5 Best Backpacking Trails in the Sawtooth Wilderness

Amidst our busy summers, my best friend and I vow to take at least one backpacking trip a year with just the two of us. This year, we decided to explore the Sawtooth Wilderness. Living in Utah, it can be hard to leave our beloved backyard trails. However, after seeing countless photos and trip reports from this alpine paradise, we knew we would absolutely love it. Our four-day trip was jam-packed with two nights in the backcountry, one night car camping, one trail run, two paddle board sessions, and one absolutely phenomenal post-hike mocha.

While I knew I would love the views, what really surprised me about this area was the quality of the trails. The pass climbs were tough, but everything is a somewhat moderate grade (400-600 feet of gain/mile), and the trail condition is pristine. Around every lake there’s plenty of camping available, and in late July, the water was warm enough to swim. We’re already scheming our next trip back to the Sawtooths, and have been poring over all these trail options.

Included in this roundup are a variety of backpacking trails in the Sawtooth  Wilderness, ranging from a quick overnight adventure to a week-long challenging loop. This is not at all an exhaustive list for the area, but rather a guide to some of the best trailheads and most popular lakes.

Backpacking Trails in the Sawtooth  Wilderness: Know Before You Go

sawtooth wilderness backpacking trails

Alice Lake – one of our favorite campsites ever

  • Are dogs allowed?

Yes, dogs are allowed year-round. However, they are required ON LEASH from July 1st until Labor Day in all wilderness areas.

  • Are permits required? 

Self-serve wilderness permits are available at popular trailheads, but where there are no permits required in areas where these are not provided. No reservation system is in place for the Sawtooth Wilderness.

  • Where can I camp? 

In the Sawtooth Wilderness, you can camp anywhere that you are able to follow basic LNT guidelines. Once you start approaching the bigger lakes, there are obvious paths shooting off the trail to areas where there’s flat ground for camping. I recommend getting to your planned campsite a bit early, so you can explore around and find the site you like best.

  • What weather can I expect? 

The weather in the Sawtooths is similar to the High Sierra Nevada. Peak season is late June – early September, weather and snowpack depending. Following a high snow year, you will see high river crossings and lingering snow into July. Conversely, planning a trip in September will require keeping an eye on the weather to make sure that you don’t get caught in an early-season storm.

In late July, we enjoyed highs between 75 and 80-degrees Fahrenheit, and lows of about 40. Pretty friggin ideal if you ask me.

  • How plentiful is the water? 

One of many mellow stream crossings

There is water everywhere on these trails. Runoff from their insane snow accumulation results in these beautiful alpine lakes, and streams that follow most of the trails. We never had to carry more than 1-2 liters at a time. When we went in late July, the river crossings were up to about mid-calf but fairly slow-moving. A month earlier, I saw footage of extremely dangerous-looking crossings on the same loop we backpacked.

  • Is food storage required? 

As of this year (2022), food storage is required in the Sawtooth Wilderness. This can be either a bear bag/hang system, or a hard-sided bear can.

5 of the Best Backpacking Trails in the Sawtooth Wilderness

#1: Alice Lake Trail

backpacking trails sawtooth wilderness

Sunrise at Alice Lake is burned into my memory.

  • Miles: 12 miles round trip
  • Elevation Gain: 1,600 feet
  • Route type: out-and-back
  • Days recommended: two days, one night

Alice Lake is one of the most popular lakes in the Sawtooth Wilderness, and for good reason. The lake itself is massive, with campsites speckled around the whole area. It’s warm enough to swim around, and if you explore, you can even find a cliff or two to launch off of. The trail has a moderate amount of climbing, but it’s all contained to a short section. The first couple miles are extremely mellow, and most of the climbing is exposed to the sun. Because of this, I recommend getting an early start to the day if you’re doing it as an out and back. Additionally, you’ll want extra time to explore the lake and find the best campsite possible.

#2: Imogene, Toxaway, and Alice Lake Loop

Bathing suits were absolutely worth their weight for this trip. We swam in four different alpine lakes.

