The Sawtooths of Idaho are a tremendous mountain range, and from traffic on Summitpost, it seems like few know that. With that in mind, I am going to spotlight one of my favorite ranges in a series of trip reports combining experiences from trips over the last three years, one in late spring, one in early summer, and one in late fall. I could do this over half a dozen reports and really rack up those power points, but I'm not into vanity, do not want to commit the time posting hundreds of photos, and want any readers out there to get the most out of their clicks and visits, so I am aiming to cover all the range I know in three reports. This first one is covering some southern destinations, Alice Lake, Palm Read Basin (my name for the basin south of the Finger of Fate- I like naming things and its easier to keep track of them), and peaks between.
Never far from a waterfall in the heart of the Sawtooths.
As still as you will ever find lakes. I really encourage you to go to the Twin Lakes of the Sawtooths someday.
If there is one premier quality to the Sawtooths, I have to say it is lakes. The rock is of mixed quality, requiring scrambling, bouldering, and often the summits at the very end, after allowing a soloist or party near, slam the door with some sloping rock that cannot be breached without gear. I have had to settle for slapping plenty of summits. Views are generally grand, though better in morning and early season, when snow speckles the landscape of grey or dark peaks. Trails are usually great, bugs are not as bad as many places, nights are always crisp and cold, and stars visible above usually twinkling, bright, and beautiful. But the lakes are almost down to every single one, stunning. They are also plentiful and many sit high, near summits, making base camps possible for any grouping of peaks. It makes hiking and climbing in the Sawtooths much more pleasant than some efforts in the Wasatch of Utah, where lakes are scant and too often, far enough from summits as to be all but useless in the key day.
Alice Lake, Twin Lakes and Snowyside Peak and Pass on the right. From El Capitan.
Alice Lake with the skyline behind in the West.
Alice Lake is one of my favorites of all in the range, still on mornings, to reflect majestically-lit peaks, of which there are plenty, and sitting beneath the crotchety El Capitan. This isn't the El Capitan of California, of course, nor even that one's brother. More like a sniffling kid of a third cousin, but its still a good half day's scramble. Alice Lake lies near the beautiful blue kidneys of the Twin Lakes which in their turn, north of Snowyside Pass (this may be an incorrect name- my map shows no name, but it lies east of Snowyside Peak), are a short jaunt from Toxaway Lake. Toxaway Lake offers one a choice of finishing a loop and coming out at the same trailhead near Pettite Lake and Campground, or going North over another pass and descending to Imogene Lake or a whole series of other lakes, with further destinations possible. I can't speak for Virginia Lake, Edna Lake, or parts beyond, but having been to Imogene, I can say it is beautiful. We will get there later. When I went to Alice Lake I completed the loop and can promise you that much of it is uninteresting. After leaving Toxaway Lake behind, you just hike a pile of miles through dull forest, with no views to speak of, a single fording of a low creek, and some undesirable up and down at the end. I had a tremendous nosebleed along this last few miles and that soured me on the route, but the four or five miles to or from either Toxaway or Alice Lake can be seen as the "tax" for your adventure. Were those miles not there, the spots would be far more crowded and the experience dampened. So buck up and plan for it. Its only a few hours of not-quite-misery.
El Capitan looks vastly different from every angle. This was the most handsome view I caught from below. Reflected in Alice Lake.
Looking east/down the hike in to Alice Lake.
Can I sell a place or what? Hey I told you the worst. Alice Lake really is beautiful, and I'd name it "Skyline Lake" were it up to me, because directly West and catching sunlight just right at sunrise, glowing orange or perhaps some other color some of the time, is a whole horizon of peaks, all tempting to climb. That was my plan: to go and knock out half or all of them, but I was thwarted by the lack of a shore around the lake. To reach those peaks, you'd have to do plenty of circumnavigation and I did not feel inclined to be Magellen on the day I was there. After the 6 hour drive from Salt Lake followed by a rushed hike of 6 or so miles to the lake, I threw up a tent in the dark, started eating from my newly-purchased bear can inside my tent, with earbuds in playing an audio book, and promptly heard a snuffling so loud and near that I froze, took off the buds, and began to hate myself instantly. Aren't I swell guy? Admitting to abject stupidity to an anonymous audience of Internet readers? Well, you would think a tent would be a comfort in the wilderness. People seem to expect just that, but when you've got your fly on, hear a nose that could be as big as a bear's, but can't quite tell where it is, and can't see out, you realize just how thin and worthless nylon is, and how it can be the exact opposite of comfort. All I wished for then was my bivvy sack, and since this exact date, part out of this experience, and part to save my legs for extended campaigns and multiple-mountain days after getting blown up on switchbacks on the hike in for this trip, I have only taken a tent on a trip one time- and again regretted it. I invented a solution, as necessity does make one creative. I began making whatever noises I could muster, trying to sound big, but not threatening, like an oblivious giant, while shaking the tent walls. Five seconds of this produced a sound of terror and flight outside, the banging of hooves I was confident. Next morning revealed elk tracks and no bear prints, which is not exactly proof, but suggests strongly I did not have a bear out there. Either way, I kept that bear can screwed tight and got it out of there in a hurry. I could eat next morning.
