Sawtooth Wilderness, 2018

Fall Backpack: Slidy Slopes, Powder Trails and People

Three days after Labor Day weekend and the campgrounds and trailheads at Redfish Lake were still packed with people. But we had a plan to elude crowds in overused Sawtooth Wilderness in Central Idaho.

We’d take shuttle boat across Redfish Lake and hike up Redfish Lake Creek—like the crowds—but we’d soon leave the beaten path for trailless lake basins behind Warbonnet Peak.

That plan fell apart on dry scree slopes above Baron Lakes. The goat route / social trail along a knife-edge ridge seemed to end in cliffs. We slid our way down to Upper Baron and camped at far end. Next morning (without packs) we made it half a mile up glacial till behind the lake but David nixed returning for packs and final ascent to the saddle; Google Earth imagery indicated steeper drop to lake. (Later we learned this route worked—see below!)

We clambered back over Baron Pass, dropped to Redfish Creek and headed south to Cramer/Hidden/Edna Lakes, crossed Sawtooth Range at Sand Mountain Pass and returned north via Imogene/Hell-Roaring and Decker lakes.

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On the September 6-11, 2018 hike we saw about one-hundred people: day-hikers to Baron, backpackers to Alpine, a few camped at Cramer Lakes, crowds and dogs descending to Imogene. A pack train pursued us up Sand Mountain Pass—probably outfitter packing out his base camp at Edna Lake with about 18 stock (mules and horses). Trails were powder soft near Edna and Imogene from stock use.

We eluded crowds by camping at far end of Upper Baron and Upper Cramer Lakes, scrambling social trail to camp at the second of four lakes above Imogene and venturing off-trail to Decker Lake (with bathtub ring and no fish). David fished all lakes we visited with little success; either over-fished, declining stocking (since fish not native in most lakes) or high numbers winter-killed. As in previous trips to and across the Sawtooths, we saw minimal campsites, all overused and most right on the lakes. The Forest Service’ idea of management is to break up fire circles, not shovel out a few camp areas for thousands of visitors.

After 3.5 days with people, the Redfish Ridge Trail north from Hell Roaring climbed and dropped sharply between basins but was lightly used with trail duff for non-slip hiking. The only people we saw were two young women on ridge coming in from Redfish shuttle. At Redfish Inlet junction (heading northeast), trail left wilderness and open to mountain bikes—we encountered only 2: a father and daughter cycling switchbacks near trailhead at Sockeye Campground. After dodging uncut logs on earlier trail, we saw trees freshly cut through with chainsaw as soon as we left the wilderness (so perhaps Forest Service lacks skills /funds for hand tools to meet self-imposed “no mechanized equipment in wilderness” rules.) Hiking back to our vehicle, we were questioned by campers. Where had we gone? Up there? Wow!

The iconic Sawtooths draw crowds; but a limited loop trail system concentrates most use in the northeastern third of the wilderness.

When we got home to Hailey, I looked up a blogger who travels the country to hike wilderness and often picks my favorite areas. Sure enough, he had completed our trailless lake route a year before, August 2017: Upper Baron to Warbonnet, Bead, Packrat and Upper Redfish Lakes plus other trailless lakes. Instead of steep drop to Warbonnet he found a well-worn path from Alpine Lake. Oh well. See link to blog or map below to figure out his 2017 trip. He even caught lots of fish.

We’ll try it again with better route planning.

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Google Map

(Click upper right box above map to “view larger map” to see legend including NAVAGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up)