Pair of lovely mountain lakes without the typical Sawtooth crowds
Distance: 8.0 miles round trip
Type: out and back
Difficulty: moderate with 1,800′ elevation gain
Note the trail to Upper Cabin Creek Lake is not an official maintained route. Footing is over steep and rocky terrain. Hike at your own risk.
Best time of year: summer and fall
As our September 2018 Sawtooth Wilderness adventure was coming to a close, we decided to spend our last full day doing a repeat hike. The previous year, we had hiked to Main Cabin Creek Lake in a shroud of wildfire smoke—by September 2017 it seemed like the entire Pacific Northwest was on fire. Authorities were warning people to stay indoors, yet there we were hiking at elevation. After that smoky day and with conditions continuing to deteriorate, we ended up calling it quits on our vacation and had returned home early. Now, a year later, the air was clear and we set out to see what the area looked like under normal conditions.
Main and Upper Cabin Creek Lakes sit at the southeastern edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness. While nearby Alice Lake is one of the busiest lakes in the wilderness, the Cabin Lakes area is relatively known and few people hike there. As we navigated our way past trees ablaze in fall colors, I imagined we were certain to have a quiet day on the trail.
Our hike began at the Cabin Creek Lakes Trailhead (7,142′) just north of Alturus Lake. We departed under sunny skies and temperatures that were quickly warming from the overnight low in the 20s to a predicted daytime high in the 60s. A short distance up the trail, we arrived at the trail register where we saw eight deer. We filled out the free wilderness permit and continued on.
The trail begin by traversing the hillside above Cabin Creek. By September, flows are low, yet there are still a few small side stream crossings to be made in the first three miles. Creek views soon disappeared and the majority of the hike is rather pedestrian as the trail maintains a continuous climb through the sagebrush and forest. There is little for typical Sawtooth peak views until you reach Cabin Lakes.
At 3 miles, we reached the wilderness boundary. Up to this point, the elevation gain was continuous but gradual. Now the climb became steeper and the trail rockier. Taking a minute to catch my break during the climb, I noticed fine views behind us of the White Cloud Mountains.
We reached Main Cabin Lake (elevation 8,851’) at about 3.6 miles from the trailhead. As expected, the lake was much more gorgeous than it had been the previous year in choking smoke.
We hiked along the right side of the lake and then 0.3 miles up a very steep and rocky unofficial trail to the upper lake.
At just shy of 4 miles from the trailhead and after 1,800’ elevation gain, we reached Upper Cabin Lake (elevation 9,106’). While not as spectacular as other Sawtooth lakes that we’ve seen, this was a charming lake with flaming red huckleberry bushes lining the shore.
I recommend this hike for those who are willing to forego classic Sawtooth views in exchange for solitude on the trail.
Directions to trailhead: from Stanley, Idaho, travel south on highway 75. Midway between Pettit and Alturas lakes, turn right onto FS road #318 and then left on FS road #207 following signs for Cabin Creek Lakes. It appears that the access road north from Alturas Lake is no longer an option.
Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness Backpack Day 1: Redfish Lake to Alpine Lake
Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness Backpack Day 2: Alpine Lake to Baron Lakes
Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness Backpack Day 3: Alpine Lake to Crammer Lakes
Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness Backpack Day 4: Crammer Lakes to Redfish Lake
Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness: Fishhook Creek Meadows
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