Over the past few summers, my family has settled into a bit of a rotation between a week hiking in the Northwest and a week at Cold River Camp in the White Mountains. For 2018, we decided on a week of day hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Despite smokey skies from wildfires, we had a wonderful time.
The Sawtooths cover over 600 square miles in central Idaho. Their jagged peaks — hence the name Sawtooth Range — reach 10,000 feet. Much of the range is protected as part of the Sawtooth Wilderness and Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Around 400 lakes dot the mountain range.
After seeing photos, we made exploring the Sawtooths a high priority. Kyle and I had been considering a backpacking trip, but on learning that 35 trails, many built at stock grade, make many destinations accessible, we also considered it for a family week of day hikes.
For this trip, we chose Stanley (population: 68), the largest town adjacent to the Sawtooths, as our home base. Stanley has good access to trailheads, a number of restaurants, and a few options for where to stay.
Where we stayed
As with our previous week near Mount Baker in Glacier, Washington, we chose to rent a house. This gave us comfortable indoor and outdoor shared spaces for relaxing, a kitchen for breakfasts, making lunches, and cooking dinners. The specific home we rented does not seem to be listed anymore, but VRBO lists several other properties in or near Stanley.
We also considered staying at Redfish Lake Lodge (TripAdvisor). They had a mix of lodging options, including lodge rooms, suites, and duplex and standalone cabins. Reviews were positive and the location is unquestionably pretty, but the rental home we found was a bit more economical and fit our group size better.
Resources for planning hikes in the Sawtooths
For planning hikes, we relied on two maps.
- Earthwalk Press’s map of the Sawtooth Wilderness. When considering backpacking options, Kyle and I bought this map. It has great details of the Sawtooth Range, but the detailed scale made it a bit unwieldy. This would be my first choice for planning off-trail expeditions in the Sawtooths.
- Sawtooth & White Cloud Mountains Trail Map by Adventure Maps. My parents bought this combined map of the Sawtooth and White Cloud ranges. We’d recommend this as a starting point, especially if you are considering any hikes in the White Clouds and mostly doing day hikes on trails.
Arrival – Saturday
We arrived late in the day on Saturday. Kyle and I drove from Seattle, bringing lots of groceries and supplies. My parents, my brother, and my sister-in-law had all flown in to Boise, where they were able to enjoy the Saturday market, and rented a car from there.
Kent and Adri made noodles for dinner. Shortly after, we lost power. From a call to the owner of our rental, we learned that Stanley is at the end of the power grid, and this is not an entirely infrequent occurrence.
True to our family’s priorities, we took this as an invitation to head to town for ice cream. One of the shops (Stanley Scoops) was closed, but Kyle and I found another ice cream option in a clothing store along the Salmon River. We each got scoops, served by flashlight, and ate by the river. The rest of the family showed up a few minutes later, but by that time the store had decided they shouldn’t open the freezer again until the power came back on. We also browsed some of the books and maps, chatted with a couple from the area who shared their favorite hikes, and planned our hikes for the day.
Bench Lakes Sunday
For our first hike, we decided to head to a series of lakes, the Bench Lakes (8.2 miles, 1400′). We used the boat shuttle from Redfish Lodge to start at the other end of Redfish Lake. This let us make a bit of a Y-shaped route: along the lake, turning off for the Bench Lakes, and then back, and the rest of the way along the lake.
We were the only ones on the shuttle, which quickly delivered us to the Redfish Inlet and Transfer Camp. From here, the trail climbed to a bit above the lake and then paralleled it, back the way we had come on the boat. The distance to the turnoff passed quickly.
From the turnoff, we also quickly reached the first bench lake. We paused briefly before continuing to the strip of land between the first and second. While relaxing by the lake shore, a guided group on horseback arrived.
After the second bench lake, the trail dissolves into a set of social trails. We followed one up through the forest to a rocky area that looked like an old glacial moraine. We followed this up toward the third lake. Going was slow and tedious — the rocks were just too small to get good footing, and just big enough to really catch your feet if you mis-stepped. My parents and Kent and Adri turned back here.
