A year after my first backpacking trip in the Sawtooth Mountains, I returned to Idaho for another family visit. I was still a little annoyed that Dad, Jason, and I hadn’t made it to Hidden Lake the previous year, so I planned another assault into the mountains. I had learned my lesson about early season hiking in the mountains: there will be snow! This year our visit fell at the beginning of August and the snowpack was likely to be insignificant or gone. Unfortunately, Jason wasn’t able to come and my other siblings didn’t want to join Dad and me on this adventure. To each their own, but I think they missed out!
Specs: 26.1 mi | +4900′ / -5200′ | 3 days, 2 nights
Difficulty: Class 1 [learn more]
Permits and Regulations: Permits are required for all overnight trips and are self-issued at all trailheads (there is no quota system here) for groups smaller than 8 people. Certain areas of the wilderness are designated no-campfire zones and, as always, you are expected to leave no trace! For more information, visit the Sawtooth National Forest website.
Resources: I have yet to find a great printed map of the Sawtooth Wilderness Area. If you’re willing to print your own, I highly recommend the interactive maps at CalTopo.com.
Pettit Lake to Toxaway Lake
12 August 2013 | 9.75 mi | +2397′ / -1000′ | View on Map
Dad and I arrived at Pettit Lake last night around 10 PM. We illuminated the campsite with the car’s headlights while we set up the tent and then turned them off and admired the stars. My first recollection of truly appreciating the night sky happened in the Sawtooth Mountains years and years ago – Grandpa woke my siblings and me one night when we were spending time at the family cabin and told us to go outside. The number of stars was incredible; there was practically more white than black in the sky. Before that moment, I thought I knew how to recognize constellations, but I realized I couldn’t pick out a single pattern in the sea of stars that night; there were just too many points of light! How any ancient people picked out discernable shapes up there remains a mystery to me. Last night was a similarly awesome star gazing experience. To add to the fun, the Perseid meteor shower is in full swing right now and we spotted dozens of meteors burning through the thermosphere.
I woke up this morning at sunrise to a gloriously chilly day. I set about cooking oatmeal on our little camp stove and try to get warm, but my hands stubbornly remain cold. Dad gets up while I eat and cooks his own oatmeal; we brought oatmeal for three days, so I really hope we don’t get sick of it!
The route I’ve planned for this trip is a little different than the route I planned last year. We’re still gunning for Hidden Lake, but we’re going to hike to Alice Lake, Twin Lakes, and Toxaway Lake first to see some new country.
Once Dad and I finish eating, we pack up camp and move the car to a spot next to the trailhead and began our trek. I bought a DSLR this summer – a Nikon d5100 – and have been happily taking advantage of the multitude of features it offers to document my summer. Despite its weight, I refuse to leave it at home; what’s the point of owning a nice camera if I can’t bring it with me to capture the most beautiful scenery in the world?
The morning air is chilly and we begin our hike with several layers on. Pettit Lake is smooth as glass and beautiful in the early morning light. The first several miles are relatively flat and we make great time. We soon warm up, stow the extra layers in our packs, and trek up into the mountains.
Although I’m not sure I realized it at the time, Dad and I didn’t do a great job packing our gear. Any of you experienced hikers can spot that instantly from these pictures. I have a heavy tent on the top of my pack instead of closer to my lower back, and the sleeping bags we packed are large, bulky, and prone to unraveling mid-hike. Additionally, I began the hike this morning with my camera bag hanging around my neck, but the swaying, bumping motion the bag made as I walked quickly grew old and I have now tied the bag to the pack frame on my hip belt with some bailing twine. This keeps the camera within reach and eliminates the pendulum motion.
We stop several times (well, many times…) to make adjustments to gear and rest. During one of our breaks, we enjoy a classic hiking lunch of peanut butter, jam, and tortillas, plus an assortment of trail mix and dried fruit.
The miles are tough and Dad and I begin to feel tired and frustrated but the beautiful sights distract us from the discomfort and make the whole ordeal worthwhile. We pass/cross a series of cascades flowing down open rock faces; there’s something charming and wild about these types of water features. Normally water flows through defined channels, but here it spreads out over large slabs. The trail climbs higher and higher toward a pass, granting panoramic views of the mountains and lakes. A smoky haze fills the air from a not-so-distant forest fire and obscures some of the further peaks from view.
