Laying on the shores of a bright blue alpine lake, toes in the chilly water, surrounded on all sides by jagged rocky peaks with a book in hand – this is one of my all-time favorite memories from our first visit to Idaho, and just one of the many ways that Idaho captured my heart. A moderate trail covering 10 miles and 1900 feet of elevation gain, the Sawtooth Lake hike gives those who complete the journey a taste of the best of the Sawtooth Mountains. Spend an hour or two relaxing on the shores of Sawtooth Lake and I bet you will also fall in love with Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains!
- Overview | Sawtooth Lake Hike in Idaho
- Highlights & lowlights
- How difficult is the hike to Sawtooth Lake
- How to get to the trailhead for Sawtooth Lake
- Filling out a wilderness permit
- Viewpoint over Sawtooth Lake
- When is the best time of year to hike to Sawtooth Lake?
- How to get to the Sawtooth Mountains
- Where to stay before/after your hike
- Sawtooth Lake as a backpacking trip
- Sawtooth Lake Hike Idaho packing list
Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho
Sawtooth Lake is located in Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest. With distinctly jagged peaks, these unique mountains certainly live up to their namesake! There are countless other incredible hikes and beautiful alpine lakes in the surrounding area, making a trip to the Sawtooth Mountains well worth a weekend or week long (or longer!) visit.
The Sawtooth Mountains are located in central Idaho, about 3.5 hours from Idaho Falls and 3 hours from Boise.
Our Sawtooth Lake Hike Experience
We hiked to Sawtooth Lake as a backpacking trip, and waking up next to this beautiful alpine lake was magical. We’d totally recommend spending the night if possible – the waters are calmest in the morning, creating stunning reflections of the towering mountains onto the lake.
That being said, Sawtooth Lake is beautiful at any time of day and completely worth visiting whether as a day hike or overnight backpacking trip. Visit during the early summer months and you’ll be rewarded not only with stunning views but also colorful wildflowers that line the trail and shores of the lake!
Details | Sawtooth Lake Hike
In this section, we’ll tell you everything you need to know before taking on the Sawtooth Lake hike, from highlights and lowlights to details on every section of the hike and can’t miss spots.
- Hiking distance | 10 miles
- Elevation gain | 1900 feet
- Total time | 5 – 7 hours
- Epic-ness rating | 7
- Difficulty | moderate – hard
- Trailhead | Iron Creek Campground
Find this hike on AllTrails: Sawtooth Lake via Iron Creek Stanley Lake Trail
- Beautiful views over Sawtooth Lake and the Sawtooth Mountains
- Great camping spots
- Nice rocky beach area to hang out by the lake
- Trail gets crowded (especially during the summer)
- Limited parking at trailhead
- Campsites are limited
Remember to Leave No Trace. Pack out what you pack in, stay on trail, be well-prepared, leave nothing behind, take only photos and memories with you, treat the area with respect and help preserve this beautiful spot for generations to come.
How difficult is the hike to Sawtooth Lake?
We’d rank the Sawtooth Lake hike somewhere between moderate and hard. While the hike starts off with a nice, gradual incline, once you pass Alpine Lake the elevation gain really starts to pick up. The trail is rocky and steep between Alpine Lake and Sawtooth Lake, which is why we’d rate it a notch above moderate.
Sawtooth Lake Hike Map
The map below displays the route of the trail from Iron Creek Campground trailhead to Sawtooth Lake, passing by Alpine Lake along the way. We’ve also noted two “can’t miss” spots on the lake that we’ll discuss further in the article: a stunning Sawtooth Lake overlook via short spur trail and a lovely rocky beach spot to hang out by the lake.
How to get to the trailhead for Sawtooth Lake
The trailhead for Sawtooth Lake is located down Forest Road 619, right next to the Iron Creek Campground, and about a 15-minute drive from Stanley, Idaho. The majority of the road to the trailhead is gravel and slightly bumpy, but should be easily passable without 4WD.
Please be aware that parking at the trailhead is fairly limited and fills up quickly, so make sure you arrive early to avoid circling the parking lot waiting for someone to leave.
