Sawtooth Lake, located in the Sawtooth National Forest, is the quintessential hike of Stanley, Idaho. It may be reached from three different trailheads: Stanley Lake, Redfish Lake, and Iron Creek.
I believe the shortest hike to Sawtooth Lake is via the Iron Creek Trailhead, and it registers as a moderate ten miler on AllTrails.
The Iron Creek Trailhead dirt parking lot with a pit toilet is small. It can accommodate approximately 30 cars, and by the time I arrived before 7:30 in the morning at least ten cars had beaten me to a space.
Given I hadn’t seen many people get started before 8 to 9am most mornings, I hoped these were backpackers’ cars. Otherwise, Annie and I would be in for a busy trail this Fourth of July.
Hiking to Sawtooth Lake
The first two miles of the hike follows a smooth, crushed granite path through a damaged, evergreen forest, as evidenced by many fallen trees. Along the way, the path intersects with trails that lead to Marshall Lake and Stanley Lake.
The hike to Sawtooth Lake ascends at a slightly higher grade when it passes the Stanley Lake cut off. As a result, the trail gets a little rockier, but opens up to some intermittent views of the gray, jagged peaks and a waterfall.
After a couple of steep switchbacks, the trail to Sawtooth Lake turns gradual once more. It descends across a creek with multiple, narrow logs acting as bridge which negated the need for the river shoes I hung from my pack this morning.
From the creek, the path climbs high to magnificent views of the nearby jagged peaks and lush hills and mountains in the distance. Another waterfall tumbles down the sheer granite face nearby.
Alpine Lake Juncture
From here the trail climbs through several rocky switchbacks until it reaches a path that descends to Alpine Lake. At this juncture, the trail was still free of snow. With Alpine Lake in sight and donned in my La Sportiva trail shoes, I briefly considered cutting short the hike to Sawtooth Lake to keep my feet dry.
But I had heard from a local the previous day, that Sawtooth Lake was easily reachable and with the popularity of the route over July Fourth weekend, the hike would be even more manageable.
I’m glad I kept going, because the views of Alpine Lake from the next several switchbacks were magnificent. I kept stopping to capture photos of the snow-capped peaks surrounding the emerald lake. With each turn, I found a better angle for the photograph. Finally, I had to just make myself go, or I was going to be spending my time at Sawtooth Lake with fifty people, making my early start futile.
Aside from one runner who passed me going up and again going down before I even made it to the lake, I only run into a few campers returning to civilization for July Fourth and a ranger. Fortunately, I had Annie on a leash since it was a wilderness area. The ranger was totally cool and only asked if I had filled out a permit, and if I was hiking for the day. “Yes” to both, I responded.
After I left her, I finally met the snow. The backpackers I had seen confirmed the trail was packed down and easily traversable. I was stumped when I turned the corner for a view of snow going up and over the ridge without a decipherable path. Slipping around, I didn’t go far and kept looking for another direction.
To the right of the tree at the edge of the snow, a snow-free path resumed. From here the path was mostly flat and changed from dry, to wet and muddy, to snowy. I briefly stopped at the small lake, then the base of Sawtooth Lake and finally committed to trouncing across the hard pack snow for one final stint which led me to a rock outcropping.
Annie and I had the view of the partially frozen Sawtooth Lake all to ourselves for 30 minutes. Well ok, we shared it with a nearby pika that Annie desperately wanted to eat for lunch. I would have stayed longer, but I started getting chilled beneath the overcast sky.
It is unfortunate that today was the only cloudy weather of my last week of hiking, because I can only imagine how magnificent Sawtooth Lake would look with the reflection of the surrounding peaks. Regardless, the serene setting was lovely.
As soon as I got up to leave, I spotted two hikers making their way to the lake. Perfect timing. As I descended, I ran into countless groups of hikers. I wondered how in the world that parking lot could accommodate all these people and contemplated how many were coming from the different trailheads. Not that it really mattered…just curiosity.
Upon reaching the Alpine Lake turnoff, I still felt energetic, so I popped down to this lake for a quick view. I only saw a few occupied campsites with their respective campers. Another lake all to myself. It was beautiful, though I think I liked the view from above better.
I returned the 1/10 mile to the main trail and continued my descent. By then, my knees definitely screamed, “Enough Rocks.” Fortunately, despite uphill hikers having the right of way, most the time they stopped to let me pass. I think the majority just wanted a breather, though it was easier to move off the trail on their, uphill side.
Toward the end, with the flatter trail, I yielded more often. With only about a 1/4 mile left, Annie and I came across another group with a dog. On leash today, Annie displayed some reactive behavior, which she hadn’t shown in a long time. I guess she was bent out of shape that she couldn’t run.
As a result, I squeezed into a small space off the trail while trying to keep myself between her and the group. I tripped, took a step, lost my balance, took a step, knocked into her, tilted, and in slow motion just fell over. The group of five hikers and I just started laughing because it was so ridiculous.
I remained on two feet while sliding across all the snow, and then fell over essentially while just standing there! I guess my legs were tired. I brushed the dirt off my pants and swallowed my pride as I bid them farewell.
Back at the overflowing parking lot with more than twenty cars lining the sides of the road (but not in it), I concluded this is an area where illegally parked cars get ticketed!
Back at Camp
Overall, the hike to Sawtooth Lake was a great way to spend the Fourth of July. And while I originally planned to watch the small parade, the wind left my sails as a thunderstorm loomed. Fortunately it cleared for the fireworks, as I have one heck of a view on Nip and Tuck Road!! ETB