Sometimes you forget how good something is until you try it again.
And then it all comes back to you, even if it’s been years.
For some it might be a favorite restaurant. Or a movie. Or a favorite getaway.
For us, this epiphany came after snowmobiling in Stanley, ID, last winter.
We’ve ridden the Stanley Basin lots of times over the years and had a good time snowmobiling every time we’ve been there. Then job responsibilities and the need to explore new snowmobiling places kept us from returning. We’ve had an open invitation to return but never seemed to fit it into our schedule. Due to some unfortunate circumstances last winter (read: low snow in other locales), we put in an 11th hour call to the good folks in Stanley, who were more than willing to host us for a couple of days of riding.
Once our skis hit the snow in the Stanley Basin last February, it didn’t take long for us to remember just how good the riding is here. And we ate up the opportunity to ride parts of the Basin we never had snowmobiled before. We found challenging terrain we only had an inkling existed around Stanley—or at least that was open to snowmobiling. We played in pockets of snow that didn’t see tracks until we flew across them on our way to the tops of several ridges. We played in powder so deep we were exhausted from digging each other out—smiling all the time. We rode trails that were so well-groomed any self-respecting suspension engineer would be weeping with disgust.
But we also took the opportunity to visit familiar places where we knew the snow was deep and terrain every bit as demanding as the new places we experienced.
One of those familiar spots and one of our favorites is the ride to Basin Butte Lookout, where a combination of boondocking, sidehilling and hillclimbing skills are needed to access the summit (elevation 8,854 feet)—at least if you go the way we like to get there. It was a near perfect day with lots of sunshine and new powder that had just fallen. Once you get to the lookout, you’re rewarded with 360-degree views of some of Idaho’s most scenic country.
To the north are the endless mountain ranges in the Frank Church River Of No Return Wilderness. Looking a little to the east and south we could easily see Idaho’s tallest Peak, Mt. Borah (12,662 feet). South and southeast are the White Cloud Mountains (our destination for day two) and to the west, the grand prize: the rugged, jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains. Aside from the Grand Tetons (which are actually in Wyoming), the Sawtooths may be the most recognizable mountains in Idaho. This range of rock is almost mesmerizing. We’d ridden past them in snowmobiles, cars and trucks and couldn’t keep our eyes off of them. Maybe it’s because these are in-your-face mountains that tower over the Stanley Basin and can be seen from just about anywhere in the area.
After leaving the lookout, we did some serious tree running as we explored all over the mountain before ending up in Little Basin Creek, where we did our best to track up the 2-3 feet of powder covering a medium-sized meadow that was flanked by fingers of open areas that extended into the trees on the south side. Little Basin Creek ran through the middle of the meadow and we had to be somewhat cautious but not so much we couldn’t focus more on fun.
When we finally rolled back into Stanley, it also didn’t take us long to remember just how cold it can get in Stanley, which is notorious as one of the coldest places in Idaho. It was 5 degrees F when we left Stanley and headed toward Basin Butte Lookout but the temperature had dropped to minus-4 degrees F by the time we finished supper at 8:30 p.m. The morning of the next day the Stanley deep freeze was hovering around minus-24 degrees F. But once the sun was up for a bit, the temps warmed well past the plus side and conditions were once again awesome. When temps are that cold, especially in the dry West, everything is crystal clear and fresh. Those kinds of temps might scare some fair-weather riders off, but they only add to the experience of snowmobiling in Stanley.
We headed south out of Stanley for our second day of riding. We chose to trailer to Smiley Creek but you can actually make the 30-mile (one-way) trip via snowmobile. Either way, you again get spectacular views of the Sawtooths on the west and the White Clouds on the east. Think of it as riding down one of New York City’s main streets and the skyscrapers are towering over you. It’s that kind of adventure.
That 30 miles is a big chunk of Stanley’s 160 miles of groomed trails, while another good portion of the system heads north along Idaho Highway 21.
Heading east out of Smiley Creek, we took the groomed trail for a little ways before taking off on an ungroomed trail that leads back into some great terrain. We went up Pole Creek and first played in the Pole Creek Summit area. Then we followed Germania Creek to our destination—Washington Basin, which is surrounded by the White Clouds, or at least some of the White Clouds Peaks. Here it was bowl after bowl of powder and ridge after ridge of challenging hillclimbing along with some gnarly chutes for the crusty horsepower hounds.
The Long And
Short Of It
Adding to the fun was the variety of mountains. Some offered long pulls as we fought powder and gravity to gain elevation. Others were short and practically straight up, which usually made for shorter, adrenaline-infused climbs. And then there was some in between stuff that allowed you to catch your breath before hitting the bigger mountains again. Getting into Washington Basin was relatively easy but the terrain turns to extreme once you get in there. Stanley does, after all, have one of the highest riding elevations—up to 10,000 feet—in Idaho.
After pounding on one particular mountain for a while, we finally made it to the top where we could get another spectacular view of the Sawtooths and White Clouds. We could see for miles in any direction and can easily say its one of the best views of any mountain ranges we’ve ever had in the West. And we had it all to ourselves—mostly because the ridge was pretty narrow where we were and it didn’t lend itself to any big parties.
Option two for the riders looking for more extreme hills is on the other side of Smiley Creek to the west at the Vienna Historical Site, a place the locals like to ride because of the hillclimbing. Also close to Smiley Creek (two miles south) are the headwaters of the Salmon River, another great riding spot. If the 60-mile Stanley to Smiley Creek and back to Stanley isn’t enough trail for you, then think about riding from Stanley to Lowman for lunch and then back again. That’s a 65-mile trip one-way, but plan on taking the entire day because there are plenty of meadows to play in along the way.
You actually don’t even have to go that far from town to find lots of hills and play areas. There are plenty of each not even two miles from town, although those tend to get tracked up first because of their proximity to town.
So if you haven’t been to Stanley for a while, you might have forgotten just how good the scenery and snowmobiling is.
Try it again and memories will come rushing back like deep powder over the windshield of your sled.