Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Short Hike in the Sawtooth Wilderness

I first heard of the Sawtooth Wilderness in 2001.  I was traveling, on what turned into an 8800 mile road trip, in the western states.  I left the Missoula, Montana area and headed south into Idaho with no real plan.  Eventually I turned onto Idaho 75 toward Sun Valley.  This took me through the tiny town of Stanley.  Entering Stanley, you are hit in the face with the Sawtooth Range, just on the edge of town.  The Sawtooths are a range a jagged cliffs and rugged beauty.

I don't remember the circumstances, but I ended up at the Iron Creek trailhead just a few miles from Stanley and began hiking.  I'm not positive on the exact date, but it was somewhere around May 21st.  I made it a couple miles before hitting snow.  I managed to pass Alpine Lake and reach Sawtooth Lake in 100% snow cover by this point.  I didn't have a proper map or winter gear beyond gloves, a hat, and gaiters.  From Alpine Lake I climbed a snowy slope and traversed toward the nearest  peak, I believe Mt Regan.  I found myself on a high slope with a cliff below and I had no ice ax, snowshoes, crampons, or anything for extra traction.  If I fell, there was a cliff below waiting for me and no way to stop.  I was traveling solo and nobody knew where I was. I didn't have a cell phone in 2001.

At that time I dropped back to Sawtooth Lake and traveled the safer route above the lake.  By this point the snow softened dramatically and I found myself postholing to my waist with every step. I was struggling and making no progress. I eventually baled on my plan and returned back to the trailhead.

The Sawtooths were the highlight of that trip.  I vowed to return someday.  Fast forward to 2017, the opportunity to revisit the area presented itself.  I was now on another road trip with my choice of destinations.  I made sure to include the Sawtooths on this trip.  The downside was that it was around the same time of year as my previous snowbound Sawtooth adventure.

The few days prior, I was in Moab, Utah on the first part of my trip.  On the second day, I was joined by my friend Dustin Putt.  Originally we were going to part ways in Moab.  However Dustin had car issues on the way down to Utah.  His car was left in Twin Falls, Idaho and he was now in a rental.  His car was repaired faster than anticipated so he decided to head back to Idaho.  Since he was already in Idaho, he decided to come along with me to the Sawtooths.

We didn't get to Twin Falls until late Tuesday night.  We were hoping to hit the Sawtooths Wednesday for the best weather, since a rainy/snowy system was moving in the next day.  We left Twin Falls a little later than I had hoped and made the 3 or so hour drive to Stanley.

Even though we were heading into the Sawtooths early in the season again (May 24th) this time I had all the gear necessary for travel on snow.  Unfortunately this time, Mother Nature was going to make things more difficult. I had been following the weather in the area the past week or so including trail conditions and snow levels.  Apparently the mountains of Idaho had a very high snow season.  Much of the drive in the mountains featured extremely high water levels as well with areas of flooding.   Most of the Forest Service roads along our route were closed.  Nonetheless, we made it to Stanley and continued with our plan.

We reached the Iron Creek Road, the road to our trailhead.  The road is around 4 miles long, but we didn't get too far before it had a closure sign on it.  We parked by the closure and loaded our gear for the hike.  We used our bikes to get to the actual trailhead, saving a bit of time.  The road had patches of snow but majority of it was passable with the bikes with only short distances needing to be walked.

Preparing at the trailhead with an
assortment of gear

I originally had more ambitious goals on this foray into the Sawtooth Wilderness.  Knowing that the snow cover would be an issue, I settled on the modest goal of hopefully climbing Alpine Peak, a 9861 foot summit above Alpine and Sawtooth Lakes and a manageable distance without getting too technical.

Entering the wilderness

We didn't get very far, just minutes of hiking, before we were in consistent snow.  We put on our snowshoes and gaiters and continued.  Because of the snow, we pretty quickly lost the trail.  Usually I carry detailed maps of where I am hiking and am fairly competent at navigation.  I couldn't find a detailed map in time for this trip though.  All I had was a poorly scaled Forest Service map with little detail and no contours.  In snowfree conditions, it would probably suffice, but not in these conditions.  Dustin had his phone along, but without services, the map on his phone was marginally better than my map and the GPS feature didn't appear to be working.

