Baron Lakes backpacking best hikes Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
Upper Baron Lake

15 best hikes in the Sawtooth National Forest (+ an extensive guide to Stanley, Idaho)

Standing at the base of central Idaho’s towering snow-capped peaks, their serrated silhouette dramatically backlit by the summer sun, it’s truly impossible to understand why the Sawtooth Mountains aren’t more popular. They have all the grandeur of the Tetons, even greater accessibility than the North Cascades, as many alpine lakes as you’re likely to find anywhere in the world— and yet, the trails are surprisingly quiet and the wilderness absolutely pristine (if somewhat rugged).

During our 3 weeks in the Sawtooths this summer, we took to asking ourselves ‘what’s going on here?!’, an anthem that encapsulates both the insane, unspoilt beauty of the Sawtooths and their incomprehensible position off the radar. As much as I loved the feeling of discovering something so special that it was almost secret, I was equally struck by the urge to shout about these mountains and their sapphire lakes to anyone who would listen.

By early July, there were certainly more people around to shout at, as dispersed campsites filled and families crowded the shores of Redfish Lake, but aside from a few short hikes accessible to the masses, the trails remained uncrowded and I didn’t share a single lake with other swimmers. Despite all logic and reason, the Sawtooth Mountains and their even quieter neighbours (Pioneer and White Clouds) may just be Idaho’s best kept secret— and, in case it wasn’t clear, my favourite hiking destination in the entire US.

Before the rest of the world catches on, here are 15 incredible hikes to explore in the Sawtooths, including everything from popular trails like Alice Lake to remote backpacking destinations like the Baron Lakes, PLUS an absolutely massive travel guide to Stanley, Idaho, ‘the gateway to the Sawtooths’. And a final word to the wise: plan to stay a while, this place wasn’t made for leaving.

Downloadable Google Map

Every single hike (organised north to south), campsite, restaurant, public service AND amenity (e.g. public showers, fuel, etc) mentioned in this post are listed on the downloadable Google Map below for your reference!

Langer Lake Ruffneck Peak summit
On the summit of Ruffneck Peak

1 | Langer Lake & Ruffneck Peak

Just north of Sawtooth National Forest in central Idaho, Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness offers an even quieter alternative to Idaho’s premier mountain range, and this is one of the best non-technical peaks to be found!

Small Langer Lake doesn’t really compare to the other alpine lakes on this list in terms of glaciated backdrops and crystal-clear waters— BUT the view from the fire lookout atop nearby Ruffneck Peak is simply spectacular and worth every sweaty footstep.

It’s a steep, rocky, and very exposed (but not challenging) 1hr hike to reach Langer Lake hidden within a pine forest, from which you can see Ruffneck Peak looming overhead. After a refreshing swim, it’s a further 1-1.5hrs up to the summit along an impossibly steep trail cut into the hillside, where a well-maintained lookout offers sweeping views onto the Sawtooth, White Cloud, and Pioneer ranges, as well as over the Frank Church Wilderness. 

Trailhead: Langer Lake Trailhead (Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness; accessible off Beaver Creek Road)

Distance: 4.1mi / 6.6km return (Langer Lake) OR 8.4mi / 13.5km (Langer Lake & Ruffneck Peak)

Elevation gain: 1066ft / 325m (Langer Lake) OR 2405ft / 733m (Langer Lake & Ruffneck Peak)

Trail time: 2hrs (Langer Lake) OR 5hrs (Langer Lake & Ruffneck Peak)

Highlights: quiet lake for swimming; amazing views from the fire lookout on Ruffneck Peak, a great non-technical summit

Lady Face Falls Bridal Veil Falls best hikes Sawtooths
Hiking to Lady Face Falls near McGown Peak

2 | Lady Face & Bridal Veil Falls

Departing from Stanley Lake at the northern end of the Sawtooths, Lady Face and Bridal Veil Falls (accessed via the same trail) provide one of the only short, relaxing hikes in the region— the perfect “rest day” activity in between high alpine routes and steep peaks!

The trail first meanders through a flowered meadow below iconic McGown Peak, gaining almost no elevation until several miles later where the route finally begin to climb towards Bridal Veil Falls.

If you’re after something super undemanding, the amusingly named Lady Face Falls is only about 20min past the start of the uphill push and can be accessed via a short scramble down to the water from an unmarked viewpoint.

