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 almost 20 years, I’ve now 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.
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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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.
Among the 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.
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).
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 “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips.”
3- to 4-Day Hike: Hell Roaring Trailhead to Pettit Lake
A few summers ago, I backpacked with my then-11-year-old daughter to Hell Roaring Lake and Imogene Lake (lead photo, above), reminding me how beautiful this area is. It’s about 25 miles from the Lower Hell Roaring Trailhead to the Tin Cup Trailhead on Pettit Lake; you could make it a loop by hiking the wooded trail past Yellow Belly Lake and the Lower Hell Roaring Trailhead, which I haven’t done but I’m told is not very interesting. Hell Roaring Lake’s skyline is dominated by the slender spire called the Finger of Fate and the towering peak called The Arrowhead. Imogene is a sprawling lake with gorgeous islands, one of the nicest spots in the Sawtooths. Hell Roaring is an easy, five-mile hike from the Lower Hell Roaring Trailhead; it’s popular and the campsites there often fill on weekends. Imogene is another four miles beyond and has numerous, nice campsites.
From Imogene, hike south over the pass to Edith Lake (limited campsites), then another pass to Toxaway Lake, which has good camping, as do Twin Lakes and Alice Lake, which lie on the other side of a 9,200-foot pass from Toxaway. From Alice, hike 5.3 miles east to finish at the Tin Cup Trailhead on Pettit Lake. I’ve driven a 4WD Jeep Cherokee to the Upper Hell Roaring Trailhead in the past; it’s a rough road for many cars, difficult (in many places impossible) to turn around on, and not fun to drive down in reverse.
4-Day Hike: Redfish Lake to Pettit Lake
This roughly 37-mile, point-to-point hike, including a side trip to the Baron Lakes, traverses the beautiful heart of the Sawtooths. Take the 10-minute boat shuttle from the dock at Redfish Lake Lodge to the boat landing at the southwest end of Redfish Lake ($12 one-way or $17 round-trip/adult, $4 each way age six and under, operates from late May through late September or early October). Hike about nine miles the first day, from the boat landing up the Redfish Valley, up the trail to Alpine Lake, over the Baron Divide, and down to Baron Lakes to camp your first night. The Baron Lakes are one of the nicest spots to camp in the Sawtooths, sitting below the pinnacled ridge of Monte Verita Peak and Warbonnet Peak.
If you get a late start on day one, I’ve camped in established sites about two miles up the Redfish Valley from the boat dock, and about three miles up, near the junction with the trail to Alpine Lake. Or spend a night at the Saddleback Lakes, at the foot of the 1,000-foot-tall granite cliff called the Elephant’s Perch. There’s no maintained trail to the Saddleback Lakes, but you’ll find a good user trail about two miles from the boat landing, right after the main trail crosses a very small creek; turn left (southeast) onto that user trail and follow it about a mile-and-a-half uphill to Saddleback Lakes.
From Baron Lakes on day two, backtrack to the Redfish Valley and continue south to the Cramer Lakes, about seven miles from Baron Lakes; the uppermost lake, at 8,381 feet, has the best camping, but there are nice sites on the middle lake, too. On day three, hike over the Cramer Divide, a remote pass at over 9,000 feet, with incredible views of Mount Cramer, The Temple, and other peaks, and descend to Hidden Lake (I’ve camped there, but there’s better camping beyond) and Edna and Vernon lakes, seven to eight miles from Upper Cramer Lake. From Edna Lake on day four, ascend to another 9,000+-foot pass and drop into the amazing basin of Toxaway Lake, where there are good campsites, about four miles from Edna. Continue over the Alice-Toxaway Divide to camp on your third night at Twin Lakes or about a mile farther at Alice Lake. On day four, descend to finish at the Tin Cup Trailhead on Pettit Lake, 5.3 miles from Alice Lake. I’ve biked from Tin Cup to Redfish Lake Lodge in an hour or less to shuttle a vehicle for this hike. You can do the hike in the other direction and catch the boat shuttle across Redfish Lake back to the lodge, too.
Note: See all of my stories about the Sawtooths, including “Photo Gallery: Mountain Lakes of Idaho’s Sawtooths” and read my story “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 my story “Chasing Summer’s Tail in Idaho’s Sawtooths and Castle Rocks State Park,” which has photos of the Bench Lakes area below Mount Heyburn, another nice spot to hit on a dayhike or weekend trip.
Get the right pack for you. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking”
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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