Our Epic Wild West Summer Vacation 2020 began late afternoon on Wednesday. The Tahoe was packed and ready to take us to Rock Springs, Wyoming, which has been a middle stopping point for many of our trips over the years. Per the itinerary that we had posted previously, our stops included: Bear Lake ~ Utah; Island Park ~ Idaho; West Yellowstone ~ Montana; Stanley ~ Idaho; Challis ~ Idaho. The front end of the vacation was packed full of outdoor adventure, while the tail end of the trip was a time for relaxing at Stella’s parent’s ranch in Challis, before heading back to the working world in Colorado.
Bear Lake ~ Utah/Idaho
Bear Lake is labeled as the Caribbean of the Rockies; the multi-colored turquoise waters are split almost evenly between Utah and Idaho. The first time that we had vacationed to Bear Lake, Aspen and Stella’s parents (and their pup, Becca) had been with us. It was a great time of fellowship, outdoor adventure and swimming the pups. This time around, it was only Stella and I, and we were only there for two days this time. Needless to say, the memories of being there with Aspen swelled in our hearts and minds constantly. As in the prior trip and this trip, we stayed in a cabin at the KOA Bear Lake/Marina Side Campground, and although we stayed in different cabins each time, both cabins were awesome! We highly recommend the cabins there!
Thursday morning, we set off early and arrived in Bear Lake shortly before noon. We parked the Tahoe on the eastern shore of the lake inside of Bear Lake State Park, located just north of the Utah/Idaho border. The activity planned for that day was stand up paddle boarding on our Isle Glider Wood SUPs. After we put our boards in the water and waded out a bit from shore, we paddled out a hundred yards, only to realize that the water was still only about knee-deep, and several hundred yards further out, the water was only about waist-deep. Additionally, the water was so clear that we routinely saw small and large fish swimming all around us, and underneath our boards with perfect clarity. Stella was utterly fascinated by this; her eyes were glued to the water below her board pretty much the whole time. However, she was a little nervous about the larger fish bumping into her board, scaring her and ultimately knocking her into the water. No such luck. Stella has yet to fall off from her board, much to my chagrin.
We started out paddling north for about three miles, after which point we had begun to wonder if we were the only people out there! It seemed as though we had the entire lake to ourselves. The degree of peace and tranquility was indescribable; the weather was warm and unusually humid – almost tropical like. We continued paddling north until we had reached the East Shore Marina. At that point, we reversed course and began paddling south to the North Eden Campground across the Utah border. As we neared that location, we drifted about for a while, before making our way back to Bear Lake State Park where the Tahoe awaited. We paddled ten miles over the course of 4 hours and 45 minutes (including idle time). That evening, we had an outstanding dinner at Campfire Grill Restaurant located at the Conestoga Ranch, and with day one of the Epic Wild West Summer Vacation 2020 in the books, went to bed early.
The next day, the planned activity was kayaking. But first, we indulged in a delicious breakfast at Crepes and Coffee, where we each ate a savory crepe of our choice, and then shared a tasty dessert crepe. Shortly thereafter, we launched the “Big Mango” at Bear Lake Marina (Bear Lake State Park ~ Utah), which is on the opposite side of the lake from the day prior. We paddled south along the shoreline, which is scattered with beautiful homes and grassy areas. Further south, we came across several public beach areas, which were jam-packed with tourists.
We had originally intended to paddle to Rendezvous Beach State Park. But, we ended up turning around two miles shy of our intended destination and headed back to the marina since we had already paddled eight miles. It was nearing dinnertime, as Stella kept reminding me. By the time we had returned to the marina, we had paddled a total of sixteen miles. That evening, we had a delicious dinner at Cooper’s Restaurant Restaurant & Sports Bar, and went to bed early again.
Over the course of the two days spent at Bear Lake, we paddled twenty-six miles. Each day, the weather had been very warm, but the sky was hazy due to the smoke from the surrounding wildfires. That was unfortunate, as the haze made it difficult to truly appreciate the beautiful colors of the lake. If you love to be on the water, and want a taste of the Caribbean right here in the rockies, then a visit to Bear Lake is a must.
