Sunrise Magic In The Sawtooth Mountains, Stanley ID
I stumbled out of bed at 3AM. It was pitch black outside, dead still and so early even the dog ignored me. I chugged a cup of hot coffee that I had prepped the night before, put on my puff jacket, woolly hat and gloves and headed out into the starry night.
Camera, check….tripod, check….wallet, check.
As I drove the twisty road over the pass I kept going over the list in my head. I’m not much use at 4AM (to be honest I’m a useless mess) but in the fuzzy corners in my mind I kept feeling I had forgotten something, something important, something critical…but I just couldn’t grasp it. Ah well, I thought, if I really can’t remember it can’t be that important.
An hour later I was at the photo site. The sky was lit with pre-dawn purple and subtle hues of pink were starting to show. I setup the camera at the perfect spot and breathed in the view. I could see the entire Sawtooth range, beautifully ragged, perfectly snow-speckled and reflected in mirror stillness on the lake. My hours of research had paid off and I’d found the exact picture location I had hoped for in my mind. Now, I just needed to wait or the show to start.
Right at that moment it hit me like a ten ton brick, the big thing I’d forgotten…OMG…Becky!!! I’d forgotten Becky! I’d left her at the side of the road. Oh craaaaaap!
I woke up in a panic in the RV. In one of my typical Nina moments I’d basically dreamt about our entire outing in detail so realistic my heart was pumping with the adrenalin of the screw-up.
This dream thing is something I’ve done all my life, usually before “big” events. I call it dream-practice, or “what not to do in real life” because I usually end up doing the very thing I’m terrified of messing up which, ironically, usually helps me avoid that very thing in the real world. Thank the dream gods. I hadn’t forgotten my friend after all!
You see Becky (Interstellar Orchard) was really the key to all this.
A few days prior on our hike in Ketchum I was telling her how stunning the mountains were just over the pass, and that I was toying with the idea of a sunrise shoot. The picture I wanted was so vivid in my mind I could taste it, but that meant getting up early, waaaaay early and I just wasn’t sure I was up for it.
First there was the hour and a half drive to get there. Then I wasn’t exactly sure where I could get the shot I wanted. I’d spent hours scouring the web, but hadn’t found specific shoot sites (only vague references), so that meant I’d need to allocate at least 30 mins for scouting, assuming I could find the site at all. Lastly if I wanted pre-dawn glow (which of course I did) I’d have to add another 30 mins to that. With sunrise at 6AM, that meant leaving here at an insane 3:30AM at the latest. I knew Paul wasn’t crazy enough to come with me (poor guy gets bored to tears on my morning shoots anyway) so that meant dragging my not-at-all morning ass out of bed to do it on my own.
After 20 minutes of me rambling on about this thing I either wore Becky down or I planted a seed. “I’ll join you” she said, without missing a beat. “I’m not a morning person, but I’ll do it”.
So you see forgetting Becky was a big deal, a very big deal which is of course exactly why I dreamt about it and why I woke up in a total panic in the dark. This whole devious photo plan depended on her!
Thankfully in the real world version of things I didn’t forget. The drive over went exactly like my dream, except for the side-stop to pick up Becky (who I aaalmost missed in the pitch black at the side of Hwy 75) and the rest of it went exactly like my dream too. Using EXIF data from a few drool-worthy shots I found on the web and playing around with Google Earth I’d managed to narrow down my “dream shoot location” to one of two spots around Little Redfish Lake. By the time Becky and I got there it was pre-dawn purple and after a mere 20 minutes stumbling around in the brush by the lake we’d found the exact spot I had hoped for. It was frikkin perfect!!! Mountains, lake, views…everything. Frikkin perfect!!!
Then we waited in the cold for the show to start….
