Boise Daytrips

Redfish Lake - Scenic, Special, and Sometimes Overpopulated

Boiseans are lucky when it comes to scenic daytrips. There are numerous nearby options that can satisfy any yearning, whether it be for wide desert canyons, shady river corridors, endless mountain views, or cold, clear lakes. For those of us who want the best of both mountain and lake, Redfish Lake is hard to beat. Just beware; you won't be alone.

Back when Millard Fillmore was president, a summer trip to Redfish Lake would've meant you'd be sharing the shore with untold numbers of bears there to dine on spawning sockeye salmon, which were supposedly so thick they made the water look red. Thanks to the Columbia River dams, however, those happy days are long gone along with most of the salmon, and the large numbers of bears have been replaced by people getting away from their city lives for a day or a week.

There are quite a few reasons why the Redfish Lake area is so popular among us post Cro-Magnon types. For starters, at five miles long and one mile wide, the lake is large enough for ski boats, jet boats, house boats, jetskis, and every other water contraption that is smaller than a Carnival Cruise ship. This means the range of aquatic recreational activities is pretty much the same as Lucky Peak, but you'll probably have fewer drunk yahoos to worry about.

Or if you're the sun-worshipping, beach-bum type, there are several sandy beaches along the north end of the lake where you can throw down a towel and do your thing. Just keep in mind that the amount of sand is limited, so we're not talking about sunbathing like it's Pompano Beach. All in all, though, it's not all that bad for a high mountain lake in the middle of Idaho.

You'll also want to keep in mind that the water temperature doesn't get any higher than the mid 60s even in late July and August. That might sound refreshing when it's 99° in Boise, but 65° is more than cold enough to give a papa a fine case of summer shrinkage, which nobody wants. Despite this, you'll still find a lot of kids and other adventurous folks swimming and splashing around, but I guarantee you there will be many, many more people on the beach getting a tan, playing volleyball, or simply enjoying the view, which is hard to beat anywhere south of Alaska.

Even if you wanted to ignore the mountains across the lake, it would be impossible unless you're blind. Two peaks, Mt. Heyburn at 10,229 feet and Grand Mogul at 9,733 feet, tower over the lake, providing an unbeatable backdrop for photos, water skiing, or carefree lounging on the beach. As part of the Sawtooth range, the mountains have the signature high, jagged peaks, complete with glaciers and snow banks tucked into the shady folds.

When and if you've had your fill of the beach and would like a closer look at this magnificent scenery, the area has several excellent trails. If you're really ambitious, the Redfish Lake Trail goes completely around the lake and is about 17.5 miles long. It's definitely not the trail to drag your significant other on if he/she is merely looking for a leisurely stroll through the woods. For an easier yet just as scenic hike, try the 4.4-mile Fishhook Creek Trail. It starts at the Redfish Lake Trailhead and takes you up to a mountain meadow that has a great view of Mt. Heyburn.

Although the Redfish Lake area is easily doable in a daytrip, the three-hour one-way drive makes for a very long and potentially exhausting day, especially with all the stuff there is to do. That's why most folks at least make a weekend of it and take advantage of the ten campgrounds that are in the immediate vicinity. Whether you tent camp or haul around an RV like Cousin Eddie, they've got a campground for you.

The only problem with the campgrounds is that they are so terribly popular that you'll need a reservation if you want any chance of getting a spot during the summer. In fact, I'd say that if you show up unannounced on any Saturday in July or August, there is a 1% chance you'll find an open spot anywhere around the lake. Yep, the place is that popular, mostly because it seems like half the population of Ada County heads for the mountains when the valley heats up. To check camp site availability, visit and keep in mind that sometimes reservations are required at least four days in advance.

If the whole camping thing isn't the way you roll, don't fret; the Redfish Lake Lodge has you covered. In addition to eight rooms in the lodge itself, they've got numerous individual cabins that sleep from two to eight people. Some even have a kitchen, just in case a member of your party has some nice cleavage and wants to go all Giada during your stay in the woods. Those of us who prefer not to cook while on vacation can take advantage of the lodge restaurant. We hear they serve a fantastic Sasquatch steak there, but we've never confirmed this. If you find out, let us know.

The lodge, the restaurant, and the bit of civilization they represent are yet another reason the area is so popular. In essence, you can get away without getting completely away, and that appeals to most folks who don't live in a thatched hut and grow their own barley. The lodge area has wi-fi hotspots and decent cell phone reception, and an ice cream cone or a cold beer is never far away. The lodge also has a boardwalk to sit on and enjoy the view, and the rental station at the end of it is where you can rent kayaks, canoes, paddleboats, and even ski boats. You can also pay for a boat ride to the far end of the lake or reserve yourself a nice dinner cruise.

That's not exactly what I'd call roughing it, but that's the special appeal of the Redfish Lake area -- you can have it all, as long as you're willing to share.

Destination: Redfish Lake
Where: 136 miles northeast of Boise. Take ID-21 north to Stanley, then take ID-75 South about five miles until you see the Redfish Lake sign on the right.

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Season: May-Sept
Cost: $5 day-use fee, or stay at any of the ten campgrounds for $15+ per night.
Website: Sawtooth National Forest
Fun fact: It's high mountain recreation and scenery at its best.