5 Reasons You Must Backpack Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains

By Michael Lanza

Chances are that, by now, you’ve heard of Idaho’s Sawtooths—having typed that name into a search box may be the reason you’ve landed on this story. Maybe you’ve been intrigued at what you’ve heard or images you’ve seen from Idaho’s best-known mountain range. Perhaps you’ve even been there and the experience has only amplified your curiosity to see more of this range.

As someone who’s had the good fortune of having backpacked all over the country and in many other countries over the past three-plus decades, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog, I rank the Sawtooths among the 10 best backpacking trips in America.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-books to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

Backpackers on Trail 154 to Cramer Divide in Idaho's Sawtooths.
Backpackers on Trail 154 to Cramer Divide in Idaho’s Sawtooths.

I’ve wandered around the Sawtooths at least a couple dozen times over more than two decades, including numerous backpacking trips, dayhikes, peak scrambles, rock climbing, and backcountry skiing. While there remain peaks on my list to climb, a few trails to hike, and many lakes to leap into (or just sit beside), the Sawtooths have become my backyard mountains. I feel at home there.

This story presents the five reasons I think every backpacker should take a multi-day hike through the Sawtooths—spotlighting the characteristics of a trip there that make this place unique. I believe this argument may persuade you to go (if, somehow, the photos don’t do it).

See my e-book “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains” to learn all you need to know to plan and pull off a five-day, 36-mile Sawtooths hike through the core of the Sawtooths, and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan every detail of a multi-day hike there.

Please share your thoughts or experiences there in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

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Backpackers on Trail 95 above Twin Lakes in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
My wife, Penny, and Mae Davis backpacking above Twin Lakes in Idaho’s Sawtooths. Click photo for my e-book “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.”

1. It’s Not That Hard

Having backpacked all over the country and in many other countries, I recognize how friendly the Sawtooths are to relatively inexperienced backpackers, starting with generally well-maintained and well-marked trails that rarely get very steep, having been constructed for pack animals like horses and llamas.

Elevations remain moderate. Most passes crossed by trails rise just over 9,000 feet, a height that most people acclimate to quickly. And as with many interior West mountain ranges, summer brings stable weather and blessedly few mosquitoes after July.

See the best of the Sawtooths using my
expert e-book to the best backpacking trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains!

Dawn light on Baron Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Dawn light on Baron Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

2. These Peaks Will Kind of Blow You Away

For years after moving to Idaho in 1998, with each trip I took into a new corner of the Sawtooths, I’d discover a spot that I was convinced was prettier than anyplace I’d been previously in this range. That happened to me several times, until I’d covered a fair bit of the Sawtooths and settled on the general conclusion that these peaks and mountain lakes are as beautiful as almost any range I’ve been in—certainly in the American West.

The Sawtooths look like a little sibling of the High Sierra or Tetons for their serrated skylines and mountain lakes that compare in beauty (if not in numbers) with the Sierra and Wind River Range.

A total of 57 summits top 10,000 feet in the Sawtooth Mountains, and nearly 400 trout-filled alpine lakes, many sitting well over 8,000 feet, shimmer in high bowls sculpted by long-ago glaciers. The range lies protected within the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which encompasses the equally beautiful White Cloud Mountains across the Sawtooth/Salmon River Valley, and most of the range is designated wilderness.

In other words: There’s plenty of space to wander around.

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Rock Slide Lake in Idaho's southern Sawtooth Mountains.
Rock Slide Lake in the remote interior of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Click photo to read about this trip.

3. Yes, You Can Find Solitude

A backpacker hiking below El Capitan in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Jan Roser backpacking below El Capitan in the Sawtooth Mountains.

As happened in many—if not most—backcountry areas across the country, the pandemic summer of 2020 brought a big leap in the numbers of backpackers in the Sawtooths. Friends and readers of The Big Outside reported to me about seeing more people than expected or more than they’d seen on any previous trip there.

Still, those reports and my personal experience point to a certain reality that’s long been true in many backcountry areas: Most backpacker use is heavily concentrated around weekends in August and at a few popular lakes within a day’s hike of some popular trailheads. Hike midweek during the peak summer season or after Labor Day, or venture into lesser-known areas more than a day’s hike into the mountains, and you can often find a surprising degree of solitude.

Some readers who purchase my custom trip planning tell me they prefer to get away from the crowds—and are willing to compromise a bit on mountain splendor for solitude. But that’s not necessary in the Sawtooths, as one reader who I helped plan a trip there discovered. After it, he emailed me describing his shock at how few people he saw and posted this comment at my Custom Trip Planning page: “Just back from an amazing 5-day trip in the Sawtooth Mountains. Michael took the time to understand my priorities, goals, and comfort level and crafted a route that was clearly tailored uniquely to me. Most important, Michael’s itinerary was significantly different from—and better than—anything I would have come up with on my own.”

See my “12 Expert Tips for Finding Solitude When Backpacking.”

I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip in the Sawtooths.
Want my help with yours? Find out more here.

A backpacker above the Redfish Valley of Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Kade Aldrich above the Redfish Valley in Idaho’s Sawtooths. Click photo for my e-book “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.”

4. No Red Tape

Unlike in national parks and more popular national forest wildernesses (in the High Sierra and elsewhere), no permit reservation is required for backcountry camping in the Sawtooths. You show up, fill out a permit at a self-service trailhead kiosk, and hit the trail.