Believe it or not the little town of Stanley, ID is consistently the coldest place (= most days of cold) in the entire country, outside of Alaska. The area sees below freezing over 292 days a year and has topped the coldest temp charts a record 398 days from 1995-2005! It’s a bizarre result of the exact geology of the mountains, the weather and the location of the town. Somehow it catches all the Arctic blasts and basically just keeps them right here. Even in the dead of summer, temps are chilly and driving over here we’d seen the gauge plummet from ~45°F (~+7°C) to a icy ~27°F (~-3°C). The plants around the lakeshore were covered in frost and the metal from my tripod was so icy I could feel it seeping through my gloves. We were set-up right next to campers too, so we tried to keep warm without making too much of a racket…a hard thing for a cold-adverse, clumsy person like myself.
After what seemed like an eternity, the sky brightening every moment it still hasn’t happened.
“Is it ever going to happen?” asked Becky, obviously somewhat skeptical
“Most definitely” I replied, less sure than I sounded. “It always happens” I added, just for good measure
The “thing” we were waiting for, and the whole reason we’d gotten up so early in the first place was the alpenglow. It’s that magical moment right before sunrise when light reflects off the atmosphere (or clouds) onto mountain peaks. For a select few minutes this scattering effect shifts the light to red and the peaks glow in an awesome fiery display. A mere 5 minutes later it’s gone and the mountains fade back to their natural granite grey. It’s a totally mind-blowing experience and as long as clouds don’t obscure it (and you’re up early enough to get it) it’s almost guaranteed to happen. For a photographer it’s the ultimate “catch”.
Thankfully for the sake of my photographer’s rep, it did happen and for the next 20 minutes we both went crazy capturing the scene.
And yes it was Frikkin amazing, mind-blowing and everything in-between. In fact it’s moments like this, when I’m photographing something so beautiful it’s impossible to adequately describe, when I’m so deeply absorbed by the nature around me, that I feel most zen. The outside world disappears and I merge with the earth. I think about nothing but that very moment, I feel nothing except the infinite beauty of nature washing over my senses in waves of euphoria. It’s intoxicating and better than years of transcendental meditation. Talk about the ultimate happiness drug, seriously!
For the next few hours Becky and I hit up several other photo spots. We drove to the Lodge next-door at Redfish Lake to capture the mist rolling like waves over the lake as the sun peaked over the mountains behind it. We drove over to Stanley Lake to capture the peaks reflecting perfectly in crystal clear waters. We stopped to shoot the mountains with wooden fences, we stopped to capture the mountains with cows, and of course we went for the classic shot -> the mountains with that “perfect” bunch of flowing lupines in front of them. The latter took a bit of hunting, and required an awkward (and decidedly unglamorous) shooting position flat on the floor, but we got the shot.
By 10AM we were home and awash in the glorious aftermath of a perfect morning photo shoot. Images flowing through my mind, the beauty still riding waves of happiness deep in my heart. It was an awesome outing.
And the best thing of all? I didn’t forget Becky!
PHOTOGRAPHY NOTES/ Now that we’ve found all the best spots, I can share them with you lovely folks so you don’t have to go searching like I did:
- Little Redfish Lake – My #1 recommended spot for perfect reflections of the FULL Sawtooth range in water. It’s the only place I know where you can get this expansive a view in water IMHO. Park by the small campground (approx. coords 44.1618058,-114.907468) and walk along the shore-line by the campsites to find your spot. Dog-friendly.
- Redfish lake – Also picturesque and minutes up the road from Little Redfish, but you won’t get a full Sawtooth view here because of the orientation of the lake. The Lodge (44.1428798,-114.925486) has good views as does the day use area (44.1444738,-114.91451). NO dogs allowed on the beach here and day-use areas have a fee.
- Stanley Lake – Another awesome lake and mountain spot, only ~10 mins drive West from Stanley. Drive to the “scenic overlook” (44.2478618,-115.058805) for a lovely view. Dog-friendly.
- Stanley – Spend some time around Stanley for photography. You can capture the river here and also drive West out of town for some great “mountain with fence” pics. No marked spots, but there are small pull-outs all around town. Dog-friendly.
