Stunning lakes with towering mountain peaks on this Sawtooth Wilderness backpack
Distance: 26.5 miles roundtrip plus boat shuttle
Type: Y shaped out and back
Difficulty: moderate with 4,400′ elevation gain
Best season: July – September
Nothing beats Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness in September. The bulk of the tourists have moved on, bugs are gone, fall colors start to pop, and sunny days abound. While nights are quite cold, this is our favorite time of year to backpack in the remote, but increasingly popular, wilderness.
The Sawtooths are visually similar to the Grand Tetons, only better (in my humble opinion). At the heart of it all, a young Salmon River flows north through a valley where cattle graze and antelope roam. To the west, hundreds of jagged peaks rise dramatically above the plains in the 217,511 acre Sawtooth Wilderness. Forty-two of these peaks tower over 10,000 feet in elevation and hundreds of azure alpine lakes dot the basins like fine jewels. To the east, 90,775 equally stunning (and even more remote) acres were recently protected in the Cecil D. Andrus-White Cloud Wilderness. And to the southeast, another 67,981 acres were recently designated as the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness. If you like stunning scenery, challenging hiking, and lots of wilderness, this area can’t be beat.
We’ve made several trips to the area, but I still have a long list of hikes and backpacks on the bucket list thanks to a extensive and well-maintained trail system. The heart of the Sawtooth Wilderness west of Redfish and Pettit lakes in particular provides a multitude of exceptional routes to choose from. During our 2015 backpacks to Alice and Imogene lakes, we only skimmed the surface of the rugged beauty this area has to offer. It is tough choosing from so many beautiful destinations, but I finally settled on a four day “Y” route from Redfish Lake up to Alpine and Baron Lakes then over to Crammer Lakes for our September 2018 adventure.
On a sunny and chilly mid-September morning (just 21 degrees!), we arrived at the Redfish Lake Marina south of the tiny town of Stanley, Idaho. Our trip would begin with a 10-minute boat ride across the lake to the Transfer Camp at Redfish Lake Inlet. The $17 round trip shuttle (per person) would save us five relatively pedestrian miles of lake hiking each direction. One-way tickets can be purchased for $12, but we purchased round trip tickets since we intended to take the shuttle out in four days. The shuttle is popular with day hikers as well as backpackers and is a great way to get “straight to the goodies”.
I left Jason and all our gear at the marina then drove the Jeep back to the hiker’s parking lot since the marina parking lot is heavily signed for day-use only (we hear this is tightly enforced). I secured the Jeep, exchanged a couple last minute texts with my mom and made the roughly half mile walk back to the marina. Down at the marina dock, we paid for our round trip tickets and scheduled our return shuttle for Friday (leaving our pack open for a fifth day if desired).
On the boat ride we were joined by a young couple originally from Colorado but recently transplanted to Boston. They had come back west just to backpack in the Sawtooths. Their route was one I had seriously considered and would like to do one day: a loop up to Crammer Lakes, south to Imogene Lake, down to Hellroaring Lake and back to Redfish to exit via the boat shuttle.
The boat shuttle was a cold, but gorgeous and magical sort of way to start our pack. The driver dropped us off at the small Inlet Camp dock (elevation 6,517’) and the young Boston couple quickly disappeared up the trail. In a few quick minutes we had gone from civilization to the edge of the wilderness. We were alone in the bright morning sun and ready to start a new adventure. I always love these moments of starting a new pack—a nervous excitement fills me and I wonder about all the beauty we will see. The view was already impressive with Redfish Lake glistening in the morning sun behind us while ahead we could already see jagged Sawtooth peaks towering above.
From the dock, we made a short climb up to the Redfish Inlet Campground where the trail begins. We filled out the free permit and headed into the wilderness.
