Ketchum is a city located in the Wood River Valley of Idaho, about a mile from the famous skiing areas of Sun Valley and Bald Mountain. The site was a popular resort for some celebrities throughout the mid-20th century, including author Ernest Hemingway, who lived in the area during his later years. The area is a mecca for hiking, climbing, paragliding, mountain biking, kayaking, rafting, flyfishing, shopping, dining, and wellness.
The area is large enough to offer a variety of hotels, lodges, and home rental options, so sleeping accommodations are reasonably available and affordable, especially during the shoulder seasons. Likewise, the restaurant and tavern scene is varied, the food quality is excellent, and the pricing is surprisingly less expensive than in other mountain resort towns I have visited. Unfortunately, if you’re an early riser, there are only one or two places in the valley to go for coffee. Other breakfast locations generally do not open until 8 am, so keep this in mind if you are planning for an early start. Restaurant dinner reservations are highly suggested during the high seasons.
When I visit an area like Ketchum, I’m not spending time shopping or visiting indoor venues. However, Ketchum has museums, galleries, shopping, hot springs, spas, botanical gardens, and other similar attractions, should you wish to be inside during the summer or prefer more sedate activities. I like to be outdoors and active, so this is where I will focus my blog.
Overall, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is a 730,000-acre national recreation area overseen as part of the Sawtooth National Forest, offering a wide variety of seasonal outdoor recreation activities for visitors. The recreation area was established in 1972 and is operated by the United States Forest Service, encompassing the national forest’s Hemingway-Boulders, Sawtooth, and Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds units. It is home to the headwaters of the Salmon River and several hundred smaller alpine glacier lakes, including the Redfish, Pettit, Stanley, Yellow Belly, and Sawtooth Lakes. Overnight campground facilities exist throughout the park, along with two ranger stations. In addition, the area has endless hiking trails that cater to any level and duration.
Stanley is a small town I visited about an hour north of Ketchum that is a gateway to some excellent hiking in the Sawtooth NRA. You cross the Sawtooth mountains through the Galena Pass and drive through the magnificent Salmon River valley to get there. I suggest you stop at Galena Pass because you get an incredible view of the upper Wood River Valley. The summit is a significant drainage divide between the Salmon River and Snake River drainages. You can also see the Salmon headwaters canyon and the stunning Sawtooth Mountains. Trust me; it is worth the stop.
Stanley is beautiful and sits in the middle of towering peaks. Think of Stanley as a more remote, less touristy Jackson, Wyoming. The Stanley Basin is the focal point between the Sawtooth, White Cloud, and Salmon River Ranges. The Stanley Basin is all about outdoor recreational sports and adventures.
There are endless options for hiking trails near Stanley. The trails around Stanley are well maintained. There are hundreds of alpine lakes and waterfalls, so your hikes can have a pleasant destination. More popular spots include Alice and Sawtooth Lake if you prefer to avoid crowds. If you like to hike, I suggest you download a trail app like AllTrails to narrow down your options and give you directions and trail maps.
The Ketchum area is renowned for its river flyfishing. Silver Creek Outfitters is the premier place to gear up and find a guide. They are located on Main Street in downtown Ketchum and have the best in longtime, local knowledge and the finest gear. Following are the popular fisheries in the region.
Warm Springs Creek is a small freestone creek outside town, offering easy access and a sense of remoteness. Warm Springs Creek is a tributary that meets the Big Wood in Ketchum. The upstream portion provides a feeling of remoteness a few miles out of town via an accessible dirt road. The creek runs through wildflower meadows and holds stocked rainbow trout and a population of wild rainbows that often exceed expectations in size. Warm Springs supports bugs similar to those found in the Big Wood and thus fishes very similarly. Mule deer, elk, and moose frequent the valley floor, and there’s basic camping right along the river for those looking for a simple getaway.
The Big Wood River is an in-town classic and a dream for all flyfishing levels. The Big Wood provides immediate local access to miles of classic, riffle-run-pool trout fishing. It is the “bread and butter” watershed; the broken surfaces of the water cater well to the first-timer or anyone still cultivating their stealth and technique. That said, swift water and structure make plenty of technical fishing for the more advanced angler. The rainbow trout, averaging 12-14 inches, sip eagerly at sporadic mayfly hatches throughout the summer days, often leading into prolific evening caddis hatches. Winter midge hatches will test and improve the willing angler’s skills and patience. Nymphing is productive year-round and can often produce larger fish. A recent influx of massive brown trout in the river will keep you on your toes, no matter the month.
The Lost River is a 40-minute drive over the scenic Trail Creek Pass and will take you to the high-desert solitude of the Lost River drainage. Anglers can spend days wading the emerald tributaries and the main river with the Pioneer Mountains at their back. While hatchery rainbows are abundant around stocking access points, fish are relatively scarce. That said, the vividly colored wild cutthroat you’ll inevitably run into are of the highest quality. Fish exceeding 20 inches aren’t uncommon, and they’ll usually willingly eat an enormous foam dry fly. Covering water is the game, as the twisting river frequently drops into small canyons and constantly attracts curiosity about what lies around the next bend. The watershed holds a small number of Arctic graylings, a rare commodity in the Lower 48.
Silver Creek is about 40 miles south of Ketchum and Hemingway’s favorite spot to fish. Often hailed as the “crown jewel” of spring creeks in the Rockies, this river gains its fame in the upper section on land owned by the Nature Conservancy. The organization welcomes the public to test their skills and patience while casting to an abundance of rainbows and brown trout. Songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, moose, deer, and elk frequent the watershed and are often part of the landscape. However, the upper section is a popular fishing spot, so you will not have solitude here. It is also heavily silted, so you need to tube drift it. If you are looking for seclusion and prefer wading, I suggest you fish the lower sections as there are numerous easy access points with plentiful waterfowl, raptors, moose, and elk.
Among the highlights of fly fishing around Ketchum is the Salmon River; its headwaters are about an hour’s drive north of town. At the foot of the Sawtooths, visitors can walk and wade or drift boat down the steep, boulder-strewn river as they cast stonefly imitations to wild cutthroat trout. Anglers will also tie into bull trout that can reach 30 inches. However, an appealing aspect of the Salmon River is the spring steelhead run and summer chinook salmon fishing. Whether swinging flies on a Spey rod or bobbing nymphs on a traditional fly rig, this is a unique Rocky Mountain opportunity.
I encourage you to visit the area during the summer for great outdoor activities, good food, and friendly people.
Mark Robert Richards is the retired Chairman and CEO of Appvion, Inc., headquartered in Appleton, WI.
Mark is now President of Meade Street Advisors, LLC, board governance, executive coaching, and strategic planning consulting business headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
Mark travels worldwide to unique places and likes to share what he finds with others.