Even if you’ve never been to Sawtooth Lake, you’ll likely recognize it on arrival. This star of Idaho’s Sawtooth Range has graced hundreds of wilderness calendars, usually with 10,190-foot Mt. Regan reflected in its placid waters. It’s a beauty all right, but photos don’t do it justice. In person, it bowls you over.
The lake sits at 8,430 feet, cupped by crumbling cliffs hundreds of feet high and shaded in browns, grays, and pinks dabbed here and there with green highlights. It was while hiking a two-day circuit through these mountains in the yellow light of an August sunrise that I came face to face with this pinup idol. Though I’d just broken camp and had many miles to cover that day, at the sight of the lake I had to step off the trail and drop my pack. Walking while staring at the picture-perfect cliffs and mountains reflected in the water had become hazardous.
Sawtooth Lake sits at the midpoint of a moderately strenuous 17-mile circuit that links two scenic valleys and carries you across the high pass between them. The 3,000-foot climb to the lake through Baron Creek Valley takes you through a conifer forest before breaking into meadows hemmed by cliffs and 9,000-foot-high pyramids of broken rock. As the trail clambers still higher, the distant saber-toothed spires of the Sawtooths come briefly into view before you plunge into the woods again. All total, more than 40 peaks in the wilderness soar above the 10,000-foot mark.
The last leg to Sawtooth Lake passes by a string of tarns surrounded by progressively more barren terrain. (You’ll find uncrowded campsites nearby.) Once you’ve gawked at the big lake and climbed to the pass, the whole trip is replayed in mirror image: rocky tarns, giving way to forest fringe, then deep forest and tumbling creek, then trailhead. The second time around may be a bit sweeter, since you’re headed downhill.
DRIVE TIME: The trailhead is 110 miles (21/2 hours) northeast of Boise.
THE WAY: From Boise, take ID 55 north for 38 miles to Banks. Turn right on the Banks-Lowman Road and continue 33 miles to Lowman. Turn left on ID 21 and follow it for 32 miles. Turn right onto Grandjean Road and drive 7 miles to the trailhead.
TRAILS: The 338-square-mile Sawtooth Wilderness contains 350 miles of trail. To complete the 17-mile Sawtooth Lake loop, depart Grandjean trailhead and combine the Baron Creek (#101), North Fork of Baron Creek (#478), Sawtooth Lake/McGowan Lakes (#640), and Trail Creek (#453) Trails. Or access Sawtooth Lake from the east side via Iron Creek Campground, which is west of Stanley.
ELEVATION: The low point on the Sawtooth Lake loop is the trailhead at 5,200 feet. The trail tops out at 8,900 feet above the lake.
CAN’T MISS: Dawn light on Sawtooth Lake.
CROWD CONTROL: Sawtooth Lake’s campsites are popular and get scooped up quickly on summer and early-fall weekends. For less-crowded camping options, head for the largest and highest of three small, unnamed lakes 1 mile south of Sawtooth Lake.
PIT STOP: Danskin Station, between Garden Valley and Lowman, serves gourmet eats.
WALK SOFTLY: What little flat ground there is at Sawtooth Lake is heavily compacted. If you camp at the lake, use an existing site, and stay away from the delicate shoreline.
MAPS AND GUIDES: The waterproof Sawtooth Wilderness Map covers the area (Earthwalk Press; 800-828-6277; $7.95).
MORE INFORMATION: Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Star Route, Ketchum, ID 83340; (208) 727-5013. A SNRA parking permit is required ($5 for three days; $15 for one year).