Bench Lakes

[Stanley, ID, Sep 5, 2021]

If you venture only as far out as Ketchum, you will be missing one of the most scenic places in the United States. The Sawtooth Wilderness north and west of Ketchum is a federally-protected 217,000-acre area with 40 trails and over 350 miles. The Sawtooths are part of the Rocky Mountain range and contain more than 50 peaks over 10,000 ft. The closest town to the wilderness is Stanley, ID on the northern edge of the wilderness. If hiking is your primary goal, base yourself in Stanley.

Since we were driving in from Ketchum, we got a fairly early start. The road between Ketchum and Stanley is pretty scenic, but the air quality had taken a turn for the worse overnight and visibility was not the best. Luckily, I was still enamored with the surroundings and I spotted a deer way down the road before B, who was driving. In my calmest voice I said “deer.” No reaction. “Deer,” just a tad louder. He finally reacted and applied the brakes. Later, he told me the second “deer” grabbed his attention because I never call him “dear.” 🙂

There are quite a few hikes to pick from in the Sawtooths, so I narrowed it down to hikes with lakes. Goat lake and Alpine lake were on the list but I finally decided on Bench Lakes. Two lakes are better than one, plus the Bench Lakes are accessible from a trailhead near Redfish Lake Lodge, which I wanted to see. The trailhead to Alpine and Goat lakes was further into the wilderness, closer to Stanley, so I was worried we’d get there too late coming from Ketchum.

Redfish Lake lodge

When we arrived at Redfish Lake, it was just after 9 am but the temps were still pretty low (in the upper 30s/low 40s). It was so cold that the thin layer of water on the concrete outside the lodge had frozen and I almost slipped going into the lobby! The general market at the lodge had just opened so we got some coffee and confirmed our route to the lakes. The place was pretty empty and serene.

You can do Bench Lakes as a point-to-point hike using the boat shuttle or as an out-and-back. If you want to do it point-to-point, you have to decide if you want to take the boat shuttle across the lake first and then hike, or hike first, then take the shuttle back to the lodge from the other side of the lake. Since the shuttle runs on-demand from the lodge to the other side, it’s better to do take the shuttle first, then hike. Return trips to the lodge happen only at certain times, listed on the Redfish Marina page, making it more difficult to time your hike right. We did it it as an out-and-back hike starting and ending at Redfish Lake Lodge and did not use the shuttle.

Fishhook Trailhead

The trailhead for the out-and-back route is Fishhook. I was excited to see a few aspen trees already starting to change color in the beginning of the trail. Soon, we reached a fork in the trail.

We turned left and took a bridge over a small creek, then started the ascent along the western ridge of Redfish Lake.

Peek-a-boo views of the lake accompanied us most of the way.

On the other side, we could see some jagged Sawtooth peaks as we climbed.

We knew we were close when we reached another fork in the road. We took the cutoff to the right to get to the lakes; continuing on would have taken us to the other side of the lake where the shuttle pick up is.

The Bench lakes are a chain of five small alpine glacial lakes at almost 8,000 ft. The first two are easily accessible while the other three require a bit of scrambling and navigation. We visited the first two. Both were gorgeous; the second one is more spectacular with Mt Heyburn in the background. The spots of red and yellow colors made them all the more beautiful. The air was clear; the air quality issues that plagued us on the way here had remained at lower elevations. I was so happy to reach the lakes and got quite emotional taking in their beauty.

Bench Lake #1
Bench Lake #2

We returned the way we came. The trail had gotten a lot busier and we saw many people coming up as we were going down. We were grateful for our early start. The temps had climbed quite a bit and were now in the 70s.

When we came back to Redfish Lake lodge, it was almost unrecognizable. The serenity from the morning had long dissipated. The beach was now full of people and there were cars everywhere circling around looking for parking. We changed into flip flops and cleaned up the dust from the trail as best we could, and we headed towards Boise for our last night in Idaho before returning to Los Angeles the next day. Luckily, we were too far north to go back to Boise the way we came (through Ketchum), so we got to experience a new route to Boise. We also got to drive through Stanley and scope it out a little for our next trip.

Back in Boise, the heat had returned and the air quality deteriorated, just in time for our departure. We grabbed dinner on Main street and turned in early. We had a surprisingly great time in Idaho and can’t wait to return.

On the plane leaving Idaho. It’s not sunrise – it’s air pollution from wildfires

One Comment on “Bench Lakes

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