- Stanley Ranger Station – Another great viewpoint (44.1773618,-114.927555). Lots of wildflowers here in summer so you have a good chance of capturing that classic “mountain with flowers” shot. Dog-friendly.
For this outing I used my “big” camera the Nikon D750 with an 24-120 mm lens. For my sunrise shots I took multiple exposures on the tripod and then combined them in post-processing.SPONSORED LINK:
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Robert Hazlett says
Stanley, ID “where the middle of nowhere is somewhere”. Stanley is just about my favorite place and the Sawtooth Mountains are the most beautiful. Would you be willing to guest post this piece on my website http://www.placesoffthemap.com to add to the piece I have already posted on Stanley?
One look at those “blue hour” photos makes me mad at myself for not getting up more often. My favorite is the “Mist and Mountains” reflection…
It’s a very rare occurrence for me to get up for sunrise shoots, but every now and then I make it. The Tetons got me up for sunrise, and so did this place. Both were totally worth it.
Gorgeous photos and delightful story that reminds me of the movie “Living In Oblivion” regarding your dream sequence! Glad you were able to get the big payoff on your pre-dawn prep – all too often us landscape shooter have to swallow the bitter pill and embrace disappointment when the morning weather doesn’t co-operate 🙁
Keep on truck’n and clicking!
Michael & Grace
Totally! There’s never any guarantee that the mountains won’t be covered in clouds and/or the whole shoot will be a dud. I was a little nervous getting up so early for something that might or might not pan out. I’m so glad it did!
Mary Hone says
Great shots! You captured those mountains so well. And who needs sleep. Lol
Will Hansen says
Nice work Nina! I knew you’d like Stanley and have been waiting to see a post like this. Awesome photos. Now, I don’t want you to get too excited, but there are even prettier places in Idaho. I hope you find a bunch more!. It’s an
I’m definitely motivated to explore more of Northern Idaho now. We went to the top of Bald Mountain today and I saw peaks stretching out to the horizon. Makes me wonder what kind of photo goodies they hide.
Mary Barton says
Your photos, as always, do great justice to Mother Nature 🙂
Angie Kuklinski says
Beautiful photos! We love Stanley! We spent time there just prior to whitewater kayaking the Middle Fork of the Salmon River for 6 days/100 miles, a designated wild and scenic River. Thanks for sharing your gorgeous photos, great depiction of the beauty in little Stanley! Enjoy….
Wow! 6 days on the Salmon River. That must have been an awesome trip!
ann creed says
beautiful photos! ..wish i were there.
Thanks for all the effort so us slackers could enjoy such beauty. Great pictures! Sounds a bit too cold for me.
It’s definitely not something I do too often, but I’m glad I can share the experience on the blog with others. And yes, it was darned cold!
Drop dead gorgeous pictures Nina! I feel the same way about nature that you do it fills my soul but I can’t express the words as beautifully as you did. Thank you for the gallant effort and for sharing your efforts with all of us.
Judith Blinkenberg says
They are Amazing pictures! What beauty our God has created for us to see and for you to give us the pictures! I hope I get there someday and if I have to get up early to see I will.
Okay, I am definitely getting my butt out of bed more often for these mountain shots. Your images are mind-boggling gorgeous! Thanks for the great tips. We may be near Stanley before we head back down to CA.
If you happen to come by this month let me know. We’ll be here through the end of the month at least.
Great photos of my favorite state! I thought the dream might be saying “forget Becky” because she didn’t want to get up that early
Our family has a family foundation/corporation with an old cabin in Driggs Idaho they actually lived in with an old barn like everyone wants pictures of with the Tetons in the background.
Love it there and stuck in Colorado
Nina, GREAT pictures and now I have another place on the ever growing list of places to see. Your story brought back lost lost memories of a dream sequence with not such a great ending…a paper I needed to finish in nursing school that was “completed” in my dream so I was able to turn off the alarm clock when it rang at 3am and sleep until 6am…when I found the unfinished paper.
