Ask Me: The Best Long Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooths
We are a group of eight fit and active backpackers (our mountains are the High Sierra) who are interested in heading to Idaho to check out the Sawtooths next summer. I know these are some of your favorite mountains! We’re coming from California to spend a total of 10 days (including travel and a night on front and back side in Stanley). We’d like to spend about six or so days on the trail. We’re usually happy with the eight to 11 miles per day range (depending on difficulty). Of most interest to me is the Grand Sawtooths Loop from the guidebook Backpacking Idaho, by Douglas Lorain. Have you done this particular loop and would you recommend it?
I did take a look at your blog post on the best hikes in the Sawtooths. And I did notice in your post of your Top 10 backpacking trips that there is a different hike you would recommend to someone wanting a multi-day trip in the Sawtooths, so I’m hoping for more info on that trip and if it would be superior to this loop. That one I believe you said was about 50 miles.
I took this same group through the Smedberg/Benson Lake Loop in the Hoover Wilderness and Yosemite last summer at 50 miles in five days and it was TOUGH hiking. One of the days we had two passes to cross. I may have broken a little of their trust with that doozy of a trip, and I realized not all 10-mile days are created equal!
I also seem to have read a lot about burned and boring areas that sound like they’d be nice to avoid. Give me your thoughts on wowing my crew. Thank you for your help! Your blog is fantastic.
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I’ll start by saying I think you and your friends will love the Sawtooths. They resemble a sort of cross between the High Sierra and the Tetons, although not quite as high, and certainly not as crowded. (I’ve backpacked a fair bit in the Sierra, including the northern Yosemite area you mentioned in your email.) There are few mountain ranges in the country that have as many beautiful mountain lakes as the Sawtooths (the Sierra perhaps ranking number one in that regard). See my “Photo Gallery: Mountain Lakes of Idaho’s Sawtooths.” Some of these lakes are ones you’ll probably visit, so those photos may help you plan your trip.
I have a copy of Doug Lorain’s guidebook, which describes what he calls the Sawtooths Grand Loop of about 63 miles. I’ve actually hiked much of that route, with the exception of a big chunk of it: the long stretch south of Grandjean trailhead along the South Fork of the Payette River. However, I have backpacked a short loop from Grandjean to Sawtooth Lake and the McGown Lakes, including the North Fork of Baron Creek.
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Here’s why I would not recommend that Sawtooths Grand Loop: Like many north-south mountain ranges in the West (including the Sierra, Tetons, and the Rockies in places like Glacier National Park, among others), the east side of the Sawtooths has much more dramatic relief, and higher elevations, than the west side, which is lower, hotter, and more forested. The most dramatic scenery is along the main crest and eastern escarpment of the Sawtooths—as are most of the lakes.
To be honest, I think you would find the first two to three days of the Sawtooths Grand Loop (assuming you hiked it counter-clockwise), going up the South Fork Payette, to be hot, dusty (a lot of horse use from Grandjean, and horses pound trail dirt to a fine powder that rises in clouds when you hike it), and not nearly as scenic as other areas. I haven’t started a trip at Grandjean in many years, for that reason.
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Frankly, the challenge in planning a long Sawtooths backpacking trip is that the trail system isn’t really conducive to creating long loops that hit the best highlights of the Sawtooths. When you look at my “Photo Gallery: Mountain Lakes of Idaho’s Sawtooths,” note where the lakes shown in it are on the map. Most are within the interior heart of the range, roughly west of and between trailheads at Redfish Lake and Pettit Lake.
The one exception is Sawtooth Lake. But the trails from Sawtooth Lake to Baron Lake, descending the North Fork Baron Creek and then ascending Baron Creek Trail, are, again, lower, hot, and dusty, and not the best hiking in the Sawtooths. My suggestion is that if you want to see Sawtooth Lake, dayhike to it. It’s not a hard dayhike, about 8.5 miles and 1,700 vertical feet round-trip from Iron Creek Trailhead. See my story “Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?” It would be a great way to spend a day after backpacking, when you’re staying in Stanley.
The roughly 50-mile Sawtooths hike I describe in “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips” is my attempt at creating a route that hits the best spots in the Sawtooths, even though it’s not a loop hike and it involves some backtracking. I think you’d find it a challenging but reasonable distance to cover in five to six days.
Starting at Redfish Lake (you could spend the night before at Redfish Lake Lodge, a nice spot with a great view across the lake, and sit-on-top kayaks to rent for a paddle), take the lodge’s boat shuttle across Redfish, and you’d have a moderate, approximately seven-mile first day to Baron Lake to camp (lead photo at top of story). It’s a long, moderate climb up to the pass over 9,000 feet at Baron Divide, between Alpine Lake and Baron Lakes; better to get an early start and have cooler temps for as long as possible.
Baron is one of the gems of the Sawtooths (and that’s saying a lot). There are campsites at the largest (middle) Baron Lake. But I’ve also camped at a site on the north shore of the upper Baron Lake; in fact, if you hike a short distance uphill from the first, obvious site you encounter just off the trail on upper Baron Lake’s north shore, you’ll gain the ridge overlooking the largest/middle Baron Lake, where there are tentsites with better views; from there, it’s a 10- or 15-minute walk downhill to visit Baron Lake. But if it’s taken, the largest/middle Baron Lake has beautiful sites, too.
Day two, you could hike another seven miles or so to the Middle or Upper Cramer Lake; they’re right next to each other. (Don’t stop at the lowest Cramer Lake, it’s not nearly as nice.) I’ve camped at nice sites at the north end of the middle lake, and on the finger of land separating the middle and upper lakes. From there, with lighter packs on day three, you could get around to Imogene Lake (I think 10 miles, maybe more), although that’s a tough day, with three passes. The option would be to skip Imogene, making the trip several miles shorter, by camping at Edna or Edith Lake. In fact, from a camp at Edith, on your fourth morning you could hike with light daypacks out-and-back to Imogene, then pack up camp at Edith and hike a fairly easy two miles or so over to camp at Toxaway Lake—another great spot. There are campsites on the north and west sides of Toxaway.
