Top Hikes in the Sawtooth Mountains
Camping & Hiking expert Elizabeth H. shares her top hikes, mountain bike trails, and driving tours in the Sawtooth Mountains so you can plan the perfect adventure.
I had the awesome opportunity to spend the summer of 2020 living in beautiful Stanley, Idaho, population: 63! Well, the winter population is 63 people. In the summers, seasonal workers come to town in the hundreds to help cook, bartend, river guide, and sell gear to the tens of thousands of tourists that pass through each season. I myself was a baker at Stanley Baking Company, and if you stop by, you have to get a scone. Trust me, they’re good!
Working the early shift gave me tons of time to explore the beautiful Sawtooth National Recreation Area. I spent many afternoons at Redfish Lake reading a book on the beach or taking my mountain bike out for a ride on one of the many trails or forest roads near town. It was an amazing experience and I hope that if you ever get the chance to visit, this guide will help you out!
I’m writing this guide from the perspective of a solo female hiker. I’m not an elite athlete, just a plus-sized gal who loves the woods! I have lived at high altitude my whole life, so that doesn’t bother me, but for you sea-level people—be careful. Altitude sickness is a real kicker!
I use a 32-liter Osprey Escapist pack. It’s a bit large for most day hikes, but I love that I have extra room for snacks, water, and layers, all of which are super important to me when I’m out on the trail alone! For more tips on solo female adventure check out my guide here.
What’s in My Pack?
- Rain jacket - there's a guide here if you don't know where to start!
- SPF shirt
- Warm layer, flannel, or fleece jacket
- Extra pair of socks - always handy in case your feet get wet!
- Sunscreen and bug spray
- Snacks - I love energy chews, granola bars, chips, and dried mangoes!
- Water - I will carry between 60 and 80 oz of water depending on the weather and how long the hike is. Always bring more than you think you will need or just turn around when you are halfway out of water!
- A bandana
- Carabiners - super handy for attaching sandals to the outside of your pack
- First aid kit - Mine has bandaids, antibacterial cream, butterfly bandages, hand sanitizer, and athletic tape. Here’s a guide to building your own. I’m not a medical professional so don’t take my advice on what to put in a first aid kit!
- Emergency kit - headlamp, waterproof matches, a knife. Check out this guide to finding the best knife for your needs.
- Bear spray and a bear bell - bear bells are great for solo-hikers as they help you make noise and bear spray is an extra level of safety! For more on hiking in bear country, check out this article.
- Trash bags and gloves - leave the trail better than you found it!
Easy trails in my mind are less than 4 miles round trip and fairly flat. These are the best kind of trails if you don’t have a full day, have small kiddos, or just want to take it easy.
Redfish Lake Shoreline
Park at the Redfish Lake Lodge and follow the paved trail along the shore of the lake. It’s a great trail to bike, run, or even rollerblade on. There is a lot of great beach access and beautiful views of the Sawtooth mountains! It is a 3 mile round trip from the Lodge to the Sandy Beach Boat Ramp and back.
Pole Creek Ranger Station
About 25 miles south of Stanley, turn left after you pass the Smiley Creek Lodge, then follow the signs to the guard station. There is a ¼ mile trail down to the historic Pole Creek Ranger Station with interpretive signs along the way. This is a fun spot for families and there is a beautiful creek that the guard station overlooks. Stop at the Smiley Creek Lodge and get a huckleberry milkshake on your way out!
25 miles downriver from Stanley, just after crossing the Salmon River, turn right and go back upstream for about a mile, then turn left up the canyon and follow that road until it dead-ends. Park and walk up to the hot springs, about a ¼ mile in, or go past that and check out the remnants of the mine. Be careful as this initial section of the trail is on a heavily eroded hillside. You can also follow the trail past the mine to Hoodoo Lake which is a 4.4 mile round trip with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. I opted not to do the hike up to the lake, but I’m sure it’s lovely!
Moderate trails are 4-6 miles round trip and a bit steeper than easy trails. These are great for a bit of exercise or a leisurely day hike. Several of these trails have easy starts, and the best part about hiking is that you can turn around whenever you feel like it!
Park at the Stanley Lake trailhead, then walk up the road a few hundred feet until you see the sign for the trail to your left. A series of rolling meadows and small streams for the first 2 miles is an easy walk, then the trail climbs for another ¾ of a mile to a viewing area for Ladyface Falls. You can continue up the canyon to Bridalveil Falls if you want (7.3 miles round trip). The whole of this canyon is out of the Sawtooth Wilderness boundary, so you can bike up to Bridalveil Falls.