Kudos for rolling out of bed so early. Redfish Lake is beautiful and we thought about camping there. Stunning photographs… so worth braving the cold and dark.
Beautiful photos Nina!
Simply stunning Nina!
Mike Merrill says
Your art gets better and better. Spent a few days last summer in Arco & didn’t realize that beauty we missed that was so close.
I do find it amazing that these mountains are just over the pass from the high, dry desert of Arco. We’ve been RVing for 7 years including many times along I-84 through the southern part of Idaho and we’ve never made it up here before. It’s a definite “find” for us too!
Richard Cross says
Nina, thanks for a wonderful photoshoot and narrative. Your pictures capture some of the most inspiring moments that typically go unseen. Add to that, your narrative, and I was swept away to some of my favorite memories… morning mist on a Northern Ontario lake. The calls of the loons riding the fog from somewhere far away. The fresh chill sharpening all the senses…
Thank you for the experience.. I enjoy seeing your work, and reading your words.
MonaLiza Lowe says
A big wow! Only hardcore and real photographers get out of bed at 3AM to get the perfect shot. Thank you for sharing your magical morning coupled with great photography. My fave is the first one captioned as the perfect sunrise spot, the rest were just gravy.
And I was almost taken in by your dream.
The dream had me going too. I really thought I had forgotten her LOL.
Jil Mohr says
Definitely worth getting up early for. We rafted on the Salmon river which was incredible… Glad you are liking that part of the world… Yet another under rated state! Hope Polly is still progressing.
Karen Hazlett says
Every post I comment on I simply say, Thank you. There are more flabouant words put in truth your photos take not only mt breath but my inability to come up with a perfect adjective. Our travel plans next summer include Idoho. So I hope we enjoy the surreal moments you shared. Again thanks for your generousity. Safe journeys Karen
Box Canyon Mark says
Stanley stole my heart one summer about thirty years ago… until I found out how cold it was :(.
Haha…yeah I think that would stop me too. I really had no idea Stanley was so cold until a blog reader pointed it out to me.
Lynne F says
Totally amazing photos! Love how you tell the story and share so much of your self.
And lucky Becky’s to be there at the right time!
Well another great post, and another place to add to our list of to visit places…
As always, many thanks for sharing your eye on nature, and for losing a few hours sleep for this set:)!
Jim and Gayle says
I like photography but just can’t get that interested. Kudos to both of you for getting up so early to capture those amazing photos. I love the “Rocks light up on Stanley Lake”. Looking forward to getting to the Sawtooths!
Only the photo crazies get up that early in the day. I was actually surprised we didn’t see any other photographers out there, but I guess the Sawtooths are still mostly a hidden photo secret.
Absolutely gorgeous, and your story telling… just captivating.
So funny, I started reading and thought to myself ‘Why has she not mentioned Becky?’ – as those of us who follow you elsewhere knew she was there too :).
Guy Cobham says
Fantastic . (I was going to use absolutely gorgeous, but Cherie beat me to it,) Can’t believe you didn’t have to go up there two or three days in succession to get it right.
Me too! I was a bit worried I’d have to go several times to catch the pics I wanted, and I honestly don’t know how many 3AM wake-ups I can handle LOL. I feel so lucky that it all worked out in one go.
Glad you didn’t forget Becky after all! What a treat for both of you to have someone to share the wonder – and the cold – in person. The purple mountains are beyond amazing and are such a stark contrast to the alpenglow which is of course just as fabulous. Thanks for sharing 🙂
I have to admit I’m partial to that pre-dawn purple. It’s so subtle and not nearly as dramatic as the alpenglow that comes just after, but it’s so special. I’ve only captured pre-dawn purple a few times in my life.
