basking in the utter silence.

It’s tough to pick the one quintessential highlight on a trip full of them, but on this excursion to Idaho’s Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, that evening topped the list.

waterfall in the trees
Waterfall on Redfish Lake Creek
Lily Pond at Redfish Lake
Lily Pond at Redfish Lake
boat on a lake
Redfish Lake shuttle takes guests to Lily Pond and waterfall hikes.

Three or Four for the Price of One

Our plan was to drive the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway on Highway 21 in Central Idaho between Stanley and Boise. But since scenic byways are in such rich supply in this part of Idaho, you can actually enjoy three or even four for the price of one: For example, you can drive the Sawtooth Scenic Byway on Highway 75 north from Shoshone to Stanley. If you’re coming from the east, take the Salmon River Scenic Byway on Highways 93 and 75. And once on the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, divert at Lowman onto the Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway (on the Banks-Lowman Road) — giving you some of both byways on your way to Boise.

Redfish Lake Delights

With crystal-clear water and sandy beaches, Redfish Lake has long been a favorite of many, and it’s easy to see why. In addition to the usual delights of swimming, boating, biking, fishing and hiking, Redfish Lake offers horseback riding and fine but casual dining at Limbert’s inside the 90-year-old Redfish Lake Lodge in Stanley.

You know how it feels when nothing on a menu sounds good? The opposite is true at Limbert’s, where everything sounds (and actually is) amazing. Try the baked-to-order cornbread with candied jalapeno, honey butter and crispy pork belly; baked Brussels sprouts with Nueske’s bacon, spicy aioli, soft poached egg and preserved lemon; Idaho potato and corn chowder; steelhead trout with charred asparagus, Idaho heirloom beans, sofrito and artichoke puree; and the seasonal Huckleberry creme brulee.

Grand Mogul Peak
Grand Mogul Peak
cabins next to a river
Redfish Riverside Inn
Stanley Museum and Sawtooth Mountains
Stanley Museum and Sawtooth Mountains

Redfish Riverside Inn

If rivers trump lakes for you, book your Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway stay at the Redfish Riverside Inn located alongside the Salmon River, famous for its premier whitewater rafting. Spacious decks and patio furniture make relaxing outside to the sounds and sights of the river this property’s most charming amenity. You’ll want to eat all your self-made meals here, plus linger over cups of tea, coffee, hot chocolate, Diet Coke — anything to keep you out on the deck. Should you head inside, you’ll find high beds, small kitchens and big windows.

Leisurely Day on the Ponderosa

In spite of feeling anxious to get started on the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway in the morning, we lounged on the deck with steaming mugs of hot chocolate, gazing at the Salmon River. Then made another stop at the Stanley Baking Company & Cafe for a delicious breakfast popular with locals and tourists alike.

The Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway takes you first through the Salmon-Challis National Forest and then the Boise National Forest past ponderosa pines, mountains, rivers and too many campgrounds to list. Stop often to wander in the trees, gaze at the Payette River and enjoy the solitude.

Keep your eyes peeled for Kirkham Hot Springs at the Kirkham Campground at mile marker 77 — easy to miss because the signage isn’t readily apparent from the road.

These hot springs are without a doubt some of the most picturesque you’ll ever see. They’re accessed by a set of wooden stairs where geothermal pools of varying temperatures await. Small steaming waterfalls cascade down the cliffs and the beautiful South Fork of the Payette River rushes below. The scene and mood are otherworldly.

ice cream shop
Sarsaparilla Ice Cream Parlor
old cemetery in the woods
Idaho City Pioneer Cemetery

Historic Idaho City

Just after the hot springs, the byway becomes even prettier and very winding (Dramamine alert) until it reaches the historic town of Idaho City — combination ghost town, tourist attraction with tiny shops and eateries, and a place where people live and work — many commuting to Boise 40 miles away.

It’s fun to stroll up and down the dirt roads, stopping in at shops like Simply Fun and Sarsaparilla Ice Cream Parlor. A resident told us he moved to Idaho City to help his brother and stayed. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “You find beauty wherever you go. I think God did a pretty good job.”

The highlight for us was the fascinating Idaho City Pioneer Cemetery with an estimated 3,000 graves scattered through 40 timbered acres. Fewer than 300 of the historic graves are identified. Of these, only 28 individuals died of natural causes.

Its remote forest setting makes a visit feel like a treasure hunt. There are no groomed lawns and the paths between grave markers aren’t always distinct. Each unique and crumbling marker feels like a find. “Just one more,” you’ll keep saying, rambling deeper into the woods.

It’s hard to tear yourself away, but fortunately, leaving has its own rewards. Back on the final stretch of the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, you’ll drive past the beautiful 12-mile Lucky Peak Reservoir before reaching Boise.

End of the Road a New Beginning

The Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway ends in Boise (if you began in Stanley) but feels like a continuation of your journey because the city has its own set of historic and natural charms. First-timers are surprised at the beauty — especially the Boise River flowing through the middle and the 30 miles of greenbelt on both sides plus parallel trails.

The Hampton Inn & Suites Boise Downtown is the perfect starting point for a host of nearby adventures on foot. Julia Davis Park with its Rose Garden and zoo, Boise Art Museum, historic Memorial Bridge, Boise River and the Greenbelt are almost across the street. A few blocks away are the Basque Museum and Basque market, the Idaho Capitol, Eighth Street dining mecca and much more.

As you end this trip full of highlights, you’ll agree the hip and charming city of Boise ranks as one of them.

boats on a lake
Lucky Peak State Park
people by a river
Kirkham Hot Springs
food on a plate
Breakfast at Stanley Baking Company and Cafe

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