Trailhead: Stanley Lake Trailhead

Distance: 7.3mi / 11.7km return

Elevation gain: 500ft / 152m

Trail time: 2hrs return (Lady Face Falls) or 4hrs return (Bridal Veil Falls)

Highlights: easy trail perfect for a rest day or half-day excursion; 2 beautiful waterfalls and rushing creeks; cool swimming in one of the creek pools near Lady Face Falls

Sawtooth Lake Mt Regan best hikes in Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
Chilly swim in Sawtooth Lake

3 | Sawtooth Lake

At the northern end of the Sawtooth Wilderness lies one of the region’s most popular destinations, Sawtooth Lake, accessed via a moderate trail from Iron Creek. Despite this popularity, it’s not hard to find yourself completely alone at Sawtooth mid-week and early season, and it ended up being one of my favourite alpine lakes, both for photography and swimming!

From the parking lot, the trail is fairly gradual and very shaded for the first 2hrs as it winds gently up to stunning Alpine Lake (there are actually 2 lakes with this same name in the Sawtooths; the second is near Baron Lakes and mentioned later in this post, but both are stunning and totally worthwhile!).

Alpine Lake could easily be a destination in its own right, but considering that it’s less than an hour to Sawtooth (albeit on a rockier and more challenging trail), I’d definitely recommend continuing upwards to enjoy the commanding beauty of Mt Regan and the almost Mediterranean waters of Sawtooth Lake (in colour, not in temp!).

Trailhead: Iron Creek Trailhead

Distance: 10mi / 16.1km return

Elevation gain: 1873ft / 571m

Trail time: 5hrs

Highlights: 2 amazing alpine lakes, including the aptly named Alpine Lake and Sawtooth Lake; stellar views of Mt Regan from Sawtooth Lake; possible to tack on a side-trip to the summit of Alpine Peak

Goat Lake best hikes Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
Goat Lake

4 | Goat Lake

Once protected from the masses by a rough, steep trail and difficult route-finding, Goat Lake is now firmly in the mix, alongside Sawtooth and Alice, as one of the most popular alpine lakes in the Sawtooth Wilderness— not because the trail has been improved or the grade has lessened, but because word of its beauty has leaked and easy access to crowd-sourced GPS maps has made getting here a relative breeze.

The trail starts off incredibly flat and well-graded, then turns sharply up the mountain and climbs via switchbacks along a narrow dirt track, none of which is overly demanding until the final 20-30min of brutally steep scrambling on loose dirt and large boulders. Increasing popularity among casual hikers means that there were a lot of people out here who seemed grossly underprepared for the journey— bring poles, wear boots or other sturdy footwear, and take your time.

Once you’ve made it past the steep scramble, it’s smooth sailing along the outskirts of a boulder field and then the final reward of stunning Goat Lake beneath Merritt Peak. It’s not hard to find a lakeside spot all to yourself up here, even on busy July weekends, since most people seem to arrive at the top, snap a photo, and then retreat— if you follow a rough trail around the left side of the lake for about 10min, you’ll be out of sight and earshot of literally everyone, perfectly situated for a swim and a long relax!

Trailhead: Iron Creek Trailhead

Distance: 8.1mi / 13km return

Elevation gain: 1768ft / 539m

Trail time: 4hrs

Highlights: excellent swimming in clear Goat Lake; access to Merritt Peak and the saddle between Thompson and Williams provide additional climbing opportunities

9000ft Lake Thompson Peak best hikes Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
9000ft Lake below Mickey Spire

5 | Lake 8865 / 9000ft Lake

You might see it referred to as Lake 8865 (its elevation) or even 9000ft Lake on area maps, but amazingly, the sapphire pool below Thompson Peak, the highest mountain in the entire range, doesn’t even have a name— and this does a lot to keep it off the radar for most hikers, as does the rugged and somewhat arduous ascent.

The journey to Lake 8865 begins on a relatively flat trail from Redfish Lake Trailhead, transitions to a steep dirt track along the ridgeline above the lake, and finally veers directly up into the mountains on loose dirt and over inconvenient boulders to arrive at the lake at the base of Mt Thompson and striking Mickey Spire. Although spectacular, the route is rough and entirely unmarked, often traversing scree and talus, but it’s manageable for most fit hikers and offers a true adventure within the heart of the Sawtooths.

With that in mind, I’d highly recommend using the AllTrails map below to navigate— I captured the route all the way to the summit of Thompson, but you can absolutely use it to find your way to Lake 8865 and back down to Redfish if you don’t fancy a climb. The lake itself is certainly worth the trip!

Trailhead: Redfish Lake Trailhead

Distance: 9.5mi / 15.3km return

Elevation gain: 2516ft / 767m

Trail time: 5hrs

Highlights: incredibly quiet and off-the-beaten-path hike to a spectacularly beautiful unnamed alpine lake, requiring some route-finding; views of Mickey Spire, Thompson Peak and Williams Peak; colourful wildflowers and heaps of wildlife along the route

9000ft Lake Thompson Peak best hikes Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
Climbing towards Thompson Peak

6 | Thompson Peak

For those seeking big adventure in the Sawtooths, there is hardly a more deserving summit than Thompson Peak, the tallest mountain in the entire range! But make no mistake— this is a CLIMB, and you need to be prepared accordingly.

