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The Roof of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Hiking Thompson Peak

The Roof of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Hiking Thompson Peak

By Michael Lanza

Morning fog hung like a damp, cold blanket over the Sawtooth Valley as my wife, Penny, and I started hiking in early morning from the Redfish Trailhead, minutes from the shores of Redfish Lake. Before long, we caught our first view of our destination—and it looked quite far off: the pinpoint summit of 10,751-foot Thompson Peak, the highest in Idaho’s best-known mountain range, the Sawtooths. From where we started our dayhike, 6.5 circuitous miles and 4,200 vertical feet separated us from that lofty piece of granite, including on- and off-trail hiking through aspens and ponderosa pine forest, up a hanging valley with a steep headwall, over talus and scree, and a bit of third-class scrambling.

But Penny had never stood atop Thompson, and we had a bluebird, late-July day. So we fully intended to get there.

Thompson Peak towers prominently above the Sawtooth Valley at the eastern front of the Sawtooth Range, where a row of jagged peaks and spires extends for miles. Looking up at them reminds me of the view of the Tetons from Jackson Hole (although the Sawtooths do not match the relief or heights of the Tetons).

According to Idaho—A Climbing Guide, by Tom Lopez, 33 summits in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains exceed 10,000 feet. That total depends on which ones you count. Using that guidebook, I’ve put together a list of 37 Sawtooth peaks over 10,000 feet that look worthy of climbing, although some may be considered just subsidiary summits of another mountain.

 

I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable hiking or backpacking trip in the Sawtooths.
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The top of Thompson lies just close enough to the nearest trailhead to reach in a day, and just far enough away to make that a pretty full, rigorous day. But it’s a day filled with much of what we head into the mountains for: challenge, inspiring scenery, deep quiet, perhaps a frigid dip in an alpine lake, and a surprising degree of solitude for the highest peak in a well-known mountain range.

Penny and I broke out above treeline while the fog still filled the valley below us, but it burned off quickly. A little while later, we passed the alpine lake that sits in a stone bowl at 9,000 feet—a lake unnamed on maps but often called Goat Lake by locals—below the dramatic spires of Thompson’s east ridge. Farther still, small, shallow tarns reflected those spires. I looked around at the magnificent cirque framed by Thompson Peak and its neighbor, Williams Peak, a fine destination for a hike even if you have no intention of attempting one of these summits.

 

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, or enter your email address in the box in the left sidebar or at the bottom of this story. Click here to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Follow my adventures on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and Youtube.

 

In the cirque below Thompson Peak, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Penny Beach in the cirque below Thompson Peak, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Four-and-a-half hours after starting out, Penny and I scrambled about 15 feet of steep, blocky rock onto the slanting tabletop that comprises Thompson’s summit. The breathtaking view took in Goat Lake 1,700 feet below us; most of the Sawtooths to the east and south; the shimmering Salmon River in the Sawtooth Valley and another great Idaho mountain range, the White Clouds, to the east; and the rumpled blanket of peaks and canyons of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to the north.

 

Gear up for a big hike like this. See my reviews of the best hiking shoes and the 6 best daypacks.

 

There was hardly a breath of wind, the sun beat down warmly, and we had the roof of the Sawtooth Mountains to ourselves on that July weekday.

Thompson Peak is a great mountain climb. It’s shockingly scenic just about every step of the way. It’s varied and challenging, long and tough: Afterward, Penny, who has climbed a lot of mountains, was surprised at how strenuous it was. It’s ambitious and rewarding.

 

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See my story “Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?” for a description of the standard hiking route to the summit of Thompson as well as other great dayhikes and backpacking trips in Idaho’s premier mountain range. And see all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

 

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About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor and primary gear reviewer for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I’ll be heading out to attempt this from another direction over Labor Day. I’ll be coming up the drainage on the other side of Williams and Thompson. Would you recommend finding the saddle between the two, where you came up from the other side and then approach the summit from there, or is it easier to summit from the southwest?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • MichaelALanza

      Hi Mitch, I think you’re talking about the drainage accessed from Goat Lake (below Merritt Peak) and hiking up it on the west (back) side of Williams Peak to gain the Thompson-Williams saddle. I’ve done that, it’s fairly straightforward, though there’s a steep (a bit of 3rd class) headwall to reach the saddle. Then you just gain the standard route up Thompson from the saddle. Yes, hike around to the southwest side of Thompson and follow a climbers trail to the summit. If you turn for the summit before reaching the southwest side, you’ll run into cliffs. Good luck. It’s an awesome hike.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Hi, I was wondering if 4th of July weekend would be too early for this peak, or even for general backpacking in the Sawtooths? Thanks so much!

    Reply
    • MichaelALanza

      Hi Shawna, thanks for the good question. Yes, 4th of July weekend would be early most years, and this year wouldn’t be any different. I would expect to run into solid snow cover above roughly 8,000 feet, and the summit of Thompson is at nearly 11,000 feet. The steep headwall you have to get over on the hike, between Thompson and Williams peaks, would be technically difficult and possibly dangerous with a lot of snow on it. Plus, there’s a lot of off-trail walking on rugged terrain, including talus boulders where if you broke through a snow bridge, you’d fall between large rocks. It’s best to wait at least until mid-July. Good luck.

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    I was always told that Thompson Peak was beautiful, but your pictures make it true. I have cousins that live in Idaho and are always telling me to go camping to see their state’s beauty. Now it is a must the next time I visit idaho. Loved your blog.

    Reply
    • MichaelALanza

      Thanks, Sherri. You should hike Thompson, it’s a challenging, rewarding, beautiful, really fun day.

      Reply

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Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside and former Northwest Editor at Backpacker magazine. Click my photo to learn more about me and my blog. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside now to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. And click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

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