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.

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, fog, Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho, mountains
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.

swimming, Goat Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho, wilderness
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.

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.

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.

Camping, Hiking, Sawtooth Mountains
Morning glory of Pettit Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains, August 2014.
Idaho’s El Capitan, 9,901ft, towers above Alice Lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness.
Idaho’s El Capitan, 9,901ft, towers above Alice Lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness.

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.

McGown Peak, meadow, Sawtooth Mountains, wilderness, Idaho
Eveing Light on McGown Peak near Stanley, Idaho
2 responses to “Exploring the Freedom of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains
    1. Indeed, however it’s still fairly easy to find solitude during peak season. You just need to find the right spots!

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