The ancestral home of two Indian tribes, the Shoshones and Flatheads, the Salmon and Bitterroot valleys witnessed an influx of adventurers in the 1800s — from trappers, mountain men, and gold and silver prospectors dreaming of riches to cowboys hoping only to survive the winter. No matter who has come and gone, the remote back country remains an inspiring realm, with roiling rivers, craggy peaks, and far-off vistas that lure you ever onward.
Looking just as jagged as their name implies, the Sawtooth Mountains form a striking backdrop for Stanley, a throwback to the Old West, where the citizens take pride in a relaxed boots-and-jeans lifestyle. The Salmon River, the longest free-flowing waterway in the lower-48 states, passes right through town.
Rte. 75 follows the river, which snakes out of the Stanley Basin between high cliffs. Douglas firs and other conifers predominate in the forests, but aspens appear here and there as well, brightening the mountains’ evergreen slopes with autumnal splashes of gold.
Once in the town of Sunbeam, you’ll notice the ruins of an old dam. The only such structure ever built on the Salmon River, it was erected in 1910 to supply power for a nearby mill and mines. Since it prevented salmon from swimming upstream to spawn, however, residents agreed to circumvent it, and in 1934 a well-placed charge of dynamite once again unleashed the river’s flow.
Partially unpaved forest roads lead north out of Sunbeam to two early gold-mining camps, Custer and Bonanza. Both communities boomed when rich veins of ore were discovered around 1875, and both were all but abandoned by 1911. Sightseers can explore the ghost towns, where dance halls once resounded with rollicking piano tunes. A museum in Custer’s old schoolhouse tells the story of those earlier days.
The drive to Challis, a small town with lodging and services, offers many opportunities to observe the region’s wildlife. At Indian Riffles, for example, an overlook on Rte. 75 offers views of spawning salmon in the fall. The road then heads east and north, never straying far from the river.
Along the way, you might spot dippers, aquatic birds that resemble chubby brown wrens. Overhead, golden eagles sail across the sky, their graceful flight a nearly perfect symbol of the freedom one finds among the Rockies. The area is also inhabited by bighorn sheep, which winter on the alpine slopes, and mountain goats, sure-footed creatures that roam the uppermost cliffs at will.