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 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.
We embarked this morning on a four-day, 57-mile trip: a loop linking the Little Queens and Queens River valleys, plus a lollipop-stick, out-and-back side trip off that loop into a pair of lake-speckled valleys that birth the Middle Fork Boise River and a tributary of the South Fork Payette River. We set out from the Queens River Trailhead, reached via rural ID 21 and then an hour of driving on gravel roads. Far from the trailheads south and west of the little town of Stanley that are the usual launching points for Sawtooths backpackers, we’ll penetrate into an area that’s a solid two days’ walk from the nearest roads.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
Jeff and I climb steadily uphill past Pats Lake to Arrowhead Lake, at 8,770 feet, a crystal-clear alpine pond with a spit of granite arcing out into it, a long boardwalk of rock rising several feet above the water. We see some of those fat trout swimming below the surface. A little while later, from the unnamed pass east of Arrowhead, around 9,200 feet, we drop our packs and hike an open ridge much of the way up 9,802-foot Blacknose Mountain, until cliffs bar us from continuing.
From there, under cottony, fair-weather clouds, we look north and east out over much of the Sawtooths. But two peaks in the ocean of pointy tops catch my eye—the two closest to us, North and South Raker. A pair of slender, stone fingers nearly 10,000 feet high, stabbing into the sky, I’ve seen them from other Sawtooth summits miles away and thought, “Wow! What are those?” Now, finally, I’m standing almost close enough to touch them.
We return to our packs and descend east on Trail 494, passing flowers blooming at almost 9,000 feet on Sept. 15; the snow here may have only melted out weeks ago. Pikas chirp and marmots whistle at us. We walk along the shores of small, sub-alpine lakes with blue-green water so clear that we can distinctly make out rocks and dead tree trunks that may be 15 or 20 feet underwater.
Setting and Pursuing Goals
Some goals are simple. For me, that includes keeping a list of wild places I want to see. I’m no long sure how many years ago I started my list (probably 20 or more) or how many trip ideas are on it (easily at least 200). But I can tell you the precise word count of the document containing the list, which includes notes on each idea: 13,338 words as of this writing. I could conceivably tick off every trip on the list if I live to around 110 and stay healthy—except that I keep adding more ideas to it.
A glass-half-empty person might call my list unattainable. I like to see it as a wealth of choices.
More challenging than building that list, though, it actually getting to the places on it, a goal that can prove remarkably elusive in spite of how satisfying and rejuvenating it consistently is to take these adventures. Inertia can erect an insurmountable wall, but that’s not the only potential obstacle—a point illustrated by the fact that this is actually my third attempt to backpack into this part of the Sawtooths.
The first time, hiking solo, I inadvertently set out on the opening day of elk season. The Queens River trailhead parking lot overflowed with pickups and horse trailers. I didn’t understand why so many of those hunters seemed to be glaring inexplicably at me until a friendly one asked why I was out there, then explained, “Everyone thinks you’re Fish and Game.” I prefer to believe none of them were actually fingering a trigger while considering whether I was there to checks their tags. The second time, by myself again, I got turned around by a September snowstorm—at exactly the same of year as Jeff and I are hiking now.
Rock Slide Lake to Heart Lake
It rains hard through our second night, camped by the shore of Rock Slide Lake—the only party here. Although Rock Slide is just one in a string of watery jewels closely packed together in this part of the Sawtooths, before we leave this lovely spot, I will remember it as one of the most photogenic backcountry locations I’ve ever visited. Our third morning begins cool, overcast, and windy as we head out for an exploratory, out-and-back dayhike of about 14 miles. We’ll return to this campsite tonight.
Maybe 15 minutes from Rock Slide, we pass Lake Ingeborg, hard against the rocky slopes and cliffs of a long ridge of summits that have no name on my map. Not far beyond Ingeborg, we reach an overlook above Spangle Lake, where morning fog hangs over the water. Again within minutes, we stroll by another lake, unnamed, reflecting cliffs and talus. Then we descend switchbacks, where crystalline creeks cascade on both sides of the trail, to the boulder-lined shore of Spangle Lake. As we’re following the trail between Spangle and Little Spangle lakes, we see a group of five or six backpackers camped on a spit jutting into Little Spangle. They and a couple of backpackers at Lake Ingeborg, who we will see from a distance this afternoon, will be the only people we encounter today.