A few minutes past where they turned around, we reached the next lake — actually the fourth bench lake. While the first two lakes were surrounded mostly by forest, this one was set in a deep bowl, with the outlet from the lake above flowing into it.
We set out along the southern shore of the lake, following a better-defined social trail. Somewhere past the lake, this faded out and we picked our way up the steep sides to the final lake.
Eventually, we came up over a rocky outcrop to views of the fifth lake. This one was set in a deep rock bowl below Heyburn Mountain. We wandered a bit before finding a spot with a mix of shade and sun for lunch.
After lunch, we headed down. We decided to follow a ridge toward the north shore of the fourth lake, intending to complete a loop. Overall, we found this easier going than the route we had taken up, though in one spot we had to backtrack as we got cliffed-out.
Back at the fourth lake, we found a different social trail down. This one was less defined, but it avoided the rocks. We wished we had found it on the way up, as the rest of the family might have made it to the lake if we had started up this way. About halfway back to the second lake, a trail branched out to the smaller, largely overgrown third lake.
We detoured that direction. While pretty in a different way, we did not stop long as the lake also seemed to be a prime mosquito breeding spot. We retraced our steps to the turnoff and then down to the second lake, back to the first, and to the turnoff.
The trail for the rest of the hike — shared by hikers and stock — was like a highway, and we quickly reached the parking lot and the car. With our extensions, the total hike came to about 10.4 miles and 2700′ of elevation gain.
Back at the house, we cleaned up and then went to the Sawtooth Hotel (TripAdvisor) for my parents’ anniversary dinner. We had a good meal — their meatloaf, schnitzel, and steaks were particularly good — followed by some delicious pie.
Sawtooth Lake Monday
For Monday, we figured we should see the Sawtooths’ namesake lake. So, we drove to the Iron Creek trailhead and set out for Sawtooth Lake (about 8.5 miles, 1700′).
The first part of the trail was relatively flat, before reaching a creek. After following the creek with some distant views toward the trees, the trail started climbing. From the ascent, we got views down to Alpine Lake, but decided to save that detour for the return.
Eventually, the trail evened out and we reached a small but beautiful lake that remained unnamed on our maps. Just past it, we reached Sawtooth Lake, with Mount Regan towering above. Kyle and I turned left at a trail junction and found a high point along the lake shore. There, we had a snack while waiting for the rest of the family to catch up.
After our snack, we extended our hike by following the trail along Sawtooth Lake. At the southern end of the lake, we passed a field of boulders and wildflowers, crossed a col, and reached another small tarn. From here, we could see an entire valley of lakes before us. We wanted to continue exploring or to turn around and scramble up Alpine Peak for views. However, it was our night to cook, so we instead ate the rest of our lunches before turning back.
Descending was much faster than ascending, and so we also detoured to Alpine Lake. Alpine Lake is set in a gorgeous bowl below Alpine Peak, surrounded by forest and with the peak rising above. We found a log that extended into the lake, took off our shoes and socks, and ate our apples.
After our break here, we ascended back to the main trail and followed it back to the car. Our additional explorations had extended the hike to about 11.2 miles and 2400′ of elevation gain.
At the house, we made Charlie Bird’s Farro Salad for dinner, enjoyed the hot tub, and made plans for the next day.
The White Clouds Tuesday
On Tuesday, we awoke to see a fox pass in front the house. It ended up being a regular morning visitor throughout the week.
For our hike, we decided to head to the White Cloud Mountains, following advice from the people we had met over ice cream on Saturday night. We selected a short hike — Fourth of July Lake — with options for further exploration. The trailhead was up a 10 mile forest road, which did much of the climb for us. Fortunately, the road was well-maintained.
Signs at the trailhead warned us that the trail past Fourth of July Lake, south toward Washington Lake, was closed due to fire activity. This would limit us to exploration to the north.
