A few weeks ago I set out with a group of my friends and coworkers for yet another Stanley, Idaho hiking adventure.
I wanted to spend two nights in the mountains, leaving as soon as I got off work on Sunday. Due to conflicting work schedules, two of my friends could go the first night before heading home. I planned on meeting two of my other friends at Sawtooth Lake the following afternoon.
My route was Stanley Lake trailhead to Bridal Veil Falls. I camped the first night at the creek below Bridal Veil Falls. Then onto Sawtooth Lake the next day with an evening of camping at one of the lower lakes. Then we hiked out to Iron Creek trailhead. If you’re confused my all my side journeys, then check the map at the bottom of this post.
- Distance: 14 miles + 4 miles for side trails
- Trailhead: begin at Stanley Lake trailhead and end at Iron Creek trailhead (note: if you’re only going to Sawtooth Lake, start at Iron Creek)
- Permit: required and free, available at trailhead
- Camping: available throughout hike
- Dogs: allowed, leash required July 1- Labor Day
- Campfire: only allowed while using a fire pan and must be 200 yards from the lakes; the rules are confusing so check the forest service website to see what they say.
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Know Before You Go
- The trail is defined and easy to follow. That said, bring a map and have the maps downloaded to a GPS app on your phone. I use Gaia for my phone maps and the Sawtooth & White Cloud Mountains Trail map.
- There’s no cell phone service. Let someone know where you’re going and when you’re coming back.
- Even going in late-July, we only saw one other hiker until we reached Sawtooth Lake. So make sure you’re fully ready to be self-sufficient.
- There are no amenities for hikers in terms of designated campsites or facilities. Be ready to pack out all of your trash and choose your own campsites.
- Water is readily available. There are streams and lakes frequently. Be sure to bring something to treat your water. I usually use a Steripen.
Day 1: Stanley Lake to Bridal Veil Falls
Remember my friends Doug and Mel from my Alice Toxaway Lakes backpacking trip? They joined me for the first leg of the journey, making this Mel’s second backpacking trip ever. Since they were starting at Stanley Lake trailhead and ending at Iron Creek trailhead, we left one car at Iron Creek and drove the other to Stanley Lake.
I had to work during the day, so we didn’t get hiking until around 6 pm. From Stanley Lake, the hike was pretty flat and mellow to get to the side trail to Bridal Veil Falls. It was through the forest so it was tranquil other than the swarms of mosquitos attacking us.
The side trail to Bridal Veil Falls isn’t marked, so we had to pay attention. Furthermore, there’s a creek crossing to get to the other side, so you really have to pay attention.
As soon as we started the hike up to the falls it immediately got steep and hard, especially with our fully loaded backpacks. We kept going up, up, up until we finally reached the falls. It was worth the effort.
Our original plan was to go even higher and camp out at some lakes above the falls. The way up looked pretty sketchy to me, but we started to make our way anyway. After Doug accidentally knocked a large rock in my direction, I decided to hang back. It only took a few minutes before we realized continuing on was a bad idea. After looking down, Mel got really scared about coming back down the way she went up.
This was stupid on my part because I was supposed to be guiding my friends, and I should have assessed the situation before they started hiking up. And I should have spoken up sooner when I was having doubts about the route.
The main issue with continuing past the falls was that it was high consequence. It was so steep that it would have been difficult to stop if someone had started falling. And there were lots of loose, big rocks that could have easily gotten dislodged and hit one of us.
We had broken one of my main rules for backpacking, which is don’t go up anything if you’re not sure you can make it back down. Don’t get your friends in trouble like I did.
Doug waited above as to not knock anymore rocks at us. Mel started down back to where I was, but got so scared during the worst part of it that she didn’t want to keep going. I ditched my pack and made my way up to her, and took her backpack for her so it would be a bit easier. With a lighter load, she made it back to safety and Doug followed.
Due to our late start, it was nearly dark at this point. We hiked back down to the main trail, which was much faster going than the way up. By the time we made it back to the stream, we had just enough daylight to choose a campsite.