Island Park ~ Idaho & West Yellowstone ~ Montana
Getaway day, Saturday morning, we headed to Island Park and West Yellowstone where the next three days of our Epic Wild West Summer Vacation would take place. The first stop was the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, which is a Not-for-Profit wildlife park/sanctuary and educational facility located in West Yellowstone, Montana. There are four main attractions: bear habitat; wolf habitat (with three distinctive wolf packs), riparian habitat, and raptor habitat. The riparian habitat include the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout & Arctic Grayling as well as the adorable river otters. Please note that this is NOT a zoo. All of these animals have been deemed unable to survive in the wild for their own respective reasons.
We spent quite a bit of time observing the grizzly bears, in particular. Because bears are foragers, the facility hides all of their food, in an effort to replicate how they would find food in the wild. At one point, we observed two massive bears barreling towards one another at full force, for what we thought was going to be a huge fight. But they suddenly stopped just before reaching one another and went their own ways. Even though the animals at this facility are in captivity, it was still awe-inspiring to see them so close up. The facility also has a wonderful gift shop and an IMAX theater where a show is included with your ticket. But due to COVID, the theater was closed.
Once we left the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, next on the agenda was to drive into Yellowstone National Park (YNP) to view the Grand Prismatic Spring. The last time we were at YNP, we had stopped at Old Faithful so that I could watch her blow, but we did not really have the chance to fully explore the park at the time. The Grand Prismatic Spring is a huge tourist draw, and that day had been no exception. There are two areas to view this attraction: upper and lower. That day, we walked along the huge boardwalk of the lower viewing area, which is like massive fingers spread out along the molten ground. From the lower vantage point, you are able to view the main spring and the waterfall from the spring going into the river. The mixture of colors is awing.
By the time we were done in YNP, it was time to check into the hotel, get dinner and then relax. We stayed at the Sawtelle Mountain Resort, which we cannot say enough great things about. If you ever find yourself in Island Park, Idaho we would highly recommend a stay at the Sawtelle Mountain Resort! The next day, Sunday, our plan had been to kayak on Yellowstone Lake, which is the largest body of water inside of YNP. However, that plan was spoiled due to the Lone Star Fire near Old Faithful, which closed the road to West Thumb and Grant Village, our intended launching point. Instead, we bee-lined it back into Island Park and headed to Henrys Lake the headwaters of Henrys Fork, which is known for its world-renowned trout fishing. Initially, Stella had planned to paddle board on Henrys Lake, but instead, we kayaked on it, which ended up being a blessing in disguise (more on that later).
We dropped the “Big Mango” into the lake at the boat launch and proceeded north along the shoreline. Again, similar to our experience on Bear Lake, we pretty much had the entire lake to ourselves, short of seeing a handful of fishing boats. It was very calming and relaxing, but in another sense we kept wondering, “where is everybody – do they know something we don’t?” As we paddled along the eastern shore, not only did we spot a river otter, but we also saw two bald eagles in the trees, fairly close up. One took flight directly in front of our kayak.
As we continued our journey around the lake, Stella kept gazing at the water with a precarious expression on her face. The surface of the lake was covered with a solid sheet of some form of aquatic debris (looked like a layer of pollen, but it wasn’t). It was thick and disgusting. And, there were millions of bugs hatching on top of the murky water, not to mention long, thick bushes of seaweed underneath, which would have snagged on the fins of our paddle boards. That was why we were thankful to be in the kayak versus on our boards – they would have gotten filthy!
Once we had reached the southern shore, we paddled into the outlet towards the dam. We only had about another half mile of paddling to reach it, but with the winds slowly beginning to pick up, we decided to head back to the boat launch. And it had been perfect timing, as the exact moment that we had reached the boat launch, the winds ripped across the lake with gusto. The circumference of Henrys Lake is seventeen miles, and we kayaked sixteen miles of it that day.
The next day, Monday, we headed back into YNP to hike up to the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook, which can be found at the Fairy Falls Trailhead. The hike is relatively short, with a steady incline to the overlook. Once there, you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of Grand Prismatic Spring. I could only imagine how much more vibrant the colors would be if the sun had not been shrouded by the western wildfires. From there, we headed to Old Faithful to visit the gift shop where Stella bought a jar of Huckleberry jam and a bottle of Huckleberry wine.
