Ask Me: Backpacking Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains
[Note: I received the following three similar inquiries from readers.]
Thank you for your thoughtful, inspiring and informative work! I hike and camp monthly with four girlfriends and once a year we go on a longer backpacking trip and are currently planning our next trip. We are headed to Idaho! I’ve been trying to put together a loop in the Sawtooth Wilderness. I’ve read enough of your posts to know you’re the expert on the Sawtooths. Can you recommend a loop that is about 40 to 50 miles? The one I read about starts at the Grandjean Trailhead clockwise around Sawtooth Lake, south around Cramer lakes, down and around Spangle Lake, then north towards Elk Lake, back to Grandjean. Maybe there’s a shortcut on this loop?
I read your story about the amazing, 57-mile loop you took linking the Little Queens and Queens River valleys. That sounds perfect, but it’s a little longer than we want and it sounds like the trail might be hard to follow at times. I’m not sure if that’s also true of the 31-mile Queen’s-Little Queens loop, or is it that you took trails that are not a part of the Queens River loop? Do you think that there are enough side trips that we could take on the 31-mile queens river loop to make it into a 41-mile or so hike? Are there burned out areas in this hike? Is it possible to camp anywhere along the trail or are there only designated campsites?
Thank you for any information,
Thanks for writing and following my blog. You and your friends will love the Sawtooths. I get there as often as I can. I’ll answer your specific questions but also try to suggest what I think are your best options for scenery and a full Sawtooth experience.
The 57-mile hike I wrote about in the southern Sawtooths, including the Queens-Little Queens rivers loop (which is 31 or 32 miles), is quite nice and less busy than the most popular areas of the Sawtooths (Sawtooth Lake, Hell Roaring and Imogene lakes, and the Alice-Toxaway lakes loop), though some stretches of it are somewhat more subdued in terms of scenery compared to those popular spots. You could stretch the Queens-Little Queens loop into a trip ranging from 40 to 50 miles depending on your choice of optional side trips. Scenic Lake is very nice, has campsites, and adds about eight miles to your distance, and it’s a not-insignificant ascent from the Little Queens Trail, but a good spot for your first campsite. Browns Lake is a shorter side trip, but I have not been to that one. You’ll see several photos in my story of Rock Slide Lake, a gorgeous spot with amazing sunrises and sunsets, where we spent two nights, using it as a base camp while we explored with daypacks the trail to Lake Ingeborg and the Spangle Lake area—all spectacular.
I think if you added just the out-and-back side trip off the Queens-Little Queens loop to Rock Slide Lake, you’d be in the low 40s for mileage. Dayhike out-and-back from Rock Slide to Spangle/Little Spangle and you’ll be around 50 miles. You’ll find established campsites primarily at the lakes on this entire route, fewer in the Queens and Little Queens valleys.
As for trail quality, the only trouble spots are a burned area we encountered on our way up toward Arrowhead Lake (hiking the loop clockwise), in the Johnson Creek area, which you’ll pass through between the Little Queens and Queens valleys. It probably took us 15 minutes to relocate the trail—no big deal, and it’s possible they’ve repaired the trail since. The lower Queens Valley also has an area of blowdowns within a mile or two of the trailhead that took us a little while to find our way through. You could call the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (208-727-5000) and ask about those spots. Otherwise, the loop hike is easy to follow, as is the trail to Rock Slide and Spangle lakes and beyond.
There’s a ford of the lower Queens River that I’ve only done in late summer, when it’s about calf-deep and easy; I’m not sure how high or fast it is in July, but snowpack was low this past winter, so water levels should be lower than usual in July. We also went up Flytrip Creek Trail (as much for the name as anything) to the trail’s end, then did some fairly easy, cross-country hiking to Heart Lake, but that’s probably farther than it sounds like you want to hike.
