There are places in Idaho where time slows down. Spots tucked against some mountains here or nestled by a river there, where small communities hang on to the true history and character of rugged, remote and hard-drinking Idaho. Places where the independent and Wild West-essence of the Gem State remains strong, in part because of their remoteness and, in even bigger part, because of their residents.
These are places where it seems like the past and the future have decided to sit down and have a few drinks together, maybe a shot or two, and talk things over a-while. Stanley is just such a place.
Just about an hour’s drive north from Sun Valley on scenic (aka watch out for the wildlife!) Highway 75, Stanley, Idaho, is well known for a few things. For starters, Stanley is the gateway to both the spectacular Sawtooth Mountains, as well as the sweet flowing Salmon “River of No Return.”
Brett Woolley and Debby Dunn share a passion for the Stanley Basin.
But what makes this small mountain town so special isn’t simply the breathtaking views of the Stanley Basin or the stunning alpine lakes like Redfish, Alturas or Pettit sprinkled about. Nor is it the easy access the town affords to numerous mountain ranges, or the fact that the nation’s longest free-flowing river runs by (sometimes filled with sea-run salmon and steelhead), or even because it’s neighbors with the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states—the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area.
Certainly, all the aforementioned help, but what really makes Stanley special are the hundred or so hearty souls who call the community home. With winter lows that often mark the USA Today map as the coldest place in the contiguous U.S., Stanley certainly isn’t the easiest place to live year-round. It takes a little more effort, a little more love for the Old West lifestyle … and it helps if you like to drink.
LOWER STANLEY (elevation 6,220’)
Stanley is actually divided into two sections, with the original township, a mile or so upriver and a bit lower in elevation, now referred to as Lower Stanley.
Bridge St. Grill, the hub of Lower Stanley, is just a stone’s throw from the river, Kasino Club serves ’em up in the heart of Ace of Diamonds Street.
“This used to be the original town site of Stanley. The school, the post office, everything was here,” explained Brett Woolley from across the bar at the “world famous” Bridge St. Grill in Lower Stanley. “They stole the post office. It was on tracks and they just slid it up there and took the damned town with them.”
Dee Spears welcomes visitors to Lower Stanley. To get there, enjoy the scenic drive along HWY 75.
Brett is a rather woolly man, barrel-chested with a graying goatee and steely blue eyes. The father of two twenty-something girls is a true Stanley local. His cattle ranching grandfather, William Woolley, homesteaded the land across the river shortly before the town became official in 1921. The bridge that crosses the river to his family’s homestead, which has been rebuilt a couple times over the years, gave name to Stanley’s first official street and is how the restaurant got its name.
In 1937, the Woolleys bought two riverside lots in Stanley for a measly $35 and $40, respectively. And Brett wound up getting the land where the Bridge St. Grill now stands for free after it had been abandoned by folks who found Stanley to be too much of a challenge.
“I built this place because I needed a job and didn’t want to leave the area. But it ain’t too bad around here, is it?” asked “The Not So Famous” Brett Woolley, as it says on his business cards.
Bridge St. Grill (sometimes called the “Burger and Brew”) has been in business for a decade now and has made a name for itself for a few reasons. Their prime rib is so good it could challenge the legendary version at The Pioneer in Ketchum to a cook-off. The views of the Salmon River as it rushes by just a few feet below the back deck are spectacular and the entire place has a cozy and welcoming Old West feel. The walls are adorned with old photos, ancient firearms and mounted game, including their famous “Horny Beaver.”
Bridge St. is a popular spot for snowmobilers, locals and Wood River Valley weekend warriors in the winter—and not just because it’s the only bar in Lower Stanley. “People know how to have a good time in Stanley,” Bridge St.’s chef and longtime Boise resident, Romain Lochard, said with a deep, scratchy chuckle, after cooking up a batch of garlic-covered buffalo wings.
“Most people, when they come to Stanley, they want to drink. There’s a reason there’s three bars in this small town,” observed local bartender Dee Spear, a big-eyed bubbly brunette. Of course, winters in a place as small and chilly as Stanley can drive even the biggest teetotalers to want to start sipping some liquid elixir.
“I love the winters here,” said Dee, who like many locals has spent many more busy, tourist-driven summers in Stanley than she has quiet winters. But there’s something about the colder off-season that grows on some of the Stanley Basin diehards.
“In the winter, you know everyone and they’re all your friends. So it doesn’t get lonely,” Dee explained, adding, “and I’m a bartender, so it never gets boring.”
“S%&t,” Brett barked in his gruff voice, “we know how to have fun around here!”
A sentiment echoed by Debby Dunn. A fishing guide and masseuse from the Valley, Debbie grew up, in part, at her family’s home just outside of Stanley. As she shared a beer at Bridge St. with her newly-wed husband, Bryant Dunn (they got hitched in Stanley late last summer), Deb explained with a big smile, “You’ve got to lose your ego, settle in and saddle up to Stanley.”