From the trailhead, we gained only about 600′ and traveled about 1.7 miles before reaching Fourth of July Lake. This is a pretty spot and the short hike in would make for a good hike or first time backpacking with kids.
After a break at the lake, we turned around and followed a trail toward Antz Pass (also referred to as Ants Pass in different writeups and maps). The well-graded trail led past a small tarn before climbing to the pass. There, we enjoyed fantastic views of the White Cloud Mountains and, closer-in, Antz Basin and the Born Lakes. The rock layers told a complicated and beautiful geological story which we lacked the expertise to interpret. While we were snacking, a fox picked its way over the scree below us.
Most of the group turned around here. Kyle and I continued, following the trail into the basin. The trail descended, crossed a wide, open flat section, and then descended again. After the second descent, we reached the basin and the first of the lakes.
From this lake, the trail meandered around, leading us to nine different lakes and tarns. Many had appealing campsites. Some were surrounded by forest, others by rock. At the highest, we stopped for lunch, poked at rocks, and took in the views.
After lunch, we retraced our steps back past the lakes and tarns, up to the pass, and down, back to the car. Our hike totaled about 9.3 miles and 2350′ of elevation gain.
Once we got back to the house, we cleaned up and got ready for dinner. My parents had made chicken tacos.
Off-Trail Explorations Wednesday
For our Wednesday hike, we decided to head to a lake in the Sawtooths that we had read about but that is not on the trail system. At ice cream on Saturday, others had also recommended we visit it.
We’ve had a few conversations with people from the area about whether to identify the lake, and reactions have varied. Some said we should write all about it, so the Forest Service might “finally” build a trail to it. Others argued that it should go unadvertised.
After deliberation, we’ll not name the lake here. There are nearly 400 lakes in the Sawtooth Wilderness, many of which are not reachable by official trails. A map, some research, and conversations with locals pointed us to many appealing destinations, and I expect they’ll do the same for you. If we all pick some different destinations, it will help disperse our impact on the land.
There are also lots of stunning hikes entirely on the 350+ miles of trail in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. If you aren’t confident in your route finding skills and/or don’t have the navigation tools, there are still plenty of lakes you can reach.
Our off-trail exploration brought us to a beautiful lake in a jaw-dropping bowl among various peaks. Most of the family found this to be a perfect destination for the day.
Kyle and I were enticed by a waterfall and higher bowl across the lake, and so we pushed on further. This required some scrambling. We overshot, reached a high point, and had to scramble down into the bowl.
There, we found additional tarns, rocky streams, and an enormous elk. We could have spent an entire day exploring this spot, but the sky had started to look stormy, and so we headed down. Our explorations totaled around 11 miles and 3900′ of elevation gain.
Custer Ghost Town and Yankee Fork Gold Dredge Thursday
On Thursday, the forecast called for even more smoke. Fires in the vicinity and greater area had spread, and the area around our Tuesday hike was now entirely closed.
With limited hope for views, we decided to take a rest day and explore some historic sites. We first stopped briefly at Sunbeam Hotsprings, just off highway 75. Shortly past the hot springs, we also stopped to see the remnants of Sunbeam Dam. Built in 1910 to provide power, this was the only dam built on the Salmon River. The dam was used for only a year before the owners went bankrupt — they were not able to extract enough value from the nearby mine — and the mine was sold at sheriff’s auction. Over time, the dam’s fish ladders started to fail, and in 1933 or 1934, a hole was blasted in the dam to better support fish migration.
Yankee Fork Gold Dredge
From there, we turned off highway 75 toward Yankee Fork Gold Dredge. Kyle and I had first encountered a gold dredge by chance, on the way home from viewing the solar eclipse in Oregon a year earlier. Along the way, I looked out the window and saw what looked like a steamship stuck in a tiny pond. We decided we should investigate, and thus we learned about the Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge — and the existence of gold dredges at all. In short, gold dredges are mining machines that sit in their own pond, digging into the ground in front of them, processing the rock, and outputting waste rock behind them, moving as they go.