From the Sawtooth Valley/Stanley area on the east side of the Sawtooths, you have the shortest hikes to reach the most scenic areas of the range, which is why most backpackers start on that side. You’ve probably seen this story, which describes some of my favorites dayhikes and backpacking trips in the Sawtooths, including the roughly 37-mile hike from Redfish Lake to Tin Cup Trailhead at Pettit Lake, with the side trip to Baron Lakes. You could extend that hike by making an out-and-back side trip to the really nice Imogene Lake and Hell Roaring Lake basin. (In this story, Imogene is the lead photo and there’s another photo from Hell Roaring.) This route does not hit Sawtooth Lake, but it does avoid the long slog between Sawtooth Lake and Baron Lakes (see next paragraph). You could dayhike to Sawtooth Lake on the last day of your trip and drive back to Boise the same day.
I’ve also backpacked from Iron Creek Trailhead (west of Stanley, off ID 21) to Sawtooth Lake, Baron Lakes, Cramer Lakes, over Cramer Divide, to Edna and Edith Lakes and Toxaway Lake, over the pass to Alice Lake (lead photo at top of story), and down to Tin Cup Trailhead at Pettit Lake (south of Stanley, off ID 75); I’d ballpark that route at about 50 miles. It’s not a long hike to Sawtooth Lake, maybe three hours, but if you’re traveling to the Sawtooths that day and start hiking late, it’s a good, first campsite. Then I’d plan an early start and get to the spectacular Baron Lakes to camp the second night. That’s a solid day’s hike, with a big drop in elevation and then a long, dusty, and sometimes hot slog back uphill again to Baron Lakes—it could be 12 miles or more, and much of that stretch is going to be the least-interesting part of your trip (mostly in the woods). The rest of the trip is mostly glorious. One of your toughest decisions would be whether to camp at Toxaway (good sites on the north and west sides of the lake), Twin Lakes, or Alice—all really nice. I would say stop at Toxaway or Twin if you find a nice site open and it’s a weekend night, because Alice is popular and the best sites may be occupied by the time you get there.
Unfortunately, there are few options for loop hikes from the Sawtooth Valley. You’ll need to arrange a shuttle. I’ve never needed a shuttle service in the Sawtooths, but I just did an online search and found that Sawtooth Transportation provides backpacker shuttles.
I’ve backpacked from Grandjean Trailhead to Sawtooth Lake, my first backpacking trip in the Sawtooths. Grandjean is lower in elevation, hotter, and dustier (popular with people on horses), and it’s a longer, less-scenic hike to reach the majestic lakes and scenery than coming from the east side of the mountains.
Whichever trip you choose, you’ll probably leave there realizing there’s much more of the Sawtooths to see, and planning your return. Check out my photos and info in all my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooths.
One last piece of advice: After your hike, soak in the Sunbeam Hot Springs 12.6 miles (about 20 minutes) north of Stanley, right beside the highway. Also, from Boise, drive to Stanley via ID 55 north along the Payette River (very pretty) and then the Banks-Lowman Road to Lowman, then ID 21 north to Stanley—very scenic drive and actually the fastest route, although it’s winding, two-lane highways and slow if you get stuck behind a truck. If you don’t mind driving a slightly longer route back to Boise post-trip (probably adds 1.5 hours), for different, great scenery, take ID 75 south over Galena Summit and through Ketchum/Sun Valley, then ID 20 west to Mountain Home and I-84 to Boise.
Have a great trip. Let me know how it goes.
Four friends and I are heading to Idaho in a few weeks to try the Queens River Valley loop as you described it on your blog. We are a group of fit, 50something women from Austin with some backpacking experience. (Another group member, Judy Paul, emailed you awhile back to ask you some questions when we were exploring our options.)
It has been hard to find much additional info about this area on the Internet (unlike the Rae Lakes loop, which we hiked last year). I have a few questions if you have a moment:
1) We are thinking of going with the bear bag option, instead of canisters this year. I’ve read that hanging them via the PCT method is the way to go. My question for you is, will there be enough big trees on the trail to hang the bags? We will definitely need to practice this before our trip!
2) Both the REI employee I spoke to and the ranger that another group member spoke to suggested that we hike with bear spray. From your experience, do you think that’s necessary? It seems to me like they are being abundantly cautious and we did not feel that bear spray was necessary at Rae Lakes.