Fourth of July Lake
About 15 miles south of Stanley on Highway 75, turn left onto the Fourth of July road, just after passing the Sawtooth Valley Work Station. Follow that road all the way to the top parking area, which is about 10 miles to the top. It is a very interesting drive as you pass through a large burn scar from the Valley Creek Fire that burned in 2005. An early season exploration of this road led me up into the clouds and snow, so I decided to go back later in the season to hike to the lake. I hiked it on June 23rd and there were several creek crossings and lots of snow on the trail. Close to the lake, the trail forks—head to the right towards Washington Lake (this can be added to your hike to make it a 6.5 mile round trip). Soon after this fork, you will reach the lake. Be careful while crossing the marshy area of the trail at the outlet. Fourth of July Lake itself is beautiful and there was a great lunch rock where I sat and watched the ducks for a while before heading back to my car. It was about a 4 mile round trip.
Park at the Redfish trailhead before you get to the Redfish Lake Lodge—just follow the signs. This is a great hike for families with small kids as it is fairly flat and there are lots of interesting destinations that can be used as turnaround points. I hiked about 8 miles round trip with my parents in early October, and it was a beautiful hike. There are gentle hills and beautiful views of Fishhook Creek and Williams Peak. Once you enter the Wilderness boundary, the trail becomes much less defined, and there were also lots of fallen logs that we had to climb over. Sun Valley Mountain Huts operates 6 ski-in yurts for the winter season. One is up Fishhook Creek and I enjoyed exploring the area. A yurt skiing vacation is definitely on my bucket list now!
Difficult trails are longer than 6 miles or have lots of hills or difficult terrain (meaning that the landscape is rocky or has lots of fallen logs)
Hell Roaring Lake
15 miles south of Stanley, turn right onto Forest Road 209. After crossing the bridge, turn left at the “T” and park close to the trailhead. Alternatively, if you have extra time and a high-clearance 4WD vehicle, you can continue on the road to the upper trailhead. This road is not maintained and it will take you just as long to hike the few extra miles as it will to drive! I biked the first few miles to the Wilderness boundary, then stashed my bike there and kept hiking up to the lake! A majority of the elevation gain is in the first mile with lots of steep switchbacks and rocky areas. I almost gave up in that section but I’m so glad that I kept pushing my bike up the hill. At the top of the hill, the trail flattens out and makes for a beautiful and fairly easy bike along Hell Roaring Creek. After entering the Wilderness boundary, the trail begins to go up and down over some gentle hills all the way to the lake. I crossed the stream at the outlet and found a nice log to sit and eat my lunch on before heading back towards my car. At 10.7 miles, this was the longest trail that I hiked over the summer, but I’m so glad that I did. Just remember to go at the pace you feel comfortable at and don’t be afraid to take some “Vitamins” when you get home (that’s ibuprofen for those wondering).
Heading south from Stanley on Highway 75, drive for 18 miles, then turn right on Petit Lake road (Forest Road 208). Turn right when it hits a “T,” then follow the signs to the Tin Cup Trailhead. This trailhead is also the starting point for the very popular Alice Lake/Toxaway Lake backpacking loop. Park and then start climbing that hill! It’s quite a hill, but the views are beautiful. I likely would have enjoyed this as a long hike had I not decided to bring my bike with me, so I was pushing my bike up the hill which added to my struggle. It flattens out along the ridgeline and you pass a beautiful marshy area before dropping down into the Yellowbelly Lake basin. The descent is fairly easy with lots of switchbacks and once you reach the lake, the trail is almost flat. There are lots of great spots to sit by the lake. I suppose one could hike back the way they came, but why do that when you can have a nice meandering hike around the hill back to your car? The trail along the lakeshore is beautiful, and you get to follow the outlet stream for a while before joining the dirt road that will take you back to the trailhead. This last stretch might be a bit boring to hike so the loop could be done in the other direction, but that also means climbing the hill towards the end of the hike. It is about 6.6 miles round trip.
Park at the Alturas Creek trailhead above Alturas Lake, follow the main trail until it forks, then head to the left. You will cross a large bridge and, shortly thereafter, turn left again onto the Eureka Gulch trail. It is a very mellow first mile from the trailhead to the base of the gulch, then it’s all uphill from there! It is 8 miles from the trailhead up to the historic Eureka Mine so the full hike will take all day. There are beautiful views across the canyon toward the peaks to the north and views of Alturas Lake as well and the lower meadows are beautiful places for photographing wildflowers. You can really climb up the hill for as long or as short as you would like before resting a bit and descending back to the trailhead.