Thompson is a non-technical peak with a 4200ft ascent and challenging terrain, including a 40+ degree snowfield ascending to the saddle, a massive scree/talus mess leading to the base of the summit block, and Class 3 scrambling for the final ascent (via the south couloir). If any of those things make you nervous, I’d suggest just hiking to Lake 8865 instead, which is still gorgeous and plenty difficicult, but NOT an actual climb.

On the day we summited, we passed multiple (very underprepared) groups who had turned around hardly past Lake 8865 because their athletic shoes and flimsy packs were unsuited for a climb. I attribute this largely to a popular Sawtooth hiking post (clearly written by people who’ve not climbed themselves), which suggested that Thompson Peak is a “moderate” hike while calling Sawtooth Lake “strenuous”— a truly laughable assessment. If you’re after a moderate hike, Thompson Peak is neither of those things.

Departing from Lake 8865 (the approach to which is described above), it’s a wild scramble over scree and talus and up incredibly steep snowfields to reach the saddle between Thompson and Williams, where still more massive scree-covered slopes will send you several steps backwards with every move up. 

As you wrap around the peak, the easiest route to the summit is via the south couloir, (we missed the correct route on the ascent and it was far harder, so make sure to follow our DESCENT track on the AllTrails map below), where a short Class 3 scramble with only moderate exposure brings you right up to the summit overlooking the entirety of the Sawtooths and nearby White Clouds. Sign your name in the summit register and drink in the best views in central Idaho!

Trailhead: Redfish Lake Trailhead

Distance: 12.5mi / 20.1km return

Elevation gain: 4134ft / 1260m

Trail time: 8hrs

Highlights: summit the tallest peak in the Sawtooth Mountain; challenging but non-technical Class 2-3 scrambling; amazing views back on Williams Peak, 9000ft Lake, Mickey Spire, and the entire Sawtooth range

Bench Lakes Mt Heyburn best hikes Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
Swimming at the 5th Bench Lake below Mt Heyburn

7 | Bench Lakes

Bench Lakes are a string of 5 stunning alpine lakes in the heart of the Sawtooth Wilderness, each more spectacular than the last. There’s a well-formed and easy to follow trail as far as the second lake, but beyond this, there’s only a vague hint of the path to the 5th— and as a result, very few hikers make it this far.

The route is incredibly steep, covered with downed trees, overgrown with bushes, and impossible to follow, but this is the reward: utter solitude at the base of dramatic Mt Heyburn and a perfect aquamarine pool all to yourself. There’s hardly a more beautiful spot in the Sawtooths.

Although there doesn’t seem to be any source that displays the route to the 5th Bench Lake (and indeed, there’s really no trail to speak of), I tracked our ascent on Alltrails for your reference. Note that this is a one-way recording and also that we weren’t on the informal path the entire time— there was plenty of confused climbing, but we made it!

Trailhead: Redfish Lake Trailhead OR Redfish Inlet Trailhead (if taking the ferry; not recommended)

Distance: 11.5mi / 18.5km return

Elevation gain: 2297ft / 700m

Trail time: 5hrs

Highlights: 5 incredible alpine lakes, each more impressive than the last; abundant camping opportunities along the lake shores; very quiet past the second lake due to the lack of official trail

Alpine Lake Baron Lakes best hikes Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
Camping at Alpine Lake

8 | Alpine Lake

Not to be confused with Alpine Lake situated beneath popular Sawtooth Lake (and described previously), this beautiful and secluded spot below Baron Divide makes for an excellent day hike or backpacking destination away from the masses.

The best way to access Alpine Lake is by catching the Hiker Boat Shuttle from Redfish Lodge ($14 one-way or $19 return; boats leave on demand with 2+ people) to Redfish Inlet Trailhead at the far end of the lake. From here, it’s a gentle, well-maintained trail to the junction with Cramer Lakes, where you’ll fork right towards Baron Lakes and ascend a series of switchbacks to the calm shores of Alpine Lake.

The camping here is simply superb, so I’d recommend combining Alpine Lake with Baron and/or Cramer (each described below) to craft an awesome overnight adventure into this somewhat difficult-to-access section of the Sawtooths.