3) We have different risk levels among the group. Me: risk averse; several others: risk takers! I am a bit nervous about navigating the loop. I have a horrible sense of direction and no compass skills. You say this on your blog: ”… trails are obvious and junctions marked with signs, so navigating won’t be a problem for anyone with solid compass and map-reading skills.” Can you elaborate a bit? One thing that I’ve considered is renting a GPS.
Thanks again for your advice!
I’ve never used a bear canister in the Sawtooths (though I use them in the High Sierra and the Tetons, where they are required, and in grizzly country unless there’s an established protocol, like the hanging wires at backcountry campsites in Glacier National Park). I’ve always hung my food and have always found a tree that was adequate for doing so, and I think you won’t have a problem hanging food on the Queens-Little Queens rivers loop described in my story “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.” I’m not sure what you mean by “the PCT method,” but I carry about 50 feet of utility cord and throw one end (using a rock tied to it) over a branch at least 20 feet off the ground, with the cord dangling at least several feet from the trunk, so that a bear climbing the trunk cannot reach the hanging bag. It has always been effective for me.
The Sawtooths have only black bears, and I don’t carry pepper spray there. I’ve only carried it in grizzly country, not in the High Sierra. If you’re nervous about bears, I suggest carrying a small, lightweight, loud air horn, which have been demonstrated to be effective at scaring off bears (though I’ve never had the occasion to test that). I use the Falcon Sound 911 horn even in grizzly country, along with pepper spray. The horn, I believe, could be more effective at scaring off a bear that’s at a distance; the pepper spray obviously can’t be deployed until the bear is close to you.
As for navigation, I think you want one or two people in the group who know how to read a map and understand the basics of using a compass to orient a map relative to the terrain around you—to know which direction you’re facing, basically, so you know whether you’re turning right or left at a trail junction. Frankly, I think it’s easier to learn that than to learn how to use a GPS.
See the response I gave Judy (above), which points out the two spots where navigation could be tricky, although in both cases, you’ll probably relocate the trail by just looking around.
To elaborate a bit: National forest trails aren’t always as well marked as trails in national parks. In the Sawtooths, I believe you’ll find signs at all trail junctions shown on maps. If you see something that looks like a trail junction, but there’s no sign, it may be that one of those trails is a rogue path (made by people, not the national forest staff, and not maintained), and if you follow a path that peters out quickly, usually you’ll get set straight by backtracking to the last point where you knew you were on your route.
Let me know if you have other questions.
Thanks for following The Big Outside.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply! You made me feel much better about navigating!
There are a ton of YouTube videos when you search by “bear bag PCT style.” Here’s one random selection: youtube.com/watch?v=BKYBhsy3gZQ. I’m glad that there will be enough trees so that I don’t have to deal with a bear canister. We will definitely practice before we leave for our trip.
None of us is particularly worried about bears (snakes are a different story), although it did give me pause when two people suggested bear spray. I think we will forego it. The horn is an interesting suggestion that I will pass along to the group.
Thanks, again, for taking the time to reply in such detail. I really appreciate it.
You’re welcome. Thanks for sending the video. Good idea to practice that before your trip. I do think you’ll have to search around for an appropriate tree, which always takes me a little time, but there will be options. I don’t think you’re likely to see bears or snakes; I’ve seen rattlers and other snakes at hotter, lower elevations in Idaho, but not in the Sawtooths, and I’ve only seen one or two bears out there (even though they are probably fairly numerous).
I expect you’ll have a great, memorable trip, and find the Sawtooths are in many ways as scenic as the Sierra, with far fewer people around.
Best of luck and be safe out there.
I have a very specific question that I hope you might be able to help with since you live in Boise. My husband and I are planning to do a weeklong backpacking trip in the Sawtooths in a couple weeks and are flying in to Boise. We arrive around 8:30 pm on Sunday night, but would like to head straight to the Grandjean campground at the trailhead so that we can get a fairly early start on the trail Monday morning. But I’m getting stuck on where we can buy canister fuel at 9pm on a Sunday night for our backpacking stove. All the outdoors stores are closed by then (Cabelas, Dicks, etc.) and according to Walmart’s website, they don’t carry them in-store. Any suggestions? Do gas stations in the area carry them?