The next place on the agenda that day was Mesa Falls south of Island Park, which we were both really looking forward to. We started at the Mesa Falls Visitor Center. The building was once known as Big Falls Inn, which was a hotel, café and dance hall. Unfortunately, we were unable to physically go inside due to COVID restrictions, but we did peek in the windows. Our minds imagined how wonderful of a gathering place it must have been back at that time in history.
Next to the parking lot is the trailhead for the Mesa Falls Nature Trail, which leads to the lower falls area. It is an easy out and back hike, were the trail terminates just above the lower falls. In addition to being an easy hike, it is also an extraordinarily beautiful hike, as it is almost entirely tree-covered, and surrounded by thick forest, wildflowers and berry patches. Stella absolutely loved it, although she was also on the constant look out for bears. For the more adventurous people, you can carefully make your way down a very steep trail that leads to the shore of the lower falls, but beware, as it is not for the faint of heart. Coming back up mimics some elemental rock climbing.
Once we got back to the trailhead, we headed over to the trail leading to the upper falls area. Interestingly, the upper falls were nearly dammed by the Snake River Electric Light and Power Company. Thankfully, that never occurred, because the picturesque sight would have been destroyed, along with one of the premier trout fishing streams in the country. The trail to get to and from the upper falls consists entirely of a beautiful, well-maintained boardwalk with handrails. The views of the upper falls were nothing short of dazzling, and the cool mist coming up from the water felt like heaven upon our cheeks. It was very hot and humid on the hike, so we were a sweaty mess. Touring Mesa Falls is a must if you are ever in this area!
Stanley ~ Idaho
Tuesday morning, we headed to Stanley, Idaho. The activity planned for that day was to stand up paddle board on Stanley Lake. There is a small story behind our desire to paddle board there. A few years ago, ISLE (the brand of our boards) published an article titled, “11 Lakes You Need to Go Paddle Boarding On,” and Stanley Lake was listed as one of them. Naturally, we talked about how awesome it would be to take a trip that would encompass all eleven lakes over the course of the year, but that is a bit unrealistic since we are not independently wealthy.
Stanley Lake is located at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. That day, the sun was shining through the smoke, and was the first day on our vacation that we had been able to see the sun and blue sky. However, as we were getting our gear ready to go out onto the lake, Stella mentioned that the wind was picking up. She has a keen sense of intuition for that. But I brushed it off and said we were paddling regardless since it was only two and half miles around the lake.
We jumped on our boards and paddled in a clockwise direction. Along the northern end of the lake, there are some small beach areas where people can set up chairs and hang out for the day. Along the southern side of the lake, it is all dense, lush forest. Once we had reached the other end of the lake, the winds swept in and it felt like we were in the midst of a storm. Stella immediately sat down on her board and vigorously paddled against the waves all the way back to our starting point. I had chosen to stand on my board, but it still took a great deal of strength to keep my board moving forward against the wind and currents. Afterward, I got an earful about how Stella knew that it was going to be like that, and that she would not stand up paddle board in those conditions again. Period.
Once our gear was loaded onto the Tahoe, we headed to our lodging place for the next two nights, Stanley High Country Inn. We do not have much positive to say about this place, other than it is located within the heart of the town (great location). The common room has a nice fireplace and sitting area, but we did not utilize it. That evening, we had a superb pizza for dinner at Pappa Brunee’s and then just relaxed. Every night since we had started our vacation, Stella had big aspirations for us to play board games and cards in the evenings, but she always ended up being too tired to do so.
The next day was to be spent at Redfish Lake, Stella’s favorite place in the world. In fact, the first few chapters of her novel, 18th Winter, are based in Redfish Lake. But before we headed there, we had to make a pit stop at our favorite breakfast spot, Stanley Baking Co. Once we got to Redfish Lake, we started the day with a bike ride around the campground, which is somewhat of a tradition when we visit. This also happens to be Stella’s absolute favorite thing to do while at Redfish. In the near future, there will be a bike path extending from the town of Stanley to Redfish Lake, which is nearing completion.
