The Best of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Backpacking Redfish to Pettit

By Michael Lanza

Hiking up a forested section of Trail 101 in the Redfish Creek Valley of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, as I’m following a short distance behind a trio of loudly jabbering, 15-year-old boys—my son, Nate, and his buddies Kade and Iggy, whom Nate has invited on their first backpacking trip—we weave through an area where boulders the size of construction vehicles flank the trail. Iggy interrupts his own nearly unbroken monologue over various civilization-related topics, looks around and mutters, “Wow, this is awesome.” He pulls out his phone and shoots a video of the boulders.

That brief moment reinforces for me a truth I’ve learned over the years: The best way to introduce kids of all ages to the outdoors is to raise your own kids to love the outdoors, and let them organically spread the good word among their friends.

When Nate had suggested to me just weeks earlier that we take his friends backpacking, I knew immediately where to go: the core of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, where we’d cross passes over 9,000 feet with expansive views of a sea of jagged peaks, and camp each night beside beautiful mountain lakes ideal for swimming and fishing. More than 20 years of exploring all over the Sawtooths on numerous backpacking trips, long dayhikes, and climbing have convinced me that the area between Redfish Lake and Pettit Lake harbors the best backpacking in Idaho’s premier mountain range.

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Backpackers hiking Trail 101 in Redfish Creek Valley, Sawtooth Mountains Idaho.
Backpackers hiking Trail 101 in Redfish Creek Valley, Sawtooth Mountains Idaho. Click the photo for my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.”

As someone who’s had the good fortune of having backpacked all over the country and in many other countries as a past field editor for Backpacker magazine and now for many years running this blog, I also recognize how friendly the Sawtooths are to relatively inexperienced backpackers, with moderate elevations (most on-trail passes are just over 9,000 feet), stable summer weather, no permit hoops to jump through, few mosquitoes after July, and a network of good, well-marked trails that’s extensive enough to plan backpacking trips ranging from easy to ambitious.

Plus, the Sawtooths are a spectacular mountain range—looking like a little sibling of the High Sierra or Tetons for their serrated skylines and mountain lakes that compare in beauty (if not in numbers) with the Sierra and Wind River Range. (See my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains” to learn all you need to know to plan and pull off a five-day, 36-mile Sawtooths hike through the area covered in this story—which I consider one of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”)

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A backpacker above the Redfish Valley of Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Kade Aldrich backpacking above the Redfish Valley of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Click the photo for my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.”

At a pace set by the boys—with time afforded to breaks, amusing each other with their antics fording a shallow creek, and their non-stop conversation liberally peppered with terms like “dope” and “dude”—we reach the Cramer Lakes, some four hours and more than seven miles up the valley from where we started our hike today. We find an established campsite beside the middle of the three Cramer Lakes, looking across the calm water at a foaming, braided waterfall perhaps 20 feet tall tumbling loudly into the lake. The boys pitch their tent and then take a swim in the chilly lake.

After dark, I can hear the boys in their tent laughing and chattering late into the night. I leave the rainfly off my tent, gazing up at the usual emergence of a clearly defined Milky Way and thousands of sparkling pinpoints of light above the Sawtooths, which form the heart of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, the first gold-tier International Dark Sky Reserve in America.

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Baron Lakes

In the morning, I awaken shortly before a blue-sky sunrise slowly pours over the jagged peaks above the Cramer Lakes, with golden highlights backlighting the tips of the spires and ridges high above us.

I don’t wake the boys, letting them dictate when we will pack up and move on. Impressively, they’re up before 9 a.m.—soon after direct sunlight starts heating up their tent—and getting their breakfast. Kade limps over to me barefooted and asks, “Can you tell me what this is on my foot?”

I look at it. On the ball of his foot, right behind his big toe, he has a puncture wound. I recall seeing him return from the boys’ evening swim barefoot; he’d walked probably 500 yards without shoes, over rocks and forest ground. (I’m quietly glad Nate wore his shoes.) So I pull out my first-aid kit, clean the wound and tape over it to protect it from dirt and bacteria.

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Backpackers above the Baron Lakes in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
My son, Nate, with friends Kade and Iggy, backpacking above the Baron Lakes in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Click the photo for my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.”

While doing this, I share with Kade the true story of when I was on a backcountry skiing yurt trip with a group of friends and I got an infected finger. Fortunately, two friends with me were physicians and the yurt was stocked with a full first-aid kit, including a sterile syringe, scalpel, and local anesthetic. My friends performed minor surgery on my finger to drain pus from it, warning me that an infection left untreated could result in me losing the finger. I tell Kade to keep his puncture wound clean, and I suspect my tale has convinced him to wear shoes in the wilderness.

We leave camp by late morning for the eight-mile hike to Baron Lakes, including a nearly 2,000-vertical-foot climb to a pass at over 9,000 feet on the Baron Divide. By mid-afternoon, we reach the pass and drop our packs to soak in the view. I remember the awestruck feeling I had the first time I backpacked to the Baron Lakes, not long after moving to Idaho. Staring up at the long ridge of spires and pinnacles linking Monte Verita and Warbonnet Peak, I thought I must have stumbled upon the prettiest spot in the Sawtooths.