El Capitan from a slightly harder neighbor peak.
Sunrise was perfect. I took pictures and ate light, then I made the easy scramble up El Capitan, the more dramatic ridge creep to a neighboring peak just for the heck of it, and then packed up and broke for the Twin Lakes around noon. El Capitan is best climbed from East of Alice Lake. The place to cross the creek is easy to recognize by intuition. The distance from the lake is short and the camping is much finer at the lake. I was stationed on a little isthmus sticking out into the water. It was beautiful and solitary, and I did not mind the backtracking. There is nothing to the climb and I will not detail it. This is not one of those mountains that can get those into trouble who could not have gotten into trouble without some previous visitor directing them up, by guide book or route with arrows, but hey, find the easy way up, or you don't need to be up there. Exposure is fun and plentiful for the final little way, though you can avoid the edge. I went right to it and looked down the whole way. Good times. The view will be better mid day or late afternoon. Morning left everything washed out. Clouds will also be your friend. Or be up there by just after sunrise. If you want perfect pictures.
El Capitan looking SW. I think this peak is rated 5.2, and that is about what I would rate it.
What surprised me about the Twin Lakes is the trail does not go by them really. On the map it seems to, but the Earthwalk Press map I have for the whole range, while being a terrific aid and covering the whole terrain, makes a sorry stab at switchbacks and exactitude. I would have had to descend more than I felt a wish to to see the shores of those lakes, and I skipped them. I mention this so if reading your map, you don't plan on walking beside the shore on the through trail. For grabbing water along route, this is useful info. And plan on many switchbacks going up to Alice Lake. There were too many to count, and it got tedious. The trail is steep and if you prefer steep descents over steep ascents, you could go to Toxaway Loop first and then finish with Alice Lake. Its a moot point I think if doing the loop, though I prefer the way I went, starting with Alice, and if you go before late June, anticipate some snow on the north of the Snowyside Pass, which will be easier to descend.
Twin Lakes, from the pass to the north near Snowyside Peak.
Twin Lakes from approach to Snowyside Peak.
From the south of the Twin Lakes, an easy and enjoyable scramble could be made up Peak 9933. I regret not tarrying and doing just that. A rocky arm with some pine trees dividing the Twin Lakes from Alice Lake leads right up to that peak and from there, you could easily go complete an Alice Slam, or do any one of the peaks you were admiring from Alice Lake. I think this would be fun, though from a view collecting standpoint, there is little to gain by doing a peak between El Capitan and Snowyside. Little is to be gained in bragging rights either, but if you have the time, enjoy yourself and make a fine scramble of it. I will be jealous of forever or at least until I go back one day and do just that very thing.
Snowyside Pass was easily acquired and the mountain seemed quite close. I should have stopped and rested longer, and rehydrated better, but back in summer of 2012, I was training myself to function under extreme dehydration still. This is an insane theory according to most, who mention kidney stones, and pain, and danger, but if you can do a thing dried out, you can do it at full strength. The day will come when you can't find water or enough water and its better to know how your body will handle it and that you will handle it. The Marines do this, and that's good enough for me to feel sharp for having hit upon the idea myself. So, I made it to Snowyside Pass around early afternoon, having already climbed a peak and barely passed time at Alice Lake after starting late afternoon the day before, and went straight for Snowyside Peak.
Many lakes visible from Snowyside Peak.
Snowyside Peak is a chimera, a twisting, writhing, growth-spurt of a mountain. The route is quite rotten, a sort of puberty in stone. Handfuls of rock will come into your hand like bouquets, and every move seems to feed one onto another false summit. There are four by memory, none of them improving on the view, but all adding to the time you are getting blinded and burned by the sun. That is not to say I regret the effort though. Beautiful view the whole way from the pass to the summit, and descent is simple, and not terribly steep. Nothing is deadly or particularly hard. Take the peak fresh and you'll enjoy it much more.
Twin Lakes from near Snowyside Peak. Sawtooths June 2012
From Snowyside Peak, this is an interesting view as it reveals the whole possible loop from Pettite Lake; on the right is the trail up to Alice Lake, and on the left is the trail to or from Toxaway, the pass is center foreground.