Trailhead: Redfish Inlet Trailhead (accessible by ferry from Redfish Lodge or +5mi hike above the lake)

Distance: 11.6mi / 18.7km return

Elevation gain: 2024ft / 617m

Trail time: 4hrs

Highlights: beautiful alpine lake perfect for swimming; wonderful camping opportunities along the lake shore; fascinating geology and abundant flora on the hike in

Baron Lakes backpacking best hikes Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
Hiking to Baron Lakes

9 | Baron Lakes

For those willing to push beyond Alpine Lake (described above), the reward is one of the most spectacular views in the entire Sawtooth Wilderness, looking down from Baron Divide onto Upper and Lower Baron Lakes. Being farther from the trailhead also comes with the bonus of fewer people— we didn’t even see another hiker all day!

As with Alpine Lake, you’ll want to catch the Hiker Boat Shuttle from Redfish Lodge ($14 one-way or $19 return; boats leave on demand with 2+ people) to Redfish Inlet Trailhead at the far end of the lake.

After hiking along a gradual trail to the junction with Cramer Lakes and turning right to ascend a series of steep switchbacks to Alpine Lake, continue upwards for a further 1hr to reach the highpoint at Baron Divide and eventually drop down the other side to enjoy the superb Baron Lakes. There’s heaps of camping at both the upper and lower lakes, all with phenomenal views of the dramatic granite peaks.

Trailhead: Redfish Inlet Trailhead (accessible by ferry from Redfish Lodge or +5mi hike above the lake)

Distance: 16.8mi / 27km return

Elevation gain: 3563ft / 1086m

Trail time: 7hrs

Highlights: somewhat remote location means fewer people and amazing, untouched scenery; 2 gorgeous lakes to swim in and camp near; spectacular aerial views from Baron Divide

Baron Cramer Lakes backpacking best hikes Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
Cramer Lake alpenglow

10 | Cramer Lakes

Another fantastic option beginning at the far end of Redfish Lake (from the Redfish Inlet Trailhead) is Cramer Lakes, a string of 3 sparkling lakes accessible via a very leisurely trail through the trees. There’s excellent camping at each, but we were most impressed by the gushing, almost tropical waterfall between the middle and upper lakes!

As described for both Alpine and Baron Lakes previously, catch the Hiker Boat Shuttle from Redfish Lodge ($14 one-way or $19 return; boats leave on demand with 2+ people) to Redfish Inlet Trailhead at the far end of the lake to begin your hike. At the trail junction mentioned previously (where a right will lead you up switchbacks to Alpine Lake and onwards to Baron Lakes), head left and ascend gradually to the first Cramer Lake.

During much of the hiking season, there’s a substantial thigh/waist-high creek ford required just after the junction— an excellent spot, since you’ll be able to turn around and tackle Alpine or Baron instead if the crossing is too dangerous. It wasn’t rushing too strong in late June, so we just carried our boots and packs across before continuing upwards, but obviously conditions can vary each year, so be prepared.

Trailhead: Redfish Inlet Trailhead (accessible by ferry from Redfish Lodge or +5mi hike above the lake)

Distance: 14.7 / 23.7km return

Elevation gain: 2080ft / 634m

Trail time: 6hrs

Highlights: amazing views after a relatively easy hike; beautiful waterfalls along the trail and between the 2nd and 3rd Cramer Lakes; excellent camping along the lake shore

Stanley Idaho Sawtooth Mountains best hikes Imogene Lake
Imogene Lake

11 | Imogene Lake

Somewhat protected from overwhelming popularity by the seemingly long approach (9mi each way from the trailhead), the hike to Imogene Lake is surprisingly gentle and hardly takes more than 3hrs each way. It’s an excellent introduction to longer day hikes and probably one of the easiest on this list, despite the daunting 18-mile tag attached.

The hike begins on a very pleasant trail from the Hell Roaring Creek TH, winding through the trees for about 2hrs to the shores of Hell Roaring Lake. As one of my first hikes in the region, I was absolutely delighted by Hell Roaring and wasted no opportunity swimming, but once we continued onwards another hour to Imogene, I was entirely blown away and basically lost all memory of the lower lake.

Both Hell Roaring and Imogene Lakes offer excellent camping, but it’s hard to beat the serenity or the seclusion of Imogene— and seriously, it’s only an additional hour to push upwards, a staggeringly undemanding ascent by Sawtooth standards!

Trailhead: Hell Roaring Creek Trailhead

Distance: 10.7mi / 17.2km return (Hell Roaring Lake) OR 17.8mi / 28.7km return (Imogene Lake)

Elevation gain: 728ft / 222m (Hell Roaring Lake) OR 2008ft / 612m (Imogene Lake)

Trail time: 4hrs (Hell Roaring Lake) OR 6hrs (Imogene Lake)

Highlights: excellent reward from a surprisingly easy hike; large, beautiful lake with amazing mountain views

Stanley Idaho Sawtooth Mountains best hikes Fourth of July Lake
Swimming at Fourth of July Lake in the White Clouds

12 | Fourth of July & Washington Lakes

For a brief departure from the Sawtooth Mountains, head directly across the road from Hell Roaring Creek Trailhead and drive about 20min down a gravel road into the White Cloud Mountains, arriving at the Fourth of July TH for one of the easiest hikes on this list.