Filling out a wilderness permit
Since Sawtooth Lake is located in Sawtooth Wilderness, you’ll need to fill out a wilderness permit at the trailhead. A permit is required for day hiking in addition to overnight camping. There is no fee involved. The permit is mainly just to keep track of who is hiking/camping in case something happens.
Starting the hike
The trail to Sawtooth Lake starts off with a gradual incline, slowly winding through the forest. At 3 miles into the hike, the trail crosses Iron Creek and the elevation gain starts to pick up. Soon you’ll enter the first series of switchbacks until you arrive at a junction.
There is a trail that branches off to the left down towards the shores of Alpine Lake. You can take a short (less than quarter-mile) detour to see Alpine Lake up close. Otherwise, continue on the main trail to the right towards Sawtooth Lake. You’ll catch a nice view overlooking Alpine Lake from the trail farther ahead.
Climb from Alpine Lake to Sawtooth Lake
After passing Alpine Lake, you’ll encounter another series of switchbacks and the steepest section of the hike. But as your legs start to burn, the views only keep getting better and better. The distinctive jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains come into view, giving you your first sight of what makes the Sawtooth Mountains so unique.
At four and a half miles into the hike, the trail finally levels off and you’ll leave the switchbacks behind. In another quarter-mile, the trail passes alongside a small lake – this little puddle is NOT Sawtooth Lake! Continue past the small lake until you catch your first glimpse of Sawtooth Lake (it’s huge so you will know when you’ve made it!).
Since the lake is so big, you’ll want to spend some time exploring. There are few specific spots we recommend checking out, which we’ve detailed below.
Rocky beach hangout spot
No hike to Sawtooth Lake is complete without spending some time relaxing on the shores, perhaps even going for a swim if you’re bold enough to take the chilly plunge! There are a few spots where you can get up close to the lake to swim or just hang out. Our favorite spot was a little rocky beach area, located at the northern end of the lake, facing Mount Regan.
There isn’t exactly a trail to get to this spot – just make your way down to the water and walk along the rocks until you reach a good spot to sit down.
Sawtooth Lake Overlook
While the trail along the shores of Sawtooth Lake is beautiful, we think the most stunning view you can find here is located from an overlook on a spur trail.
The trail turns off to the right just after the small lake before you reach Sawtooth Lake. Continue for about a quarter-mile until the massive Sawtooth Lake comes into view (note that the trail continues past this point, but the viewpoint will be pretty obvious).
From here you have a dead-on view of Mount Regan to the South, which casts the most beautiful reflection over Sawtooth Lake on a calm day. If you are backpacking overnight to Sawtooth Lake, this is a great spot to hike up for sunrise or sunset (just don’t forget your headlamp and bear spray!).
Tips for a great hike
- Check recent weather conditions before you go. The trail may be snow-covered as late as June – make sure you are prepared with the appropriate equipment to safely navigate snow-covered trails.
- Download the trail map (we recommend AllTrails Pro) and directions to the trailhead in advance. There is no service as soon as you turn down Forest Road 619.
- Dogs are permitted on the trail but must be kept on a leash from July 1st through Labor Day.
- This is a popular hike, so expect to share the trail with other hikers and get an early start for the best shot at finding some solitude (and a parking spot…).
- Don’t forget to fill out a wilderness permit at the trailhead – it’s required even if you are just day hiking.
Logistics | Planning your visit to the Sawtooth Mountains
In the section below, we’ll help you plan all the logistics for your trip to the Sawtooth Mountains
When is the best time to hike Sawtooth Lake?
The best time to hike to Sawtooth Lake is during the summer, from June through early September. The Sawtooth Mountains get heavy snow during the winter, so the trails may be snow-covered from October through May. While it’s possible to hike in late spring or early fall, make sure you are prepared with proper gear for winter hiking, including microspikes.
We would recommend visiting in early July, as the trails will be clear of snow and the wildflowers in full bloom – it’s a beautiful time of year in the Sawtooths!
