Going After Goals: Backpacking In Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains

By Michael Lanza

We reach an unnamed pass at 8,450 feet early on a September evening that could hardly be nicer, with temperatures in the low 60s and a soft whisper of breeze in the air. I’m hardly breaking a sweat; I love hiking at this time of day. Below us, the green valley of Johnson Creek falls away into deepening shadows below a skyline of granite spires glowing golden in the low-angle sunshine.

A feeling of anticipation fills me, a low-grade excitement over finally getting to a goal I’ve had on my to-do list for years. My friend Jeff Wilhelm and I are backpacking a 57-mile route into the deep interior of central Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains—into the most remote and probably the least-visited part of Idaho’s best-known mountain range that can be reached by trail. I’ve been backpacking and climbing in the Sawtooths numerous times, and have eyed this big, mysterious middle of the map for a while. But I have never made it in here before, and this trip feels long overdue.

If my example is indicative, this may be the last corner of the Sawtooths that most backpackers and climbers even consider exploring. The fact that it has taken me so long to get here also reminds me that the years slip past like water through our fingers, and goals can slip away, too, if we don’t go after them.

Dusk darkens the trees and ground as we decide to call it a day in the valley of Johnson Creek, after almost 13 miles and some 3,600 feet of uphill. We eat dinner by the light of headlamps, and then crawl into our bags. Sleep comes easily when you have a long-sought-after goal finally in your sights.

Get the right backpack for a hike like the Sawtooths. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and the best ultralight packs.

Arrowhead Lake
Arrowhead Lake in the southern Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Getting to Know Idaho’s Sawtooths

“Do you have the trail?” I call to Jeff as we’re wandering around an old burned area where Trail 494 has disappeared on our second morning.

“Over here,” he calls back, and soon we’re back on a good, narrow single-track that’s easy to follow, but clearly not heavily used. Rather than bare dirt packed nearly to sidewalk hardness, or a fine dust from the pounding of stock animals, this path is carpeted with grass, sticks, and pine needles. Just a rocky, little-used trail winding through open, piney woods. Wildflowers and low plants grow thickly on both sides, some of them still green and others turned red with autumn color, starkly contrasted against blackened tree trunks. Two backpackers coming down from Pats Lake tell us they saw 10-inch cutthroat trout swimming near the lakeshore, and they ate trout for dinner and breakfast.

Since moving to Idaho in 1998, I’ve explored much of the Sawtooth Mountains. Similar to Wyoming’s Teton Range in area and character if not quite in height, the Sawtooths have more than 50 peaks over 10,000 feet and hundreds of alpine lakes. Like the Tetons, the eastern escarpment of the range shoots up abruptly, with the summits rising 4,000 feet above the Sawtooth Valley, the bucolic headwaters of the Salmon River.


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. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

Rock Slide Lake.
Rock Slide Lake below South and North Raker peaks.

On those earliest backpacking trips, I had no real idea what to expect; you don’t see pictures of the Sawtooths in outdoors magazines all the time, as you do, say, the Tetons or High Sierra. The first time visiting spots like the Baron Lakes and Alice Lake, or the 9,000-foot passes between Toxaway Lake and the Cramer Lakes, this raw country of infinite jagged spires and icy waters left me staring slack-jawed. I thought I had discovered wilderness gold. Every time I was convinced I had seen the most lovely corner of the Sawtooths, I proved myself wrong again the next time I went backpacking, climbing, or backcountry skiing here.

And most unbelievable of all: Except for one or two popular corners, there’s hardly anybody out here.

So I kept going deeper, scrambling and climbing to summits. Thompson Peak, the range’s highest at 10,751 feet, was an early goal; and the tiny block of stone at its apex, surrounded by sheer drop-offs, gave a thrilling finish to that ascent. Thompson’s neighbor, Williams Peak, only about 100 feet shorter, seemed too close to just pass up that first time I scrambled up Thompson, so I turned that day into a two-fer. The crazily steep scree leading to the ridge crest of Williams—I had to hug the very bottom edge of a cliff to avoid tumbling downhill in a rockslide of scree—and following the crumbling, knife-edge ridge to the summit kept me hyper-focused.