After biking through the campground, it was time to get out onto the lake. We had brought both the kayak and the boards with us, as we figured that we would be able to do a bit of both that day. Because we planned to kayak first, we needed to protect our boards from the sun since I was unable to park the Tahoe in a shaded space. I rigged a tent like system to protect them from direct sun exposure; the system prevents any portion of the tarp from touching the boards, which is very important. If any piece of the tarp comes into the contact with the boards, the boards could delaminate in those areas.
We set out in the “Big Mango” at the waters edge just in front of the lodge, paddling in our typical counter clockwise fashion (south) along the western shore of the lake. Along the western shore we noticed a large pile of logs floating in the water. But as we paddled a bit further, the source had become clear: a large landslide had occurred. It is possible that it had been the result of the large earthquake that shook that area near the end of March.
Kayaking on Redfish Lake is an amazing, awe-inspiring experience. At the end of the lake, look up and you will see the majestic Sawtooth Mountains looming over you, seeming close enough to touch. The forested areas surrounding the lake are dense and lush, and one cannot help but wonder what secrets and stories lie within there. There are also multiple small creeks spilling into the lake, whispering to those who seek to hear what they have to say. The only downside of being out on Redfish Lake is the large number (and size) of fallen trees underneath the water. You have to be very, very conscientious, otherwise you might run over the top of something that could ruin the bottom of your kayak or board.
We paddled at our typical pace, stopping now and then to take in all of the sights and sounds of the lake. The circumference of Redfish Lake is a little over nine miles, which was a drop in the bucket compared to what we had done earlier on our vacation. Once we had made it back to the shore, we placed the kayak back onto the Tahoe and took down the paddle boards. We set out on the boards along the northern side of the lake and only paddled for a few miles, as it was getting toward the end of the day.
One note about stand up paddle boarding at Redfish Lake: this lake has dramatic, startling, and sudden drop offs – to the extreme. And what makes that a little creepy is that you can clearly see it, which made Stella uncomfortable going over those areas on her board. For some reason, that sight shook her, so she prefers to kayak on Redfish. You could be in knee-deep water, and then suddenly fall into a black hole that looks like it has no bottom.
Once the boards were loaded up, we headed to the hotel to shower and get ready for dinner. That evening, we ate at the Mountain Village Restaurant, and everything we had was fantastic! The next day, our itinerary indicated that we were to head to Ketchum, Idaho to do a thirty-mile bike ride on the Wood River Trail. Instead, we decided to spend more time in Stanley. For breakfast, we went back to Mountain Village Restaurant, where again, our meals were superb!
After breakfast, we headed back out to Stanley Lake. But before heading out onto the lake, we took a seven-mile bike ride all around the campground pods scattered throughout the area. Like the bike ride at Redfish Lake, Stella absolutely loved it. Afterward, we pulled the boards down and paddle boarded around Stanley Lake again, and although it was a little windy, it was not near as bad as it had been the few days prior. We had a glorious time in Stanley, Idaho on this vacation. In the years past when we had visited Stanley, we had Goldie and/or Aspen with us, so the memories of them being there with us were very close to our hearts.
The last part of our Epic Wild West Summer Vacation was planned for us to spend a few days at Stella’s parent’s ranch in Challis. Because we had originally planned to bike in Ketchum that day, we did not think that we would be arriving in Challis until late that evening. But because our plans had changed, we ended up in Challis just in time for dinner!
Challis ~ Idaho
Stella’s parents have a five-acre property in Challis, which they use for their horses and growing hay. The house has a wraparound porch with magnificent views in all directions. We have visited their home many times, and it is always a very relaxing place to be. During our stay there, I went four-wheeling with Stella’s dad and visited the Bayhorse Ghost Town, while Stella had spent most of her time with the horses. Each morning was spent relaxing drinking several cups of coffee. It is always difficult coming back to our reality (i.e. the working world) after being out there and seeing how relaxing retired life is. We continue to dream about retired life…
FINAL VACATION THOUGHTS: we vacationed to some places that we had been before, mixed in with some new places during our Epic Wild West Summer Vacation. Between kayaking and paddle boarding, we completed a total of 57 miles. We did not bike as much as we had originally planned, but the biking that we did do was very enjoyable. We had lots of great food, saw magnificent wildlife, took hundreds of pictures, and shared stories with people that we met along the way. Another great vacation in the books!