My father-in-law grew up in central Idaho. For years, he talked about a special place in the mountains he would visit in the summer. He promised that he’d take his grandsons there someday to show them his favorite place as a child. A few years ago, he made good on that promise as we joined him for a trip to Idaho’s stunning Redfish Lake.
Redfish Lake is located in central Idaho, high up in the Sawtooth Mountains. The easiest access is off of Highway 75 out of Ketchum. Many people are aware of Ketchum and its famous ski area, Sun Valley. But not many venture north of Sun Valley into the Sawtooth Range. About 60 miles north of Ketchum, you’ll find Redfish Lake. And let me tell you, it’s worth the drive. Here are eight reasons you should visit this amazing mountain lake.
1. It’s One Of The Most Picturesque Alpine Lakes In The United States
The surface elevation of Redfish Lake is 6,500 feet, so you’re well over a mile high when standing at the lake’s edge. This generally means that the lake is comprised entirely of snow melt. And that means that the lake is generally crystal clear with no real sediment entering it from other waterways. As my father-in-law said as we stood at the edge, “This entire lake was a snow drift yesterday”.
As a result, the lake temperature is typically very cold. I last visited in mid-July, and my 24-year-old son was the only one brave enough to venture in. I have a photo of him out on the dock, having conquered his quest to swim in the 59-degree water from the shore.
As you can see from the photo, the views are incredible. Crystal clear water, mountain peaks as your backdrop, pine trees bordering the entire lake shore. While my son was swimming, my wife, her father, and I sat on the lakeshore staring at all the beauty.
2. The Lodge Will Take You Back
You may have visited lodges like this back in your childhood. Built by the Forest Service and staffed by college kids who live in the area and work there for the summer, it’s an old, rustic lodge right on the edge of a mountain lake with summer activities that seemingly never end.
Perhaps your family vacationed like this back in the day. Load everyone up in the car, head into the mountains, and stay at a mountain lodge or cabin while you made the most of all the activities -- boating out on the water, sitting around the campfire singing songs, or participating in nature walks to look at the latest flowers in the surrounding meadows.
That’s the attraction of Redfish Lake Lodge. When you enter the lodge’s main lobby, it’s immediately apparent that it remains more or less exactly the same as it was when it opened in 1929. There are rooms to rent upstairs, a restaurant, and a massive front porch with rocking chairs overlooking the lake. Perfect for enjoying your coffee in the morning or reading your book in the evening.
3. You Might Catch A Glimpse Of The Sockeye Salmon
The name Redfish Lake comes from, well, the red fish in the lake. These are sockeye salmon, a variety of salmon that turns bright red during spawning season.
Redfish Lake used to be overrun with sockeye salmon. Idaho Fish and Game estimates that in the late 1800s, 25,000 to 35,000 sockeye salmon would migrate to the Sawtooth Valley and its surrounding lakes -- the largest being Redfish Lake -- annually. This run involves more than 900 miles of river and a 6,500-foot climb, but, as you might have heard, salmon are determined to return from the ocean to spawn where they were born.
With the construction of dams, that number (25,000 to 35,000 a year) dwindled until 1992, when Idaho Fish and Game could only locate one sockeye salmon, dubbed Lonesome Larry, who had returned to Redfish Lake. This led to a breeding program (and “salmon ladders” -- structures that allow the salmon to get around man-made dams), and sockeye now return to Redfish Lake each summer to spawn.
4. You Can Take A Sunset Wine And Appetizer Cruise
All different kinds of boats are available for rent on Redfish Lake. You can rent a paddle boat and paddle your way around the lodge, beach, and marina. You can rent a kayak and explore further. You can rent a pontoon boat and explore the entire lake.
Or, if you don’t feel like piloting a boat, you can reserve a sunset wine and appetizer cruise around the lake. You will need reservations in advance, which can be obtained here; then all you have to do is show up, enjoy your glass of wine, munch on the appetizers, and be taken around the lake to see all of the incredible sights.
Why is getting out on the water important? In my opinion, the best view of the mountains surrounding the lake are had while out on the lake. And what better time to enjoy them than at sunset with great wine and great food?
5. You Can Rent A Cabin
The Lodge is not the only option for lodging at Redfish Lake. There are also multiple cabins available to rent. So if you’re looking for a more isolated, secluded alpine lake experience, perhaps renting one of the cabins is the way to go.
There are cabins sized for all types of groups. The Honeymoon Cabin -- not just reserved for those on their honeymoons -- is a two-person cabin with a private deck facing the lake. The Executive Cabin is sized for two couples to stay together. And the Lake Cabin is the perfect family getaway. This cabin has several rooms and sleeps up to eight. The Lake Cabin also has a wrap-around porch with enough seating for your entire group.
If sitting at your lakeside cabin under a blanket sipping your coffee is your idea of a great trip, then this is your spot. The views are hard to beat.
6. It’s A Photographer’s Dream
Truly adventurous hikers vacationing at Redfish Lake take the 17.5-mile loop trail around the entire lake. 17.5 miles was a little too much for me, so we drove around the lake and took in the sights from several of the picnic areas along the trail and road.
On that drive, we encountered many photographers. One told us that this is her favorite place to take pictures in Idaho. She had set up a tripod near the lake and was trying to capture the reflection of the mountains in the still water.
Really, any place around the lake is excellent for photography. The colors make it so. Blue water, deep green pines lining the shores, majestic mountains in the background, often snow-capped. Even if you’re not a professional photographer, you’ll want to capture the views to share with friends and family later.
7. There’s Camping Right Next To The Water
Perhaps you’re visiting Redfish Lake in your RV. Or maybe tent camping is your cup of tea. If so, Redfish Lake has many campgrounds for you.
First off, know that the campgrounds are maintained by the Forest Service, not the Redfish Lake Lodge. While most every activity at Redfish Lake is maintained by the lodge (the marina, the cabins, the restaurant, the gift shop, the lodge itself), camping is separate. The lodge website, however, does outline everything you need to know about camping near Redfish Lake.
There are nine campgrounds around Redfish Lake, varying from primitive, tent-only sites to pull-through RV sites. See the link above for the differences. Almost all of the campgrounds are surrounding the lake and right next to the water. The one we stopped at on the southeastern shore of the lake left my wife and I making a deal that we would definitely come back and bring our tent, if only to open it and see the amazing view of the mountains in the morning.
8. The Drive To Get There Is Amazing
We drove to Redfish Lake from Ketchum/Sun Valley on Highway 75. There are highways from the west and the north that reach the Sawtooth Valley, too, but the drive from Sun Valley to Redfish is by far the most traveled. And there’s a viewpoint along the journey that is nearly as picturesque as Redfish Lake itself.
When you leave Ketchum, you begin a climb up into the mountains. As you get near the peak, it’s your typical mountain highway with switchbacks and curves. Then you’ll reach Galena Summit and begin your climb down the other side. But don’t miss the Galena Summit Overlook, a very large pull-off area just past the sign that tells you that you’ve reached the summit.
We stood and took pictures at this overlook for at least 15 minutes. You’re looking at the entire valley below with the massive Sawtooth Mountains hovering in the background. And if you squint, you can follow Highway 75 -- a highway that takes you to (and from) one of the most spectacular alpine lakes in the country -- as it snakes its way down into the valley.