Key information: Sawtooth Mountains/Traverse
- Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness is a well-kept secret; smaller and less well-known than its neighbours, the area's veil of secrecy cloaks an adventure seeker's playground in a spectacular landscape.
- The Sawtooths are beautifully sculpted: granite rock has yielded to the power of long ago glaciers, forming jagged, curved peaks; their deep, high cirques cradling mountain lakes. Powerful rivers and creeks rush through their valleys.
- For those seeking to truly understand this striking wilderness, the multi-day walk Sawtooth Traverse is a remarkable experience; a challenging (yes) traverse running on the north/south backbone of the range.
- A walk to Sawtooth Lake provides an opportunity to experience the range in less than a day. Although the intense switch-backing required on the trail's ascent can be tiring, the deep trough of Sawtooth Lake, with sheer mountainsides rising immediately from its waters, is a worthwhile reward.
- This is a tough walk in high, remote mountains, on which you will have to be self-sufficient and where altitude can cause some problems. Streams may contain giardia and so water must be treated. Come prepared.
- Walkopedia rating82.5
- Natural interest16.5
- Human interest0
- Negative points0
- Total rating82.5
- Length: Variable (Traverse itself: 82km, 8-10 days)
- Maximum Altitude: 2,890m
- Level of Difficulty: Variable
It is easy for walkers to overlook Idaho. It is surrounded by walkers' nirvanas; Montana can boast of the wild magnificence of Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and the Bitterroot Mountains, whilst Wyoming is home to Yellowstone, a vast realm of geological beguilement, and the crisp, charismatic beauty of the Tetons.
By contrast, the Sawtooth Mountains have seen little of the international attention bestowed on Glacier and Yellowstone. They are smaller, with no glaciers or thermal springs to entice the tourist trade. And yet, with the beauty and challenge of their stunningly carved granite peaks and wild mountain rivers, they have become something of a home to Idaho's adventure-seekers. To quote Lonely Planet's website, "There is more to Idaho than big potatoes, neo-Nazis, Demi Moore and Evel Knievel." (see here)
Passing under the radar slightly, the Sawtooths' are a bit mysterious - even secret. Those who revel in their wonders are reluctant to draw in other visitors, an endeavour only aided by such famous neighbours. Thus, whilst small, this wilderness is in many ways very isolated, with potentially greater opportunity for private exploration and discovery.
The landscape of the Sawtooths is superbly sculpted: granite has yielded to the power of ancient glaciers, forming jagged, curved peaks and deep, high cirques cradling mountain lakes. The weird and wonderful shapes have inspired imaginative appellations. Along the ridge to Arrowhead, one of the more spectacular, you will also pass the Sentry, the Coffin and the Birthday Cake; further along the trail expect to find Damocles and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
A 5 to 7 hour walk to Sawtooth Lake described in Lonely Planet's Hiking in the Rocky Mountains provides an opportunity to experience some of the outstanding carved landscape of the range in the space of a day; although the intense switch-backing required on the trail's ascent can be tiring, the deep trough of Sawtooth Lake, with sheer mountainsides rising immediately from its waters, is a worthwhile reward. Ice-floes can be seen here into July.
For those seeking to truly understand this striking wilderness, a multi-day walk along the Sawtooth Traverse is a spectacular experience; a challenging traverse running on the north/south backbone of the range. Ralph Storer, in The World's Great Adventure Treks, begins the walk at the Tin Cup Hiker Trailhead, beside Pettit Lake. After a fairly steep ascent, the trail remains above 2,500m for the majority of the next six days, reaching its highest point at Cramer Divide.
The initial ascent is interesting, with river crossings and waterfalls in amongst fir and pine forests and a skyline increasingly dominated by the imposing El Capitan. Several days of wonderful scenery along the trail lead to one of its highlights, the high, rugged landscape around the Cramer Divide and Temple Basin. After a night's camping here, a relatively short descent will take you back below the timberline.
Wander past waterfalls, follow the banks of rushing creeks, and ford rivers on the next few days of the trail, spending the nights camping amongst the remote Baron Lakes and beside the icy Sawtooth Lake. The last section of the trail drops out of the high country, meandering down Iron Creek Valley; the drama, though, is extravagant to the last, with an impressive final ridge saluting walkers as they exit on the Iron Creek trailhead.
Lonely Planet suggests a possible alternative in the four day long White Cloud Loop, meandering around the gorgeous string of alpine tarns known collectively as Boulder Chain Lakes as it circumnavigates the impressive 3,600m Castle Peak. See Hiking in the Rocky Mountains for a detailed description and route.
The traverse is challenging, and should really only be attempted by experienced backpackers. Snow can remain on some passes up until mid-August, and in the walkers here should expect to have to deal with both snow and the fording of some difficult rivers.
Water treatment is important on all walks, as streams may contain giardia. Although they are not often in the high country, do be aware of black bears and how to deal with them if the need arises.
Other accounts: share your experiences
Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.
Books and Maps
Books on this walk
Hiking Idaho – Falcon Guides/Ralph Maughan
Backpacking Idaho – Wilderness Press/Douglas Loraine
Hiking in the Rocky Mountains – Lonely Planet, has a brief section on the Sawtooth Wilderness, with routes for the White Cloud Loop and a day walk to Sawtooth Lake.
