Exploring the Sawtooth's largest Alpine Lake


One of Stanley’s more popular wilderness destinations didn’t earn its reputation for being hard on the eyes. The trailhead at Iron Creek is packed most summer days. Don't be surprised to see license plates from all over the country at this popular Idaho Destination. I hadn't visited Sawtooth Lake in quite a few years. Though being a relatively short hike, I prefer more solitude with my wilderness. However, I decided to make my return this summer and was reminded of what makes this spot popular.

Green trees and Sawtooth mountains in the spring Stanley, ID | Stanley Chambers

There is something magical about Sawtooth Lake. The mystery of the deep blue and turquoise waters, the painted wildflower meadows, the snow banked granite pyramid, known as Mt. Reagan; even the mosquitos seem less obnoxious among this alpine dreamscape. No need to put on your hiking boots just yet. Just sit back and follow along on this virtual tour.

Sawtooth Lake in Stanley, ID | Stanley Chambers

The route to Sawtooth Lake begins at the Iron Creek trailhead. Leaving the parking lot into the lodgepole pine, the trail gains little elevation for the first 1.2 miles, at which point the trail comes to a junction. This is the intersection with the trail known as the Alpine Way. This 18-mile route joins Redfish Lake and Stanley Lake across the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains. To reach Sawtooth Lake, take a right. Leaving the junction, the trail grazes the edge of an open meadow at the base of the rocky cliffs below Alpine peak and then turns northbound where it meets another trail junction(1.8 miles). Alpine Way continues to Stanley Lake on the right. For Sawtooth Lake, turn left, westbound, up the Iron Creek drainage, skirting the base of a steep ridge. As the trail starts gaining in elevation, the forest is now dominated by Douglas Fir. Bitterbrush, snow brush, sagebrush and summer wildflowers drape the open slopes. At 2.9 miles the trail fords Iron Creek. There are plenty of logs and stones strategically placed to keep your feet dry, however, high water might present a challenge. Across the creek, the trail opens to a meadow, filled with sego, paintbrush, and penstemon, nested below a serrated granite ridge, a tentacle of McGown Peak.

Sawtooth Lake in the spring Stanley, ID | Stanley Chambers

The trail continues up the adjacent ridge, reaching the junction for Alpine Lake at 3.8 miles. Alpine Lake is a short, worthwhile side trip, or a destination of its own. From here, the trail to Sawtooth Lake continues to zigzag up the mountain, offering a bird's eye view of Alpine Lake. At 4.5 miles, the trail levels out and passes by a small lake, below the outlet of the main lake. At the south end of the small lake, the trail forks again. The right fork will take you around the north side of the lake and over the divide into McGowan Lakes. The left fork passes a small tarn where Mt. Reagan comes into view above the cold waters of Sawtooth Lake. The rocky hill to the right makes for a nice spot to view the lake and Mt Reagan.

Sawtooth Lake dusted with snow in Stanley, ID | Stanley Chambers

Sawtooth Lake is the largest lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness area. Sitting at 8430 feet, the deep blue waters are juxtaposed by the granite pyramid named Mt. Reagan. The trail beyond the lake continues above the

east shore, through snow stunted whitebark pine and subalpine fir for 0.8 miles. At the south end of the lake, the trail breaks into an alpine meadow, filled with paintbrush, heather, shooting star, and marsh marigold, surrounding a stream fed by snowmelt from Mt. Regan. From here, the trail continues across a low hanging saddle and into the North Fork of Baron Creek. All water now flows into the South Fork of the Payette. The view from here is the prototypical Sawtooth vista, one that will imprint in your memory for years to come.

Sawtooth mountains Stanley, ID | Stanley Chambers

Sawtooth lake makes for a great day hike, overnighter, or a launch point for a multi-day backpacking trip. Maps, guidebooks and last minute snacks and gear can be found at one of Stanley's local retailers. Lace up your boots, strap on your pack and check Sawtooth Lake off your summer bucket list!

Flowers in full bloom at Sawtooth Lake Stanley, ID | Stanley Chambers

Blog and Photography by Adam Gulick