Mel was pretty overwhelmed with her near death experience, and was having trouble getting her hammock set up. I felt bad that she could have gotten hurt because of my bad decision making, so I help her get her stuff set up.
After we were all settled into camp, Mel and I made some veggie curry for dinner on her JetBoil. We ate some chocolate and I tried out some nighttime photography, which is still a work in progress for me.
Day 2: Sawtooth Lake
Mel had to be at work by 5 pm, so we got moving pretty quickly in the morning. Doug is freakishly tall and Mel is freakishly athletic, so we kept a quick pace all day long with few breaks.
We soon emerged from the forest, and began an uphill climb in the hot sun. From our campsite, we had six miles to go until Sawtooth Lake. It wasn’t easy, but we made a good hiking crew. We made a stop at an unknown lake for lunch before started the final climb to our destination.
We reached the crest of the hill and had a beautiful view of the lake below us. After a quick photoshoot, we were ready to get down there and jump in the lake.
We didn’t have swimsuits, but it’s the wilderness so we stripped down to our underwear. Mel and I were covered in bug spray and sunscreen. The alpine lakes in the Sawtooth’s are pretty pristine, so we followed my next hot tip…
We filled up our water bottles with lake water and did our best to wash the chemicals off of our skin before jumping into the actual lake. I suggest you do the same.
Sawtooth Lake was cold, but so worth it. After staying in the water for as long as we could stand, we sat on a log and watched some teenagers play in a nearby snow patch.
Finally, it was time for Doug and Mel to head back to Iron Creek. We said our goodbyes and they headed down the trail.
This was my meeting point for my next set of friends who would be joining me, Rachel and Matt. I was just about to get settled in and read my book while I waited. However, I immediately was located by the two of them. They said they had been here exploring around the lake for nearly an hour.
I followed them down a trail they had scouted out (Trail 478 on the map), and ditched their backpacks on. Matt was like a mountain goat. Instead of hiking on the trail, he jumped across the boulders and made side journeys to check out whatever caught his eye.
When we made it to their backpack hiding spot, Rachel wasn’t too happy to put hers back on. This was her first backpacking trip, and she just had a day pack stuffed to capacity with a sleeping bag dangling off the back. I would not have been wanting to hike with that either.
There were people camping out along Sawtooth Lake and at the next lower lake. We kept going until we reached a lake a mile past Sawtooth and it was so perfect. It was a tiny lake tucked between the peaks. We had the place all to ourselves. There just so happened to only be two good hammock spots, which Rachel and I claimed while Matt set up his tent.
Matt went off to scurry amongst the boulders once more. Rachel and I stayed in camp and soaked up the last of the sun rays for the day.
We had a peaceful afternoon. Once the sun was falling in the sky, we set off for a short walk together. I brought my camera and tripod along, so I could get some good photos. I still haven’t decided if my tripod is worth the weight in terms of carrying it for backpacking, but I am always happy with all the cool photos I get.
Day 3: Sawtooth Lake to Iron Creek Trailhead
We took our sweet time to get going in the morning. It was our last day off before the start of our work week, so we took the opportunity to sleep in late.
Finally, we packed up our camp. Rachel and I found a better way to attach her sleeping bag to her day pack so it wouldn’t be hitting her in the legs every time she took a step. We took a break at the trail intersection so Rachel could build a snowman.
Starting down the trail we skipped the side trail to Alpine Lake, which I regret now after seeing a friend’s photo of the lake. We passed so many other hikers along the way, a stark contrast to the first day of the hike.
It only took about two hours to make it to the trailhead. As much as I love hiking, I’m always just as stoked to end my hike and get a can of Pepsi. Post-hike is pretty much the only time I ever want to drink pop.
We cruised into town and made a stop at the Merc in Stanley, Idaho to get drinks and ice cream. Thus ending a wonderful two nights in the Sawtooth Mountains.
Here’s Sawtooth Lake on the map. If you zoom out you should be able to see my saved locations for Stanley Lake Trailhead, Bridal Veil Falls, and Iron Creek Trailhead.