For a summit-addict or scramble-master, the Idaho Centennial Trail will be a tricky trial of courage with more-than-rewarding ends. Get acquainted with the Sawtooths by gazing at them from the route each day and ultimately scrambling up a few. Each summit is optional for completion of the trail, so there’s no pressure to push your limits — only the temptation to see further than ever before. Keep your eyes peeled for several endemic wildflowers such as the Stanley Thalaspi and Guardian Buckwheat, and don’t be surprised if you come face-to-face with a Pronghorn antelope or Bighorn sheep.
From Stanley Lake, take the Alpine Way Trail #528 west. After about a mile of flat grounds, turn left at the T-junction and begin hiking south. Around mile 2, you’ll begin hitting some challenging elevation until close to mile 3.5, where you should turn right off-trail, heading west. You will climb into the basin of several unnamed lakes on the south side of McGown Peak, which will serve as perfect water sources for a peaceful set of campsites less than .5 mile from the Alpine Trail.
The adventurous scrambler should drop his or her pack and continue off-trail southwest to climb McGown Peak. this tiny, pointy 9,860-foot summit offers a commanding view of the Sawtooths. Keep an eye out for Mountain Goats who are known to graze at high elevations, as well as bald eagles that frequently soar through the area. Whether you summited or slept in, eventually head back to the point you left the Alpine Trail. Continue southeast on several inclines, ridges and drainage crossings until around mile 12 right before the trail descends. Follow an unmarked path that diverges west to Goat Lake, which has campsites ringed by the cliffs of Merritt Peak.
The following day, weave through a number of stunning unnamed lakes as you head south. On the path, you’ll find yourself climbing up to a beautiful plateau between the two grand Williams and Thompson Peaks. If you don’t mind the exposed campsite, spend a night surveying the vast lands below, keeping an eye out for black bears, elk and moose who can often be easier to spot from a far distance.
At mile fifteen, which you’ll eventually reach the next day by walking south, you may choose to drop gear and pack a few supplies to head a couple miles further south to summit Thompson Peak, Mickey’s Spire, or Mount Carter — or all three! (They’re close together). The peaks all have unique and equally spectacular views of the Sawtooths and the glassy lakes below. For the extremely confident scrambler, another option is to follow a path to the north to Williams Peak. The vaguely marked trail up the Peak’s south face is very steep, loose and difficult. Though it’s harder and slower than Thompson, reaching the top is possible and could be the magnum opus and grand finale to a week in the backcountry. Alternatively, for some rest, a second “Goat Lake” nearby has a meadow perfect for relaxing or camping.
A well-defined eastward trail will eventually lead you back to the Alpine Way Trail. Follow Alpine for a final ascent to Redfish Lake and trailhead.
PERMIT: For permit information, visit the Sawtooth National Recreation Area Visitor Center or contact them toll free at (800) 260-5970.
INFO: Sawtooth National Forest, (208) 737-3200; fs.usda.gov/sawtooth
-Mapped by Mike Lanza
- Distance: 36.2
Location: 45.753054, -114.419759
Hike up the Watchtower Creek Trail (No. 699) to the North Fork of Watchtower Creek.
Location: 45.76124, -114.428546
Cross Watchtower Creek.
Location: 45.814189, -114.48536
Bear left (west) to continue on the main route toward the crest of the Bitterroot Divide on the Idaho-Montana border. Optional: Turn right (north) onto an unmaintained and intermittent use trail that follows the North Fork for about 2 miles to the little-visited Watchtower Lake, which sits in a small cirque below the Bitterroot Divide. There are excellent campsites on the lake.
Location: 45.815341, -114.517064
Location: 45.818168, -114.531527
Cross the Bitterroot Divide (also the ID-MT border) and turn left, heading south. Optional: Bear right and continue about a mile on Cooper Point Trail to 8,194-foot Cooper Point.
Location: 45.798977, -114.5432
Location: 45.788445, -114.54998
Hike south on the Schofield Ridge Trail (No. 34).
Location: 45.786694, -114.550838
Cross a large meadow with long views to the south, across the Selway-Bitterroot to the mountains and canyons of Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The trail may seem to disappear in the tall grass; look for switchbacks dropping to where the trail enters the lodgepole pine forest. Feel with your feet or poke around with your hands for the packed treadway, which will persist for many years after the trail was last maintained.
Location: 45.783821, -114.552684
Trail enters the forest.
Location: 45.776234, -114.553027
Pick up Stateline Trail 16, which initially leads west, but swings around to head southeast through lodgepole forest.
Location: 45.774468, -114.565859
There are good campsites near the headwaters of Indian Creek.
Location: 45.774109, -114.566288
Day 3: Follow the well-blazed Stateline Trail (No. 16) roughly southeast for 5 miles, mostly through lodgepole forest.
Location: 45.740933, -114.541569
The views open up beyond the junction with Nez Perce Peak Trail 13.
Location: 45.726944, -114.515498
Turn left (east) onto Fales Flat Trail. Ahead: The Fales Flat Trail grows increasingly obscure as you descend. If you lose the trail, look for indicators like sawed tree trunks, which last for years.
Location: 45.745208, -114.449601
The route ends at the Fales Flat Trailhead.
Location: 45.845319, -114.485049
Set up camp and spend the night at Watchtower Lake. Day 2: Backtrack to Waypoint 2 and turn right at the junction.
Location: 45.827424, -114.55616
Cooper Point: From this 8,194-foot perch you’ll find outstanding views of the Bitterroot Divide and numerous side canyons feeding the Selway River. Next, double back the mile to the divide and swing off-trail, roughly following the divide south and southwest for 2 miles. You’ll encounter difficult scrambling, route-finding, and killer views.
Location: 45.829696, -114.511571