That’s very appealing for backpackers who don’t always plan their trips months in advance in order to apply for a permit reservation; or who may have done that but struck out getting a permit somewhere else; or who find themselves changing plans due to wildfires—a regular summer occurrence these days—or another reason.

And the Sawtooths represent a pretty darn good consolation prize if your first trip fell through.

After the Sawtooths, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”

A young girl hiker at Imogene Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.
My daughter, Alex, at Imogene Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan your next backpacking trip.

5. There’s a Lot to See

A network of almost 350 miles of trails presents myriad opportunities for exploring the Sawtooth Wilderness on backpacking trips ranging from easy to ambitious—from the relatively accessible trails we hiked on the two trips described in this story, to more remote footpaths deeper in the wilderness, such as the 57-mile hike a friend and I took that I wrote about in this story.

A hiker below Thompson Peak in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
My wife, Penny, hiking below Thompson Peak, the highest in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

See all stories about backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains at The Big Outside, including these:

The Best of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Backpacking Redfish to Pettit
Jewels of the Sawtooths: Backpacking to Alice, Hell Roaring, and Imogene Lakes
The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths
Going After Goals: Backpacking Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains
Roof of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Hiking Thompson Peak

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my stories “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be,” “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

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8 thoughts on “5 Reasons You Must Backpack Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains”

  1. Thanks for the info! Hoping to do an overnight backpacking trip when I’m out there in early June. Do you think any of the trails will be passable that time of year? Pretty experienced backpacker but would love to see an alpine lake (unfrozen). Looking into Alice Lake, Imogene Lake, or Bench Lake trails. Also open to day hikes if overnight would be too cold.

    • Hi Andrea,

      No, you’re likely to encounter a solid snow cover before you get very far up trails in early June, especially after this past winter’s unusually high snowpack.

      In most Western mountain ranges—the High Sierra, Yosemite, Tetons, Sawtooths, and Cascades, to name a few—you’ll typically find the ground solidly snow-covered in June and early July, at least above 7,000 to 8,000 feet or so. While it’s melting quickly by then and there’s a lot of variability throughout the month—depending on the previous winter’s snowpack, spring temps, elevation, aspect, and sun exposure—even late June is usually still quite snowy. Mid-July is normally the beginning of summer in bigger Western mountains.

      In a normal June to early July, you might start up trails that are initially snow-free but, once higher, eventually find yourself postholing in deep snow. I’ve done that in too many places and it’s often miserable.

      I suggest you wait until at least later in July.

  2. Hi I’m also an experienced backpacker and I do have some questions to ask about the certain dates on either late July or early august with the snow conditions. This article you wrote is great to get started since I wanted to go somewhere else different than both Washington state and California plus Colorado. Thanks

    • Hi Dolph,

      Thanks for the compliment and question. Yes, late July through August is a prime time to backpack in Idaho’s Sawtooths. The snow melts out even at the high passes often by around mid-July. Good luck.

  3. I’m using your guide for “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idahos Sawtooth Mountains” and we’re super excited! The guide has been incredibly helpful and is going to make planning our trip super simple.

    I do have one question that I hope you can clarify. You’ve listed the approximate cumulative elevation gain/loss as 16,000 feet. I have found nearly the same trail on a different site and it has the elevation gain of around 6,500 feet. Is there a difference in calculating the cumulative elevation gain/loss versus what the other site labels as just elevation gain? I’m asking because we took a backpacking trip through the White Mountains of Maine (Grafton Notch Loop) that had an elevation gain listed by that website of 11,000 feet that we considered to be pretty difficult. If this trail is 16,000 feet of elevation gain then it may prove to be too difficult for us.

    Thanks in advance for any clarification you can provide.

    • Hey Jared,

      Thanks for buying my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idahos Sawtooth Mountains,” I think you’re going to love that hike and want to explore more of the Sawtooths afterward.

      You ask a good question, I’d be happy to clarify that because I know many websites and other sources or even digital map programs only display total elevation gain. My e-guides (and many stories at The Big Outside, as well as my custom trip plans) provide cumulative elevation gain and loss—the total vertical feet you hike both uphill and downhill, not just uphill—because hiking downhill also fatigues your legs.

      I calculate the cumulative elevation gain by looking over the entire route on a good printed or digital map to add up the amount of uphill and downhill between high and low points along the route. So I think that figure of 6,500 feet of uphill is low, it’s around 8,000 feet, and I think you’d find that if you employ my method and simply add up the differences in real elevations between high and low points along those trails. It’s not difficult to do and get a total that’s accurate because Sawtooth trails generally are going from valley bottoms to passes without a great amount of up and down in between.

      I’ve hiked thousands of miles in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and western Maine as well as most of the Appalachian Trail through New England—it was where I first started hiking and I get back there almost every year—and I’m sure you’ll agree with me after your Sawtooths trip and after exploring more of the West that the Whites are, step for step, steeper, rockier, and harder than trails in mountains like the Sawtooths and others in the West. I don’t think you’ll find this hike in the Sawtooth as hard as Grafton Notch, which I have hiked.

      Enjoy the Sawtooths! Thanks for the question and get in touch anytime.

  4. We were camp host at Sockeye campground at Redfish Lake in 2011-12.

    Scenery is unparalleled. Now live in Arkansas. Nothing seems close to Idaho’s mountains. Husband hiked, fished &amp camped in Sawtooths many times. We think about that area a lot.