A couple of hours working up two thousand feet worth of switchbacks takes me from the valley floor to Alpine Lake, nestled in its cirque below Packrat Peak, and the smaller “frog ponds” just beyond. But it’s not until I climb the final mile up to the crest of the ridge itself—well above 9,000 feet—and peer over into the Baron Lakes basin, that the scope of the rugged Sawtooth range hits home. The imposing summits of Monte Verita, Warbonnet and Tohobit dominate the massif rising above Baron Lakes, while Decker Peak looms across the valley to the south, and Braxon and Horstman fill the horizon to the east.
From my ridge-top vantage, the wild beauty of the landscape offers mute if irrefutable evidence why the cognescenti, those mountain lovers lucky enough to know the Sawtooths, speak of them with frank awe. The cluster of 10,000 foot peaks in my immediate field of vision is as dramatic as any I’ve seen, and reason enough to do this four-day traverse. But when you realize that the Sawtooths harbor more than 40 peaks above 10,000 feet, all in a relatively compact area, the distinctive character of these mountains becomes apparent: this is genuine North American wilderness, rugged beyond belief, and one in which the motivated backcountry traveler can still find solitude.
I had long wanted to explore the Sawtooths but quickly discovered that getting beta on the best places to go here was easier said than done. I wouldn’t go so far as to say a veil of secrecy protects these mountains, but it’s clear those who know the range best tend to keep their secrets close. Unlike mountains such as the Tetons, where topography and heavy visitation make them more of an open book, this compact range of steep mountains, twisting valleys, and hidden alpine basins lends itself to exploration and discovery. The fact is, finding the most interesting corners of the range can take persistence, and time.
“I call it 'quiet pioneering',” said Kirk Bachman, the founder and long time owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides. “There truly is a unique ethos here in the Sawtooths. You could describe it as a certain reticence, or reserve, on the part of the climbers and backpackers who come here. They are quiet about where they’ve been. There’s a reluctance to share with the world their favorite places because here, the way to learn about these mountains is to go see for yourself.”
I was lucky enough to do that very thing, and to do it with Bachman himself, a climber and skier who has decades of experience guiding in the Sawtooths. While his guiding company focuses mostly on lodge-based skiing in the winter, and rock climbing and mountaineering the rest of the year, trekking is a growing part of his business. Last September, when I asked Kirk to put together a four day trip into the range, he suggested a complete crossing of the Sawtooths, starting at Redfish Lake and ending at Grandjean trailhead. With Kirk's first-hand knowledge, I hoped to unlock some of the secrets of the Sawtooths.
The pleasures of hiking in the Sawtooths begin on arrival in the hamlet of Stanley, Idaho, just two or three hours from the airport in Boise. Stanley is no gentrified mountain town, certainly no Aspen, or even Sun Valley, just an hour to the south over Galena Pass. Stanley is as friendly as it is unpretentious, small but well suited to its role as gateway to the Sawtooths. With accommodations, restaurants and outdoor shops, funky Stanley has everything you need, and scenery to boot. The rocky peaks of the range rise abruptly from the edge of town, impossibly steep and impressively jagged.
I met Kirk at the local bakery so we could caravan over Banner Pass and leave a car at Grandjean trailhead, on the west side of the Sawtooths near the South Fork of the Payette River, before driving back to Redfish Lake to start our traverse. A fast boat ride up the lake made short work of the first five miles of trail, turning a two hour hike into a 10 minute sightseeing run. It's definitely the way to go. We were put out at the west end of the lake, at a small dock, and from there we headed up the Redfish Lake Creek drainage, a typically steep and deep Sawtooth valley between two mountain walls. Sawtooth Mountain Guides has a simple base camp hidden away in one of the prettiest spots along the fast flowing river. We dropped our packs there before heading up to Saddleback Lakes, a series of high country tarns and lakes nestled below the imposing walls of the Elephant’s Perch, one of the premier backcountry climbing walls in the Sawtooths.
