Stanley Lake, and the spectacular jagged snowcapped peaks and pristine forests of the Sawtooth Mountain Range, are located within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in central Idaho, only 30 minutes from the charming little town of Stanley. To get there from Stanley, go five miles north on ID 21, then 3.5 miles west on Forest Road 455. The lake is tucked in nicely just below the foot of Mount McGown. Stanley Lake Campground is situated on a hillside above the lake in a thick grove of lodgepole pines, with fantastic views of 9,860-foot McGown Peak and all of Stanley Lake. Check out the 4-wheel-drive roads or the Idaho Centennial Trail so you can explore even more mesmerizing views, as well as some eye-popping sunrises and sunsets.
Snow can linger into early or mid-May, and the first snowstorms often begin in mid-September. During a summer day, 70s are common, but nighttime temperatures can quickly drop into the 30s on cloudless nights. Check the weather at the ranger station or use a weather app before planning your photography adventure. I recommend having full rain gear, as unexpected thunderstorms aren’t uncommon. Weather patterns in Sawtooth can change frequently and without warning. Four-wheel-drive is recommended because there are areas nearby that can remain flooded from snowmelt up to three-plus-feet deep. Weather can be challenging and may be too severe to venture during the winter.
It was awesome to be able to camp right along the shoreline and watch the light and weather change from dawn to dusk while the bald eagles flew by and fished when the trout were active. There weren’t many clouds the first two days I visited Stanley Lake, so I spent a lot of time scouting the shoreline and hillsides for interesting compositions that I could find useful later on when there was better light and intriguing clouds. The harsh light and glare from the bright sun made shooting conditions difficult and uninteresting, even with a polarizer and neutral-density filter. My best capture was on the third morning, when some soft, wispy clouds swirled around the peaks of Mount McGown while reflecting onto clear-blue Stanley Lake. I recommend bringing a quality wide-angle landscape lens and polarizer, with a sturdy tripod and head, a wide-angle 16-35mm ƒ/2.8, 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 and 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 telephoto with image stabilization for distance and macro shots. With the stabilizer built into the lens, you may be able to shoot handheld; otherwise, a tripod works best. You may get lucky and spot a bear or fox in this remote area and will be glad you had a nice sharp telephoto zoom. A full-frame-sensor DSLR is a great choice because it allows you to capture more light, with nice details and dynamic range.
My favorite time to visit Stanley Lake is early summer, with temperatures averaging a high of 78º F and a low of 30º F. Early autumn is also a special time to view the warm, vibrant fall colors and breathe in the crisp, clean air, with invigorating cool temperatures.
Contact: Sawtooth National Forest, fs.usda.gov/sawtooth. You can see more of Susan Taylor’s photography at www.susantaylorphoto.com.