Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
The Sawtooth National Recreation Area, located in the heart of Idaho, is home to majestic landscapes—nearly 1000 miles of rivers and streams, 40 peaks towering over 10,000 feet, and over 1100 lakes. One such lake, Sawtooth Lake, claims the title of largest lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness—its clear sparkling waters were to be our destination—the lake sits in the shadow of 10,190-foot Mount Regan and its shores are reached by hiking 5 miles among jagged peaks and spectacular alpine scenery.
We set out to explore the glacially carved landscape of the Sawtooths early one August morning—our departure point was the Stanley High Country Inn in the idyllic mountain town of Stanley, Idaho. Our destination, the Iron Creek Trailhead located at the end of FS Road #619—just off Highway 21—where we would find the kickoff point for our 10-mile roundtrip hike to Sawtooth Lake. Anticipation was building, as the unique beauty of Sawtooth Lake and the surrounding landscape makes it a photographer’s and nature lover’s delight, not to mention, it is one of the most popular trails in the National Recreation Area.
As the morning sun began to warm the mountain air, we made our way down the well-built trail to the Sawtooth Wilderness boundary (make sure to register at the trailhead for the free, mandatory wilderness permit)—located about a mile into the hike. This beginning section of the trail takes you past lodgepole pine-covered flats, large trailside boulders, and the clear waters of Iron Creek—just a taste of the beautiful scenery that is yet to come.
Just a short distance past the wilderness boundary, you cross the Alpine Way Trail—follow this to the right. As we followed the trail towards Sawtooth Lake, we were treated to excellent views of Iron Creek, and at a particularly scenic area, we encountered our first highlight of the hike—a Spruce Grouse. The two of us were making our way to the banks of the creek when this bird of the coniferous forests came strolling out of the undergrowth—known for often being fearless of humans, this little bird lived up to its reputation. He proceeded to walk all around us before perching on a downed log, at which point I jumped at the opportunity to get as close as I could—I kneeled down on the ground next to the log and began snapping photos. I have never been so close to a wild grouse—the close-up images you see in our gallery were shot with a wide-angle lens and the entire time I was shooting, the grouse was purring and humming—it was a cool and unique wildlife encounter!
Reluctantly, we left our little friend behind and continued down the trail—or should I say up? In about 0.5 miles, the trail to Sawtooth Lake leaves the Alpine Way Trail—heading away from Iron Creek and gaining some elevation via a series of switchbacks. At the top of the first series of switchbacks, the scenery really opens up—you emerge from the trees onto a subalpine avalanche meadow where the jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains dominate the landscape to the northwest. Above us, the bright blue sky formed the perfect backdrop for the shining white mountains—small bushes whose leaves were turning bright red for autumn added a splash of color to the alpine scenery. Everywhere we looked, the view was fantastic—you would be hard pressed to find a more scenic hike anywhere.
We lingered at the meadow for a short while before continuing our hike—next up, a ford of Iron Creek. The creek was easily managed, thanks to low water levels—typical for August—and a makeshift footbridge of tree branches. Just beyond the crossing, the trail climbs steeply up the mountainside.
At the top of this steep section, a climb of about 300 feet in 0.5 miles, you reach the junction with the spur trail to Alpine Lake—we chose to bypass Alpine Lake and continue on to Sawtooth Lake. Once again, the trail climbs the ridge rather steeply via a series of switchbacks—the views becoming ever more spectacular as you climb higher. The rising ridge parallels Alpine Lake some 100 feet below, offering up a bird’s-eye view of the sparkling lake and the eastern wall of the Sawtooth Range, including massive Alpine Peak. Near the top of the climb, we found the perfect spot for a break, where we enjoyed stunning views of the lake while we snacked.
The remainder of the trek to Sawtooth Lake took us through some of the grandest mountain scenery in Idaho—mountain vistas, unusual rock formations, wildflowers, butterflies, and woodland creatures such as ground squirrel and pika welcomed us to the shores of the lake. Just before reaching Sawtooth Lake, we passed by an unnamed pond—beautiful in its own right—following a brief stop at the pond we soon scrambled over a section of the trail where a landslide had occurred. Pika, a small rabbit-like animal, whistled, chirped, and hopped around the rocks gathering grass as we made our way across the jumble of boulders.
The first view of Sawtooth Lake is impressive—this classic vista has it all—rocky shores, azure water, and towering peaks. The panorama invites you to linger, and it is an invitation few can pass up, including us—we spent nearly an hour enjoying the solitude of the lake.
After enjoying the splendor of the wilderness, we retraced our steps back to the car—admiring the puffy white clouds that had moved in and added some drama to the unbelievably blue sky. Three hours and numerous photo stops later, we arrived back at our car, for a roundtrip hiking time of 7 hours. We piled our tired muscles into the car and made a beeline for the Sunbeam Hot Springs—located just off Highway 75 near Stanley. These easily accessible pools sit steaming between the highway and the Salmon River—boiling water, near 169 degrees F, flows under the road via a pipe from the spring itself—the scorching hot water, cooled to a comfortable temperature by the river, collects in user-built pools at the river’s edge. If the water is too hot, it is possible to adjust the temperature by moving the rocks to create a variety of soaking conditions—we thought the temp was just right. The soothing hot spring melted away the strain of our dayhike as Bald Eagles, osprey, and common mergansers patrolled the waters of the pristine Salmon River—if only every hike could end this perfectly!