That afternoon reflected the essence of Sawtooth hiking: traveling through the range, but taking the time to explore extraordinary features off the beaten track. It would be tragic not to see Saddleback Lakes--a place so scenic it's often referred to by the locals as Shangri-La--but I might not have even known it was there had I not been hiking with Kirk. We were back in camp before sunset, in time to relax as the surrounding peaks turned red with alpenglow. Kirk prepared an elaborate backcountry feast as we enjoyed the comforts of his camp, the roar of the river in the background. A chilly September dusk had us in the tents not long after dark. Buster, Kirk's Australian healer with some powerful herding instincts, did not turn in herself until she came over to confirm I was safely in my sleeping bag. Buster likes to know where everybody is.
It took us most of the next day to work our way up to Alpine Lake and cross the divide down into the Baron Lakes drainage. We pitched camp in an expansive meadow by the upper lakes, under the dramatic bulk of Monte Verita Peak. This is the very heart of the sprawling 217,000-acre Sawtooth Wilderness Area, which aggressively protects the best part of the 35-mile-long by 20-mile-wide Sawtooth Range. With 300 alpine lakes and almost that many miles of trail, this backcountry may be best enjoyed by what’s not here: a lot of people. We camped in solitary spendor in a secluded meadow surrounded by 10,000-foot peaks, and for me that's a reason to come to a place like the Sawtooths.
Everyone who spends time in hiking in the Sawtooths goes home talking about these mountains in cliche superlatives, and now I understand why. The Sawtooths are uniquely made, and visually striking . Classic uplift mountains, they were then carved out of the mostly pink granite by glaciers into jagged pinnacles. The result is not only uncommon beauty but interesting topography (and great rock climbing).
The next day, true to the Sawtooth tradition of exploration, we bushwhacked across a low ridge into an adjoining cirque below Braxon Peak where another set of alpine lakes nestled up against the mountains. Kirk brought his fly rod and landed a dozen or so trout (before tossing them back) in the two hours it took me to make a complete circumnavigation of the lakes and get some photos of the verdant alpine bowl. If we had another day, it would have been fun to forge on, hike due north over a pass and drop into Stephens Lake and the Fishhook Creek drainage. You could drive yourself crazy thinking about all the neat places to explore here in the Sawtooths, but I learned to view that frustration simply as a good reason to come back.
On our return trip to camp, I take my tripod and make a long detour over to the east side of Upper Baron Lake to try to catch the nice evening light on the rocky edifice of Warbonnet Peak—an odd, impressive collection of huge blocky sections—reflected in the still water on this windless afternoon. When I return to camp, Buster is sitting, alert, by the tent, but there’s no sign of Kirk. He appears in a few moments with a cooking pot full of snow from higher up, a mischievous look on his face. He had hiked a good thousand feet up to find a patch of snow. Now, with a crooked grin, he produces a small bottle of tequila and concocts the most delicious margarita I ever had, using the snow for crushed ice. As we enjoy the cool beverage, and take in the perfect quiet of the Sawtooth wilderness, it’s clear the setting has something to do with how good the drink tastes. A toast to the Sawtooths seems a fitting conclusion for the last night out.
Tomorrow we’ll have a long day on the trail, an honest 12 miles, down beside roaring Baron Creek Falls and all the way out the valley to the Payette River. We'll turn right there and exit the wilderness a few miles farther at the Grandjean trailhead, where we’ve stashed my rental car. That will complete our four day crossing of the Sawtooth Range, and for serious backcountry travelers, there’s always satisfaction in a pure traverse like this one, as opposed to a loop. But, in the end, it's the Sawtooths themselves that made this journey unique.
Tonight, however, we’re still here, still in the close embrace of the range, right in the heart of it. And Kirk and I have the good sense to savor it. We sip our margaritas and take in the wild beauty, and the quiet. It’s my turn to cook, but dinner can wait.
From Boise's busy airport, the hamlet of Stanley, Idaho, starting point for any Sawtooth adventure, is approximately three hours away via Highway 21 and Banner Pass, or, four hours via Sun Valley, over Galena Summit. Sawtooth Mountain Guides
know the range like no one else, and can help you make the most of any backcountry outing or climbing trip, and can combine those with river rafting and other adventures. The state of Idaho's travel website
provides information to make planning a trip to Idaho easy. For information on the Sawtooth Wilderness, contact the Stanley Ranger Station at 208-774-3000. Plenty of accommodations and restaurants can be found in Stanley, including the Mountain Village Resort right in town, or Redfish Lake Lodge, a few miles to the south.