The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths

By Michael Lanza

Our group of three adults and six teenagers crossed the 9,200-foot pass on the Alice-Toxaway Divide, separating Alice and Twin lakes from Toxaway Lake, on our third straight bluebird August afternoon backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Before us, an arc of spires and jagged peaks wrapped around a pair of alpine lakes appropriately named Twin Lakes. And although I had hiked over this pass many times before, I stopped in my tracks and just stared at our vista. Perhaps most impressively, even the jaded teens with us found themselves awestruck, too.

Living in Idaho for over 20 years now, I’ve hiked most of the trails in the Sawtooths over the course of at least 20 trips there, and climbed a number of peaks. While there remain many climbs and off-trail areas I want to explore, I’ve gotten to know much of the range quite well. And having had the good fortune of dayhiking and backpacking in some of the prettiest mountain ranges in the country over the past three decades—including many years as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and running this blog—I’ve become convinced that few rival the Sawtooths for their jagged granite peaks and skylines and abundance of lovely alpine lakes.

I never tire of exploring the Sawtooths.

This article describes my favorite dayhikes and backpacking trips in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, and includes links to several stories about trips I have taken in the Sawtooths (some of which require a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full). Please tell me what you think of these hikes in the comments section at the bottom of this story; I try to respond to all comments.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. 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 to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

Dayhikes

Much of the best scenery in the Sawtooths lies far enough from roads to be hard to reach in a day, but there are highlights you can knock off in several hours—or at least between sunrise and sunset.

Sawtooth Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.
Sawtooth Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Sawtooth Lake

Very photogenic Sawtooth Lake is one of the most-visited corners of the Sawtooths; expect to see other hikers here on nice summer weekends and to compete for campsites with backpackers. At 8,430 feet, it’s about 8.5 miles round-trip and 1,700 vertical feet from the Iron Creek Trailhead. The trail up the Iron Creek Valley ascends past a long, pinnacled ridge, and you can make a short side trip en route to Alpine Lake, tucked in a bowl of rock.

Get an early start because the glassy waters of Sawtooth Lake on a calm morning offer up an unforgettable mirror image of Mount Regan. Scramble the steep but non-technical west face of 9,861-foot Alpine Peak for the best perspective on the natural stone bathtub the lake sits in.

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Backpackers above the Baron Lakes in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
My son, Nate, and two buddies backpacking above the Baron Lakes in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

Baron Divide

The pass known as Baron Divide, at over 9,000 feet along the high ridge separating the gorgeous Baron Lakes basin from the valley of Redfish Lake Creek, is a stout but reasonable dayhike from the Redfish Inlet transfer camp boat landing at the southwest corner of Redfish Lake. At some 14 miles round-trip, with about 2,700 feet of elevation gain and loss, it’s no light stroll. But the trails are good all the way, the grade rarely gets difficult, and the scenery is top-notch beginning within minutes after you step off the boat.

At Redfish Lake Lodge, two miles off ID 75 about five miles south of Stanley, go to the marina and get the 10-minute boat shuttle across the lake. On the other side of the lake, follow trail signs up the Redfish Lake Creek Valley toward Alpine Lake and Cramer Lakes. About three miles up, at Flatrock Junction, turn north onto Trail 101 toward Alpine Lake and the Baron Lakes; this switchbacks that follow are the hottest and toughest stretch of the hike, before you reenter forest for a while.

Eventually, the trail emerges from the forest, passes a pretty tarn, and reaches the alpine pass at Baron Divide, with sweeping views of the peaks to either side, including the serrated ridge of Monte Verita and Warbonnet Peak. Return the way you came.

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Thompson Peak, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.
Thompson Peak, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Thompson Peak

Thompson Peak, crown of the Sawtooth Range at 10,751 feet, can be tagged on a rugged, partly off-trail hike of about 13 miles and 4,200 vertical feet round-trip. A fun, easy, short, third-class scramble at the very top places you on a blocky summit with space for just a couple of people and head-spinning drop-offs on all sides. See more photos in my story “Roof of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Hiking Thompson Peak.”

From Redfish Trailhead, right before Redfish Lake Lodge, follow Trail 101 west to the Alpine Way Trail heading toward Marshall Lake. After climbing 1,800 vertical feet in just about four miles on the trail, before Marshall Lake, bear left (west) onto a well-beaten but unmarked footpath that’s usually blocked by a log; this unmaintained user trail climbs steeply into the cirque between Thompson and Williams peaks. The lake below Thompson’s headwall is a good enough destination by itself for a frigid and brief swim—it usually has blocks of ice floating in it well into July.

