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High desert Owyhee ranch land

As are many poor suckers who arrive at Mountain Home AFB in southern Idaho, I was underwhelmed by the parchment dry, flat expanse of sage and bitterbrush that reached toward brown mountains to the east and the distant Owyhee mountains to the west. That disappointment is a wry joke among seasoned Air Force base residents and Elmore County ranchers and farmers. Indeed the original site of the Mountain Home Post Office was at the very base of the foothills to the east of the current town, near the foreboding Rattlesnake Stage Stop. In 1883, the Post Office was moved west to be closer to the new railroad line and the town grew up around it.

Though I never grew to love Mountain Home or Elmore County, I did come to appreciate the astounding geological variety of the landscapes that are Idaho. From the rich volcanic soils, made verdant by irrigation east of Mountain Home, to the lush green forests, lakes, and rivers of the northern panhandle of the state, there is no end to the variety of landscapes and pursuits to be found here. Of all the beauty of the state, however, I keep coming back to South Central Idaho—the Sawtooth Mountain Range.

I can’t explain why this range steals my breath every time I round a bend in the road and see the Sawtooths rising from floor of the Stanley Basin. There are many larger, taller, and more expansive mountain ranges. Nothing beats the unending expanse of peaks that form the Canadian Rockies. Nor are the Colorado Rockies anything to sneeze at. The Alps span eight countries. No, Idaho’s little Sawtooths are nothing in comparison to the grand ranges of the world. But they are a touchstone to Idahoans.

Hellroaring Lake with Finger of Fate in the background. (A favorite climber’s destination)

Perhaps it is that they are scalable. They can basically be circumnavigated by car in a matter of hours. They can be flown over in a small airplane in less than an hour.  From inside, where I’ve crawled all over their many mountain passes, glacially cold mountain lakes beckon. I have been privileged enough to experience the interior of the Sawtooths when relatively few people ventured into them. Now, I fear many of the iconic sites are over-loved. But I can still find solitude in and around them.

Imogene Lake

The Sawtooths are one of three magnificent mountain ranges protected by the over 730,000–acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area which was established after a long, fraught Congressional battle 50 years ago this month (only a few years before I arrived in Idaho). I worship the prescience and determination of the Idaho leaders who bravely looked beyond the enticing lure of money and jobs from mining and other extractive industries, in favor saving this irreplaceable natural beauty; among them were the illustrious Senator Frank Church, Senator Len Jordan, and Governor Cecil Andrus. This monumental feat of conservation could never have happened today, not in Idaho, and probably not anywhere in the United States.

Looking towards Williams Peak, 10,636′
Squaw Butte Backcountry Horsemen packing in to do trail maintenance
Alice Lake
Redfish Lake – so named because once upon a time you could walk across the lake on the backs of spawning salmon. Now we are lucky to see one or two feisty salmon return to the lake.
Circa 1997: hiking to Cramer Lakes. The circled formation used to look like an arrow pointing to the sky. I understand that since the 6.5 earthquake in 2020, the arrow took a tumble.
Imogene Lake from inside the tent.

I can’t think of Idaho without conjuring the Sawtooth Mountains. Happy Birthday you beauties!

And I can’t stop taking pictures of the Sawtooth Mountains.

Creating the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Protecting Wilderness by John Osborn http://waterplanet.ws/documents/790501/