Perfect for families, furry friends, and novice hikers, you can access two lovely lakes, Fourth of July and Washington, in less than 1 hour (each way) along a very pleasant trail. Both afford excellent camping, and despite their proximity to the Sawtooths and heaps of busy spots around Stanley, the White Clouds are even farther off the radar, making this a great weekend outing!

Trailhead: Fourth of July TH (White Clouds Wilderness; across the road and approximately 20min on gravel from Hell Roaring Creek TH in the Sawtooth Wilderness)

Distance: 5.7mi / 9.1km return

Elevation gain: 1014ft / 309m

Trail time: 2hrs

Highlights: easy hike that’s perfect for a rest-day or half-day in the Sawtooths (although technically this hike is in the neighbouring White Clouds Wilderness!); 2 swimmable lakes with camping

Alice Lake Toxaway Loop best hikes in Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
Alice Lake

13 | Alice Lake

As one of the most popular hikes in the Sawtooths (and truly, popular for a reason), Alice Lake boasts the kind of mountainous backdrop that instantly made me think of Banff and famously photogenic Moraine Lake. And if the snow-capped range behind a sparkling lake wasn’t enough to convince you, the varied scenery along the trail, including El Capitan’s dramatic summit, should be more than enough!

From the Tin Cup Hiker Trailhead on Petit Lake, you’ll ascend fairly steeply to Alice Lake over the course of about 3hrs, all the while enjoying a kaleidoscope of wildflowers and ever-improving alpine scenery. It’s neither the easiest nor the hardest hike on this list, but thanks to the well-maintained trail and easy route-finding, anyone in reasonable shape can make it to the lake at their own pace. 

Only because I’m so averse to busy trailheads and crowded lakes, I wouldn’t recommend Alice to weekend or holiday hikers short on time as highly as I might otherwise— it’s so easy to escape the masses in the Sawtooths that it doesn’t make sense to seek out one of the few hotspots during extremely busy times.

That being said, if you can visit mid-week during the early season, the expansive shores of Alice Lake are more than enough to swallow the noise (and sight) of limited hikers; or better STILL, hike onwards from Alice Lake to complete the entire Alice-Toxaway Loop (details below) and you’ll quickly find vistas even MORE spectacular without any of the people!

Trailhead: Tin Cup Hiker Trailhead (Pettit Lake Campground)

Distance: 12.2mi / 19.7km return

Elevation gain: 1808ft / 551m

Trail time: 5hrs

Highlights: jaw-dropping lake beneath half-a-dozen snow-capped peaks and the dramatic El Capitan; heaps of lake-front camping; well-maintained trail with excellent views

Alice Lake Toxaway Loop best hikes in Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
Approaching the pass above Twin Lakes

14 | Alice-Toxaway Loop

Of all the hundreds of miles of incredible trails within the Sawtooth Wilderness, the Alice-Toxaway Loop is a real standout. This 20+ mile route takes you over high mountain passes, along the shore of no fewer than 8 alpine lakes, and showcases the kind of insane mountain scenery that really makes you wonder how the Sawtooths fly so far under the radar.

There are countless spectacular campsites along the loop, as well as dozens of spur trails to more remote lakes and high vistas, so most choose to backpack over 2-4 days. Among the many worthwhile side trips recommended to us, Edna and Edith Lakes are high on our list for a return adventure, and we were most impressed by the quiet camping at Twin Lakes, a world away from bustling Alice and yet just as magical.

For those short on time, you can definitely manage Alice-Toxaway in one long day. It took us just over 10hrs, including breaks, and we preferred hiking clockwise for a more gradual descent (although it seems like anticlockwise would have afforded slightly better views without having to turn around)— just make sure you allow plenty of time to swim and soak in the view!

Trailhead: Tin Cup Hiker Trailhead (Pettit Lake Campground)

Distance: 20.6mi / 33.2km loop

Elevation gain: 3267ft / 996m

Trail time: 10hrs

Highlights: countless alpine lakes, many of which are very quiet and untouched thanks to most hikers turning around at Alice; incredible views over Twin Lakes nearing the pass; stunning mountain scenery at Toxaway; dozens of awesome side-trips and spur trails to extend your loop

Pioneer Cabin hike Ketchum Idaho
Pioneer Cabin

15 | Pioneer Cabin & Long Gulch Loop

Leaving the Sawtooths for one final hike in the region, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to feature this awesome day hike near Ketchum, Idaho, a continual climb into the Pioneer Range for breathtaking views of Idaho’s snowy peaks. 