Continue up and scramble to the Thompson-Williams saddle either via its south end (easy when it’s dry rock, potentially dangerous when snow-covered) or the much steeper, usually dry, exposed fourth-class cliff at the north end of the saddle (find the line of least resistance ascending very exposed ledges angling up and left). Traverse the talus below Thompson’s west face (farther than you might think) to the gully separating Thompson from its 10,000-foot neighbor to the south, Mickey’s Spire. Then follow the steep, often loose, user footpath to the summit. Return the same way.

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Alice Lake in Idahos Sawtooth Mountains.
Alice Lake in Idahos Sawtooth Mountains.

Alice Lake

Among other lakes reachable in a day, I’d suggest Alice Lake at 8,598 feet, because it’s a gorgeous spot (see photo below), there’s more scenic hiking above it, and the hike to Alice ascends a really pretty valley flanked by cliffs and spires. In early summer, the lower ford of the creek draining Alice Lake can be exciting or potentially dangerous (the higher ford is shorter and had a log across it when I hiked up there in June 2014). You can avoid both fords by following a faint, occasionally cairned user path that begins where the maintained trail crosses the creek at the lower ford; the sometimes-faint user path stays on the north side of the creek and rejoins the maintained trail above the second (higher) ford.

From Tin Cup Trailhead at the northeast corner of Pettit Lake, it’s 5.3 miles and a bit over 1,600 feet to Alice Lake. It’s another mile with not much more climbing to Twin Lakes, and then a half-mile and about 400 feet up to the approximately 9,200-foot pass on the Alice-Toxaway Divide, with a killer view of the jagged peaks above Twin Lakes.

Backpacking Trips

The Sawtooths have few on-trail, multi-day loop hikes. Many multi-day hikes require short shuttles between trailheads (that can often be done with a bike). My suggestions below assume moderate days of seven to nine miles a day, but I mention multiple campsite options to allow you to plan shorter or longer days.

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

 

Alice Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Alice Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

Weekend Hike: Alice Lake-Toxaway Lake Loop

This 18-mile loop from the Tin Cup Trailhead on Pettit Lake is popular as an overnight or two-night trip for incredible views and campsites on stunning, high lakes. (This was my son’s first real backpacking trip, at age six.) There are stellar campsites at Alice Lake, Twin Lakes, and Toxaway Lake; you might decide between the first two locales just depending on what time you start the trek and whether other backpackers have beaten you to the sites at Alice Lake. Hike it clockwise because the stretch from Farley Lake back to Pettit Lake is the least interesting, hot, and dusty, and better to walk down than up. It’s a good trail and fit hikers can do it in a day with an early start.

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

Click here now for my expert e-guide to the best backpacking trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains!

 

See all of my stories about the Sawtooths, including “Photo Gallery: Mountain Lakes of Idaho’s Sawtooths,” “”Sawtooth Jewels: Backpacking to Alice, Hell Roaring, and Imogene Lakes,” and “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” about my 57-mile hike in a more remote area of the southern and interior Sawtooths.

 

Tell me what you think.

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17 thoughts on “The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths”

  1. Looking at doing a Sawtooths trip in early August; I have seven days to work with. Is there a loop or series of trails you’d recommend to see the “best of” the Sawtooths using that amount of time? I’m not averse to doing a fair amount of mileage each day to see the beauty of the area. Thanks for your help and the great information!

    Reply
    • Hi Brett,

      Thanks for the question, I’m so glad you asked. You should get my downloadable e-guide to “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,,” which answers your question and describes a primary route that’s five days and variations of that route ranging from four to seven days, and tells you all you need to know to plan and pull off that trip. It hits what I consider the very best area of the Sawtooths for mountain lakes, beautiful alpine cirques and high passes.

      And of course, if you’d like my direct help with planning that trip, including answering all of your questions, see my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can do that for you.

      Enjoy. This is the perfect time of year to hit the Sawtooths.

      Michael

      Reply
  2. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog. It has been very informative.

    I am planning a backpacking trip for the end of August to the Sawtooths. I really love a good loop and prefer high mileage days (15-20).

    My plan is Grandjean>sawtooth lake>redfish lake>hell roaring lake>Edna lake>baron lakes and back to Grandjean .

    Im wondering if you have any recommendations for most scenic campsites along that route or would recommend any route changes to allow better scenery?

    Thanks
    Erin

    Reply
    • Hi Erin,

      Thanks for the nice words about my blog, I appreciate that.