On day five, the shorter distance to Tin Cup Hiker Trailhead would be to hike east from Toxaway Lake, down valley, then turn south onto Trail 41 over to Pettit Lake. But that last ridge you have to climb over on Trail 41 can be tough, anyway. So I’d recommend you take the slightly longer but more scenic route, over the 9,200-foot Toxaway-Alice Divide pass to Twin Lakes and Alice Lake, and descend a good, scenic trail back to Tin Cup Hiker Trailhead from Alice Lake.
Note: As you’re descending to the Tin Cup Hiker Trailhead, read the signs carefully, and don’t take the trail to the Tin Cup Horse Trailhead.
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If you wanted to add a day or two of backpacking to this route, from Edna Lake (on day three or four), you could hike out-and-back as far as desired to the Spangle Lake area. I’ve backpacked to Spangle, Ingeborg, and Rock Slide lakes from the Queens River Trailhead (farther south, just west of the little town of Atlanta), and they’re beautiful, too. Rock Slide Lake was on my list of 25 favorite backcountry campsites for a while (it got usurped by Alice Lake, and that was a tough call). But that would add significant mileage to your trip.
If you’re spending time in Stanley, visit the Sunbeam hot springs just up the highway.
Of course, my suggested route has the inconvenience of requiring a vehicle shuttle. If you’re staying in local lodging in Stanley or at Redfish Lake Lodge, you’ll find plenty of young, seasonal workers who would probably be happy to give you a short lift for a reasonable price. Most of those lodges are small businesses, ask them if they know someone who would give you a ride.
I hope that’s helpful. I really think the route I’ve suggested shows you the best of the Sawtooths. See other Ask Me posts I’ve written about the Sawtooths by scrolling down to Idaho on my All Trips By State page.
Let me know if you have other questions. Good luck, and I’d love to hear from you afterward, to see how your trip went.
This is so awesome.
You hit the nail on the head that nobody wants to spend really even one day in a dusty, forested route… so I thank you. Loops aren’t necessary to have a great backpack, and if the best of the Sawtooths are more out and back, that’s what we’ll be doing!
Is it okay if I ask for a couple of clarifying points on the backpacking route?
For starters, do any maps exist out there with trail mileages on them? Ours has none and it’s a struggle to say the least!
The main points we’re unsure of is the distance/hours between Imogene Lake to Spangle Lake. Also Spangle Lake to Alice Lake (distance or hours?)
Our potential plan:
1) Redfish to Baron (7 miles)
2) Baron to Cramer (7 miles)
3) Cramer to Imogene (10+ miles)
4) Imogene to Spangle
5) 2nd night at Spangle
6) Spangle to Alice
7) Alice to Tin Cup TH
We looked at Imogene to Toxaway or Edna but the distances look really short. Can you help with that bit of what to do after Imogene and if day 4 and 6 are too brutal the way I have it laid out? Thanks very much.
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I haven’t seen any Sawtooths maps with mileages. I have the maps from Earthwalk Press and Adventure Maps, and neither show mileages.
I think your plan looks smart and flexible. Seven days will give you a wonderful tour of the Sawtooths, and you’ll certainly hit many highlights.
Your first two days, with the heaviest packs, are reasonable distances. You’ll be happy to get on an early boat across Redfish Lake that first day; the uphill climb out of the Redfish Valley to Alpine Lake is exposed to the hot sun for the first several hundred vertical feet; then you’re in partly shaded forest for a while.
Baron to Cramer isn’t a tough day; it may give you something of a break before your big third day, if you want to get to Imogene. I’m not certain of that distance; your group may find it tough but doable. However, when you get to either Edith Lake or the two unnamed passes on the flanks of Sand Mountain (those passes are within a few minutes of one another, and one overlooks Edith Lake, the other Toxaway Lake), you have alternatives: camp at Edith, Edna, or Toxaway, instead of Imogene. But you’ll also see on any map that the passes between Edna and Edith, and Edith and Imogene, are not huge climbs in either direction—they’re on the order of 500-700 feet. Nonetheless, you can skip Imogene if your group doesn’t feel up to it, or camp at Edith and consider dayhiking to Imogene.
I roughly estimate Imogene to Spangle at 10 miles, with approximately 2,000 feet of vertical gain and loss, possibly a little more. Two nights at Spangle lets you dayhike to Rock Slide Lake for a shorter, easier, “rest” day. It’s a beautiful area.
Spangle back to Toxaway may be similar; from Toxaway to Alice it’s about four miles, with a 900-foot climb from Toxaway to the Alice-Toxaway Divide (pass) at about 9,200 feet. Spangle to Alice would be a tough day, maybe 14 miles. Alice to the trailhead is a relatively easy downhill walk of about three hours; you could camp at Toxaway that last night and hike over to Alice in about two-plus hours, and reach the trailhead in a day, given how light your packs will be (with an early start).
Your plan is ambitious, but seems reasonable if your group is up for those challenging days. And you have mid-trip alternatives to make it easier. Looks good to me.
I hope that’s helpful.
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Thank you so much! You’ve been super helpful.
We’ve been spoiled, I guess, with our CA Tom Harrison maps all this time without even knowing it. I will be diligently trying to find and record as many mileages between spots on this trip as possible, and appreciate your help with some of those distances.
Will sit down and add this new info to our plan as we keep working out the itinerary but super excited that it’s shaping up.
I will absolutely write you back once we take our trip with a report.
Thank you again, so much!
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