It’s difficult to understand why the Sawtooth Mountains aren’t more well-known while standing at the foot of central Idaho’s towering snow-capped peaks, their jagged profile starkly illuminated by the July light. They have all of the majesty of the Tetons, even more accessibility than the North Cascades, and as many alpine lakes as you’ll find any place in the world— yet the routes are surprisingly quiet, and the environment is immaculate. In this article, we are going to review best hikes in Sawtooth mountains in detail.
1. Frank Church River
Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, located just north of Sawtooth National Forest in central Idaho, provides an even calmer option to Idaho’s finest mountain range, and this is one of the greatest non-technical summits to be discovered!
In terms of glaciated backgrounds and crystal-clear waters, Small Langer Lake pales in comparison to the other alpine lakes on our list, but the view from the fire lookout on adjacent Ruffneck Peak is breathtaking and well worth the sweat.
The 1 hour climb to Langer Lake, concealed amid a pine forest, with Ruffneck Peak towering above, is steep, rocky, and quite exposed (but not difficult). After a refreshing swim, go up a seemingly steep route carved into the slope to the top, where a well-maintained overlook gives extensive views of the Sawtooth, White Cloud, and Pioneer ranges, as well as the Frank Church Wilderness.
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2. Lady Face and Bridal Veil Falls
Lady Face and Bridal Veil Falls (accessible through the same path) are located at the northern end of the Sawtooths and give one of the few short, leisurely treks in the area— the ideal “rest day” activity in between high alpine climbs and steep summits!
The track begins by meandering through a flower-filled meadow behind the famed McGown Peak, gaining little height until several miles later, when it begins to ascend towards Bridal Veil Falls. If you’re looking for something easy, Lady Face Falls is just about 20 minutes beyond the start of the upward climb and may be reached by a short scramble down to the water from an unmarked overlook.
3. Sawtooth Lake
Sawtooth Lake, located near the northern end of the Sawtooth Wilderness and accessible by a moderate walk from Iron Creek, is one of the region’s most popular locations. Despite its popularity, it’s not uncommon to find oneself entirely alone in Sawtooth during the week and early season, and it’s become one of my favorite alpine lakes for swimming and photography!
The route goes gradually up to gorgeous Alpine Lake (there are really two lakes with the same name in the Sawtooths; the second is near Baron Lakes and described later in this article, but both are stunning and absolutely worthy!) for the first 2 hours from the parking lot.
Alpine Lake could easily be a destination in and of itself but given that Sawtooth is only a half-hour away (albeit on a rockier and more difficult trail), I’d strongly advise continuing upwards to take in the commanding beauty of Mt Regan and the almost Mediterranean-like waters of Sawtooth Lake (in color, not in temperature!).
4. Goat Lake
Goat Lake, once hidden by a rough, steep trail and difficult route-finding, is now one of the most popular alpine lakes in the Sawtooth Wilderness, alongside Sawtooth and Alice— not because the trail has been improved or the grade has been reduced, but because word of its beauty has spread and easy access to crowd-sourced GPS maps has made getting here a breeze.
The path begins wonderfully level and well-graded, then abruptly ascends the mountain through switchbacks over a small dirt road, none of which is really difficult until the last 20-30 minutes of brutally steep scrambling on loose soil and huge stones. Because casual hikers are becoming more popular, there were a number of folks out here who seemed to be completely unprepared for the journey— carry poles, wear boots or other solid gear, and take your time.
Once you’ve gotten through the steep struggle, it’s easy sailing around the fringes of a boulder field to Goat Lake under Merritt Peak, where you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views. Even on busy July weekends, you can find a lakeside spot all to yourself because most people seem to arrive at the top, take a photo, and then leave— if you follow a rough trail around the left side of the lake for about 10 minutes, you’ll be out of sight and earshot of literally everyone, perfect for a swim and a long relax!
