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.
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.
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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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, 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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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.
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!
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.”
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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.