Pam Wright says
So glad you were willing to get up at that crazy hour so we, too, could enjoy the beautiful sunrise:) Your photos are magnificent!! I love reflection photos in the perfectly still water. Thanks!
I loooove mountain reflections. Very, very early AM is really the best time to catch them, before the wind whips up ripples in the water. When Paul and I visited Redfish Lake last week we didn’t arrive until ~10AM and the reflections were already long gone. It’s such a treat to capture the mountains before that happens.
No matter where you see it for the first time, that Alpenglow will capture you forever! For me it was on my first backpacking trip up the Bishop Pass in the Eastern Sierras. I can completely understand the 3:30wake up calls to seek out those magical moments and this one was so beautiful Nina. Thanks for sharing it!
Ah yes, alpenglow in the Sierras…totally magical. I’ve been lucky enough to catch that a few times, and I’ll never forget those moments. What a great memory!
Ray & Abby says
I would like to start off by giving you a big “Thanking You” for all of the great informative and entertaining writings you have shared with us all over the years. It has become a ritual to read your posts with my first couple cups of coffee in the mornings.
I do have a photo question for you if I may. I am looking for a new photo processing program and I am curious about which programs that you use and or recommend. I have used Lightroom for years which I have enjoyed until the last version came out and Photo Shop does not interest me either. If my memory serves me, you have mentioned previously an HDR program as well. May camera is a Nikon D700 and I use my Apple Laptop as my computer.
Thank you, Ray
I’m like you…I’m not a fan of the newer versions of Lightroom or Photoshop either. I have a very old version of Photoshop (PS4) that I use for most of my stuff. For the HDR shots I’m really enjoying Photomatix Pro. It’s $99 for the software, but you can try it out for free (for as long as you want) before you buy. I’ve used it way more than I expected and find it fun to mess around with.
Here’s the direct link: http://www.hdrsoft.com/order.php
Thank you for the exquisite photos of such a beautiful place. “The outside world disappears and I merge with the earth. I think about nothing but that very moment, I feel nothing except the infinite beauty of nature washing over my senses in waves of euphoria.” YES! That’s how I feel when I’m out in nature observing and sketching. As a not-a-morning person I rarely do get up early, but when I do, also get to see a whole other world of activity: owls, other nocturnal species. It’s pretty darn cool.
I’m so with you Moira. Nature is the one place that calms me totally. And as I get older I notice it more. I could meditate, or do years of yoga and I still don’t think I would feel as grounded as I do with a simple walk in nature. It’s an amazing thing and I’m so grateful that I’m able to do it.
You planned it perfect! Your shots are amazing! They are so beautiful!
John & Deanna says
Your excellent write-ups, reviews, and mostly, photography have awakened a long dormant bug in me. (photo bug, that is) I can recall the family traveling past Salt Lake city in the pre-dawn hours when I decided to stop somewhere for a photo op. We waited 1 1/2 or 2 hours for me to capture a beautiful image. I didn’t know how good it was until the Kodachrome was developed. I was amazed the the mountain / lake grandeur.
You have re-ignited that burning fire. thanks.
Ah the good old days of Kodachrome. Great film! I used to shoot black and white, and develop myself back in the day too. It was quite a process to get film developed, but oh so satisfying.
These days we have instant satisfaction with our digital cameras. In some ways it makes me a lazy photographer (I don’t think about my camera settings as carefully as I once did), but in other ways it helps to develop my skills too. These days I can take as many “test shots” as I like, seeing the results right in camera and correcting them moments later in real time. It’s so much fun.
Definitely go feed that photography bug! You’ll love it!!
That kayak photo looks like a happy accident. It’s so unusual and inspiring!
That shot was actually a bit of an accident. I was facing the other way shooting the light on the face of the mountains when I turned around on a whim. That’s when I saw the sun cresting the mountains on the other side. I took 3 shots in quick succession hoping I’d caught the moment. Literally seconds later the light was different. It was a very lucky capture!
Incredible, and Thank You !!!
