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.
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.
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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.
After the Sawtooths, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
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.
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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.
See all of my stories about the Sawtooths, including my stories “The Best of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Backpacking Redfish to Pettit,” “Photo Gallery: Mountain Lakes of Idaho’s Sawtooths,” and “The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths.”