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 aspen and ponderosa pine forest, up a hanging valley with a steep headwall, over a stretch of 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. 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). I’ve hiked and backpacked all over America for about four decades, including many years as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and running this blog, and from my perspective, Thompson Peak stands out as a great hike with five-star scenery much of the way, challenging terrain that’s feasible for many fit hikers, and a spectacular summit
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.
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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.
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Four-and-a-half hours after starting out, Penny and I scrambled about 15 feet of steep, blocky rock onto the sloping 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.
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.
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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.
See my stories “The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips 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 “The Best of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Backpacking Redfish to Pettit.” and all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.