Redfish Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

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redfish lake

One of the largest of several hundred gorgeous alpine lakes located in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Redfish Lake sits at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains at an elevation of 6,500 feet in Custer County in central Idaho. The lake lies five miles south from the small town of Stanley, which is situated along the banks of the Salmon River (aka the River of No Return). The north side of Redfish Lake is home to Forest Service campgrounds, a visitor center and the Redfish Lake Lodge, where you can rent boats or cabins. Even before you approach Redfish from the paved access point off of Highway 75, photo ops abound, so keep in mind that the journey may take longer than you planned, as every few minutes there’s a new temptation to pull off the road for another shot. Little Redfish Lake is located only a mile downstream, and the Redfish Lake Trailhead also provides the best route to the tallest peak in the Sawtooth Mountain Range, Thompson Peak.

Situated in a natural bowl that’s surrounded by the Sawtooth Mountain Range, Redfish Lake is subject to alpine weather conditions, which are notorious for their fickleness. Climates can change quickly, from a pleasant sunny day to stormy conditions, where rain is accompanied by thunder and lightning, or temperatures can dip low enough for snow to fall! All this can happen in a matter of minutes as clouds hit the mountain peaks. Springtime temperatures in the months of April and May average 50º highs and nighttime lows of below freezing. By comparison, temperatures in June, July and August can reach daytime average highs in the 70s and average lows in the 50s at night. Bring layers of clothes in your pack, if you intend to do any hiking in the area. Extra clothes can help you stay warm and safe, even if the day starts off looking like it may be a day for taking a dip in the lake.

Essential Gear

Really Right Stuff BH-25 ballhead & TFA-01 tripod

Ballheads are ideal tripod-mount solutions for nature photography. The versatile devices allow panning and tracking through a variety of arcs, unlike pan and tilt heads, which often limit your camera to horizontal or vertical movements. Ballheads are also a better choice for working with uneven terrain and ­fast-moving wildlife.

Photo Experience
When I go on extended photographic trips, I generally take a combination of lenses for different situations. I start with a wide-angle lens at the 17mm range, and I always carry a macro telephoto lens for flowers, which also doubles as a long lens for butterflies, wildlife and my photographic passion, birds. I never leave on a trip without two camera bodies. If your camera dies for some reason, the whole trip can be ruined, so a backup is a lifesaver. In order to achieve the results I want from my landscape images, a tripod is a must. For instance, I stood for about two hours at the edge of Redfish, hoping the mist would dissipate long enough for me to get a reflection in the lake. I was shivering and I wouldn’t have been able to hold the camera steady long enough with the aperture I was using. A remote control enabled me to get the shot as the mist opened a window for just a few seconds, and I left the horizontal locking knob loose on my ballhead so I could direct the camera to the desired location as fast as possible. I always include a polarizing/warming filter and a graduated neutral-density filter on my lens to help with the high contrast, especially when shooting a mountain reflection in water.

Best Times
Every time I visit the Sawtooth Mountains, I’m in seventh heaven, but I purposely make a trip there in early spring so I can have the luxury of solitude and touch base with the joy of the wilderness again. The mountain peaks are still loaded with winter snow and the air is crisp. For me, adverse weather offers the best opportunity to get dramatic photos, so that transition point between winter and spring offers the very best chance of getting the photos I want!

Contact: Sawtooth National Recreation Area,