I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip in the Sawtooths.
Want my help with yours? Find out more here.

The more I saw of the Sawtooths, the hungrier I got to explore even farther. One buddy and I made a whirlwind, 47-mile, overnight hike from Iron Creek Trailhead past Sawtooth Lake, Baron Lakes, and Cramer Lakes, exiting via Imogene and Hell Roaring lakes—an amazing trip, despite finishing with throbbing soles (less due to the distance than both of us having the wrong shoes). He and I also, on another overnighter, backpacked from Goat Lake off-trail up the valley separating Williams and Merritt Peaks and tagged a trio of 10,000-footers: Thompson Peak and its neighbors, Mickey’s Spire and Mount Carter. On another trip, a friend and I rock climbed the Elephant’s Perch and Warbonnet Peak—the latter a pinnacle that comes to a wildly airy pinpoint summit high above a lake-filled valley not reached by any maintained trail—and scrambled Braxon Peak, all in three jam-packed days.

I was getting a little obsessive-compulsive. But I blame the Sawtooths for inspiring my addictive behavior.

Trail 462 between Spangle Lake and Flytrip Creek.
Trail 462 between Spangle Lake and Flytrip Creek.

I’ve been fortunate, partly thanks to my work writing for Backpacker magazine, to hike in many of the most spectacular natural places in the West and around the world. But there’s nothing like getting to know one place really well—to the point where you can stand on a summit and rattle off the names of dozens of peaks in view, or you possess a mental map of numerous, idyllic campsites. New Hampshire’s White Mountains, where I started hiking 30 years ago, were my first “home” peaks. I’ve tagged most of their summits, some of them numerous times, and walked many trails there so many times that they are imprinted on my memory. The Sawtooths have become the second mountain range I know that intimately.

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

 

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8 thoughts on “Going After Goals: Backpacking In Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains”

  1. What a beautiful place. I will definitely need to add this to my list of dream hikes.

    I only found your website recently but I am really enjoying how thoughtful and informative your writing is, thank you for sharing it with everyone!

    Reply
  2. Hi Micbael,

    I enjoyed your info about Arrowhead Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. I can’t find any detailed info about getting there. It is one of the few lakes I haven’t hiked to in that area.

    I have been to Goat and Baptie Lakes and they are amazing.
    How long of a hike is it to Arrowhead Lake?

    Thanks, Steve

    Reply
    • Hi Steve,

      Arrowhead Lake lies deep in Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness. From the Queens River Trailhead (west of Atlanta, Idaho), Arrowhead is almost right in the middle of a nearly 30-mile loop on the Queens River Trail 458, Little Queens River Trail 454, and Trail 494. It’s a very pretty loop, and in the trip described in this story, we nearly doubled the distance by continuing out-and-back off the loop to Rock Slide, Spangle, and Heart Lakes via Benedict Trail 462, Middle Fork Boise River Trail 460, and Trail 461.

      Thanks for the question.

      Michael

      Reply
  3. I have to agree the Sawtooths are a gem! I grew up in Ketchum, Idaho, with very active parents. They took us skiing in the winter and hiking and backpacking in the summer, we went on many backpacking trips into the Sawtooth and White Cloud ranges. What great memories.

    Phil

    Reply
  4. Hi Michael, I planned a successful trip with my sisters to Sequoia last year based entirely on your post, thanks! It was mind-blowing (I have to get my pictures up soon) and I took my packraft out onto several of the lakes, including Columbine.

    I am considering a trip to the Sawtooths the first week of September, and I am wondering if you record .gpx tracks when you’re doing these trails? While I know how to use a map and compass, and one of my sisters has taken a Mountaineers navigation course, I like the back-up security of tracks for these more isolated hikes. I would download tracks into my Garmin. If yes, would the tracks be something you could include as part of a consult? –Thanks, Jenny

    Reply

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