By the time we crest the pass above Twin Lakes, the skies are beginning to darken. Dad and I increase our pace to lose altitude as quickly as possible. The last thing we want is to be stuck out in an open field of rock, on top of a mountain, in a thunderstorm. It begins to drizzle and then rain before we reach tree cover. We take a quick break under a lone tree to pull trash bags over our packs and don ponchos before continuing. Luckily, we soon reach the tree line and are sheltered from most of the droplets by the branches above. The rain doesn’t last long, however, and soon the sun is back out and ponchos are no longer necessary.
The rest of today’s hike is downhill and we soon reach our destination: Toxaway Lake. We waste no time dumping our heavy backpacks on the ground and free our aching feet from our hiking boots. I head for the shore, wade around in the cold water, and appreciate the numbing effect on my feet. After a good long break, we set up camp and cook dinner: rice with cheddar cheese and broccoli, and rice and beans, both courtesy of the instant rice selection at the supermarket. I wander around and take a few photos once I’ve eaten my fill; Dad opts for bed. The sun sets tonight through a smoky haze and casts a reddish glow over the entire landscape.
Dad and I wake up around 2 AM and spend an hour admiring the stars before crawling back to the warm comfort of our sleeping bags.
Toxaway Lake to Cramer Lakes
13 August 2013 | 9.61 mi | +2461′ / -2441′ | View on Map
I woke up at 6:30 this morning, once again to cool temperatures and crisp air. I cook up some more oatmeal for breakfast and turn the pot over to Dad once he wakes up. After eating, we break camp, pack up, and begin hiking again. Our route for today begins with an ascent to the top of the pass that defeated us last year. However, we’re approaching from the South instead of the East this time. Once we crest that pass, we’ll descend to Edna and Virginia Lakes and then take a side trail to Hidden Lake, which is a little over halfway to our final destination for the day. Another climb and another pass follow our visit to Hidden Lake, after which we’ll descend below Mt. Cramer to the trio of Cramer Lakes. There are bound to be some campsites nearby, and we’ll spend the night there.
The ascent to the first pass of the day is gradual and follows long switchbacks that snake up the mountainside. Each zigzag reveals better views of Toxaway Lake and the surrounding wilderness. Dad’s knees have been giving him some trouble, so he improvises as only a hiker can: he locates a smooth pole and uses it as a hiking stick, which reduces some of the stress on his knees. His hiking boots have also been rubbing uncomfortably against his feet, so he swaps them out for some flip-flops he brought to wear around camp. Honestly, I’m baffled that sandals are more comfortable than shoes, but he hikes the rest of the trip (15 – 20 miles!) in them.
Soon, the trail ends its switchbacks and begins to make forward progress across the ridge. Although not technically above treeline, the scenery becomes rockier and fewer trees dot the landscape. The terrain transitions from pine forest, to rocky scree, to sand at the top of the pass with a few gnarled Bristlecone Pines guarding the way. We rest for a while, eat some trail mix, and take in the view. Though there are a few clouds, the sun is shining and Dad and I are both in a great mood!
After our break, we make quick work of the switchbacks that descend from the pass. I’m excited to have finally crossed over the main ridgeline of the Sawtooth Mountains, and cannot wait to finally reach Hidden Lake. However, there are several other beautiful lakes en route to Hidden Lake. After descending from the pass, we again find ourselves surrounded by trees. Large boulders and rock outcroppings dot the landscape as well. We soon reach Edna Lake and pass several other hikers carrying fishing gear. Virginia Lake is a beautiful teal color and is surrounded by long reeds that rustle in the wind. I’d love to make another trip to this area and explore more of the lakes and valleys. There are hundreds of square miles of wilderness here, just waiting to be explored.
Dad and I encounter several large groups of people, which is a tad surprising as we’re at least 15 miles from the nearest trailhead. I’m used to crowds of day hikers in the frontcountry, but it’s a little odd to see so many in the backcountry. We continue on and take a branch of the trail from Virginia Lake to Hidden Lake. This path begins to climb again and gains back some of the altitude we lost descending from the pass earlier in the day. We can hear the outlet from Hidden Lake thundering nearby as we hike.
It’s lunch time when we reach the lake and we gladly take off our packs and rest. Hidden Lake is surrounded by grassy meadows near the outlet, which makes for a great place to lie down and relax. We munch on peanut butter, dried fruit, and tortillas while admiring the view.