  • Miles: 27.6 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 5,700 feet
  • Route type: loop
  • Days recommended: three days, two nights

This is the loop we did this past summer, and it was absolutely phenomenal. We got a late start on the first day, so we started with a five-mile hike into Farley Lake. This is one of the less popular lakes, so we only shared it with a couple other campers. Then, we had a full second day and hiked a little over 16 miles, stopping at Imogene and Toxaway Lakes for a dip, then camped at Alice Lake. All of these spots were absolutely breathtaking, and any of them would make a spectacular campsite. On our third day, we just had to hike out from Alice Lake and were back to the car before noon.

For a chiller trip, you could absolutely extend this itinerary and spend additional nights at any of the lakes along this loop. I personally loved the way we did it. It was a great mix of tough climbs up and over passes, with refreshing lakes to cool off in every few hours.

#3: Goat Lake and Goat Falls via Iron Creek Trail

  • Miles: 8.1 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1,800 feet
  • Route type: out-and-back
  • Days recommended: two days, one night

On the Goat Lake Trail, you trade crowds for slightly less established trails. It’s a great out-and-back alternative for an overnight of solitude. The first three miles of the route are pretty well established and moderately graded. Then, the last mile turns into some higher-angle scrambling as beautiful views of waterfalls and craggy peaks open up. Users note that this trail is not as well marked as other routes in the area, so a downloaded map is absolutely essential.

One of my friends/coworkers camped here overnight this past summer and is already scheming to bring a bigger group back to this spot. He stayed for one weekday night, and he and his partner were the only two campers at the lake. Aside from the beautiful sunrise and all-around amazing nature experience, he notes that a highlight was stopping by the Stanley Baking Company and Cafe for some home-baked goods after a night in the wilderness.

#4: Grandjean Sawtooth Lake Loop

backpacking trails sawtooth wilderness

Another spectacular campsite.

  • Miles: 20.4 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 4,000 feet
  • Route type: loop
  • Days recommended: 1-2 nights

This loop around Sawtooth Lake can be done as a long day hike, or a 1-2 night backpacking trip. Multiple hikers note that counter-clockwise is the way to go. Otherwise, the uphill portion of the loop is very exposed. Furthermore, more crowds hike into Sawtooth Lake from the north side, so going counter-clockwise alleviates throngs of people on the front end.

Though water is plentiful along the trail, there are not many campsites that compare to Sawtooth Lake. Because of this, most people recommend doing this trail in one night and camping at the lake. However, if you really wanted to, you could find a site along one of the streams following the trail on the way back out. Hikers also note that the best campsites for this lake are available on the northeast side of the lake.

#5: Sawtooth Wilderness Loop

backpacking trails sawtooth wilderness

One of many scenic lookout points.

  • Miles: 62.1 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 12,500 feet
  • Route type: loop
  • Days recommended: 4-7 days

This is the granddaddy of backpacking trails in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Whether you go clockwise or counter-clockwise, the elevation gain and loss are absolutely killer. If you opt to go clockwise, you’ll start with a very steep climb directly up to Sawtooth Lake, which is a great first camping spot. Then, your last day (or two) will be a long, seemingly endless descent. On the other hand, going counter-clockwise starts you off with a 20-mile gradual ascent. There are camping spots along the trail near streams, but the first lake you’ll pass is Elk Lake, which is about 20 miles in.

Though this trip is on the shorter side (in the grand scheme of things), you’ll need to come prepared and in shape. The climbs are long, and sections of trail are completely exposed to the high alpine sun. Though it’s sure to be brutal, my hiking partner and I are already planning on this trail for one of next summer’s adventures.

It’s been a few weeks since I returned from the Sawtooths, and I’m already aching to go back. I’ve been in many beautiful high alpine environments, but the trail quality, remoteness, and stunning landscapes in Idaho truly filled my soul. It’s been a couple years since I’ve been able to take extended time off work for a long adventure, but this summer, a long weekend in the Sawtooths was plenty to dream about.

We also brought SUPs to play around in some drivable lakes before and after our backpacking trip. I can’t recommend enough spending a half-day at either Redfish or Pettit Lake outside of Stanley, Idaho.

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Comments 3

  • Pete : Aug 31st

    Thanks for this, but it would be helpful if, maybe in the first paragraph, you could explain where exactly the “Sawtooth Wilderness” is! (So we don’t have to jump over to Google.) ?

    • Cajun Turtle : Sep 9th

      I was thinking the same thing. Read the Wind River High Route without a clue where it was. Finally saw a jump off spot to Pinedale and put it together. This article doesn’t give that much. Interesting reading but google here we come!


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