By Michael Lanza
Chances are that, by now, you’ve heard of Idaho’s Sawtooths—having typed that name into a search box may be the reason you’ve landed on this story. Maybe you’ve been intrigued at what you’ve heard or images you’ve seen from Idaho’s best-known mountain range. Perhaps you’ve even been there and the experience has only amplified your curiosity to see more of this range.
As someone who’s had the good fortune of having backpacked all over the country and in many other countries over the past three-plus decades, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog, I rank the Sawtooths among the 10 best backpacking trips in America.
I’ve wandered around the Sawtooths at least a couple dozen times over more than two decades, including numerous backpacking trips, dayhikes, peak scrambles, rock climbing, and backcountry skiing. While there remain peaks on my list to climb, a few trails to hike, and many lakes to leap into (or just sit beside), the Sawtooths have become my backyard mountains. I feel at home there.
This story presents the five reasons I think every backpacker should take a multi-day hike through the Sawtooths—spotlighting the characteristics of a trip there that make this place unique. I believe this argument may persuade you to go (if, somehow, the photos don’t do it).
See my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains” to learn all you need to know to plan and pull off a five-day, 36-mile Sawtooths hike through the core of the Sawtooths, and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan every detail of a multi-day hike there.
Please share your thoughts or experiences there in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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1. It’s Not That Hard
Having backpacked all over the country and in many other countries, I recognize how friendly the Sawtooths are to relatively inexperienced backpackers, starting with generally well-maintained and well-marked trails that rarely get very steep, having been constructed for pack animals like horses and llamas.
Elevations remain moderate. Most passes crossed by trails rise just over 9,000 feet, a height that most people acclimate to quickly. And as with many interior West mountain ranges, summer brings stable weather and blessedly few mosquitoes after July.
See the best of the Sawtooths using my expert e-guide to the best backpacking trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains!
2. These Peaks Will Kind of Blow You Away
For years after moving to Idaho in 1998, with each trip I took into a new corner of the Sawtooths, I’d discover a spot that I was convinced was prettier than anyplace I’d been previously in this range. That happened to me several times, until I’d covered a fair bit of the Sawtooths and settled on the general conclusion that these peaks and mountain lakes are as beautiful as almost any range I’ve been in—certainly in the American West.
The Sawtooths look like a little sibling of the High Sierra or Tetons for their serrated skylines and mountain lakes that compare in beauty (if not in numbers) with the Sierra and Wind River Range.
A total of 57 summits top 10,000 feet in the Sawtooth Mountains, and nearly 400 trout-filled alpine lakes, many sitting well over 8,000 feet, shimmer in high bowls sculpted by long-ago glaciers. The range lies protected within the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which encompasses the equally beautiful White Cloud Mountains across the Sawtooth/Salmon River Valley, and most of the range is designated wilderness.
In other words: There’s plenty of space to wander around.
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3. Yes, You Can Find Solitude
As happened in many—if not most—backcountry areas across the country, the pandemic summer of 2020 brought a big leap in the numbers of backpackers in the Sawtooths. Friends and readers of The Big Outside reported to me about seeing more people than expected or more than they’d seen on any previous trip there.
Still, those reports and my personal experience point to a certain reality that’s true in many backcountry areas: Most backpacker use is heavily concentrated around weekends in August and within a day’s hike of a few popular trailheads. Hike midweek during the peak summer season or after Labor Day, or venture into lesser-known areas more than a day’s hike into the mountains, and you can often find a surprising degree of solitude.
Some readers who purchase my custom trip planning will tell me they prefer to get away from the crowds—and are willing to compromise a bit on mountain splendor for solitude. But that’s not necessary in the Sawtooths, as one reader who I helped plan a trip there discovered. After it, he emailed me describing his shock at how few people he saw and posted this comment at my Custom Trip Planning page: “Just back from an amazing 5-day trip in the Sawtooth Mountains. Michael took the time to understand my priorities, goals, and comfort level and crafted a route that was clearly tailored uniquely to me. Most important, Michael’s itinerary was significantly different from—and better than—anything I would have come up with on my own.”
See my “12 Expert Tips for Finding Solitude When Backpacking.”
I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip in the Sawtooths.
Want my help with yours? Find out more here.
4. No Red Tape
Unlike in national parks and more popular national forest wildernesses (in the High Sierra and elsewhere), no permit reservation is required for backcountry camping in the Sawtooths. You show up, fill out a permit at a self-service trailhead kiosk, and hit the trail.
That’s very appealing for backpackers who don’t always plan their trips months in advance in order to apply for a permit reservation; or who may have done that but struck out getting a permit somewhere else; or who find themselves changing plans due to wildfires—a regular summer occurrence these days—or another reason.
And the Sawtooths represent a pretty darn good consolation prize if your first trip fell through.
After the Sawtooths, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
5. There’s a Lot to See
A network of almost 350 miles of trails presents myriad opportunities for exploring the Sawtooth Wilderness on backpacking trips ranging from easy to ambitious—from the relatively accessible trails we hiked on the two trips described in this story, to more remote footpaths deeper in the wilderness, such as the 57-mile hike a friend and I took that I wrote about in this story.
See all stories about backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains at The Big Outside, including these:
“The Best of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Backpacking Redfish to Pettit”
“Jewels of the Sawtooths: Backpacking to Alice, Hell Roaring, and Imogene Lakes”
“The Best Hikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooths”
“Going After Goals: Backpacking Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains”
“Roof of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Hiking Thompson Peak”
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
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