While I still think it’s one of the prettiest, I also recall a series of trips in these mountains, thinking with each new one that I had, once again, found the most spectacular corner of the Sawtooths. I gave up that quest when I realized I would keep thinking that about every new spot here that I explored.

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The boys and I make the quick descent on Trail 101 to the Upper Baron Lake, finding a couple of nice tentsites a short walk from the lakeshore, an incredible perch overlooking Baron Lake—the middle and largest of the three lakes—and the peaks ringing it. Immediately, we head down to the upper lake’s shoreline, locating the perfect spot to jump off a ledge a few feet above the lake’s surface into the shockingly chilly water, swimming quickly to the rocky shore to warm up in the sun and repeat. The boys make several more leaps into the lake after I’ve had enough.

Early the next morning, as I watch the dawn light creep down the faces of the cliffs and spires above Baron Lake, Nate walks over to me. He’s up at dawn—unusually early for my teenage son—and we admire the view together. Then he grabs his camera and heads for the shore of the upper lake, telling me later, “I got some awesome shots there. The water was just like glass, a perfect reflection of the mountains, and the sunlight was just coming in with this great light. I threw a rock in the lake and watched the ripples go all the way across to the other side.”

Even in the age of smartphones, the natural world provides the best entertainment.

Then, true to form and age, he retreats to his tent to sleep for a couple more hours, before we pack up and hike out the eight miles back to Redfish Lake.

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Cramer Divide to Edna Lake

Fast forward two summers and another two-generation backpacking trip in the Sawtooths: a four-day, roughly 27-mile hike from Redfish Lake to Pettit Lake—again in the area with what I consider the best backpacking in this range. This time, I’m with my wife, Penny, Nate, now 17, and our daughter, Alex, 15, as well as two more buddies of Nate’s—Sam and Elias—and family friends Gary Davis with his daughters, Mae and Adele, who are close in age to Nate and Alex and good friends with them.

On our second morning, our group of adults and teenagers spreads out while hiking uphill from the Cramer Lakes, eventually trickling in pods of two and three up to the pass over 9,000 feet on the Cramer Divide. A chain of 10,000-foot peaks marches away from us, an arc of big, toothy rocks embracing the cirque of the Cramer Lakes, including one of the highest summits in the Sawtooths, 10,716-foot Cramer Peak (just 35 feet lower than the highest in the Sawtooths, Thompson Peak, a super dayhike described in this story).

A total of 57 summits top 10,000 feet in the Sawtooth Mountains, and nearly 400 alpine lakes, many sitting well over 8,000 feet, shimmer in high bowls sculpted by long-ago glaciers. The range lies protected within the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which encompasses the equally beautiful White Cloud Mountains across the Sawtooth/Salmon River Valley, and most of the range is designated wilderness.

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A network of almost 350 miles of trails presents myriad opportunities for exploring the Sawtooth Wilderness, from the relatively accessible trails we hiked on the two trips described in this story, to more remote footpaths deeper in the wilderness, such as the 57-mile hike a friend and I took that I wrote about in this story.

The Gear I Used See my reviews of the outstanding backpack and tent I used on this trip.

See my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains” and my stories “The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths” and “The Roof of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Hiking Thompson Peak,” and all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains at The Big Outside.

See also my story about the 286-mile-long Idaho Wilderness Trail, which passes through the Sawtooths.

Find menus of gear reviews, expert buying tips, and best-in-category reviews like “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 10 Best Down Jackets” at my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.


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Review: Feathered Friends Hummingbird and Egret UL Sleeping Bags

The Roof of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Hiking Thompson Peak


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6 thoughts on “The Best of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Backpacking Redfish to Pettit”

  1. My hiking partner and I did this route starting Sept 4. It was as fantastic a hike as advertised. Several hikers from around the country whom we crossed paths with were gushing about the scenery.

    The hike has a great combination of some challenging terrain but never really hard, with frequent payoff views of beautiful mountain lakes. Camping at a lake each night provided a beautiful light show for dusk and dawn every day. We were glad that we pushed on to Toxaway Lake on Day 3 – mesmerizing blue lake as you approach from above in the afternoon and then really nice views at lake level. We were there midweek in September, so obviously that impacts the crowds. We also agree that coming over the last pass on Day 4 is a truly fantastic view.

    I can see why Alice Lake is a popular shorter overnight destination. There are a lot of campsites tucked away there to accommodate larger crowds, but our timing was such that everyone seemed to be able to nab a more scenic one.

    Thanks for another great itinerary.

  2. Is there any available camping off of the North Fork Baron Creek, Trail 478 , somewhere by the creek? That’s the only question I have about my itinerary. Thanks!

    • Hi Chris,

      While I haven’t been down that trail in several years, I do remember it traversing an overgrown slope with no flat ground, little shade, and little or no easy access to the creek for much of its length. The best options are either at the bottom end of that trail or in the vicinity of Sawtooth Lake.

      Good luck.