Last Updated on September 5, 2020 by mountainswithmegan
The Sawtooth Mountains are located near Stanley, Idaho and are known for their jagged peaks. There are hundreds of miles of well-maintained trails and hundreds of alpine lakes throughout the range. Having lived in Stanley for two summers and having done dozens of hikes in the area, I finally decided to hike the entirety of the mountains via the Sawtooth Traverse.
Hiking the Sawtooth Traverse was a last minute decision for me, and I only had three and a half days to do it. I did hike at a faster pace than was comfortable, and it hindsight it would have been worth adding an extra day to my itinerary. I also hiked solo, and I tend to stop much less frequently when I’m by myself.
Sawtooth Traverse Fast Stats
- Distance: 57 miles
- Length of Time: 4-6 days
- Trailheads: Tin Cup Trailhead (Petit Lake) to Stanley Lake Trailhead
- Permit: required and free, obtain at trailhead
- Camping: frequent campsites throughout the hike, particularly at lakes
- Fires: restricted at some lakes and during the dry season, check information kiosk at trailhead
- Water Sources: plentiful along the trail
- Time of Year: mid-June to mid-September
Sawtooth Traverse Trip Report
Day 1: Tin Cup Trailhead to Alice Lake
I didn’t start hiking until late afternoon on my first day. Hiking the Sawtooth Traverse was a last minute decision for me, so I had to spend the day getting organized and then wait on my friend to be free to shuttle me to Tin Cup Trailhead. In hindsight, I should have started this hike earlier in the day and covered more miles. Days 2 and 3 were long and tough. I left my car at Stanley Lake Trailhead and my friend dropped me off at Tin Cup Trailhead.
The trail from Tin Cup gradually gained elevation and passed over several streams. It was late enough in the season that the streams were low and I could rock hop across. I didn’t have to stop and switch to my Tevas. I had already hiked to Alice Lake on several previous occasions and knew what to expect.
After 6 mellow miles of hiking, I made it to Alice Lake. Alice Lake is one of the most popular hikes in the Sawtooths. The previous year I had camped out here in July, and there were so many people it was difficult to find a campsite. This time it was a weekday in mid-August, so it was less crowded. I found a nice spot for my hammock right by the water, cooked some dinner, and settled in for the night with my book.
Total Miles on Day 1: 6.3
Day 2: Alice Lake to Alpine/ Redfish Trail Junction (Flatrock Junction)
I started day 2 with ambitions to make it all the way to Alpine Lake for the night. According to my maps, that would put me at 17 miles for the day. However, according to my phone I hiked 19 miles on day 2 and I still stopped 2 miles shy of Alpine Lake. When planning your own trip, take into account that the mile estimations on the maps are off.
From Alice Lake, the trail climbs up and over a ridge. The map shows that the trail drops down to Twin Lakes and up the ridge from there. However, the trail is easier and more well marked if you follow the sign for Toxaway Lake (I’ve hiked both routes). You will still get a nice view of Twin Lakes from above.
After dropping down to Toxaway Lake, there is a steep and at times vertigo-inducing climb up to a pass. It’s tough work getting up there, but the views are very nice upon reaching the top. After the pass, the trail switch-backed down to Edna Lake. I stopped at Edna for some snacks and saw my first fellow hikers since Alice Lake that morning.
From Edna Lake, it was another long and slow uphill first to Hidden Lake. Then the trail kept climbing to The Temple and Cramer Divide. For being a tough section of trail, it was also scenic and unusually desert-like for the Sawtooths. I didn’t check my water bladder before starting the climb and ran out of water halfway up. There wasn’t much to do but keep going and be uncomfortable.
After Cramer Divide, there was a long stretch of downhill. I stopped at the middle Cramer Lake for a break. The upper lake waterfalls into the middle lake and was very beautiful. If I had an extra day for the Traverse, I would have like to have spent the night at Cramer Lakes.
Nevertheless, I was limited on time and wanted to get a few more miles in for the day. The daylight was coming to an end, and it was becoming apparent that I would not make my goal of Alpine Lake for the day. I didn’t have it in me to finish my day with a 1,000 feet climb. Upon reaching Flatrock Junction, I found a good campsite in the trees by the stream crossing.
I soaked my sore feet in the cold stream and made rice and coconut lentil curry for dinner. As I settled into my hammock, raindrops pattered on my tarp and lightening lit up the sky. I thought that perhaps it was a good thing I was camping at a lower elevation and missing the bulk of the storm.
Total Miles on Day 2: 19.4
Day 3: Flatrock Junction to Sawtooth Lake
Day 3 started with 1,000 feet of elevation gain up to Alpine Lake. It was a very pretty spot, but I didn’t linger for long because I had to gain another 800 feet up to Baron Divide. Baron Divide felt so high up, and the trail steeply switchbacked down the Baron Lakes.
I met a couple who were hiking out after a night at Baron Lakes. They told me the storm had been bad up where they camped. There was lightening close by and the rain pounded on their tent all night. So perhaps it was a good thing after all that I hadn’t made my destination the previous evening.
I had never been to Baron Lakes before, and it just might be my new favorite spot on the Sawtooth Traverse. They were dark blue, tucked in between high peaks, and felt very isolated. I had a Nutella and peanut butter break there, then continued on downhill.
There was an 8 mile slow downhill section after Baron Lakes. It really would have been an easy and pleasant section of trail, but my feet hurt from doing so many miles the day before. The tendon by my ankle was aching and my feet were rubbing my trail runners wrong. I started sitting down to take breaks every couple miles to give my feet a break.