In general, when you travel by air, where you do you typically pick up fuel canisters? Or do you us a liquid fuel stove?
Love the blog and all the trip inspiration it provides… it’s our first trip to the Sawtooths and we are very excited!
Thanks for following The Big Outside.
I always buy stove fuel at my destination (usually canisters), and like you’re doing, I try to arrange in advance where and when I’ll buy it. It’s certainly not always convenient, especially when you’re arriving late and driving immediately to the mountains. I don’t know of any gas stations that would carry stove fuel canisters. You might try calling one of the local stores and asking whether they would sell you canisters over the phone with a credit card, and then stash them outside their store for you to pick up after you arrive. Idaho Mountain Touring is in Downtown Boise and The Benchmark is on Vista; you could easily hit either place before heading to the Sawtooths.
Is there a reason you’re starting at Grandjean? I started one of my first Sawtooths backpacking trips there and haven’t done that again since. It’s lower, hotter, and dustier than the east-side trailheads near Stanley, and popular with horsepackers (which makes it dustier). It also takes longer to hit the high country’s best scenery when you start from Grandjean.
If you can change your itinerary to start at one of the trailheads in the Sawtooth Valley, south of Stanley, you could probably buy canister fuel at the Mountain Village Mercantile, in Stanley, on Monday morning. I’m not certain they carry canisters, but I expect they probably do. I would call in advance and maybe also ask about buying the canisters over the phone and having them left outside the store for you to pick up after hours.
Be careful driving through the mountains after dark. There are a lot of deer and elk on the roads and they’re hard to see, it’s a serious nighttime driving hazard.
Have a great trip. I’m sure you’ll love the Sawtooths.
Thank you so much for the fast reply and suggestions!! It is really appreciated. I will be making some phone calls to see what might work out for us.
In terms of route, we were looking to do a six-day, ~60-mile loop, and I came across this route that seemed to hit some of the highlights of the Sawtooths: trimbleoutdoors.com/ViewTrip/37230.
But based on what you said about Grandjean, and taking another look at the routes you suggested on your blog, I am now thinking of an extended version of your Redfish Lake to Pettit Lake point-to-point hike if we can figure out how to do a car shuttle: Starting at Iron Creek, camping at Sawtooth Lake for a much easier first day, then following the route to Baron Lake, Cramer Lakes, Edna/Vernon, (possible side trip to Ingeborg), then exiting to Pettit via Toxaway, Twin, and Alice. I did really want to include Sawtooth Lake on our route since I don’t think we’ll have another chance to be back in the Sawtooths for a while even though I know it tends to be more crowded.
So I guess I will look into shuttle options and see if that might work out for us! At least since the first day is much shorter, we would have time to get supplies Monday morning if necessary.
One last question, any tips on where to get info on current snow/water conditions? We had to schedule our trip for the 4th of July week because my husband’s work has forced vacation that week, so it’s earlier in the season than I’d prefer, but from what I can tell from stream flow gauges and snow reports, it looks like conditions this year will be conducive to an earlier trip. I plan to give the ranger station a call next week as well.
Thanks again for all your hard work on the blog and answering readers’ questions! I follow on bloglovin so I don’t miss any posts.
That Trimble loop certainly hits major highlights of the Sawtooths and isn’t a bad trip if you really want to make it a loop. But I’d prefer to avoid those really long stretches of lower-elevation trail and just get a shuttle so you can focus your hiking time on the best areas of the Sawtooths. Your new route is a good one. Sawtooth Lake is well worth it. If you find the first campsites there occupied, there’s a nice camping area at the far end of the lake (when you’re coming from Iron Creek Trailhead).
There is a shuttle service operating in the Sawtooths: Sawtooth Transportation. There’s certainly a chance that you could meet other backpackers at the trailhead and work out a shuttle together, but no guarantee.
I would call the SNRA ranger station in Stanley right before your trip, but the snowpack was lower than normal this year and it has been getting hot, so I don’t think you’ll see enough snow to prevent you from hiking anywhere.
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