These are the conditions almost from the beginning

Plugging along without a trail

We made our way in the general direction of Alpine Lake.  We got a late start however and the snow conditions were less than ideal.  It was surprisingly warm and the snow had a slushy consistency that didn't favor quick travel, even with snowshoes.  We tried to confirm our route a few times, but our poor map and lackluster cell phone GPS didn't help too much.  For whatever reason the cell phone showed everything upside down and in the opposite direction.

Mountains come into view fairly quickly

Another early mountain view 

A small waterfall alongthe creek

Sawtooth like ridges in the Sawtooth Range

Enjoying the scenery

Our progress was slow at best.  We eventually crossed foot prints from another group that started earlier in the day.  We followed their tracks, hoping they were better prepared or at least knowledgeable of the area.  We eventually passed the group of hikers on their return down.  They were very unprepared for the conditions based on their lack of any gear but it sounds like they may of had a GPS.  Their route led up a steep snowy hillside.  I think the trail probably stayed lower along the creek, which would have been easier terrain to travel.  Nonetheless we followed the broken trail the rest of the way to a ridge a few hundred feet above Alpine Lake.

Subalpine basin

More craggy peaks

Making my way up a steep slope

From the ridge, there was a good vantage point of Alpine Peak, and a possible route.  By this point it was already later in the afternoon however.  I was somewhat frustrated by the hike since it wasn't turning out as I planned and my stupidity at not finding a better map.  At this point I could have been swayed either way on calling it a day and returning to the trailhead or giving it a shot at climbing Alpine Peak.  Since it was Dustin's birthday, I let him make the call.  He was better at being in the moment and enjoying the gorgeous scenery of the area more than I was.  He was content turning around.  Continuing would have added at least a couple hours with a moderately steep snow climb and threatened our making it back in daylight.  It could have been a borderline death march and I don't think that's what he wanted on his birthday.

Alpine Peak is the pointy summit

Another look at a sawtooth ridge

Since we had our tracks on the return to follow, we made it back down relatively quickly.  Even without attempting to Alpine Peak, it was nearly 6PM when we reached the cars.  Since we weren't really on trail majority of the time I don't know the exact mileage but I don't think it was more than 7 miles excluding the bike ride to and from the trailhead.

Our view as we descended

Dustin taking the easy way down
on a short, steep slope

Looking back into the subalpine basin

Peak 8881'

Even with this hike not going as planned, the Sawtooths are a beautiful area.  I've been to a lot of mountain ranges in the US and the Sawtooths truly stand out.  We had a perfectly blue sky and the scenery is amazing.  If we planned it better and had an early start things may have gone differently but we had to go while we had our window of good weather.  My frustration was a combination of factors including my failure to bring a suitable map.  I think we could have made better time and I could have navigated easier with a suitable map that would have allowed me to determine the landmarks in view.  I was never concerned about getting lost since the creek flows to the trailhead, but I could of cut out much of the second guessing on the way up.  Another area of frustration on my part was the fact that it took me so long to get back to the area.  It took me 16 years to get back to the Sawtooths and I ran into more issues after being more prepared than I did the first time.  I should of had Dustin's attitude and just enjoyed the moment on this one.

Ptarmigan along the trail

Despite the hike not going as I hoped, I really love the Sawtooths.  I will return at some point, next time not in May, but later in the summer.  In my opinion the area is beautiful, one of the most impressive areas in the lower 48 and is a backpacker's paradise.

Tomcat with Alpine Peak in the background

After this hike Dustin and I parted ways.  He was looking for warmer weather and headed back to Utah to hit some National Parks.  My agenda included more alpine mountains in the northern Rockies and I made my way to Montana.

A view of the Sawtooths near Stanley

For less active travelers that don't hike, I highly recommend traveling through this part of Idaho.  The drive between the Sun Valley area and Salmon, Idaho is absolutely gorgeous.  The mountains of the Sawtooth Range are a sight even from the road.  North of Stanley the road travels along the Salmon River toward the town of Salmon.  There isn't much civilization in these parts but the drive is beautiful, especially this time of year.  I see beautiful scenery all the time living in Colorado, and this particular drive outdoes much of Colorado. The river was roaring and everything was so lush.  The lingering mountain snow enhanced the beauty.  I also saw a fair amount of wildlife on the drive including several pronghorn and dozens of elk.

Another closer look of the Sawtooths near Stanley

If you enjoy reading this or any of my blog posts, check out and "Like" Tomcat's Outdoor Adventures on Facebook where I post and add photos more frequently as well as revisit past adventures.

No comments:

Post a Comment