After a steady descent into the Middle Fork Boise River valley, we turn up the Flytrip Creek Trail, which climbs up a small valley to dead-end below Snowyside Mountain’s west flanks. The many times I’ve looked at my map of the Sawtooths, this remote path has symbolized for me, for whatever reason, the back of beyond in these mountains. Jeff and I ascend this valley some 1,500 feet and almost two-and-a-half miles, first to Camp Lake, where the trail basically disappears. We continue past Camp, hiking cross-country, and scramble to the top of a tall cliff.
A couple hundred feet below us, Heart Lake shimmers a deep blue in the sunshine that has busted through the cloud cover. Mountains frame the scene. It seems a fittingly breathtaking and anonymous farthest point for today’s hike, before we turn around to hike back to our campsite on Rock Slide Lake.
I’ve heard the complaint from people that writing about a place “ruins” it by letting people know about it. I disagree. The truth, based on my experience, is that how crowded a place is always depends on a couple of factors: whether it’s in a national park (which are enduringly popular prime attractions); and the difficulty of getting there, both in terms of on-the-ground difficulty (steepness and ruggedness of trails, etc.), as well as the driving distance from the nearest major population base. Idaho has no national parks or large metro areas, so I’ve rarely seen many people in the backcountry once I’m at least a couple miles from the road.
Our third night falls clear and cold at Rock Slide Lake. We spend the evening watching the sunset succumb to dusk and then dark, and filling camera memory cards. The constantly shifting light burns the clouds over the western horizon while the forest hugging part of the lakeshore fades to black—like any good closing scene. Dawn tomorrow will bring equally dramatic lighting (earning Rock Slide Lake a spot on my list of favorite backcountry campsites of all time).
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Queens River Valley
Jeff and I awaken on our final morning to find ice in our water bottles and frost coating the tents. It’s still below freezing when we start hiking at 9:30 a.m., but the sun has reached us. A gorgeous end-of-summer day in the mountains shifts into second gear.
We backtrack to the head of the Queens River valley and descend it on Trail 458, through tall pine trees flanked by sheer walls of white and gray granite soaring hundreds of feet overhead. Here, near its headwaters, the newborn, steep river pounds against boulders, plowing through one series of whitewater cascades after another. The forest, cliffs, and loud whitewater remind me of the Merced River valley in Yosemite National Park—with the exception of a lack of any humans besides the two of us. We step over a big, fresh pile of black bear poop in the middle of the trail.
Jeff and I will hike a bit over 18 miles today, fording the stone-bottomed lower Queens later in the afternoon, and then losing the trail for a short time in deadfall and what appears to be debris from a past flood. It turns into a long day—and with a couple miles to go, we’re ready for it to be done.
Jeff quotes from Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America: “Every trip is over before it’s over.”
Now that I’ve finally checked off this trip into the deep interior of the Sawtooths, I’ll have another look at my trip list to decide what’s next. It’s a long list that keeps getting longer, while my time only grows shorter. I still have several goals in the Sawtooths on that list, too, including a few dozen more summits and some long, partly cross-country hikes, both one-day and multi-day. I think those may actually keep alive my streak of continuing to discover parts of the Sawtooths that are even more beautiful than any other I’ve seen.
That would seem an impossible streak to keep up—that eventually I’ll explore some part of the Sawtooths that leaves me underwhelmed. But the magic has worked for me so far.
See all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, including this Ask Me post in which I answer a reader’s questions about the trip in this story; this Ask Me post describing my favorite dayhikes and backpacking trips in the Sawtooths; “Jewels of the Sawtooths: Backpacking to Alice, Hell Roaring, and Imogene Lakes;” a late-summer climb of Mount Heyburn; and backcountry skiing in the Heyburn and Bench Lakes area of the range.