A narrow valley off the Salmon River led to the site of the Yankee Fork Dredge. It started operation in 1940 and last ran in 1953. We arrived slightly before they opened, and passed a few minutes looking for various rocks in the tailings (what the dredge had dug up). Once open, we followed a self-guided tour through the dredge, where helpful members of the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge Association explained the workings and history of the dredge.
Custer Ghost Town
After the tour, Kent, Adri, Kyle, Beth, and I decided to continue up the road to Custer Ghost Town, while Gary stayed behind to continue exploring the tailings from the dredge.
Custer was established in the 1870s as a mining town. It briefly prospered — especially after fire damaged nearby Bonanza — and reached a population of around 600, before fading into abandonment by 1910. Today, several buildings have been restored, with some featuring exhibitions and others showing how they might have been furnished in Custer’s heyday. We enjoyed wandering.
After our visit to Custer, we picked up Gary and his rocks. During our tour of the dredge, we’d learned that in a prior summer, a child found a large gold nugget. Sadly, Gary did not have similar success, though he did find interesting specimens.
We headed back to the house, and Kent and Adri left to visit a hot spring along highway 75. Gary picked apart his rocks, while the rest of us enjoyed reading and napping.
For dinner, we ate leftovers from the previous dinners. After dinner, we stopped for ice cream at Stanley Scoops, also perfect.
Alice & Twin Lakes Friday
On Friday, we woke up to clearer skies. For our hike, we decided to visit Alice Lake, starting at the Tin Cup Trailhead on Pettit Lake. Even with an early start, the trailhead parking lot was almost full with weekend backpackers.
From the trailhead, the Pettit Valley trail follows the Pettit Lake. The morning mists cleared and ducks swam in the lake.
The trail left the lake where Pettit Creek enters. From there until the Alice Lake, the trail follows a gorgeous valley, sometimes in the forest, sometimes along the creek, and sometimes offering beautiful views. The trail never became steep, climbing only moderately to the lake. We saw deer and pika.
Just after passing some smaller lakes, and a little more than five miles of hiking, the trail reached Alice Lake. While we had enjoyed outstanding scenery all week, if I had to pick a quintessential Sawtooths view, this would be it. Jagged peaks and cliffs rose above the blue waters of Alice Lake, while the smoother 9,901′ El Capitan rises above the northeast end of the lake. Trees, beaches, and many flat spots make for good campsites, snack breaks, or just taking in the views.
Kyle and I explored the shore, trying to see each different vantage. Unfortunately, the smoke had started to blow back in, so the mountains again were taking on that murky, flattened look.
Most of the family stopped here, for a 10.6 mile roundtrip, 1600′ elevation gain hike. Kyle and I found ourselves drawn further up the trail, first stopping to explore Twin Lakes, about a mile past Alice Lake.
After a snack and exploring around Twin Lakes, we continued up to Alice-Toxaway Divide. The divide offered outstanding views back to Alice and Twin Lakes. Before us, we could see two smaller lakes and the valley that holds Toxaway lake, though the lake itself was obscured. The splendor of the Sawtooths was laid out all around us as we ate lunch.
We were tempted to continue around to make a loop, which would have totaled around 18-20 miles with the exploration we had already done. On the well-built trails, we easily could have done it. However, we also wanted to get back to spend time with family. Pledging to return for a future backpacking trip, we retraced our steps, taking ample breaks along the way to continue to bask in the scenery. Our total hike came to about 14.5 miles and 3400′ elevation gain.
For dinner, we picked Sawtooth Luce’s (TripAdvisor), where most of us ordered burgers and beers. They were perfect after a great day of hiking. Of course, we also made one more trip to Stanley Scoops.
In the morning, we packed up and went our separate ways. Gary, Beth, Kent, and Adri drove to Boise for flights. Kyle and I drove back to Seattle. As it turned out, Saturday morning was our clearest day yet, so we made time for a brief stop at Stanley Lake. Easily reachable by car, the lake gave us one more chance to say goodbye to the Sawtooths and look forward to our return.