Park at the Redfish Lake Lodge, and walk out to the docks to arrange a boat shuttle to the Redfish Inlet Trailhead. The boats run frequently, and pickups are guaranteed twice a day. The 10-minute boat ride is a great way to cool down before you begin your hike. There are many trail options from the inlet. Short hikes to the lily pond and waterfall, longer hikes up the canyon to enjoy the scenery or climb the famous Elephant’s Perch, and even a hike back to the lodge via the Bench Lakes trail, a beautiful series of alpine lakes with great views of Redfish Lake and the White Cloud mountains! I hiked about 9 miles up the main canyon with my parents enjoying the wildflowers and the creek before heading back to the dock to catch the boat home.
Head east of Stanley for 2.2 miles, then turn left onto the Iron Creek road. Follow the road for another 3 miles until you reach Iron Creek trailhead. This is an incredibly popular trailhead due to the number of hikes that can be done from it, so be prepared to park along the road or do this on a weekday in the early or late season. This was the first trail that I hiked—it starts with a few easier miles of small hills and beautiful meadows before beginning a serious climb up to Alpine Lake. The climb was very sunny and long, and I was unprepared and had not brought enough water. I ended up eating a snack about halfway up the mountain before heading back to the trailhead. It is a 7.4 mile round trip to Alpine lake or 10 miles to Sawtooth Lake.
Mountain Bike Trails
I’m a total novice mountain biker and it didn’t help that my bike is older than I am! So these trails are rated according to my scale, which is basically how close to a paved road is it?
Nip and Tuck Road
This is a very popular loop road that goes from Stanley Creek down to Lower Stanley. It is super popular with dispersed campers or seasonal workers living out of their vans. It’s popular for good reason, as the views are insanely pretty! Some people will ride the whole loop which is about 23 miles from their house in town and back, but I would drive my bike and ride shorter sections to avoid biking on the highway.
This was the first trail that I took my bike out on. The guidebook I was using claimed that it was an “easy beginner ride.” Wrong! Think a mile and a half of pushing your bike up a steep hill and carrying it over logs thinking that the downhill will be easy. Wrong again! I pushed my bike most of the way down the hill due to the high quantity of rocky sections in the trail. Once it finally flattens out at Yellowbelly Lake, I thought I was good to go—nope! There were so many fallen trees across the trail, so it was bike for 50 ft, carry the bike over a log, then debate if it’s worth it to get back on the bike to ride to the next log or if it’s easier just to walk. It was a beautiful ride and with better trail maintenance it would probably be easier!
Hell Roaring Lake
This is a difficult ride for the first and last mile due to the steep, rocky nature of the trail. Once you push through that first rough section, the trail flattens out and becomes very rideable for a beginner like me. It is a great warmup to bike to the Wilderness boundary before the hike to the lake and makes a long hike much more approachable!
Big Casino Creek
Head northeast from Stanley on Highway 75 for 5.3 miles, turning right at the Casino Creek bridge. Turn right again after crossing the bridge, then continue through the campground to the trailhead. I made an attempt to bike Big Casino Creek but turned around after about a mile or so due to rain and some bike issues. The trail goes east up a moderately steep hillside then curves around the bend and drops down into Big Casino Creek. The trail was very well maintained with few rocks or roots to interrupt your pedaling. It is possible to do an expert-level mountain bike loop up Big Casino and back down Little Casino creek to your car, but I would never do something that ambitious or technical!
If you aren’t into hiking or biking, but still want to get off the highway I would recommend stopping at the ranger station just north of Redfish Lake and grabbing a Motor Vehicle Use Map (you can also find them online for any area by searching MVUM and the state where you are headed). I had a great time picking a road and driving it until I found something cool or something pretty. On my drives, I saw bald eagles and deer, found abandoned cabins complete with old refrigerators and lots of broken glass, and enjoyed some incredible views of the Sawtooths and the White Cloud mountains. I drive an all-wheel-drive Rav-4 and am very confident on dirt roads. I would recommend a high clearance vehicle and some confidence for this kind of exploring!!
I used Matt Leidecker’s guide books Exploring the Sawtooths and Exploring the Boulder-White Clouds. They are super in-depth and provide excellent topographic maps of the area. I would highly recommend buying them for backpacking trips or if you will be spending a lot of time in the area!!
If you have any questions or want to get geared up for a trip of your own, reach out to a Camping & Hiking expert here on Curated. We love to chat all things outdoors!