      Late August is an ideal time in the Sawtooths. I’ve backpacked the areas on your planned loop and you’re definitely hitting some of the nicest lakes. I’d would honestly recommend a different route to you that would hit many of the best mountain lakes and high passes in the Sawtooths, but avoid some of the trails on your loop that I think aren’t as interesting.

      I could help you plan out all of the details of an amazing hike in the Sawtooths. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you out.

      Thanks for the question.

      Reply
    • Hi Ed,

      Thanks for asking. I use a couple of Sawtooths trail maps, neither of them perfect, but both adequate for hiking trails: the Earthwalk Press Sawtooth Wilderness map (found in many stores in Idaho and online), and the Sawtooth & White Cloud Mountains map from adventuremaps.net. I think the best complete hiking guide to the Sawtooths is the “Exploring the Sawtooths” guide from Idaho River Publications.

      Reply
      • Hi Michael,

        What do you think about the Nat Geo map? We are heading out to the Sawtooths in a couple weeks, but can’t find much commentary on that set.
        Would also be curious if you have a recommended map for the Wallowa-Whitman NF? We have CalTopo, so can just print from that if all else fails.

        Thank you.

        Kind regards,
        Oliver

        Reply
  3. Michael,

    In early August my wife and daughters (ages 14 and 11) and I are rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and I’ve built in a couple days for backpacking in the Sawtooths, a range I’ve never explored before. The Alice-Toxaway Loop seems like the obvious 3-day family trip, or maybe just basecamping at one of those lakes. Do you have any extra thoughts about particularly great camping spots at Alice or Toxaway or elsewhere in the neighborhood? Hell Roaring Lake looks like a good, mellower option but it seems that the trail in is relatively mundane and the lake is a bit buggy; any thoughts on that?

    Also, I’ve found that the frontcountry experience can do a lot to frame up a good backcountry experience. We’ll be flying in and out of Boise. Do you have any favorite places in Boise for tacos or burgers? Or maybe some tips for a road trip between Boise and Salmon, ID?

    Thanks for your insights, and keep up the great writing!

    George

    Reply
    • Hi George,

      Great plan to combine the Middle Fork of the Salmon and the Sawtooths in one trip! Not long ago I posted my story (perhaps you saw it) about my family’s second trip on the Middle Fork, and we already have dates for our next Middle Fork trip. It’s an exceptional adventure.

      Yes, the Alice-Toxaway loop is a super three-day family hike with excellent campsites at Alice, Twin, and Toxaway lakes. Hell Roaring is a beautiful lake, but the trail to it is roughly five miles of mundane hiking through forest, and the camping at Hell Roaring is wooded and just okay. Imogene Lake, a bit farther up the trail past Hell Roaring, is gorgeous and has excellent campsites.

      Boise has many great places for food downtown and on the edge of downtown. One of my family’s favorite has long been Highlands Hollow, just off Bogus Basin Road, which has good burgers and other reasonably priced meals and the best fries in town (although Boise Fry Company downtown is also really good). Many good choices. Walk around the downtown and explore, you’ll like it.

      The road trip from Boise north to Stanley and then Salmon is one of the most scenic drives in the West, especially along the Salmon River from Stanley to Salmon. The loop from Boise to Stanley and then south through Ketchum/Sun Valley and Fairfield back to Boise is also very nice. Check out idahohotsprings.com.

      Reply
  4. On my first backpacking trip in Idaho I did a similar hike to your 3-4 day suggestion. We took the wooden trail between McDonald Lake and Yellow Belly Lake, which you said you hadn’t done yet. It is not interesting, and not the most fun way to end a hike but necessary if you’re doing the loop. After you cross the creek draining McDonald Lake the climb up that ridge is very steep going up and down. It is then a long walk on forest roads to connect with the Lower Hell Roaring Trailhead. I think it actually would’ve been more fun to stay around the Imogene Divide area and backtrack to Hell Roaring instead of completing the loop. We barely stopped at Bowknot and Farley Lakes because of time, but as you said that section is drier and hotter and not as scenic.

    I would say that most guidebooks I read took the Edith Lake route to Toxaway Lake after descending Imogene Divide. Instead we stayed on the high trail and went up Sand Mountain Pass, then dropped to Rendezvous Lake/Lake 8861′ which was an awesome campsite and had spectacular colors at sunset. If I would do it again I would basecamp at Imogene Lake and take a couple days to explore the high lakes below Payette Peak and Mt. Cramer. I hear Profile Lake is awesome.

    Reply

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