‘A Crown Jewel of Idaho Recreation’: The history and significance of Idaho’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area


One thing Idahoans agree on is that we adore our public lands! And one of Idaho’s most beloved landscapes, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, is turning 50 this year. To commemorate this special anniversary, Senator Michelle Stennett introduced ID SCR117, a resolution to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Sawtooth National Recreation Act, which established the Sawtooth National Recreation Area to preserve the natural, historic, and recreational value of this iconic stretch of Idaho.

CVI Development & Outreach Coordinator Cami Murray with friends at Fourth of July Lake.

What is the Sawtooth National Recreation Area?
This corner of Idaho had been inhabited as far back as 12,000 years ago when prehistoric hunters lived and hunted near Redfish Lake. Since 1700, the Shoshone, the Bannock and Northern Paiute tribes were the traditional stewards of this land. When the Tribes were forcibly removed from their lands, settlers flocked to the Sawtooth National Forest – including what would eventually become the SNRA – for its abundant natural resources. Towards the end of the 19th century, sheepherding gained popularity in the Sawtooths, replacing silver mining as the primary economic foundation. Basque sheepherders managed over 300,000 sheep in the area by the early 1900s, contributing to the Sawtooths’ pastoral reputation. In fact, sheepherding and other ranching still occurs in parts of the region (you may have heard of Ketchum’s annual “Trailing of the Sheep” festival!)

However, like most beloved outdoor areas, unbridled resource extraction started to threaten this beautiful corner of Idaho. In 1972, Congress established the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) to protect this recreational haven for locals and visitors alike. Within 756,000 acres of public lands and waters, the SNRA provides ample opportunity for all kinds of activity year round, including backpacking, fishing, snowmobiling, hunting, cycling, rafting, and much more. 

If you’re looking for adventure, you’ll find it in the SNRA. There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails, many of them leading directly to one of over 300 high-alpine lakes that are inaccessible other than by foot (or horse). For those with a little more ambition and stamina, the SNRA has 40 mountain peaks above 10,000 feet. Within the Sawtooth NRA are three wilderness areas, managed to protect their natural character, making them some of the nation’s most protected spaces. The lands and waters within the Hemingway Boulder Mountains, the Cecil Andrus White Clouds, and the Sawtooth Wilderness areas provide jaw-dropping views, unsullied by traffic and development. 

Aside from containing Idaho’s most spectacular scenic views and mountaineering trails, the SNRA boasts abundant opportunities for fishing, hunting, RV and tent camping, and even hot spring-hopping. The SNRA provides excellent space to escape into the wonders of nature and open space, as an active recreator and participant, or as a casual observer.

CVI Field Coordinator Tess Wallace in the Sawtooth Mountains.

What is a National Recreation Area?
A National Recreation Area is a swath of preserved terrain (including land and water) that has been protected by an Act of Congress due to the area’s natural resources, scenic attributes, and recreational opportunities. So far, the US has created 40 NRAs nationwide, each one unique. NRAs are some of the most accessible outdoor spaces, thanks to their size, recreation opportunities, and their close location to communities.

NRAs, including our beloved SNRA, draw thousands of visitors every year. Since its designation, the SNRA has become a world-class recreation site for visitors and locals, benefiting communities like Ketchum and Sun Valley, as well as smaller mountain communities such as Stanley, Salmon, and Smiley Creek. Tourism and recreation brings millions of dollars into these communities by bringing eager customers to recreation outfitters, restaurants, apparel stores, lodging, and other businesses. 

“The protections established by Congress have permitted millions of Americans to enjoy the natural beauty of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and have resulted in additional visitation and tourism that contribute significantly to Idaho’s economy”

-from Senator Michelle Stennett’s resolution, SCR117

SNRA and the Statehouse
In recent weeks, the Idaho Legislature has issued a resolution to acknowledge and celebrate the SNRA, a crown jewel of Idaho recreation, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary and reaffirms Idahoans’ love for our public lands. The initiative was introduced by Senator Michelle Stennett, a representative from District 26 which includes Blaine county and the Wood River Valley, which borders the SNRA. As of March 1st, the legislation is headed to a final vote on the House floor. If it passes, the resolution becomes law. 

CVI Finance & Operations Manager Liz Littman hiking in the Sawtooth region with her dog Beaker.

Senator Stennett is the Minority Leader of the Idaho Senate, as well as a committee member of Senate State Affairs, Resources & Environment, and Health & Welfare. CVI initially endorsed Senator Stennett in her 2016 campaign for Senate, as well as her re-election in 2020. She has pushed for clean air and water for Idaho throughout her entire legislative career, and participated actively in interim committees on natural resources, water issues, and public lands access.

CVI applauds Senator Stennett for utilizing her position in the legislature to place the Sawtooth National Recreation Area into the spotlight for its 50th anniversary. Not only does the SNRA bring millions of dollars in tourism to small communities, but it is the source of joy and wondrous memories for thousands of Idaho residents who have visited and enjoyed it (including the CVI staff!)