I reached the trail junction at the end of the downhill. There was a sign that pointed to Grand Jean, saying it was only 3 miles away, and I lamented not parking my car there instead of at Stanley Lake.
The clouds were rolling in once more, and the sky turned gray. I still had 6 miles to go to get to Sawtooth Lake, and there would be 2,700 feet of elevation gain along the way. I didn’t feel great about hiking on an exposed mountainside with a potential storm coming in, but I decided to do it anyway.
I walked through the drizzle for several hours. Thankfully the lightening and thunder held off for most of the evening. There was one section of trail that was a steep, scree slope with a narrow trail carved out. I avoided looking down while I scampered across to the safety of the forest on the other side. The temperature slowly dropped, and I finished off the last half mile of switchbacks wearing my rain jacket and with aching feet.
I contemplated camping at Sawtooth Lake or staying at one of the closer, lower lakes. The decision was made for me when thunder began echoing off the rocky peaks above. On the trail ahead, there was one final, exposed climb. I thought it best just to set up camp amongst the trees and call it a day.
The wind was causing a ruckus as I hurried to set up my hammock and tarp. I found a few rather large rocks to use in leu of tent stakes. I didn’t think the tent stakes would get the job done in this weather. Just as I was finally set up in my hammock and resigning myself to a dinner of granola bars and peanut butter to avoid a trip outside, the sun poked out one last time. I took advantage of the moment to boil some chick pea pasta and dehydrated veggies.
The sun set for the day. I curled up in my sleeping bag and read my book by headlamp while eating spoonfuls of Nutella out of the jar.
Total Miles on Day 3: 18.7
Day 4: Sawtooth Lake to Stanley Lake Trailhead
I got an early start on my last morning because I was eager to get back to town and have some pizza. I had been to Sawtooth Lake several times prior to this trip, and I followed the familiar trail down past Alpine Lake (a different Alpine Lake than the one I’d seen the day before). Several day hikers made their way up the trail to Sawtooth Lake. It is one of the most popular hikes in the Sawtooth Mountains, along with Alice Lake, so lots of people hike up there every day.
Upon reaching a trail junction, I veered away from the usual route toward Iron Creek Trailhead and instead headed for Stanley Lake. I hadn’t expected much out of this 6 mile section of trail. It wasn’t high elevation, so I knew there wouldn’t be many good views. It did end up being a nice, green hike through the forest that was full of bubbling streams and and the scent of pine trees. I had really only committed to this last section because I wanted to do the full traverse, but it was shady and pretty in a different way.
About 1.5 miles from the parking lot was a stream crossing without rocks to hop, so I changed into my Tevas. The water was so cold and soothing on my sore feet that I couldn’t bring myself to put my smelly, dirty trail runners back on. I walked to the parking lot in my sandals, enjoying the breeze and the flat trail.
Finally, I made it back to my car. The Sawtooth Traverse had not been easy, but I was pleased to have hiked it all. I was off to town to get a cold drink and a pizza from Papa Brunees.
Total Miles on Day 4: 12.6
Tin Cup to Stanley Lake Trailhead was just the route that I decided would make the most sense for my Sawtooth Traverse while getting in the most miles I could. There are plenty of other trailheads to choose from, so don’t feel obligated to do a certain route.
You could make the hike shorter by starting at the Redfish Lake ferry trailhead or ending at Grand Jean or Iron Creek trailhead. If you wanted a longer hike and don’t mind a 3 hour drive down dirt roads, go to a place called Atlanta to start your hike. The trails will be more remote than starting off the highway.
My Sawtooth Traverse Route
Suggested Itinerary for the Sawtooth Traverse
Like I said, I did this hike faster than I would have liked. If you’re going the same route as me, I suggest adding an extra day on and really soaking up the scenery. This suggested itinerary is what I believe will set a realistic daily pace while also allowing you to camp at the most beautiful places along the way.
- Day 1: Tin Cup trailhead to Toxaway Lake
- Day 2: Toxaway Lake to Cramer Lakes
- Day 3: Cramer Lakes to Baron Lakes
- Day 4: Baron Lakes to Sawtooth Lake
- Day 5: Sawtooth Lake to Stanley Lake Trailhead
Bonus Backcountry Dinner Recipe
- Chick pea pasta– one handful per person
- Package of Tasty Bites– any flavor
- Dehydrated veggies -one small handful per person
- Pepperoni slices or summer sausage
Add the dehydrated veggies to a pot of water and boil it. When the water is boiling, add the chick pea pasta. Cover and remove from heat. Let it sit for about 12 minutes. Once the pasta is soft, drain the remaining water. Add the Tasty Bite package and put it back on the camp stove until it’s hot. Stir it a lot because it will stick otherwise. Then add a little bit of meat, and you’re set.
I like using the brand Banza for my chick pea pasta, and they also make lentil pasta. It’s a nice way to get a little extra protein in the backcountry, and it basically tastes the same as regular pasta. I order dehydrated veggies from Amazon. You can get a 1 pound bag for about $10 as long as you don’t care which particular veggies you’re getting.
The Tasty Bites have a ton a flavor and they usually have lentils or other things with protein. They do add a bit of weight because they’re water based, but I think it’s worth it to have a delicious meal. Finally, I often carry pepperoni or other meat that lasts when not refrigerated. It just makes a nice salty snacks and is a good addition to meals.