From the pass again, I made a slushy and stumbling descent through patchy snow, eager to cave in, made one nervous creek crossing between melt holes (there is probably a bridge in there somewhere) and at long last began to meet people. Some were day hikers, about to march even further into what I am sure they remember as one of the worst days of their lives. Sneakers and shorts and 20 mile loops through snowy passes after late morning starts are a bad idea, and I will add: stupid. Try it and deserve what you get. One young lady was better prepared, scouting for the next morning. I walked back to Toxaway Lake with her, as once she met me, she figured rightly asking me questions was easier than pressing on and scouting first-hand. I set my tent pretty close to hers and we chatted away a buggy evening. She was a ranger in the area for that summer. Always a cool job it seems from the people I meet doing it.
Toxaway Lake is another spot to linger, and not only out of dread for the dull close to the loop. It is another lake which if still at sunrise (and most Sawtooth Lakes seem to be in my experience) offers a brilliant sunrise. The next morning's was bright red. I thought the ramp scramble up this smooth customer on the left looked marvelous and other routes were possible for the other peaks of the area. But I was saving my legs for the next trip and did none of them. I'd like to add one of the rules I've learned in my mountain life over the years: never save your legs for the next trip or for tomorrow. Tomorrow is worthless in the mountains. And you might roll your ankle and miss the next trip, or the next spot might stink or the peak will be way more than you bargained for, or out of condition. Point is: if you're next to or right under a mountain and you want it, take it! Leave tomorrow for tomorrow. Pop a lot of caffeine and drag your corpse up with your tongue if it comes to that.
North side of Snowyside Pass.
Fell through about here. Probably a bridge usually.
But I hiked out and completed my loop. Other than discovering I was severely dehydrated when my nose exploded and started gushing in the middle of nowhere and kept going for a mile, the route was boring and uneventful. Of course, this happened after fording the creek so I had no water to filter and drink which would have helped. I had to just trod along in the heat, dry and crabby, but proud in a way to have no impaired functionality while being that dehydrated. It takes days to develop that type of condition. However, it also takes days to fully recover from, which I wound up doing by the beach in one of Redfish Lake's campgrounds, though that is leading into another story.
Toxaway Lake sunrise.
El Capitan, my morning's work, is the dark peak. Twin Lakes and the Alice Lakes between. Just a stunning area in any weather or season.
Hell Roaring Lake Trailhead Destinations
Foot of Hell Roaring Lake. The "Wedding Cake" is right under the name David. Finger of Fate visible to the right with Sevvy Peak behind it.
Messing around near "Wedding Cake". Finger of Fate, red around sunrise.
Hell Roaring Lake offers two trailheads. The Upper shaves something between 1.5 and 2.0 miles off but requires 4 wheel drive and a willingness to beat up the vehicle. The Lower Trailhead means you have to walk five of the easiest miles of your life rather than three of them. In other words, do not stress about which trailhead you can reach. I did this hike as my introduction to the Sawtooths in September of 2011. It was Labor Day Weekend, if I recall correctly, and for a rarity, I had friends along. I do have a few, but very few who can keep up with me, or want to try. And even fewer who can take the time to do so. Am I the only youngish person who figured I would make money AFTER hiking and climbing all of the West? I know the thing in America is to work until your knees are 65 year old jello and then retire and go stare at pretty stuff from a huge and expensive RV, but personally, I have big plans to settle into middle-aged mediocrity with a lot of pictures on my walls proving my stories and attitude towards "young whippersnappers" about the olden days when people were tough and daring are not wholly bunk.
Cold sunrise with frost on the tent and packs, from the head of Hell Roaring Lake.
Well, there were three of us. We carried in climbing gear to make a go of Finger of Fate, and all were happily surprised by the speed which we made to Hell Roaring Lake. In September the lake is quiet, though there were people everywhere. I will spare you the details on this crowded and easy destination. After a lazy evening recovering from that six hour drive (and seemingly three hours through ski towns with 25 mph speed limits; curse them all to Hades!), we targeted Mount Cramer for a day hike, which I'd pencilled in at half a day. Whoa there was that an underestimate. This was the first mountain any of us had done in the Sawtooths, but I will tell you here that every peak I have done (15 now) surprises me by how demanding it is. These mountains are small by the elevation gained and the total elevation above sea level, but they will wear you out. And I'm no wimp saying this. Read my other Trip Reports. I solo a lot of stuff that takes 14 or 16 hour days and don't complain much.
Me on the summit of Mount Cramer. Who would guess this was Idaho?