Just past the campground was a trail split. To the right would have taken us back to the Jeep following the shores of Redfish Lake. We continued straight. Soon we heard the hum of the boat shuttle returning which meant there would be hikers behind us. We made a gentle climb through the forest and after about 0.75 miles we came to another trail junction. Again, to the right headed back to the parking lot while the trail to the left was our route.
It didn’t take long before the 21 degree temperatures warmed into the 50’s and we were stripping layers. It also didn’t take long for the day hikers behind us to gain and pass us. I told them I was envious of their light looking packs! As we continued to climb, the views improved with each passing step. We had nice views down to Redfish Creek, towering peaks on both sides of us and a little bit of fall colors were popping—the scene was stunning.
After just a couple miles, we could see the same couple hiking back toward us. They reported finding a wonderful place for a break along the creek. They gave a detailed description of the trail ahead that included stream crossings and boardwalks to their magical spot. Soon we found ourselves at a stunning location along Redfish Creek, 2.35 miles from the trailhead. They were right, this was too good to pass up. We dropped our packs and enjoyed a nice snack and photo break. I was in heaven.
Continuing up the well-maintained trail, I soon saw a side trail that lead to another particularly scenic creek-side location. Here we found a rock slide and waterfall that reminded me of the area below Toxoway Lake on the Alice Lake loop. We made another quick stop for photos and enjoyed a conversation with a woman about our age with a full pack and nice looking border collie. She was from nearby Hailey and clearly knew the trails well. She was headed up to Ingeborg Lake—another of my bucket list destinations.
We reached Flatrock Junction at 4.0 miles from the TH (elevation 7,513’). Here the trial split with the trial to the left descending down to a crossing of Redfish Creek then climbing to Crammer Lakes—we’d be headed that way in a couple days. We continued to the right and immediately began climbing in earnest toward Alpine Lake. We went from a relatively gentle continuous climb to a more moderately difficult climb. The good news was the scenery became even more stunning with each step and I stopped frequently to take photos (and catch my breath).
We arrived at Alpine Lake (elevation 8,420’) 6.0 miles from the boat dock. The lake was much more scenic than photos had shown. Classic Sawtooth peaks towered above us and the shoreline was lined with flaming red huckleberry bushes. The original plan for our trip had been to stay at Alpine on night one, move to Baron Lakes for night two, then go over to Crammer Lakes for one or two nights. During the hike to Alpine, Jason had proposed spending two nights at Alpine and just day hiking over to Baron Lakes on day two. Arriving at Alpine and seeing how beautiful it was, I agreed. It is always nice to set up a base camp and have a day of easier hiking with a lighter pack.
We took a short snack break at Alpine’s outlet before searching for a campsite. We found one lone site on the opposite side of the outlet stream and a large site on the east side of the outlet. Continuing along the east side of the lake, we found several very nice spots close to the lake. We picked one in the middle that I thought had the best views.
After setting up camp and filtering water, Jason set off for some fishing while I settled into my backpacker’s chair for some Kindle reading. It was a beautiful afternoon with full sun and temperatures near 70 degrees—the perfect fall afternoon. As I read, a man from the Boise area came through looking for a campsite. We chatted for a bit about the area as well as other campsites we had found at the lake. He ended up camping at the next site over which was partially visible from our camp and a little closer than we prefer, but he was a respectable distance and ended up being the perfect neighbor.
After dinner, we could hear a couple of men settle into the campsite on the other side of us. We now had neighbors on both sides, but both parties were mostly out of sight and were nice and quiet. We had a peaceful evening at our lake side camp. The towering peaks to the north and west caused us to lose sun earlier than expected. As the sun dipped behind the peaks by 6:00, the temperature plummeted. We layered up and headed in to the tent to read from the warmth of our down sleeping bags, the perfect end to a perfect day on the trail.
Directions to trailhead: from Stanley, Idaho, travel 4.3 miles south on ID-75 then turn right at the signs for Redfish Lake. Follow Forest Road 214 to the signed hiker’s parking lot then walk approximately half a mile down Forest Road 213 to the marina.
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