Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?
I’m an avid reader of your blog and know that you’re very familiar with Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, so I was hoping you could give me some advice on either a good 3-day backpacking route or a base camp area where I could take three big day hikes from. I consider myself to be pretty fit and I have a handful of backpacking trips under my belt, so I feel comfortable putting in 10 to 15 miles per day, even over strenuous terrain. Thanks for any suggestions you can provide and for all of your informative and inspirational trip reports.
Thanks for writing and following The Big Outside, and for giving me a reason to suggest my favorite hikes in the Sawtooths, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while. Living in Idaho for 20 years now, I’ve hiked most of the trails in the Sawtooths on probably around 20 trips, and climbed a number of peaks—although there remain many climbs and off-trail areas I want to explore. But I’ve gotten to know much of the range pretty well.
Here are the hikes I’d recommend. See the links to other stories about the Sawtooths within and at the bottom of this post.
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.
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 steeper but usually dry, fourth-class cliff at the north end of the saddle (find the easier but very exposed ledges angling up and left). Traverse the talus below Thompson’s west face to the gully separating Thompson from its 10,000-foot neighbor to the south, Mickey’s Spire. Then follow the steep, 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; the sometimes-faint user path stays on the north side of the creek and rejoins the maintained trail above the second 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 pass on the Alice-Toxaway Divide, with a killer view of the jagged peaks above Twin Lakes.
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The Sawtooths have few on-trail, multi-day loop hikes, and some of the most scenic areas are separated by many miles of long, hot, dusty, uninteresting trail; for instance, the slog from Sawtooth Lake to Baron Lakes is one I’ve done a few times and don’t need to repeat. 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.
Overnight Hike (or Dayhike): Goat Lake
The map shows no official trail to Goat Lake, which laps at the base of soaring cliffs on the northeast side of 10,312-foot Merritt Peak. But there’s a rough user trail that leads to a couple of established campsites above the lakeshore. From the Iron Creek Trailhead, hike Trail 640 west about a mile and turn left (southeast) on the Alpine Way Trail. Continue about two miles to a wooded, low ridge crest just before the trail dips down into the valley of the creek draining Goat Lake; there, look for an unmarked footpath leading west. It crosses talus and requires a bit of scrambling in the strenuous mile to reach the northeast corner of Goat Lake, which is only about four miles from Iron Creek Trailhead.
To extend the trip, backpackers with good navigational skills hiking cross-country can head south up the lake-studded, pristine valley between Merritt and Williams Peak to the Thompson-Williams saddle, where I’ve camped. From there, you can summit Thompson (see above), then descend the climber route and user path east to intercept the Alpine Way Trail south of Marshall Lake, and loop back to Iron Creek or finish at Redfish Trailhead (if you shuttle vehicles).
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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.”
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 a pair of stories about longer backpacking trips here: “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, and “Ask Me: The Best Long Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooths.”
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Thanks so much for the detailed response! The trip I ended up doing was a 3-day loop starting at Redfish Lake. Day 1, I took the shuttle boat to the southern tip of the lake and then hiked in and camped at the first (lower) Cramer Lake. Day 2 was a big one, heading south from Cramer Lakes, then coming back up past Imogene Lake (spectacular!) and camping at Hell Roaring Lake for the night. Day 3 was a bit of a boring slog back to Redfish Lake via the Decker Trail 92.
I’m currently in Glacier National Park and I’ve been knocking off some of the big day hikes that you highlighted in one of your past trip reports. Tomorrow is my last day here and I’ll be doing Gunsight Pass so I’m taking it easy today to try and save my legs. After this I’ll be heading to the Seattle area and will be hiking Mount St. Helens.
Thanks again and take care,
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