The mountains here don’t have the same drama as you’ll find farther north, but with a final vista set behind the old Sun Valley Company cabin, built in the 1930s for ski touring and modelled after huts in the alps, the view couldn’t be any more magical. You can even stay in Pioneer Cabin overnight with no advance planning (although prepare to fight others for the privilege during busy summer weekends), and there’s a charming woodfire stove providing heat to the somewhat dilapidated interior of this local historical site.

You can access Pioneer Cabin out and back via a designated trail, but I recommend making this a loop by connecting to the Long Gulch trail— it adds only a little time and mileage to the journey, but offers a change of scenery rather than ascending and descending the same route. I also found the wildflowers to be far more spectacular on this less popular trail! From the shared trailhead, head up the Long Gulch trail to Pioneer Cabin, which should take around 3hrs, and then continue down via the traditional trail for a clockwise loop.

Trailhead: Pioneer Cabin Trailhead (off Forest Road 137 in Ketchum)

Distance: 8.8mi / 14.2km loop

Elevation gain: 3018ft / 920m

Trail time: 5hrs

Highlights: steep hike with excellent views; wonderful seasonal wildflowers; charming historic cabin available for overnight stays

Baron Cramer Lakes backpacking best hikes Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
Waterfall into Middle Cramer Lake

*Important information for hiking in the Sawtooths

Best time to hike in the Sawtooths

Weather varies widely from year to year, but typically June to September is considered to be the ideal hiking window in the Sawtooths.

Early in the season (June to early July), there’s likely to be snow covering many of the high passes and peaks, but again, this is super variable— last year, there was still significant snow-pack at Baron Divide in mid-July (and we were advised to bring ice axes), but there wasn’t a single snow patch in that same spot this June.

If the weather cooperates, I personally think June is the best time to hike in the Sawtooths, since there’s hardly anyone competing for campsites around Stanley, the trails are even quieter than usual, and there’s still plenty of snow on top of the peaks, which makes for the most spectacular scenery!

We actually appreciated there being some snow on the higher trails, too, since it seemed to scare less-experienced hikers off and kept things extra quiet— we met several couples who turned around above Twin Lakes on the Alice-Toxaway Loop due to fear of descending 10min on packed snow, as well as 2 different groups who didn’t make it past the first snowfield on Thompson Peak, both of which were super manageable for anyone with even a modicum of mountaineering experience.

Note that mosquitos are VERY bad from around mid-June to the end of July (again, varies by year) and I came back from backpacking with about 200 oozing blisters covering my entire body. Don’t mess around: bring a boatload of DEET, cover up at night, and make sure your tent is free of holes!

Baron Cramer Lakes backpacking best hikes Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
All those black smudges on the blue sky? BUGS

Permits for hiking in the Sawtooths

Technically speaking, permits are required for ALL hikes (including day hikes and backpacking trips) in the Sawtooth Wilderness, but these permits are entirely free and self-issued at the trailhead or as you enter the Wilderness (sometimes 1-2mi from the trailhead).

The only exception is groups of 8+, which must check in with the ranger station prior to departure, but otherwise there is NO need for an advanced permit on ANY of the hikes listed here, nor is there a fee associated with using the trails or camping within the Wilderness— part of what makes this area so special is the complete lack of red tape!

Leave No Trace in the Sawtooths

As with every outdoor adventure, and particularly those within protected areas, it is critical that you take steps to reduce human impact on the environment when hiking in the Sawtooths.

All of the hikes included in this post cross into Wilderness areas (primarily the Sawtooth Wilderness, but also the White Cloud or Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness), which is the highest level of protection public land can receive.

Essentially, that means that there are:

  • no motor vehicles or bikes permitted within the Wilderness
  • strict requirements for the disposal of human waste (100ft from water, buried in cathodes 6-8in deep & pack out ALL toilet paper)
  • fire restrictions or fire bans in place through much of the year (see below)
  • limitations on where you can bring dogs (as well as when they have to be leashed; typically from 1 July to Labour Day)

Respect these rules and help keep the Sawtooths pristine! Consult the hand-out below or the Forest Service website for further information.