How to get to the Sawtooth Mountains
The Sawtooth Mountains are located in central Idaho, about 1 hour from Sun Valley, Idaho, 3 hours from Boise, Idaho, 3.5 hours from Idaho Falls, 5 hours from Jackson, Wyoming, and 5.5 hours from Salt Lake City, Utah. If you are traveling from farther away, the easiest way to reach the Sawtooths is to fly into Boise and rent a car.
A visit to the Sawtooth Mountains could be a great road trip detour if you are planning to visit Grand Teton, located about 5 hours away.
Where to stay before or after your hike
Iron Creek Campground
The trailhead for Sawtooth Lake is located right next to the Iron Creek campground, making it the most convenient option for camping before or after your hike. Campsite are $18 per night for one vehicle and an extra $9 per night for additional vehicles.
There are only 9 campsites that are available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Since Sawtooth Lake is such a popular hike, we wouldn’t bank on getting a campsite here unless you arrive very early in the day. You can find more information about the Iron Creek Campground here.
If you aren’t able to secure a campsite at Iron Creek Campground, many dispersed camping options are available in the Sawtooth National Forest area. The closest option is near Stanley Lake, off Forest Road 455. You can read more about dispersed camping in the Sawtooths here.
The charming little mountain town of Stanley, Idaho is located just minutes form the trailhead for Sawtooth Lake, making it a very convenient place to stay if you don’t want to camp. Here you’ll find a few hotel and cabin options, quaint restaurants and coffee shops and convenience stores to fuel up on essentials.
Sawtooth Lake as a backpacking trip
The best way to experience Sawtooth Lake (in our opinion) is to hike it as a backpacking trip! Watching the sunrise and sunset over Sawtooth Lake is an incredible experience, and many of the backcountry campsites are located with top-notch views of Sawtooth Lake.
Do I need a permit to backpack?
Yes, you will need a wilderness permit to camp overnight at Sawtooth Lake. The good news is that reservations or advanced permits are not needed – you can pick up a backpacking permit at the trailhead, same as you would pick up a day use permit.
Finding a campsite at Sawtooth Lake
There are no assigned or designated campsites at Sawtooth Lake, but it is considered best practice (as with anywhere you camp or backpack) to camp only at previously disturbed sites, i.e. a flat piece of ground that looks like it has been camped on before. Your campsite must be at least 100 feet from the lake, trails, and streams, per Sawtooth Wilderness regulations.
If you arrive early, you can find some really incredible campsites with views overlooking the lake. However, keep in mind that Sawtooth Lake is a very popular destination for backpackers, so it can be challenging to find a good spot later in the afternoon. If you can’t find a spot right along Sawtooth Lake, you can instead look for a place to camp at the smaller lake to the north of Sawtooth Lake. There are a handful of lovely spots here that are less likely to already be claimed.
Sawtooth Wilderness backcountry rules
Are dogs allowed?
Dogs are allowed on the Sawtooth Lake trail, but must be kept on a leash during the peak summer months (July 1 through Labor Day).
Can I have a fire in the backcountry?
Fires are not permitted in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Bring your camp stove to prepare dinner.
Where can I setup camp?
In the Sawtooth Wilderness, you must set up camp at least 100 feet from lakes and streams and 100 feet from the trail. There are no designated campsites, but look for previously used spots to preserve the area.
How do I store my food?
There are black bears in the Sawtooth Wilderness, so be prepared to store your food and any scented appropriately – either in a bear can or rope to hang a bear bag.
What do I do with waste?
Help keep this beautiful area clean for everyone! Be sure to bury human waste at least 6-8 inches deep and 200 feet from any water sources. During the winter or early summer, the ground is often frozen making it impossible to dig a hole, so you must carry a WAG bag and pack out human waste. Pack out all toilet paper and other trash. Bathe and wash dishes and laundry at least 150 feet from streams and lakes.
What to pack for hiking to Sawtooth Lake
The hike to Sawtooth Lake is no walk in the park! Make sure you’re prepared with appropriate gear before you hike:
Essentials for everyone
- Bear Spray (Counter Assault)| While there are no grizzly bears in the Sawtooths, there are black bears so carrying bear spray with you is always a good idea.
