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REST, RELAX IN THE SAWTOOTH VALLEY

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Imagine a valley surrounded on three sides with year-round snowcaps on sharp mountain peaks, an abundance of lakes and fast-running streams, alpine meadows and thick pine forests.

Then picture your entry, driving a smooth highway over an 8,700-foot pass cutting through some of those white mountains and descending along the headwaters of a legendary river bearing plenty of fish in some of the clearest water in America.That's the Stanley Basin, which surrounds this hamlet in central Idaho, a valley where campgrounds abound and anything built by humans is unobtrusive.

The most popular fishing, boating and hiking area in Idaho, this 55-mile-long valley lies just 35 miles north of the luxury accommodations and modern condos of Sun Valley and neighboring Ketchum.

But catch it at the proper season - late spring or early fall - and you can have it almost to yourself.

There may be no better antidote to big-city stress than a week or two in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains, which line the west side of the basin with 33 peaks measuring 10,000 feet or more.

For some who return here year after year, one small lake about 20 miles north of tiny Sawtooth City is a main attraction.

That's Little Redfish Lake, whose rippling waters mirror the jagged Sawtooth ridges and the sharp granite crags that give the range its name.

Two small Forest Service campgrounds are the only human intrusions at Little Redfish, fed by a rushing creek that runs downhill from its big brother nearby, Big Redfish Lake, where motorboats and waterskiers romp in the summer months.

It's the mood and the views that many seasoned travelers feel make Little Redfish Lake the jewel of the Rockies.

Sitting by the lake, there's a clear view of at least 11 of the highest Sawtooths, the most spectacular American range that isn't yet included in any national park.

Because the campgrounds are small, there are never more than half a dozen tents or motor homes around to break a contemplative mood inspired by vistas that have changed little since the Stone Age.

But if passing a pleasant lakeside afternoon isn't a visitor's cup of tea, there are plenty of other options.

Ferries move across Big Redfish Lake to a network of well-marked trails through the Sawtooth Primitive Area to ice-blue lakes at the edge of the tree line.

Horses are for rent during the summer at Big Redfish Lake and nearby Alturas and Pettit Lakes, all formed by the glaciers that once filled the Stanley Basin.

There are whitewater river trips on the spectacular Salmon, also known as the River of No Return, which eventually drains into the Columbia River. Some jaunts last as long as five to 10 days.

There are breathtaking drives into the perpetually snow-covered White Cloud mountains on the valley's east side, where large drifts still block some gravel roads as late as the Fourth of July.

This entire valley and the surrounding mountains that make it such a feast for the senses is managed by the Forest Service and its Sawtooth National Recreation Area, headquartered on Idaho Rte. 75 between Ketchum and the Galena Pass.

No new construction has been allowed in decades outside Sawtooth City and the tiny crossroads town of Stanley, which features one church, two gas stations, a motel-restaurant and a general store.

But there is lodging for those who don't like camping out.

Just a short drive south of Little Redfish Lake is the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, where cabins for four start around $80 per night, complete with breakfast and use of horses.

At Big Redfish Lake, a log-cabin-style lodge offers rustic rooms at prices no higher than $100 per night even for a party of six.

A few log-built motels also dot the valley: The Smiley Creek Lodge and the Beaver Creek Store and Cabins at Sawtooth City, Sessions Lodge in tiny Obsidian and the Galena Lodge, at about the 7,000-foot level just south of the highway summit.

For the sybarite, there's Sun Valley, whose ski runs open for hiking during the summer.

Local real estate agents offer a variety of condos for rent, available for a few days or by the week or month, while the Sun Valley Lodge, with its year-round ice-skating rink, offers fine dining and rooms at in-season rates ranging from $79 to $285 per night.

There's also a range of motels in Sun Valley and Ketchum.

But the classiest accommodation in the area may be the brand-new Knob Hill Inn, open only since Thanksgiving on Ketchum's Main Street.

This four-story Swiss-style chalet was lovingly built by Austrian-born Joseph Koenig and his American wife Sandy, who formerly operated another hotel in Ketchum's Warm Springs section.

Its rooms all have plush carpeting, king-size beds and sofas. Most have fireplaces. Ranging from $150 to $200 per night, many have views of Galena Peak and the Pioneer Range.

All come with a breakfast featuring buttery home-baked Danishes, home-made granola and a daily selection of quiches and other European delicacies.

Because there's little traffic on Highway 75 most of the summer, it's barely an hour's drive from the luxury of Ketchum and Sun Valley to the natural beauty of the Sawtooths and the Stanley Basin.

But anyone not inclined to make the drive can stay right in Ketchum and Sun Valley and still enjoy spectacular mountain scenery.

Just two streets north of the Knob Hill Inn, a left turn onto Adams Gulch Road takes visitors to a parking lot and a ridge trail where the southern Pioneer Range forms a snowy backdrop for lupine, Indian paint brush, phlox, wild daisies and other wildflowers of varied hues.

Like most area trails, this one is open to hikers and mountain bikers, but nothing motorized.

There's also Trail Creek Road, reached simply by turning right from the Sun Valley Lodge parking lot.

This road is paved for a while, then becomes gravel as it traverses an alpine valley deep into the Pioneers, with waterfalls cascading down the opposite wall. At the summit, a short walk along upper Trail Creek leads to yet another fast-flowing waterfall.

Forest rangers offer this caution on all hikes this summer: Because of near-record snow and rainfall last winter and spring, some streams will be difficult to ford even deep into the summer.