50 Eastern Idaho Hiking Trails (And Trouting Retreats): The Sawtooth, White Cloud, Boulder, Smoky, Pioneer, Big Horn Crags, Lemhi and Teton Ranges – Pruett/Ron Mitchell, out of print but (as at Feb 2013) still available secondhand on Amazon. We haven’t looked at this, and for an unknown quantity it could be a little pricey.
Best times to walk/weather
Best times to walk
Late July to mid-September, although snow remains on some passes well into August.
Generally fine in season, but come prepared for unpredictable mountain weather and cold nights.
The nearest big town is Boise, which has an airport with daily domestic flights from a range of cities (see www.iflyboise.com for up to date information).
The nearest town to the trailheads, and generally considered the best base for the Sawtooth Wilderness generally, is Stanley. Stanley can be reached on a 2.5-3 hour drive from Boise; cars can be hired at the airport. If you don’t want to hire a car there are various options, all relatively expensive, for shuttles by plane or bus to the town.
Those on guided walks are likely to be transported from Stanley, but as many companies arranging guided trips in the area are local they may not automatically offer transport from Boise.
If you drive, it is possible to arrange to have your car driven from the start of the hike to its finish at Iron Creek Trailhead – white water rafting companies often do this.
Permits are now required; this is a relatively recent development. They are free of charge, you simply need to pick one up at the Wilderness boundary and fill it in. The only exception is if your group is of more than 8, you will then need to pick one up from one of the ranger stations.
If you are parking at a trailhead, you will also need to pay for a trailhead parking pass.
See Walk Summary above.
Possible problems, health, other warnings
· Altitude: likely to affect you at least a bit, come prepared to cope, be ready to evacuate people in extreme cases.
· Mountain weather: snow, rain, severe cold and wind are possible at any time of year and the weather can change rapidly. Come prepared.
· Heat and strong sun. Carry enough water and protect yourself.
· Heights: can be dangerous; not for those who have difficulties with heights.
· Bears are a potential problem: come prepared to deal with an encounter and store camp food appropriately. There are plenty of websites with advice on hiking in bear country, and a particularly good one is the US National Parks Service site. Take all appropriate precautions.
· Risky rivers need to be crossed – Prepare carefully and only cross in the recommended way.
· Canyon dangers: canyons can be lethal, particularly as a result of flash floods. Assess and prepare for all risks on those walks involving canyons. In particular, check the weather carefully and don’t go after heavy rain or if it is possible.
· This is remote country: you will have to carry all your food and other supplies and help may be hard to get if things go wrong.
See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and problems can arise on any walk. Many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks and possible problems. This website cannot, and does not purport to, identify all actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to a walk or a country. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
Make sure you have appropriate insurance.
Guided or independent?
You can walk here independently, but if you choose to attempt a multi-day walk then you will need to be self-sufficient, so come fully prepared. You will also need to be confident in dealing with snow-covered passes and fording difficult rivers.
Some people form or join organised/supported expeditions. This can be a good way of ensuring you see the best the Sawtooth’s have to offer, given the relative lack of detailed information. With this in mind, a local guide is likely to be best, although there don’t appear to be many established options.
- www.sawtoothguides.com/trails-hikes/ - a local company providing ideas on where to go and guiding you on trips of any length, although specialising in long-distance, off-trail hikes. They are recommended in this account of walking the Sawtooth Range.
PLEASE HELP Walkopedia by recommending any reputable tour organizers that you know of – local or otherwise.
A fairly standard selection of accommodation in Stanley, with motels, hotels and ranches – however all appear to be relatively expensive, so it might be worth heading onto the trails as quickly as possible!
In the backcountry, camping is your only option. There are some established campsites; if you are camping in the wilderness then try and use places that have been used before, stay 100ft or more away from water, and ensure you are aware of the restrictions on campfires and water usage.
Hostelbookers usually has a good selection of cheaper-end accommodation.
Other information and tips
Useful websites and information
There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.
· www.wikipedia.org, as usual, a good starting place.
· TripAdvisor - www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ - as well as tens of millions of reviews, you can book your flights, accommodation and misc. travel arrangements through them.
· http://www.greatoutdoors.com/published/sawtooth-traverse - This is a nicely written account of a trip into the Sawtooths with some great photos, well worth a read if you’re considering the area.
· The Sawtooth Mountains are becoming increasingly popular for ‘peak-bagging’, and www.summitpost.org has some comprehensive information on several of the summits.
· www.trails.com has a number of ideas for hiking in the Sawtooth Range.
· http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/road-trips/sawtooths-idaho-road-trip/ – National Geographic have some suggestions about putting together a road trip in the area.
· Try www.flickr.com for pictures of this walk.
Other things to do in the area
The Northwest USA has a huge variety of great walks. As we have mentioned above, Idaho’s neighbouring states offer Glacier National Park, the Bitterroot Mountains, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Yellowstone and the Tetons. Oregon is home to the fantastic Crater Lake, and we are in the process of researching the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, following the path taken by the Nez Perce, crossing northern Idaho on a circuitous route from Oregon to Montana, as they attempted to flee the US Cavalry in 1877.
Climbing is popular on the high, jagged peaks of the Sawtooths.
Excellent white water rafting in Idaho’s famous Salmon River.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk.
Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
share your experiences
Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).
Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.
Responsible travel matters, a lot. How you travel will make a real difference - for better or worse. PLEASE consider this when making plans. Read more