- GPS Device (Garmin InReach Mini) | The trail to Sawtooth Lake is pretty easy to follow, so you shouldn’t have trouble staying on the trail. That being said, we always carry our Garmin for peace of mind just in case of an emergency.
- Bug Spray | Especially if you plan to hang out by the lake for a while, you don’t want to forget bug spray on the Sawtooth Lake hike! The mosquitos here are brutal and they will bite right through your layers.
- Bathing suit | The waters of Sawtooth Lake are quite cold at any time of year, but if you’re visiting during the summer taking that plunge feels amazing after a long trek up!
- Towel (PackTowl)| If you do decide to take a swim in Sawtooth Lake, make sure you pack a towel to dry off afterwards.
- Microspikes | If you’re hiking to Sawtooth Lake in the spring, fall or even early summer, there is likely to be snow at the higher elevations. Since the trail gets pretty steep, we recommend packing microspikes to stay safe in possible snowy or icy conditions.
His & Hers
- Hiking poles (Hers: Black Diamond Distance Z poles, His: Black Diamond Distance FLZ poles ) | We both hike with Black Diamond poles and can’t imagine hiking without them! They help take some of the weight off your knees and legs on a steep climb like the one to Sawtooth Lake.
- Backpack with bladder (Hers: CamelBak Helena 20L, His: Camelback Rim Runner 22L) | We both use a similar Camelback backpack for day hiking (Sarah has the women’s version, Matt’s is unisex) – they’re comfortable, lightweight and just big enough to hold the essentials without weighing you down. Plus they both come with a 2L bladder.
- Hiking boots (Hers: Danner Mountain 600s, His: Salomon Ultra 4 Mid GTX) | the trail to Sawtooth Lake gets steep and rocky after Alpine Lake. We’d highly recommend wearing hiking boots for better traction and foot support.
- Hiking pants (Hers: Athleta Headlands pants, His: PrAna Stretch Zion Pants) | These Athleta pants are Sarah’s absolute favorite! They’re comfortable and durable for hiking, and all the pockets make them more stylish, so they can double as normal pants.
- Pullovers (Hers: Smartwool Merino Quarter Zip, His: Smartwool Merino Quarter Zip) | These Smartwool quarter zips are so warm and comfortable – perfect to keep you comfortable on a chilly morning in the Sawtooths.
- Long sleeve base layers (Hers: Smartwool All Season Baselayer) | When you’re hiking in the Sawtooths, layers are so important – you’ll work up a sweat while moving, but once you sit down to relax at the lake, it can get pretty chilly especially in the early summer/fall.
- Down Jacket (Hers: Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody Women’s Down Hoodie, His: Cotopaxi Fuego) | If you hate being cold (like me), the Arc’teryx Down Hoodie is the jacket for you! With 850 fill down, it’s incredibly lightweight, high quality and totally worth the extra warmth. The Cotopaxi Fuego is also a great option – at 800 fill down, it’s not quite as warm but comes in at a lower price point.
Planning to backpack to Sawtooth Lake?
Be confident you have everything you need with our Sawtooth backpacking checklist! Our interactive excel checklist is complete with all the essentials you need for backpacking in the Sawtooths and customizable based on your trip length.
Other useful resources
Planning a trip to Idaho? We think you may enjoy the following articles to help you plan your trip:
- Sawtooth | A Complete Guide to Backpacking the Alice Toxaway Loop
- Sawtooth | Alice Lake Loop in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains
- Southern Idaho | How to Kayak to Shoshone Falls in Southern Idaho
- Wyoming | 18 Best Hikes in Grand Teton National Park
- Wyoming | How to Plan the Perfect 2-Day Grand Teton Itinerary
- Wyoming | How to Hike to Delta Lake in Grand Teton
- Montana | Complete Guide to Hiking Cracker Lake Trail in Glacier
For all things Idaho: Idaho Travel Guide
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Have you been to the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho? What’s your favorite hike or backpacking trip in the Sawtooths?