Cramer is one of those demanding peaks. We left trail at Imogene Lake, which you will also want to do, I think. Looking at the map, it seems there would be a more direct path from Hell Roaring Lake to Profile Lake, easier to follow by sticking with the water all the way, but unless you are more fond of wet feet, steep waterfall navigation and that sort of thing, hike to Imogene, then break out the compass or GPS and its mostly level ground. The bushwhack is long and difficult to follow. One fellow along had a GPS device, which I shun, but was quite helpful this trip. We navigated up and around slabs and granite mounds, through hillocks of forest, with nary a sign of footprint or game trail, until near some pretty tiered falls, where the terrain became more obvious, steep, and rocky, and past lakes far from trails, never named, still and probably each one some fisherman's secret favorite spot, jagged peaks behind each one, views often fabulous. Ryan with his GPS had done some reading of the area and the approach and wanted to see Profile Lake, and steered us to it. What a great call that was! Nothing impressed me as much all day as that lake. From there the summit is a boulder field, big boulders the size of passenger cars. Plenty of moves to stretch the joints and keep one honest. The whole mountain seems to be a pile of such rocks. The view is rewarding, but we had a long way to descend. It took all day, and into evening. Our group was interesting as each had a different body type: one small, one tall and very thin, one fairly built and middle height. We all had turns in the lead because each could burn it up on one kind of terrain more than the others. The tall fellow on flat ground was striding so long we had to jog to stay near, the small fellow could go down hills without rushing at a pace the others had no hope to match, and I was built for going up. On steep turf I can fly, but going down, my knees hurt and I have to slow down. I had an advantage on the boulders too, but I think that was just experience. Its always nice on a trip when everyone can set pace some of the time and not feel like a burden or a drag or an anchor.
One of several pretty scenes on the cross country approach to Mount Cramer.
On our return we did find little flirtations of trails around and between every pond and lake. You can always trust fishermen to visit any hard to visit body of water. Those guys are heartier than they get credit for.
The day was wearying but next morning we rose early and went up without the climbing gear looking for the Finger of Fate anyway. Might as well scout the area while we were there and had half a day to pass. There is a definite trail from Hell Roaring Lake up to a series of three beautiful lakes above in the "Palm Read" Basin. Like climbers' trails in this range, its easy to follow, but steep and sweaty business. Finger of Fate glows red in early mornings. There are a handful or more of peaks up there worth scrambling up or climbing. I think early season would be the best time to visit. There would likely be ice floating in the lakes, making for pretty pictures and memories, and some snow chutes would make for good crampon work, a nice break from all the boulder field work. We made it up most of the way up a peak that looked to me like a Wedding Cake, which overlooks Hell Roaring Lake and is prominent from below, but the going got tough and the other two were not comfortable without protection and we were out of time just about anyway as one had work early the next morning. Respect your partners. I will just have to go back to the place, though I've not done so yet. Sevvy Peak is a big mountain possible without gear, an attractive potential viewpoint for both the Finger of Fate and parts far North, though probably its ridges are severe enough to make most yearn for gear. Decker Peak is also a possibility and overlooks the Shangri La Valley near Elephant's Perch to the North. Decker is a more involved target, requiring likely a full day of cross country. But that area is for an ensuing article.
Are we there yet? Start heading up at these falls to reach Profile Lake.
Closer to Profile Lake.
Profile Lake, totally surrounded by stone.
From Mount Cramer, taking in Profile Lake, the path we followed, and off into the east and the White Cloud Mountains.
Finger of Fate high above one of three serial lakes without names to my knowledge.
This is briefer than my usual work, but for many, that may be an improvement. There are certainly plenty of pictures here to inspire. To find out more, you'll need to go and discover the area for yourself. Payette Lake Trailhead is a few miles of dirt road driving, very tame, and possible for any passenger vehicle. Hell Roaring Lake Lower Trailhead is about 30 feet of dirt road only, right off the highway. Another great feature of the Sawtooths is easy access. Both trailheads are in the Southern body of the Sawtooths on the East side, along Highway 75. Nearest town is Stanley, Idaho to the North which has a general store, laundry, and some lodging and dining, seasonal only. To the South there are a cluster of ski towns, all cute in that ski town gift-shop/postcard way with wider options for staying or camping. Redfish Lake Lodge is at the east end of Redfish Lake, central to the range. There are many campsites available for $17 per night, as well as lodging, barbecue, and finer dining. I personally recommend the Lodge Restaurant which offers gourmet delights, including a fine Idaho Chowder (potato and corn chowder) at only $3 per cup. Redfish Lodge opens in late June typically and will stay open through Labor Day or later. Check their website for more exact information. I've given them enough of a free plug already.
Imogene Lake, a few miles beyond Hell Roaring Lake, and a hefty bit of elevation gain.
One of your first views breaking out of the trees on the climber's trail above Hell Roaring Lake. I thought this peak looked like a "Wedding Cake".
As ever, thanks for reading, and if you did not like this, I hope you gain the sense some day to stop reading things you don't admire.