Trip Report: Sawtooth Mountains 2019

Sawtooth Map Export
Planned route. Read below to find out what actually happened. 

This past Saturday I left for a 5 day backpacking trip in the Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho. The plan was to start at Stanley Lake and do the loop down to Grandjean, up North Fork Baron Creek to Sawtooth Lake, and then back to Stanley Lake (see map above). But if you know me very well, you know that my backpacking trips rarely go according to plan. This was no exception. Keep reading for the details. 

Day 1

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Picture near Bridal Veil Falls (looking opposite direction of falls).

Day 1 got off to a very early start with a 6:30 A.M. flight to Denver, followed by a short layover and then a flight to Boise. That all went very smooth, even getting to Boise 15 minutes early. I got my rental car, and then headed to the post office to pick up my gear. It was still a little before 11 when I got my gear, so I packed as much as I could in the post office parking lot, and then stopped by a Subway to grab lunch before hitting the road to the trailhead. The drive to the trailhead took about 2.5 hours. 

It was in the lower 80s according to the car thermostat. I converted my pants into shorts before starting, which was the first time I had ever hiked with them as shorts. I finished getting my backpack packed and then hit the trail at roughly 2:45. There is a pretty amazing view of McGown Peak from the trailhead. I’m not used to having the great view right off the bat. Most of the hikes I have done require some hiking before the great views start. I stopped a short ways down the trail to fill up with water. On the first mile or so of the trail, there was very little shade, which got me wondering if I had packed enough sunscreen. Thankfully the forest got more dense, and the shade was definitely appreciated. 

I was a little worried about how late I would get to my planned camp spot having got a late start, but I made really good time and got there around 5. That was even with stopping several times for pictures. I camped at the junction with the Elk Creek Trail, which apparently isn’t a trail anymore. There is a tree “blocking” the trail from the main trail (picture above right). When I stopped to camp, I didn’t even see the sign for the trail (picture above left), but figured if it wasn’t the trail, it was close enough. (The next day as I was leaving, I actually noticed the sign for the trail.) I set up camp, and then taped up a couple of my toes that were already starting to get a sore spot.

A note regarding this tape. I used Leukotape, which definitely worked as advertised. However, I had watched a video prior to the trip where someone had put the tape on strips of wax paper so she didn’t have to take the whole role. I tried this at home, and it seemed to work. However, when I tried to remove the tape at my camp spot, it was very difficult to get the tape off without ripping the wax paper and leaving some on the tape. I’m assuming it was partly due to the tape being on the wax paper for a while in combination with the wax paper becoming “brittle” due to getting creased once it was packed. Next year I will likely wrap the tape around something (pencil, pen, etc.).

I ate dinner, and then did some reading before calling it a day. 

Day 2 

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Picture from Observation Peak looking southeast.

I got up at 7 on Sunday and got breakfast ready. Once breakfast was finished I got camp packed up and hit the trail towards Observation Peak. Not too long after leaving camp the trail entered forest that had burned. At this point, I really started to question whether I had brought enough sunscreen, as I was pretty sure most of the rest of the hike didn’t have much shade.

It was a fairly short hike to get to the intersection with the Observation Peak trail. I got up to the peak around 10. There were great views all the way up to the peak. It was difficult to see the trail in a couple spots, but I was able to find it again quickly. There was very little shade on the peak, but luckily there were a few trees that provided a shady spot. The views from the peak were spectacular, and definitely exceeded what I was expecting. I spent about 40 minutes at the peak resting, eating a snack, and getting pictures. It took me about 40 minutes to get back down to the trail junction, where a couple other hikers were just starting to head up. 

I started to head towards Trail Creek Lakes and ran into a few other hikers headed towards Observation Peak. I stopped at a creek a short hike down the trail to fill up with water. I was getting pretty low on water at that point, so it was a relief to get some more. I rested for a bit more, ate some trail mix, and put on some more sunscreen. I was going to convert my pants to shorts once again, but I figured I better not so I could save sunscreen. I kept going towards Trail Creek Lakes and arrived about 12:30. Right off the bat I could see at least a couple camps set up, and ran into a guy from one of the camps. We chatted for a little bit, and then I continued on to find a camp spot. 

I found a camp spot pretty quickly, but I wasn’t a huge fan of it. It was pretty darn close to another camp, and closer to the water and trail than regulations allow (although it was hard to find a camp spot that was far enough from the trail and water). It was also really fine dirt/dust, which I knew would get on everything. I went ahead and set up my tent anyway since I figured it would be hard to find another camp spot and so nobody else took the spot. I figured I would look for another spot while going to the second lake. 