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THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR backpackers with at least moderate fitness and experience. Challenges include rugged terrain and occasional, short sections of trail that can be obscured by deadfall or old wildfires. But mostly, trails are obvious and junctions marked with signs, so navigating won’t be a problem for anyone with solid compass and map-reading skills. Self-sufficiency at dealing with emergencies is important because you are less likely to run into people who can help you out than in more-popular areas.
Make It Happen
Season The prime hiking season in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains usually begins in early July, once snow has largely melted out of the high passes, and continues through September and often into October (when hunting season brings the biggest crowds of backcountry users). Summers are mostly warm and dry with occasional afternoon and evening thunderstorms. Go between August and mid-September for mild days, cool but not frigid nights, and fewer mosquitoes and horseflies around the lakes and creeks than in early summer.
This approximately 57-mile trip can be shortened depending on how far you hike on the out-and-back section off the Little Queens-Queens rivers loop.
From the Queens River trailhead, hike up the Little Queens River Trail 454. At the junction with the trail to Browns Lake, turn left (north) and continue over an unnamed pass at about 8,450 feet, descending to the Johnson Creek valley on Trail 459. Turn right (east) onto Trail 494 to Pats Lake and Arrowhead Lake, both of which have good campsites and fishing. Follow Trail 494 over the unnamed pass east of Arrowhead Lake, around 9,200 feet, where you can hike north a non-technical, open ridge much of the way up 9,802-foot Blacknose Mountain, to sweeping views of the Sawtooths.
After backtracking to the pass, continue east on Trail 494 to its junction with Trail 458. Turn left (north) and follow it to Trail 462, then turn right (south) and follow Trail 462 to Rock Slide, Ingeborg, Spangle, and Little Spangle lakes, all of which have established campsites. Follow Trail 460 south, then turn left onto Flytrip Creek Trail 461 to Camp Lake, where the trail disappears but you can easily hike cross-country to Heart Lake (which isn’t labeled on maps but appears as Lake 8562 and is distinctively heart-shaped).
Backtrack all the way to the junction of Trails 494 and 458, and continue south on Trail 458, down the Queens River valley, to the trailhead. There are some established campsites in the lower Queens River valley.
Getting There The fastest summer and fall (before snow hits the mountains) route to the Queens River Trailhead, with the least amount of driving on gravel roads, is to drive ID 21 about 17 miles north of Idaho City and turn right onto Crooked River Road 384. Follow it to North Fork River Road 348 and turn left. Follow that road for several miles, then turn left onto Swanholm Creek Road 327, and continue down to the Middle Fork of the Boise River. Turn left (east) onto Middle Fork Boise Road 268 and follow it along the river. Near the Queens River Campground (several miles before reaching the tiny village of Atlanta), turn left (north) onto FR 206 and follow it about two miles to its end at a primitive campground and the Queens River Trailhead.
Permit Free, self-service backcountry permits for overnight trips are available at trailheads in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
Map Earthwalk Press Sawtooth Wilderness Hiking Map and Guide, $9.95, available in outdoor-gear retail stores in Boise, Stanley, and Ketchum, and online, including at rei.com.
• Bring footwear for one or two rocky fords on the lower Queens River and on the Little Queens River.
• There are black bears in the Sawtooths. While incidents of bears attempting to get human food are rare, hang your food about 20 feet off the ground over a branch at least several feet away from the tree trunk (beyond the reach of a bear climbing the trunk). Over the course of numerous trips, I’ve had only one encounter with a black bear in the Sawtooths (in the Redfish Creek valley), and it was non-threatening; we had to throw rocks to scare it out of the tree it was climbing after our hanging food bags.
Guide Sawtooth Mountain Guides, (208) 774-3324, sawtoothguides.com.
Contact Sawtooth National Recreation Area (208) 727-5000 in Ketchum, (208) 774-3000 in Stanley, fs.usda.gov/sawtooth. The Idaho Trails Association helps maintain the trails, idahotrailsassociation.org.
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