Sawtooth Wilderness Regulations

General safety in the Sawtooths

  • WEATHER: As with most mountain ranges, weather in the Sawtooths can be unpredictable and it’s important to prepare for rain, high wind, or sudden drops in temperature by bringing appropriate gear on all of your hikes. Be sure to check the latest forecast before departing, especially if you plan to summit a peak.
  • BEARS: Although we didn’t see any either this year or last, there are a number of black bears in the Sawtooths, which means you’ll need to store food in odour-proof containers or hang it away from your tent to avoid attracting unwanted visitors. For more information on how to minimise the risk of a bear encounter, check out this helpful post from the Forest Service.
  • RECEPTION: Unsurprisingly, mobile reception is extremely limited within the Sawtooth Wilderness, and therefore it’s advisable to carry a PLB (I personally use a Garmin In-Reach Mini) in the unlikely event of emergency.
  • NAVIGATION: There’s an amazing network of maintained trails within the Sawtooth Wilderness, but just as many informal or off-trail routes where navigation skills are necessary. I’d highly recommend paying for the PRO version of AllTrails ($29/yr) so that you can download and navigate off all the maps included in this post— several of these hikes have no trail signs and don’t appear on any official map, but I recorded (or retroactively mapped) our routes and uploaded it to the app so that other hikers can benefit from our wild bushwalking!
Alice Lake Toxaway Loop best hikes in Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
Twin Lakes on the Alice-Toxaway Loop

*Travel guide to Stanley, Idaho & the Sawtooths

Getting to the Sawtooths

The Sawtooth Mountains are located in Central Idaho in the upper corner of the American Rockies, flanked by Montana to the north, Wyoming to the east, and Oregon to the west.

While much of their beauty is owed to the remoteness of the range, it can also make it complicated to visit the Sawtooths without driving across the state! The closest international airport is 5.5hrs away in Salt Lake City, Utah, and unfortunately Idaho’s domestic airports aren’t much closer (3hrs from either Boise or Twin Falls). Still, the Sawtooths are more than worth the effort to reach.

The nearest town and your ideal base for exploring the Sawtooths is Stanley, Idaho, just north of the more popular (but still incredibly small) ski resort town of Sun Valley.

All of the hikes on this list are easily accessible from Stanley, most within minutes, and it’s a charming one-street town with heaps of free and established campgrounds, surprisingly good restaurants, a tiny general store, and amazing views.

Stanley Idaho Sawtooth Mountains best alpine lake hikes
Driving into the Sawtooths

Where to stay in the Sawtooths

Hotels & lodges in Stanley, Idaho

  • Redfish Lake Lodge: As the pre-eminent accommodation in the Sawtooths, Redfish Lodge situated right on the shores of the lake is as much a centre for recreation, food, and public services as it as a place to stay, but you truly can’t beat the convenience and atmosphere of their on-site cabins.
  • Redfish Riverside Inn: For a more low-key (but no less scenic) experience, this amazing riverfront property offers modest but extremely comfortable rooms overlooking the Salmon River. I stayed here for a number of days in the winter last year and was very impressed by the friendly staff and cozy accommodation!

Established campgrounds in the Sawtooths

There are heaps of established campgrounds operated by the Forest Service near Redfish Lake, each providing basic amenities and charging about $18 per site.

Advance reservations are required at Glacier View, Point, and Redfish Outlet Campgrounds, but Mt. Heyburn and Sockeye Campgrounds operate on a first-come/first-serve basis— during the busy summer months, I would not count on finding a spot unless you arrive midweek and get lucky. Consequently, I’d really recommend advance reservations OR checking out the amazing dispersed camping in the area (more on this below).

For more information on the established campgrounds near Redfish Lake, check out this super detailed article from the lodge.  

There are also SO MANY Forest Service campgrounds located just beyond Redfish Lake, such as Sunny Gulch, Stanley Lake, and Elk Creek. I couldn’t possibly begin to list all of the campgrounds with detailed information here, but check out this page on the Forest Service site for an overview of all the available sites within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area!

The best free camping in the Sawtooths

I’ve hardly found better dispersed (free!) camping anywhere in the country than in Stanley, Idaho— the Sawtooths are just overflowing with amazing sites to park your van or pitch your tent. There are obviously no amenities, but the scenery and seclusion can’t be beat!

  • Our favourite campsite in the Sawtooths and top recommendation for vanlifers is along Nip and Tuck Road, which winds out of Stanley and up into the hills overlooking the entire range. If you can score one of the prime spots, the views are absolutely spectacular, and although the wind can be annoying for tents, it does wonders to keep the bugs away (a worthy trade-off, in my mind!). There are also heaps of non-view sites along Nip and Tuck, so you can usually find something up this way even if it’s not the grand view. Reception is intermittent but decent enough in most spots. 
  • Heading south just 5min from Redfish Lake and then turning right towards the Salmon River, there are about a dozen sites situated on the shore that offer awesome water access, great privacy, and even some shade. 
  • Similarly, you can head about 5min north of Redfish Lake along the Salmon River, beyond the FS Sunny Gulch Campground, and find several dozen dispersed camping sites to choose from. 

