Evening light shines through a meadow below McGown Peak and Stanley Lake.

Exploring the Freedom of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains

It’s a mid-November Friday night, and I’m packing for my first true Idaho experience since moving to Boise for college. We’re headed to Stanley, a town two and half hours north, and one of the coldest locations in the lower 48. My friend Daniel, a fellow photographer and business student at Boise State, had wowed me with stunning images of backpacking and climbing in his native state – the Lost River Range, climbing Mount Borah, and of course the Sawtooth Mountains.

Now, I was about to experience an Idaho classic, albeit not during the most visitor-friendly season. The midnight drive became pitch black by the time we were out of the city, however I was reassured we were in fact driving among some of the beautiful Rocky Mountains, and that I shouldn’t be worried about the massive canyon just over the guard rail that wasn’t visible.

Once in Stanley, we decided to camp sans-tent despite the temperature dropping into the negatives. Waking up to a non existent sunrise wasn’t what we had hoped for, and with the early morning fog, I was still waiting to see the prominent Sawtooths for the first time.

Redfish Rising

Despite the lack of sunrise, Dan knew Redfish Lake was always a safe bet for iconic photos. The November fog we woke up to eventually lifted enough to catch a glimpse of two of the most viewed peaks in the state.

Fog at Redfish Lake
A foggy Redfish morning.

Little did I know that this trip would spark many more to the area, and ultimately become a part of staying in Idaho after graduating. Back home, I grew up a short drive away from the rolling Santa Cruz Mountains, and less than an hour from some of the most beautiful coastline in the west. While Boise was a longer haul to truly scenic locations, I figured the tradeoffs were worthwhile.

These mountains would eventually change my view of Idaho after finally escaping Boise for the first time. Over the next few years I would take a handful of backpacking trips and many more day trips to the Sawtooth Mountains. A few of my favorites are highlighted below.

Navigating in the Sawtooths can be challenging, even in June.
Navigating in the Sawtooths can be challenging, even in June.
Sunset over Fishhook Creek in the Sawtooth Wilderness
A gloomy autumn sunset over Horstmann Peak from Fishhook Creek in the Sawtooth Wilderness.
Mount Heyburn above Redfish Lake
Mount Heyburn shrouded in fog above Redfish Lake.

Above: An early June backpacking trip behind Stanley Lake left my group postholing uphill for many miles and made trail finding pretty difficult. Combine not being ready for snow-backpacking with hiking in heavy camera gear without the memory cards – this trip got many rookie mistakes out of the way.

Mount Heyburn peaking through the fog.

Hiking and Swimming Goat and Sawtooth Lakes

Everyone has their favorite summer traditions: that July 4th campground, the August backpacking trip, and floating the Boise River are just a few. However, there are few summer activities that beat jumping into an icy alpine lake.

Diving into Goat Lake
Diving into Goat Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains

Goat Lake is a steep, challenging hike that will test you and your physical abilities. After enduring loose rock that gives your hike a “two steps forward, one step back” theme, this beautiful lake is nearly surrounded by steep, intimidating peaks. This forces photographers to get creative, as the best evening and morning light is nonexistent.

Goat Lake Waterfall
A popular summer hiking destination, Goat Lake features stunningly clear blue water, waterfalls, cliff jumping, and a great spot for lunch.
Trail to Goat Lake
The trail to Goat Lake – a fun route finding exercise.

Sawtooth Lake is slightly different. An easier hike, you’re likely to joined by crowds during the summer. Located off the same trailhead as Goat Lake, this is a must-do for any Idahoan.

Mount Regan
Mount Regan at 10,190′ towers 1755′ above Idaho’s iconic Sawtooth Lake.
Sawtooth Lake Meadow
A beautiful meadow before the lake.

Pettit-Alice-Toxaway Loop

Normally completed as a backpacking trip, this can be a long day hike if you’re up for the challenge. Catch the sunrise at Petit Lake, and head out for one of the most scenic loops Idaho has to offer. This trail includes Idaho’s El Capitan, Snowyside Pass, and the beautiful Alice Lake. Read more in the exhaustion-laden trip report.

Sunrise at Pettit Lake
Morning glory of Pettit Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains, August 2014.
Idaho's El Capitan above Alice Lake
Idaho’s El Capitan, 9,901ft, towers above Alice Lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness.
Twin Lakes Sawtooths
Looking south over the Twin Lakes from Snowyside Pass in the Sawtooth Mountains.
Lookout from Snowyside Pass
Looking east from Snowyside Pass on the way to Toxaway Lake

Spring in the Sawtooths

While spring is often far too early for any serious backpacking trip in the Sawtooths (unless you enjoy snow camping), it’s certainly not too early for small adventures. Memorial Day is usually the first popular camping weekend of the summer season, as many of the lower elevation lakes are thawed.

Evening light shines through a meadow below McGown Peak and Stanley Lake.
Eveing Light on McGown Peak near Stanley, Idaho
Spring wildflowers bloom in a meadow beneath McGown Peak in the Sawtooths.
Spring wildflowers bloom in a meadow beneath McGown Peak in the Sawtooths.
Canoeing on Redfish
Canoeing on a Spring morning at Redfish Lake.