Idaho’s Best Camping Secret: Redfish Lake

Redfish Lake, Redfish Inlet Transfer Camp:

The Gem State has an infinite selection of shimmering lakes pooling in its high country, but perhaps its crowned jewel is Redfish Lake. Benched six miles above Stanley, Idaho, and framed by 10,000’ peaks, the five-mile-long lake is a popular playground for those of us in the valley seeking respite from the summer heat.

The Transfer Camp is a secret even among seasoned Idahoans, and a way to get away from the crowds. With outdoor options to suit everyone’s needs, it’s worth going out of your way. Here’s how to camp like a local at one of Idaho’s finest alpine playgrounds.

Camping Fee – $12.00; Crowds – Low; Difficulty – Easy but remote; Tent Sites – 16; Group Sites – 8; Dogs – Allowed; Fire pits – Yes; Picnic Tables – Yes; Bathrooms – Yes; Showers – No; Water – Purify Your Own; Season – Summer

The Route: While the north shore caters to nearly every amenity (there’s a full-service lodge and marina with wi-fi, a restaurant, and rental boats), the remote (and relatively unknown) south shore is a six mile hike. If you don’t want to walk, a summer boat service runs the 10 minute route 5 times daily between 7 AM and 8 PM, seven days a week.

Shuttle gear from a temporary lot to the marina, then park in the overnight lot nearby. The shuttle boat will bring you to the Transfer Camp dock on the lake’s south shore, where it’s a 100-foot walk to the first camp or a short hike across a footbridge to the upper camp.

The Crux: While the shuttle service makes this a near drive-up experience, it is still remote and slightly committing. The last ride out is at 8 PM, requiring self-extraction via the hike out after hours or waiting for the first morning boat.

The Transfer Camp is first-come, first-serve, and the weekends will see a spike in activity. But the camp still had spots available the weekend after July 4th for my family. A midweek launch will give you an upper leg on choice tent flats.

To gauge the activity, and to reserve a boat ride, put a call to the marina (208-744-3536). They document all boat traffic in and out of the south shore campground and can provide information on how many people might be currently at the camp.

When to go: Sitting at 6,500 feet, Redfish Lake is alpine and snow conditions dictate the start of the season. Things generally pick up in mid-June and will steadily roll into Labor Day, after which the shuttle will run by demand or reservation.

Red Tape: As of 2014, the shuttle will set each adult back $10 one-way ($16 round-trip); $4 (each way) for children under six; and $3 (each way) for dogs. Camping is $12 per camp per night, paid at the self-service pay station in camp.

The Transfer Camp sits just outside a Wilderness area. No backcountry permits required. If you plan to venture into the Wilderness, backcountry boxes sit just outside the campground. Fido is welcome to join you, but bring a leash between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Get There and Get Ready: For out-of-staters, the nearest city is Boise, where you can rent a car to make the 3-hour drive to Stanley. Provision in Boise, though Stanley has services to support throngs of thrill seekers. (Stanley is also the departure point for the must-do Middle Fork of the Salmon River.) In a pinch, a small general store can supply you with overpriced last-minute requirements.

Amenities: The Transfer Camp is family friendly, with designated burn pits, picnic tables and a pair of toilets. Trash cans are provided but you are encouraged to pack it out.

Required Gear: The boat shuttle can carry as much or as little as you want; we managed to get a big tent, two coolers full of food and beverage, a two burner stove and camp chairs for everyone, fishing rods, packraft and several bags of clothing. We saw some parties outfitted for 2 weeks, with SUPs, sea kayaks, dining room nets and supplies for a 10-day reunion.

Choose Your Own Adventure: Redfish Lake’s south shore is beach-front property for both the casual camper and avid adventurer. Meandering trails serpentine through shaded old growth to provide a relaxing venue for down time.

For those who want to kick it up a notch, a 17-mile, bike-friendly trail circles the lake. Hundreds of miles of wilderness trail duck deep into the Sawtooths immediately off the camp. The main trail south follows the creek up into Idaho’s foremost big wall valley. Elephant’s Perch, a classic monolith, has several technical lines, including a 5.11 Becky route etched directly up its central face.

Redfish Lake Creek pours out of the Sawtooth Range, cutting a line through the granite slabs via technical class 4 whitewater down to the lake, where lunker trout await dinner to be flushed out with the runoff.

So pack your bags, stay a while. If you’re lucky, you may snag a rare north shore campground reservation. But with so much to offer, you may want to sample a bit of everything from the quiet and secluded Transfer Camp.