Sara Sheehy worked in partnership with Visit Idaho to create this Travel Tip.
As a born and raised New Englander, I didn’t know what to expect during the first autumn I spent in Idaho. I steeled myself for a season devoid of all the colorful foliage I had come to take for granted—the bright shades of yellow, gold, and red that blanket eastern mountains when the weather turns chilly.
Oh boy, was I wrong.
Fall in Idaho is a spectacular season. From north to south, aspens, cottonwoods, larch, and many other species of western trees light up the mountains and riverbanks before dropping their leaves for winter. Add in warm days, crisp nights, and all the recreational opportunities of summer and fall quickly became my favorite season.
This fall, take in the foliage with a road trip on the Sawtooth Scenic Byway from Shoshone to Stanley. This guide is full of my favorite spots to eat, explore, and enjoy the colors along the way.
Shoshone to Hailey
Start your journey in the small town of Shoshone, the southern terminus of the 116-mile Sawtooth Scenic Byway. From there, make your way north on Highway 75 through the lava-strewn landscape of the Picabo Desert. The jagged and broken pieces of lava look like they were torn from the ground by big machinery, but in fact, they are part of a relatively young volcanic flow that blanketed the area between 2,000 and 15,000 years ago.
At the intersection of Highway 75 and Highway 20, turn right at the blinking light for a foliage stop at The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve. Silver Creek’s crystal-clear water and abundance of aquatic life make it a bucket list destination for fly fishermen and women around the globe. Park at the Visitor’s Center and walk the short trail down to the creek’s edge, watching for birds, large trout, and the deep red leaves of the shrubs along the shore.
Return to Highway 75 and continue your journey north, through the irrigated ranchlands of the southern Wood River Valley. When you reach the town of Hailey, swing by Black Owl Coffee for a brown sugar mocha and one of their locally famous lemon lavender scones or a Black Owl Scramble.
While in Hailey, enjoy a walk through the Draper Wood River Preserve. This riverside park is dog-friendly, and the beautifully designed Bow Bridge is the perfect spot for fall photos.
Hailey to Sun Valley
Aspens and towering cottonwood trees line the road and climb up the foothills between Hailey and the resort town of Sun Valley. Pull off the road at Boxcar Bend for an elevated view of the Bigwood River, and keep an eye out for the elk that often graze on the water’s edge.
Back on Highway 75, turn right onto Elkhorn Road and make a short, five-mile detour through the Elkhorn neighborhood. Elkhorn bursts with fall color in well-landscaped yards and along the edges of a popular golf course. The road passes by the Dollar Mountain ski hill—part of Sun Valley Resort—and ends at the charming Sun Valley village.
Turn right onto Trail Creek Road and make a stop at the Hemingway Memorial. Ernest Hemingway traveled to Sun Valley for much of his adult life and died at his home here in 1961. His memorial is a quick walk from the parking area and is surrounded by trees that turn bright orange in the fall.
At this point, your stomach is probably growling with hunger. Pull into the Sun Valley Club on your way back toward Sun Valley village for lunch overlooking the Trail Creek Golf Course and Dollar Mountain. If the weather is fine, there’s no better place to be than at one of the tables on the stone deck.
Sun Valley to Galena
Full of energy from your tasty lunch, continue north on the Sawtooth Scenic Byway. Stop at the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) headquarters and park in the large parking lot on the east side of the highway. Carefully cross Highway 75 and take a walk along the wide, gently graded Harriman Trail. This portion of the 19-mile trail runs right alongside the Bigwood River and has some of the best foliage viewing in the area.
Hop back in your car and drive ten miles north of the SNRA headquarters to the Billy’s Bridge viewing area. A short walk from the parking lot brings you to a wooden platform with telescopes for spotting mountain goats on the nearby mountains. Be sure to bring your camera, because the views here are spectacular.
Though the road has been climbing in elevation ever since you left Shoshone, you’ll really start to feel it now. Soon after you pass Galena Lodge (open in summer and winter) the highway begins a switch-backed journey to the top of Galena Pass. The road is lined with evergreens at this elevation, but you may see stands of fall color peeking through as you ascend.
Galena to Stanley
After cresting Galena Pass, you’ll begin your descent into the Sawtooth Valley. Stop at the Galena Summit Overlook about one mile past the top of Galena Pass for an eagle-eye look into the sweeping valley below. The view includes the headwaters of the mighty Salmon River and the jagged beauty of the Sawtooth Mountains.
Continue down the pass and onto the valley floor. To the west of the highway and hidden from view, the alpine-clear waters of Redfish Lake await. Turn left onto Redfish Lake Road and drive past Little Redfish Lake on the right. You’ll know when you reach Redfish Lake…trust me. The Redfish Lake Lodge (open in summer) will likely be closed, but don’t let that stop you from walking along the sandy beach, or taking the easy hike down the aspen-lined Fishhook Creek Trail to a spectacular view of the Sawtooth Mountains.
To complete your trip, drive the short distance to the tiny mountain hamlet of Stanley. Check into the Mountain Village Resort and eat a hearty meal before heading out to the hotel’s private on-site natural hot springs for an evening soak.
The next morning, if you’re ready for more foliage—and more beautiful views!—the Salmon River Scenic Byway starts right where the Sawtooth Scenic Byway ends.
Fall in Idaho is full of surprises, and each year I fall in love with the season a little bit more. Come join me, won’t you?
Sara Sheehy is a writer and photographer who travels the world seeking wild places and great stories. When she’s not on the road, Sara spends her time exploring the mountains around her home base of Sun Valley, Idaho.
Feature image credited to Sara Sheehy.
Published on September 19, 2019