Hiking to Sawtooth Lake and Alpine Lake in Idaho
My son and I arrived at the turn for Alpine Lake high in the Sawtooth Wilderness at the same time as a couple. We all debated: Take the short, downhill walk to Alpine Lake now, or do it on the way back — after completing the steep final climb to Sawtooth Lake.
I decided to wait. If I visited one lake, would I still be determined to reach the top?
The woman shared my concern but the man took a different approach: Maybe the first lake would be good enough.
We kept climbing. They turned. We never saw them again — presumably because they joined the group of folks who begin the hike to Sawtooth Lake, the largest lake in the wilderness area, but settle for the colorful beauty of Alpine Lake.
“The first time I went up there, I did the same thing,” said Casey Higgs, a customer service representative for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and avid trail user. “Either way, it’s nice. It is cool that you can hit two lakes on that same trail.”
The round trip to Sawtooth Lake is roughly 10 miles with 1,650 feet of elevation gain. The round trip to Alpine Lake is about 8 miles with about 1,100 feet of elevation gain, so it’s easy to see why some folks stop.
But in this case, it’s definitely worth the extra climb. And you’ll know that almost immediately because of the painting-worthy views of Alpine Lake from above.
Then you arrive at Sawtooth Lake, where a short walk along the shore to your left opens the view to Mt. Regan, which seems to sprout right out of the lake. It’s windier and cooler than Alpine, which seems like a better hangout. But the striking visuals and feeling of being on a plateau more than 8,400 feet up into the iconic Sawtooths are unforgettable.
Alpine Lake sits in a bowl below Alpine Peak. Its blue-and-green water is so clear that you can see the bottom of the lake from the trail above. Find a comfy boulder on the lakeshore and hang out as long as you can. My 10-year-old discovered a depression in a rock that was almost like a chair. He took a photo so he could remember the spot when he takes his kids there someday (his ultimate compliment for a place we visit).
Had we gone there first, he probably wouldn’t have agreed to continue to Sawtooth Lake, either.
The Sawtooth Lake hike begins at the Iron Creek Trailhead, which is about a 2 hour, 45 minute drive from Boise. Take Idaho 21 through Idaho City toward Stanley. A few miles west of Stanley, turn right onto Forest Service road 619 toward Iron Creek. The dirt road takes you to the trailhead. There’s first-come, first-served camping available, too.
Fill out a wilderness permit at the trailhead, which has the last vault toilet you’ll see until you return. The first 3 miles of the hike are relatively flat and easy. You’ll cross into the wilderness area (special fire regulations, dogs must be on leash in summer, no drones or bikes) at 1.15 miles. There are a couple of trail junctions with signs directing the way. The sign at the Stanley Lake junction is difficult to read; go left for Sawtooth and Alpine lakes.
The last 2 miles of the hike are steep and rocky with sweeping views and creek crossings where you should be able to keep your feet dry. There was still snow on the trail in a few places last week but it can be avoided. When you get to Sawtooth Lake, be sure to walk along the shoreline far enough to get the better view.
We hiked for about 3 hours each direction, including our stop at Alpine Lake on the return. We spent another hour-plus between lunch on the trail and wandering around the Sawtooth Lake area, for a total outing of more than 7 hours. We drove over from Boise in the morning, so it’s doable as a single-day trip, but we camped afterward. I’d definitely recommend camping nearby the night before and hiking earlier in the day before it gets hot.
“In this area, it’s one of the staple hikes,” Higgs said. “It’s scenic the whole way.”