After eating our fill, we begin the second big climb of the day up to the Cramer divide. A few horseback riders pass us on the trail, which seems almost like cheating. I’m sure you can travel a lot further on a horse with much less effort than backpacking. But that’s part of the appeal of backpacking: the suffering adds value to the experience. It wouldn’t be quite as rewarding to lie down at night if we hadn’t worn ourselves out climbing mountain passes. And there’s a certain amount of pride in completing a trek under your own strength and determination. That being said, everyone has their own goals here; hike your own hike!
As we crest the Cramer divide, the sun is sinking toward the horizon. There are still several hours of daylight left, but the tall peaks cast shadows on the valleys and lakes long before sunset. As with our first pass of the day, this pass is characterized by sandy soil, rocks galore, and a few ancient Bristlecone Pines. As we descend, the day’s miles are starting to take their toll and we stop next to an unnamed lake to refill our water bottles and sit for a while. Luckily, there are no storms threatening us today so we’re in no particular hurry.
Past the little, unnamed lake, the trail gradually descends to Upper Cramer Lake. We cross several small streams that flow into the lake and are fed from the snow that still lingers in the peaks above. The ground beneath our feet is spongy and soft and the trail cuts a deep rut through the turf. Small- to medium-sized boulders are scattered across the meadow and provide solid stepping options to cross the marshier sections. The view here is incredible – rocks, grass, trees, a lake, mountains, and clouds – I spend several minutes attempting to capture the moment with my camera.
As we continue down the trail, we begin searching for campsites near the lake. Leave No Trace principles prohibit camping on grass; the nylon tent floor suffocates the plants underneath and can eventually kill them. Camping on dirt and pine needles is perfectly fine, however, and there are plenty of these sites around too.
To minimize our weariness, we drop our packs near a promising site and then explore a bit without the extra weight. There is a beautiful waterfall between Upper and Middle Cramer Lakes and several excellent areas to camp on the shore nearby. We move our gear, set up camp and decide to take a swim. As we’re both still relatively new to the art of backpacking, we packed swimsuits (in addition to denim pants and cotton shirts…). We change into the suits and then Dad and I both jump in the lake and let the icy water work its magic on our aching muscles and joints. We don’t have the stamina to stay in for long, though, (it’s freezing!) and, after a short swim, wade out and start a fire to warm up and cook dinner.
Several more instant rice concoctions from the store make for a delicious meal and we’re soon happy campers. Both of us are feeling more energetic than last night and stay up for a while instead of going to bed. The alpenglow on the mountains above Upper Cramer Lake makes for a beautiful sight, and we enjoy watching the moon and stars appear in the night sky before finally calling it a night.
Cramer Lakes to Redfish Lake
August 14, 2013 | 6.77 mi | +36′ / -1800′ | View on Map
Another beautiful sunrise this morning! The smoky haze in the air creates some incredible crepuscular rays over the mountains; I suppose there are perks to smoky air! Dad and I repeat our morning ritual of cooking oatmeal over the camp stove and pack up camp when we’re finished eating. Today’s itinerary is very straightforward: hike down the trail to Redfish Lake. There are no passes to cross, just a steady descent.
Today’s hike is much less enjoyable than the previous two days. Though it’s difficult to nail down the exact cause, there are a myriad of possible explanations. The excitement of hiking into the wilderness has faded and every step brings us closer to the end of the trip. Several days of hiking have taken their toll on our feet, legs, hips, backs, and shoulders, and the pain has grown more acute and annoying. Finally, the majority of today’s trek takes place deep in the forest without very many exciting views. My lack of enthusiasm makes it difficult to ignore the discomforts of the trail and creates an emotional negative feedback loop.
In retrospect, I should have taken a few moments to beat the blues. One of my favorite hiking podcasts, “The First 40 Miles,” recently released an episode about how to beat this kind of “baditude” on the trail. This is a lesson I’m still struggling to internalize: to accept the unavoidable suffering and focus on enjoying the sights, sounds, smells, and experiences that one can only find on the trail.
Our original route had us walking the length of Redfish Lake back to the lodge, but Dad and I decide to take the ferry and shave off four or five miles and several hours of hiking. My grandfather gives us a lift from Redfish back to our car at Pettit Lake and we caravan to a little Mexican restaurant. After days of eating dehydrated and freeze-dried meals, we very much enjoy the fresh, hot food. Backpacking is one of those curious sports that draws you back again and again, despite the certainty of some discomfort and pain. I’m sure I’ll be back to explore more of the beautiful Sawtooth Wilderness in the future.