You can find a GPS marker for all of these campsites on a downloadable Google Map at the top of this post, but know that there are WAY more sites than what I’ve actually pinned. Just head to the general area described above you and will discover heaps of options!

For a more comprehensive overview of sites and updates on current conditions, check out iOverlander, our go-to for campsites worldwide.

best free camping in the Sawtooth
Free camping in the Sawtooths

Facilities & amenities in the Sawtooths

  • GENERAL STORE: The Mountain Village Mercantile stocks some grocery items, a wide range of alcohol, BBQ fixins, toiletries, limited first-aid, and other last-minute camping supplies. The prices are pretty high on food (and the selection is crazy slim), so I’d recommend stocking up on groceries before you get to Stanley and relying on the general store only for small items or drinks.
  • FUEL: The only place to get fuel directly in Stanley is at the Sinclair operated by Mountain Village Resort (which also operates the small general store described above, as well as a free water-refill station described below). The price of fuel is a little higher than you’ll find in larger towns like Ketchum, but still fairly reasonable; pumps are open 24hrs.
  • WATER: For those with van or RV water tanks, there are several spots to fill water in Stanley, including for FREE at Mountain Village Resort, just to the right of the General Store, and at the Forest Service-operated dump station outside of the Public Services shower block mentioned below. Note that this second location does charge a $5 fee for dumping, but it’s unclear whether this also applies to water fill; payment can be made via cash or check in the box on-site.
  • SHOWERS: Redfish Lodge maintains a block of public showers and toilets, accessible and clearly signed on your right as you drive towards the lake. A 5min hot shower costs just $2, payable in quarters; there’s a change machine on-sight, but note that it only accepts $1 or $5 bills (the general store at Redfish Lake will happily break large bills).
  • LAUNDRY: Within the same “Public Services” building as the showers, Redfish Lodge also maintains a public laundromat, where you can wash and dry clothes for $2.50 each ($5 to both wash and dry, also payable in quarters).
Cramer Lakes backpacking best hikes Sawtooth Mountains Idaho
En route to Cramer Lakes

Where to eat in the Sawtooths

  • Sawtooth Luce’s: Excellent local spot in downtown Stanley with plentiful outdoor seating and awesome burgers
  • Stanley Baking Co.: Fantastic bakery offering to-go coffee, baked goods, and sit-down brekky every day until 2pm; try the sourdough pancakes for a real treat!
  • Papa Brunee’s: Surprisingly awesome pizza spot in downtown Stanley with heaps of inventive menu options, as well as build-your-own pizzas
  • Kasino Club: Local bar and popular summer hangout among tourists and young seasonal workers in Stanley; on Thursdays in the summer, the Kasino Club hosts an awesome “street dance” from 630-10pm with cheap eats, cold drinks, and live music that’s not to be missed!
  • Mountain Village Resort: Standard pub fare and good tap beer selection across from the Mountain Village general store and fuel station
  • Redfish Lake Lodge: The Lodge on Redfish Lake has several dining options, including the outdoor Lakeside Grill serving up inexpensive burgers and tacos, the more formal restaurant, and the indoor lounge; we can definitely recommend the burgers and the cocktail specials from the bar, although the draught beer is somewhat limited
  • Stanley Supper Club: The only restaurant on this list that we haven’t actually visited ourselves, SSC was recommended by just about every local we spoke to and therefore it seemed wrong to exclude; family-style meals at a slightly higher price than other spots in town, but we were assured it was well worth it!
Kirkham Hotsprings Stanley Idaho
Kirkham Hot Springs

Other awesome things to do in the Sawtooths

  • HOT SPRINGS: There are a ridiculous quantity of natural (free!) hot springs located right outside of the Sawtooths, some as close as 10min from Stanley. Kirkham is my very favourite, due to the riverside location and large rock pools (pictured above; 1hr from Stanley), but I’d also recommend Boat Box (5min), Sunbeam (15min), and the less-busy Cove Hot Springs (10min) as closer options.
  • WHITE WATER RAFTING: With the mighty Salmon River roaring right through the Sawtooths, there’s tons of white water fun to be had, particularly during the early summer when snowmelt raises the river’s water level. Check out The River Company for tours departing Stanley.
  • ROCK CLIMBING: In addition to amazing alpine climbing, the Sawtooths also boast some of the state’s best rock climbing! Check out Mountain Project for info on local crags or join a tour with Sawtooth Mountain Guides.
  • BOATING: Redfish Lake in the heart of the Sawtooths offers infinite options in terms of boating and aquatic activities, and the Marina even rents motor boats, SUPs, kayaks, and canoes at a reasonable price.