When your backyard is a mountain playground, you may wonder where you might travel for an extra dose of fresh mountain air off the beaten path, an idyllic take casting a fly line on pristine waters, or a summer high alpine escape. For Wood River Valley residents, the answer is no doubt the jewel of the Sawtooths: Redfish Lake.
Sixty miles northwest of Sun Valley located in the 756,000-acre recreational preserve Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Redfish Lake’s history is as vibrant as its crystal-clear glacial waters.
Travelers from all corners of the country have traversed to the five-mile long and one-mile-wide lake to experience its magic from Memorial Day through early fall (typically early October), to fish, swim, hike, bike … the list goes on and on. And the journey is a bit easier now. The earliest visitors made the trek via the Galena Summit in the early 1880s by wagon road. While access is easier and the accommodations more modern, the lake remains the same tucked-away oasis beckoning the early days of its exploration.
The basecamp for any Redfish Lake excursion is Redfish Lake Lodge, a historical icon in its own right. For nearly a century, the rustic lodge and surrounding cabins have welcomed adventure-seekers from near and far with a lakeside ticket to the remote and wild wonders of Idaho’s rugged mountains and stunning landscapes. Today, the lodge is owned by Arlen and Derrel Crouch, natives of Jerome, Idaho, and managed by their son-in-law and daughter, Jeff and Audra Clegg. Previously, Jack See was at the helm of the lodge for 27 years.
“It is interesting how many times I just spontaneously hear the word ‘magical’ from visitors,” says Jeff Clegg, the general manager of Redfish Lake Lodge. “I hear it often enough that I think there is some real magic to speak of. The physical magic of the lake is the white sandy beaches that go out safely for 150 to 200 feet.” Jeff says he consistently also hears that for so many repeat visitors, some of their earliest childhood memories are of family visits to Redfish Lake. “The lake is where kids and families can play,” he says. “And the water is crystal clear with temperatures that tend to cause people to remember it a little more. It is so chilly, and it feels good. It formed in such a way that it invites you to enter it. It is like a welcome home. I see that magic [all summer] from families and kids.”
The lakeshore was home to the Sheepeater tribe at the end of the nineteenth century. Its pioneer-centered narrative began in the 1920s, thanks to Idaho native Robert “Two-Gun” Limbert, a taxidermist, author, explorer, naturalist, hunter, among many other things, and notably the owner of the Redfish Lake Lodge. Limbert is celebrated for filling in more unmapped areas of Idaho than any other person, according to author David Clark, chief of interpretation at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. (Clark’s piece, “Idaho’s Two-Gun Bob Limbert,” tells the life and lore of this adventurous Idahoan.)
Limbert became transfixed by the alpine lake and purchased sixteen acres, along with the former small hotel and boating operation on the shores of the lake from then owner B.D. Horstman. He also acquired the Forest Service permit that allowed for boating and lodging. Limbert had a vision in mind: He knew the lake’s potential as a prime spot for travels and his plans were set in motion. Limbert began rebuilding the lodge and establishing cabins surrounding the property.
David Clark captures his vision from a history letter between Limbert and an investor: “My idea is to build on a fifty-foot room for a lobby, change the roof to run lengthways and install ten to fourteen rooms upstairs. Outside I want to put up at least six or ten tent cabins floored and boarded up the sides, similar to those in use in the tent camps at Yellowstone Park and other places. And then using this as a nucleus, build it up to something worthwhile.”
One of Limbert’s early investors was J.L. Kraft, the household name behind Kraft Cheese Company. Another major investor, Lewis Megowen, lost big in the crash of 1929. The Great Depression halted Limbert’s search for investors, but not his commitment to establishing his lakeside retreat. He forged ahead and opened the lodge nonetheless with a gas station, eight canvas tent cabins, a dining room, kitchen, and a small dock with two motorboats. Three cabins known as the Rustic Cabins were completed in 1931. Ready to shout his success from the rooftops, and excited to welcome the masses, Limbert advertised his completed lodge in a brochure called “Redfish Lake Lodge—In the Land of Tomorrow.”
“Redfish Lake Lodge, isolated in the heart of the Sawtooth National Forest Reserve, was built for the sportsman, horseback rider, camera hunter, naturalist and student; for the person who wants to turn his back on the grinding roar of the civilized world and seek the quiet and peace of this primitive untouched mountain country….almost the last outpost of a majestic, savage nature in the United States that remains untrammeled and unmarred,” Limbert said in his brochure, reported by David Clark.
Jeff says the lodge has well-kept the history of the early days when Limbert brought his vision to life. “It has been preserved with a few additions,” he says. “The lodge is basically its original state. We cater to a lot of families, their family traditions, and also outdoor adventurist. A lot of Idaho history is tied into this place. It’s an Idaho rustic adventure experience.”
Hunting was a favorite activity—Limbert said it was as easy as shooting rabbits in Nebraska. Fishing, however, wasn’t Limbert ‘s preferred sport so it took a while to take off despite the salmon-packed waters. A letter from Limbert to a client shared that, in one day, they caught eight fish over 18 inches and tossed back more than one hundred!
The history of the sockeye salmon that fill Redfish Lake is a story of itself. Today, the population have recovered thanks to a decades-long fish recovery program that began a century ago. Salmon travel more than 900 miles to reach Redfish Lake, the final stop on the Pacific salmon run upstream to spawning grounds. The work to restore and preserve this exceptional population of fish continues today.
A trip to Redfish Lake and its nearby lodge will surely unearth the wonder that Limbert and others knew so many years ago. It is special—magic, even—and worth a visit year after year.