Kat Elder says
That is so awesome. Your pictures are so incredible. I need a new camera but also the skill to take such wonderful works of art. Thanks for sharing.
The skills develop with practice…and don’t worry too much about the camera either. For inspiration check out Becky’s post on our outing (she’ll likely post today or tomorrow). She took all her pics with her iPhone and she got some stunners! The key is just to get out and shoot. You’ll become a master in no time!
Awesome pictures! Your story reminded me of a outing last Summer. I wanted (not necessarily the rest of the family) to catch & shoot the sunrise at Hat Point Overlook. We were camped in Joseph Oregon so it meant leaving at 3AM for a two hour trip, much of it on dirt roads straight up mountain in the dark. Sleep is never good before an early morning flight, I was in the same state for this outing. When at 2AM Pacific I somehow realized that Sunrise was at 5:30 AM MOUNTAIN time… To much protest, as it couldn’t possibly be 3AM already I got everyone into the truck. Its always far easier going solo as the pressure of a dud is limited but this turned out to be spectacular.
The drive takes you thru Oregon’s Easternmost settlement Imnaha named after a Native American Subchief.
What an awesome adventure! I know exactly the spot you’re talking about too. Great that you got a good sunrise out of it.
Sherry in MT says
You done GREAT kiddo! Those kind of mornings are for photographers and dog show people – the only ones I know that do that stuff but so worth it to get shots like that. Sooooo impressed!
Sherry in MT says
Oh and I fall in both categories so call me double crazy! LOL
Lovely alpenglow shots—the experience is even more special because you had to work so hard for it, don’t you think? Reading your story reminded me of rising before dawn to photograph sunrise at Mono Lake. The alpenglow was worth braving the cold and dark early morning. But that’s in retrospect, because I sure was resistant to leaving my warm, cozy bed!
Mono Lake is one of the other rare spots that’s gotten me up for sunrise. In fact I got up 3 days in a row for that one (thankfully we were boondocking close by). And yeah, talk about chilly! But sooo worth it!
Ellen Braun says
Wow! Truly amazing! You have the gift.
Definitely worthy of a way too early wake up. Your shots are breathtaking! I admire your devotion. And glad you remembered Becky.
Gorgeous photos Nina–we are considering some life changes and have been researching “cool temps in summer” type places. The cowboy is not an ocean person 🙁 so, your Stanley, ID sounds interesting!
I think Stanley will be RIGHT up your alley. Tons of boondocking, cool temps and lots of ATVing too.
Here’s a funny one for you Nina–I asked the cowboy if we had ever been to Stanley, ID and he said, “it’s not Stanley, look at it closer, it’s Staley.” I said, “Nina would NOT make a mistake!! and she said it was Stanley.” So, being a man, he got out the map and had to eat crow! :)))))
HA! You had me going there for a while. Being dyslexic as I am I often make silly mistakes like that. I’m glad it wasn’t a Nina-ism this time around.
Aw-Ha here too…I read Becky’s post last night..I’m with her..Just stay up all night..I am in no way a morning person….When you reach the top of the pass towards Stanley it is just such an amazing sight!
I’ve taken many pictures while at the dump site South of Stanley…It has to be one of the best…
I also sent my sis two pictures of the outhouse by the airport different years..There is a nice park up there…A nice bakery in town but I don’t do waiting in lines anymore….They are always closed or closing by the time I’ve hit town..
Keep exploring…It will get warmer..maybe for another couple of weeks…
Let us know about Alturus Lake if you get there, I haven’t…Yet!
Totally agree on the scenic dump! That’s around where we took the pic of the lupines with the mountains behind them. Sweet little spot! Didn’t know about the outhouse by the airport. I like scenic outhouses so I’ll have to check that out.
Paul and I stopped at Alturas Lake our first trip over the pass. It’s not nearly as scenic as Redfish Lake IMHO, but it’s a lovely kayak/paddle lake and quite pretty.