5. The sapphire lake
The sapphire lake below Thompson Peak, the highest peak in the whole range, may be referred to as Lake 8865 (its height) or even 9000ft Lake on local maps, but it has no name. This, along with the rough and fairly strenuous journey, helps to keep it off most hikers’ radar.
The trail to Lake 8865 begins on a relatively flat trail from Redfish Lake Trailhead, then transitions to a steep dirt track along the ridgeline above the lake, before veering directly up into the mountains on loose dirt and over inconvenient boulders to reach the lake at the base of Mt Thompson and striking Mickey Spire. The trail is rugged and unmarked, and it often passes over scree and talus, but it’s feasible for most athletic hikers and provides a genuine experience in the heart of the Sawtooths.
6. Thompson Peak
Thompson Peak, the highest peak in the Sawtooths, is the most deserved summit for those seeking tremendous adventure in the Sawtooths. But make no mistake: this is a CLIMB, and you must be well equipped.
It’s a rough struggle from Lake 8865 (the approach to which is detailed above) to the saddle between Thompson and Williams, where even more huge scree-covered slopes will hurl you several steps backwards with every move up.
The simplest approach to the summit is through the south couloir (we missed the proper route on the climb, and it was much tougher), where a short Class 3 scramble with just minimal exposure puts you straight up to the top overlooking the Sawtooths and adjacent White Clouds. Fill out the summit registration form and enjoy the greatest views in central Idaho!
7. Bench Lakes
Bench Lakes are a series of five beautiful alpine lakes in the Sawtooth Wilderness, each one more beautiful than the previous. As far as the second lake, there’s a well-formed and easy-to-follow track, but beyond that, there’s just a hazy indication of the way to the fifth— and as a consequence, few hikers make it this far.
The trail is steep, overgrown with plants, and difficult to follow, but the reward is complete seclusion at the foot of spectacular Mt Heyburn, as well as a lovely blue pool all to oneself. In the Sawtooths, there are few places more lovely.
Despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any source that shows the way to the 5th Bench Lake (because there isn’t one), I charted our climb on All trails for your reference. It’s worth noting that this is a one-way recording and that we weren’t always on the informal path— there was plenty of perplexing climbing, but we made it!
8. Lake Alpine
This gorgeous and hidden area below Baron Divide offers for a fantastic day trek or backpacking trip away from the throngs, and is not to be mistaken with Alpine Lake, which is located under famous Sawtooth Lake.
The easiest method to get to Alpine Lake is to take the Hiker Boat Shuttle from Redfish Lodge to Redfish Inlet Trailhead at the other end of the lake ($14 one-way or $19 return; boats depart on demand with 2+ persons). It’s a gradual, well-maintained route from here to the Cramer Lakes intersection, where you’ll turn right towards Baron Lakes and climb a series of switchbacks to the tranquil beaches of Alpine Lake.
Because the camping is so good here, I’d suggest combining Alpine Lake with Baron and/or Cramer (detailed below) to create an amazing overnight excursion in this difficult-to-reach part of the Sawtooths.
9. Baron Lakes
Those willing to persevere beyond Alpine Lake (mentioned above) will be rewarded with one of the Sawtooth Wilderness’ most beautiful vistas, gazing down from Baron Divide towards Upper and Lower Baron Lakes. Being farther from the trailhead also means there are less people around—we didn’t see another hiker entire day!
As with Alpine Lake, take the Hiker Boat Shuttle from Redfish Lodge to Redfish Inlet Trailhead at the further end of the lake ($14 one-way or $19 return; boats depart on demand with 2+ persons).
After trekking along a pleasant path to the Cramer Lakes intersection and turning right to climb a series of steep switchbacks to Alpine Lake, continue uphill for another 1 hour to reach the highpoint at Baron Divide, then descend the other side to enjoy the magnificent Baron Lakes. Both the upper and lower lakes have plenty of camping options, all with spectacular views of the majestic granite peaks.
Keep these best hikes in Sawtooth mountains in mind and go ahead with the best one. You will surely enjoy the results coming on your way with it.