By Michael Lanza
When can you claim to know a mountain range well? Maybe it’s once you have spent enough time—certainly measured in years, and probably decades—that you have explored beyond the most accessible and popular spots to the obscure, unknown corners. Perhaps it’s when you have hiked most of its trails. Just possibly, it’s when you unfold a map and it takes several minutes to tick off for someone all the places you have visited. That’s a good start, anyway.
I’ve been exploring Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains for more than 20 years—backpacking and dayhiking, climbing peaks, backcountry skiing—and have fallen in love with these rugged, crenulated peaks. As someone who’s had the good fortune of having backpacked all over the country and the world over the past three-plus decades, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog, I rank the Sawtooths among the top 10 best backpacking trips in America.
I think you’ll see why in this photo gallery.
Protected as federal wilderness and the best-known piece of the sprawling wilderness areas of central Idaho—south of the nearly 2.4-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the second-largest in the Lower 48, and west of the 275,000 acres of newer wilderness in the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains—the Sawtooths resemble a cross between the High Sierra and the Tetons.
Dozens of summits rise above 10,000 feet. Innumerable granite spires and pinnacles loom above valleys and cirques where hundreds of alpine lakes ripple in the wind; the Sawtooths are outdone by few mountain ranges in the number and beauty of alpine lakes (see some of the best Sawtooth lakes in this photo gallery).
While these peaks harbor some classic, technical rock climbs, many summits can be reached on third- and fourth-class scrambles, including the highest in the range, 10,751-foot Thompson Peak. Besides Thompson, I’ve climbed a number of them, including most of the iconic summits visible from the Sawtooth Valley: Heyburn, Horstman, McGown, Williams, among others—some feasible in a day, all of them great adventures in a range where it’s not unusual to have a high summit all to yourself.
I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip in the Sawtooths.
Want my help with yours? Click here to learn more.
Put Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains on your list of places to see this summer.
See all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains at The Big Outside, including these:
“The Best of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Backpacking Redfish to Pettit”
“Jewels of the Sawtooths: Backpacking to Alice, Hell Roaring, and Imogene Lakes”
“The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths”
“Going After Goals: Backpacking Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains”
“5 Reasons You Must Backpack Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains”
See also my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains” and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan every detail of a multi-day hike there.
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