Home in the Hills
The Sawtooth Valley has provided generations with summer getaways
Cabin Profiles By Hailey Tucker
Photography Glen Allison
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With a playful glint in his eye and a handlebar mustache that harkens back to pioneering days, Ivan Swaner has much in common with the valley where he spends his summers. He’s a living museum piece.
Swaner has spent most of his 76 years in central Idaho. He is an area historian sought after for his tales of railroads and mining companies, road building and sheepherding and the first snow groomers on Baldy, some of which he drove and maintained.
Swaner used to log in the Sawtooth Valley and remembers Redfish Lake when it glinted crimson from the reflection of thousands of spawning sockeye salmon. He will concede that a lot has changed, but what’s remarkable about the Sawtooth Basin is how much has stayed the same.
The sheep still come through, but nowhere near the 300,000 Swaner said the first U. S. Forest Service forest rangers counted in the valley at the turn of the century. (The number swelled to the millions during World War I.) There’s still a little mining going on up near old ghost town of Vienna. Cattle are brought up to summer range every June. But with them come the campers and cars loaded up with canoes and bicycles.
The Sawtooth Valley is known for its access to some of the West’s most breathtaking wilderness and world-class recreation, but for many it’s more than a trailhead—it’s home. The valley is dotted with cabins and small communities of vacation homes owned by Idahoans and Americans from around the country. For some families, generations have spent their summers here. Many first came as children, others found summer jobs and dreamed that someday they would make it their own home away from home. A few worked on family ranches and found spare moments for fishing or exploring nearby trails. They return year after year to enjoy the peaceful and long summer days, to this place that reminds them of simpler times.
“It’s the uniqueness,” Swaner said. “It’s a primitive area that’s the same as it was—a high mountain basin, and the Alps of America surround it.”
Like so many of America’s stunning landscapes, the Sawtooth Valley was largely considered too remote and rugged for year-round settlements. The summer and fall made for plentiful hunting and fishing, but according to local histories, American Indian tribes didn’t linger; they called the valley “the land of deep snows.”
News of rich mining discoveries by a prospecting party in the late 1870s led to the development of mining towns Vienna and Sawtooth City and the first road over Galena Summit in 1880. The mine above Vienna proved to be particularly successful, and by the mid-1880s the town swelled to a population of nearly 1,000. There were several stores, restaurants, saloons and a newspaper. But a harsh winter prompted many families to leave, and even though some came back the following year, the boom steadily dissipated. Today, a few disintegrating foundations and a hilltop cemetery are all that remain of Vienna and Sawtooth City.
Summer range for cattle and sheep was the next experiment in making the valley livable and profitable. By the early 1900s, vacationing families from the farming communities of southern Idaho were discovering the Sawtooths as a place to retreat for what was becoming a new American hobby, relaxing and recreating in the nation’s wild landscapes.
Talk of making the Sawtooth area a national park wasn’t far behind, and for decades Idahoans grappled with what to do with the valley. In the early 1970s, talk of large-scale mining in the White Cloud Mountains and unchecked subdivision and development of land in the valley were the primary catalysts for legislation to make the area some kind of preserve, said Sara Baldwin, area ranger for the Sawtooth National Forest.
The Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) was the result—756,000 acres stretching from the northern Wood River Valley in the south to Stanley in the north, from the White Cloud Mountains in the east and encompassing the 217,000 acres of wilderness in the Sawtooth Mountains to the west.
All that new recreation land preserved space to play, but it also swallowed up about 25,000 acres of private property. With the Forest Service now charged with preserving the “natural, scenic, historic, pastoral and fish and wildlife values,” property that didn’t fit the management plan was, over time, purchased or condemned.
Roughly 20,000 acres of private property remain. On more than 85 percent of that, the Forest Service holds the conservation easements that restrict development and keep the SNRA so unique.
“It’s what you don’t see in the SNRA that makes it different and special,” Baldwin said.
The easements may require that any building on the property cannot be seen from the highway, limit the percentage of land that may be developed or dictate design elements. Active ranching and sheepherding lands have been intentionally preserved. It’s part of what gives the area a museum-like quality.
“One of the things that I believe was the intent of the act was to retain a working landscape,” Baldwin said. Historic preservation, normally the business of maintaining buildings, was taken into account for these naturally pristine areas. Assessments concluded that the period between 1890 and 1940 held the greatest significance.
“We manage to that sort of era if we can—craft development goals to the ambiance of that era. I think the property owners within the SNRA play a significant role in protecting those values,” she said.
The result is small communities—Smiley Creek, Pettit Lake, Valley View, Fisher Creek, Iron Creek—and some old ranches where cabins have been in families for years and sometimes generations. More often than not, the story of a piece of property dates back to an original homesteading family.
Katie Breckenridge, owner of the B-Bar-B Ranch in Picabo, Idaho, south of the Wood River Valley, comes from just such a family. Her grandfather bought the beginnings of what would grow to a 2,800-acre ranch along Alturas Lake Creek. It was named Busterback Ranch by Breckenridge’s grandmother for the “men and women who worked so hard they broke their backs,” Breckenridge recalled.
“My grandfather helped build the road into Pettit Lake and one of the first cabins there,” she said.
Breckenridge spent much of her childhood on the ranch with her sisters while her parents made it a highly productive summer range for sheep and a few cattle.
“We would move to Pettit Lake in the summertime, and we thought it was horrible. There was no electricity, no friends. On the Fourth of July we would hike up to the ridge to see if we could see any cars coming down the road,” she said.
When the SNRA was created, Breckenridge said, her father was very forthright about the development rights that existed on their land and worked with the Forest Service to help create some of the private property regulations.
“Most people sold their conservation easements and scenic easements at a very low value for preserving open space. We’re not absentee owners. We’re ranching families. To me, we’re the original environmentalists,” she said.
Her father sold the majority of the ranch in the 1980s, but Breckenridge still owns the original 160 acres west of the highway and her older sisters still have a cabin on Pettit Lake.
Other vacation homeowners were lured to the valley by its whitewater rivers and high mountain lakes nestled in the rugged peaks of the Sawtooths.
Sari O’Malley began vacationing in the basin with her husband Gary and their two young boys when the family lived in Tacoma, Washington.
“We tent camped our first summer. It progressed slowly from camping in a tent to borrowing a trailer. Eventually, we bought property with another couple and used it for our vacations and rented it out as a vacation rental home,” she said.
Now, the boys are grown and Sari and Gary have permanently relocated here. “We are the vacation destination now. This is where our sons and other family want to come,” O’Malley said. She also started a vacation home rental company, Sawtooth Vista Rentals.
The five homes she rents are “completely booked for the summer,” she said. “I’m turning people away. It’s hard to turn anybody away.”
Paul and Ann Hill have a similar story. They came to the area in the late 1970s on vacation from Atlanta, Georgia, in search of whitewater.
That first year it was a trip on the Main Salmon, another year the Middle Fork of the Salmon, followed by another Middle Fork trip, then the Selway River.
“This was a place we kept coming back to, which was unusual for us,” said Paul Hill from their home in the Stanley area. “So in 1992 we bought some land. I think Ann would probably say it grabbed our souls.”
The Hills spend their winters in Oregon but their property in the Sawtooths is where they love to return and host their two sons and grandchildren.
“Our granddaughters learned to rock climb here and took their first river trips,” he said. “There’s a wildness about it that’s still here. It’s a place where people of all ages can get out but at the same time it still is kind of wild nature.” >>>