As the boat rounded a bend in Redfish Lake, an alpine paradise appeared before my eyes, and all the weariness of a nine-hour drive from Spokane evaporated in the excitement of discovery.
“People call that the Gates of Heaven,” said our boat driver of the massive valley that had just come into view.
It’s an apt name.
The right side of the valley is anchored by the 10,112-foot Mount Heyburn. On the left sits the 9,734-foot Grand Mogul. Two domineering sentries guarding the entrance to this federally protected slice of paradise.
With recent plans of climbing Washington’s Mount Rainier dashed by weather, I found myself in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains instead.
And while it’s a bit of a drive, those who make the trek will be rewarded with an abundance of recreational opportunities in a pristine setting that, for anyone used to the summer crowds in Washington’s Cascades, will feel downright lonely.
With more than 700 miles of trails, hikers can walk into the backcountry on short day trips, simple overnight trips or multiple-day odysseys. For rock and alpine climbers, the area’s 40 peaks taller than 10,000 feet offer high-quality rock, ice and snow climbing.
Similarly, anglers can hike to one of the more than 300 alpine lakes and fish for cutthroat and rainbow trout. And mountain bikers will find numerous high-quality trails in the non-wilderness portions of the recreation area.
For river rats the Salmon, Big Wood, Boise and Payette rivers all boast world-class rafting. Guides offer day and multi-day trips.
And the 756,000-acres that comprise the recreation area mean there is plenty of room for everyone.
“I’ve been back in there a lot and it’s never felt overly crowded to me,” said Jeff Clegg, the general manager of the Redfish Lodge. “It’s still vast enough and remote enough that we’re not anything like what you’d find in the Cascades.”
Hiking from Redfish
My climbing and hiking partners and I spent three days in the Sawtooth Wilderness. We accessed it from Redfish Lake, taking a $16 round-trip boat shuttle from Redfish Lodge to the southern end of the lake. There is a trail that skirts the edge of the lake, but the shuttle cuts out five miles of hiking.
The shuttle deposits travelers at the Redfish Lake Inlet campground, which is possibly the swankiest roadless campground I’ve ever seen. The boat shuttle means the campground is a great option for families with small children, or those looking for a simple and relaxing outdoor experience with most of the comforts of home.
The campground has vault toilets, tables and covered areas. However, it retains the wilderness-feel of a roadless area paired with the easy access of car camping (On our return trip we swapped places with two families with small children heading into the campground with enough coolers, tents and bags to survive a week. They were spending the night).
But we didn’t stay long at the campground, instead following the beautiful trail through it to the wilderness boundary. There we filled out the mandatory wilderness permits and hiked up as the trail parallels, roughly, Redfish Lake Creek.
About three miles along the trail we found a nice spot near the creek and set up camp. From there we spent the next several days climbing and hiking.
One particularly notable hike took us up to Alpine Lake on Trail 101. This is commonly done as a day hike from the Redfish Lake Inlet Campground. From the campground, it’s a 10-mile out-and-back hike. Hikers gain a bit more than 2,000 feet. But the views, first of the valley and surrounding peaks, and then of Alpine Lake make any elevation gain more than worth it.
From Alpine Lake the trail continues to upper and lower Baron lakes. If doing this from the Inlet campground this adds another five miles and 1,000 feet to the entire trip. We started to hit snow after Alpine Lake.
From the Baron lakes Trail 101 continues north and then works its way west and connects with many other trails.
After hiking to Alpine Lake, we spent the rest of the day near our camp preparing for a longer alpine climb the following day. We dozed by the creek, battled mosquitoes and generally enjoyed the idle nature of a wilderness rest day.
At 5 a.m. we walked south toward Saddleback Lakes. We spent the next 12 hours climbing and then descending Elephant’s Perch, a distinctive granite face with peerless climbing. After an adventurous descent featuring snow fields, cliffs and unplanned rappels, we returned to camp, packed and raced down the trail hoping to make the final 7 p.m. boat shuttle back across the lake to a hot meal and a cold beer.
While it seemed a shame to race through our final moments in the Sawtooths, hunger and thirst drove us. We made it with about 10 minutes to spare.
After three days we were beat and felt as if we’d gotten a good sampling of what the Sawtooths offer.
In reality, we’d just scratched the surface.
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“The mountain biking is epic,” said Clegg, the general manager of the Redfish Lodge. “Perhaps the most popular overall recreation activity is mountain biking.”
While mountain biking is prohibited in wilderness areas, because it’s a recreation area there are numerous trails. According to the MTB Project there are 306 miles of bike trails in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
Clegg recommends the 17.7-mile Fisher Creek Loop. Roughly half of that loop is single-track trail with a total ascent/descent of 2,000 feet.
The loop starts south of Redfish Lake off Highway 75 at the Williams Creek trailhead. This is just one of the many trails and loops in the area.
For more information contact Sawtooth Adventure at 866-774-4644.
The fishing for cutthroat and rainbow trout, particularly in the alpine lakes, is also a big draw, Clegg said.
“The fishing is really terrific on the upper mountain lakes,” he said. “It’s great on the Salmon River (too).”
An Idaho fishing license is required. Visit idfg.idaho.gov/licenses.
For more information contact Sawtooth Mountain Guides at 208-806-3063.
Redfish Lake itself isn’t great for fishing. But it has a unique, and sad, piscine history. It’s named for the thousands upon thousands of sockeye salmon that used to migrate there from the Pacific Ocean.
“Redfish Lake is the farthest inland destination of the sockeye salmon from the Pacific Ocean.” Clegg said.
Dams have decimated those numbers. Some years no fish show up. Some years only a single one, Clegg said.
No story about the Sawtooths would be complete without a mention of the rafting opportunities. Whether it’s a day trip or a multi-day float down the Salmon, there are plenty of rafting opportunities.
Visit one of the numerous rafting companies in Stanley to look at rates and itineraries. Coeur d’Alene-based ROW Adventures also offers trips down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and the main stem.
Other recreation events of note include horseback riding, climbing and stand-up paddleboarding on Redfish Lake.
Rentals and guides are available at the lodge or in Stanley.
Clegg recommends spending a minimum of three days. That will give people a representative taste of what the Sawtooths have to offer.
“I think two days isn’t enough,” he said. “It takes too long to get here.”
And while many of the activities do cost a fair bit of money, Clegg emphasized that for someone on a budget there are plenty of options.
“Come in and freewheel it on your own,” he said.