From reading a guide book, I knew there was a way to get up to the second lake via a gulch on the north side of the lower lake. I hiked around the north side of the lower lake and didn’t see this gulch, so I decided to hike up the hill near the creek between the two lakes. It was steep and had a lot of loose rock. I knew it wasn’t the best idea, but it looked doable and I didn’t feel like trying to find the other way. Two-thirds of the way up my foot slipped and I hit the ground hard. I knew right away I had hurt my left hand. I fully expected one of my fingers to be crooked when I looked at the hand, but thankfully none of them were. I was pretty sure I had broke at least one of them though, possibly two. I laid there for a couple minutes gathering myself and taking stock of my situation. 

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Looking down at the first Trail Creek Lake from the second Trail Creek Lake.

With as far up as I had made it, I knew going back down wasn’t an option, so I got back up and continued up the hill to the second lake. I made it up to the second lake, got a few pictures, and then worked on finding a different way down. I found the gulch referenced in the guidebook, and took that way down to the first lake. I found a possible camp spot on the way down, but I wasn’t 100% sure that my tent would fit, and at that point I didn’t feel like hauling my tent up there to find out. 

The rest of the day was pretty rough due to very little shade, warm temperatures, gusty winds, and the dusty conditions. The hand injury just made it that much worse. A while after I got back down to the lower lake, I also discovered I must have landed on my hip when I hit the ground, as I had a pretty good scrape and bruise there as well. I didn’t do a whole lot the rest of the day other than hang out at camp and read. 

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As I was making dinner that evening, I noticed the saying on the bottom of the packaging (picture above). I just had to laugh as I probably got what I deserved picking a camping spot that went against regulations. I put on my rain cover (which was nearly impossible with my injured hand) shortly before calling it a day. I read in my tent for a while before finally deciding to try and get to sleep. Unfortunately, my sleeping pad is pretty noisy when I move, so I was paranoid the whole night that I was bugging the neighbors every time I moved. That didn’t help anything either. 

Day 3

On Monday, I got up a little before 7. I got breakfast ready and then got camp packed up. I decided to hike back out instead of continuing on with the hike as planned. If my fingers were broke, I didn’t want to do any more damage to them than had already been done. Once camp was packed up I hit the trail back towards Stanley Lake, at about 8:15. I was back at the trailhead around 11:40. I rinsed off some at Stanley Lake and changed into a new pair of clothes. I drove into Stanley to get a drink at the convenience store before heading back to Boise. I got back to Boise a little after 3 and stopped at a travel center to figure out what my options were. I decided I had three options: stay in Boise until Saturday, fly home early, or drive home. All three options were roughly the same cost, so I decided to go ahead and leave early to save a couple days of PTO. I got a hotel room and pretty much spent the rest of the day getting my backpacking gear cleaned up and getting stuff situated to pack and ship the next day. 

Day 4

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Picture of injured hand after getting to the hotel.

On Tuesday I got up at 6:30, and left from the hotel around 7:45. I dropped my gear off at the post office and then headed to an urgent care clinic to get my fingers checked. According to the X-rays, there were no fractures. Ironically that was more frustrating. Had I known that I probably would have finished the hike. But I was definitely relieved I wasn’t going to have to wear a splint. That would have made work really frustrating since I do a lot of typing. 

I wandered around downtown for a little bit and got a couple fire hydrant pictures, then ate lunch at Westside Drive In. If you are looking for something to eat in Boise, I highly recommend their meatloaf sandwich. It was delicious. At that diner I got the “fortune” above. Once again I just had to laugh, as my injured hand and hip would beg to differ otherwise. After lunch I headed to the airport.

Conclusion

The little bit of the hike I got to do far exceeded my expectations. For relatively low elevation mountains, I was pretty impressed. It was definitely warmer than I would prefer during the afternoon, and the lack of shade on the second day didn’t help much. If I try the trip again, I’ll avoid Labor Day weekend, likely do it later in the year, and bring more sunscreen. I was really bummed I didn’t get to finish the loop as I didn’t even make it to the part I really wanted to make it to. The trails were very easy to follow, with the exception of a couple brief spots going up to Observation Peak. I didn’t see any significant wildlife. I saw quit a bit of hoof tracks on the trail though. And next time I’ll be more careful about picking my camp spot, as karma apparently has my number. 

Trash

The only trash I found during the hike was a plastic bottle cap at the lower Trail Creek Lake, at my camp spot. For as many people as I saw during this hike, especially at Trail Creek Lakes, I was quite impressed that was the only trash I saw. Kudos to all the visitors for keeping it clean.

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