STANLEY PROPER (elevation 6,253’)
Compared to the relative peace and quiet of winters in Lower Stanley, Upper Stanley can sometimes seem like a bustling city—well maybe a bustling “city” circa 1890 when the area was first settled by a Civil War veteran named John Stanley who found gold in the area. On most weekend winter nights, a short stroll down the snow-covered dirt road known as Ace of Diamonds Street offers up two top-notch spots to eat and a couple of classic Idaho bars.
Tim Cron does everything from maintain the solar water heaters to help cook up the mouth watering meals at the Sawtooth Hotel. Hearty homemade meals and cozy lodging at the Sawtooth Hotel. “Dangerous” Dan Korth is a cowboy from Challis and just the type of guy you’ll meet while bellying up to a bar in Stanley.
Perhaps the most well-known place in town is the Rod-N-Gun Whitewater Saloon. It’s a rather simple place where time not only seems to stand still, it sort of sways back and forth. It’s the type of saloon where folks like to drink hard and dance harder. Heck, stories of gals flying across the dance floor after slipping out of the hands of their swing dance partners or tumbling off table tops are as common as elk and deer sightings in the Sawtooth Valley.
Stanley is, after all, a pretty good melting pot for Idaho. What first drew folks for fur trapping and then mining (some of which still remains), has given way to ranching and rafting, snowmobiling, fishing and sightseeing. And one of the most unusual sights Stanley offers is the Outhouse Race, part of the annual Winter Carnival.
Each winter, a few brave (and perhaps slightly foolish) locals build outhouses on skis and race down Ace of Diamonds. The winning team must not only cross the finish line while one member sits on the throne, they must all chug a beer from the Rod-N-Gun as well. Truly the stuff of champions.
A championship aura can also be found at the Kasino Club. Established in 1938, the Kasino Club has been owned by John and Shauna Graham for the last 25 years, offering a full bar, restaurant and a salad bar. And since John came to Stanley via New Jersey, he brought along his passion for the New York Yankees. The L-shaped bar and its natural wood surroundings are covered with pinstriped memorabilia. Nonetheless, the Kasino Club even welcomes fans of the Yankees’ arch rivals, the Red Sox. As John explained in his faded Jersey accent, “Boston fans get treated as good as they treat me.”
While the two bars hearken back to Stanley’s rugged past, on either end of “Historic Old-Town,” two restaurants are bringing the remote mountain hamlet into the culinary future.
At the east end of Ace of Diamonds, the Backcountry Bistro is hidden within the log cabin walls of the High Country Inn. Despite serving a pre fixe menu only during weekends in the winter, the Backcountry Bistro has garnered quite a reputation with “foodies” since they first started serving back in 2005. Known for offering up unique culinary fare like Chicken Fried Antelope, Lobster Mac & Cheese and Idaho-bred Cowboy Cut Rib-eye Kobe steaks, the Backcountry Bistro is considered one of the top fine dining destinations in Idaho, according to sources like TripAdvisor.com.
“The winter time here is really fun. Sometimes the entire inn will fill up with one group that all know each other and they’ll come down to dinner in their jammies,” explained Melinda Hadzor, a Stanley Town Councilperson and co-owner of the restaurant and inn.
Not to be outdone, on the other end of the dirt road you can find Stanley’s newest sensation, the Sawtooth Hotel and Dining Room. In only its second winter of operation, it’s already earning quite a following. Building upon the success of their summer business, the Stanley Baking Company, an owner/operator team lead by Tim Cron spent about three years renovating the two-story log cabin hotel and restaurant.
Hearty homemade meals and cozy lodging at the Sawtooth Hotel.
Originally opened in 1931, the Sawtooth Hotel is perhaps best known for its time as a popular greasy spoon breakfast joint, and most recently as being part of Albertson College of Idaho. Offering spectacular views of the Sawtooths, a half-dozen rustic rooms and fresh and creative fare, the Sawtooth Hotel is already a popular stop for couples looking for a romantic getaway or backcountry skiers looking to reward their efforts with a delicious homemade meal.
The menu focuses on “hearty and simple foods,” according to chef Garin Apperson, offering things like freshly made sausages and weinerschnitzel, homemade dressings and desserts.
The Sawtooth Hotel is quickly becoming a favorite of foodies.
“We’re trying to do something that hasn’t really been done in this town,” Tim explained, after showing off the wonders of the building’s solar-powered water heating system. “It’s a cool old building and it’s a cool town. Starting this place was basically a means to an end. We just wanted to be able to live here.”
Calling Stanley home, in the winter especially, certainly requires some effort. But living in remote parts of Idaho always has; the challenges just add to the charm.
“True, hard-working Idahoans are what you find in Stanley. We just love it up here,” Bryant Dunn said. Bryant is a hunting and fishing guide and has seen a lot of the Gem State but there’s no place quite as special to him as Stanley.
“There’s nothing more Idahoan than a Salmon River community,” he said, pointing to the ground beneath him at the Bridge St. Grill. “There’s so much tradition and history in one place, it’s remarkable. It’s the real Idaho.”