Thursday, July 26, 2012

It's prime time to head into the Sawtooth Mountains for a hiking or backpacking adventure

Fishhook Creek with the Sawtooths in the background. (Courtesy Matt Leidecker)
Everly Peak in the background, Lake 8696 (Courtesy Matt Leidecker) 

Sawtooth Lake (Courtesy Matt Leidecker)
Hi all,

Several weeks of hot weather has melted most of the snow in the high country, so it's a perfect time to go day hiking or backpacking in the mountains of Idaho.

Here's the audio from Steve's appearance on 94.9 FM The River Friday, July 27, discussing this blog. 

This week I'm going to focus on the Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho's crown jewel. The inspiration for this week's blog comes from Matt Leidecker, a native Idahoan from the Wood River Valley who has created a new guide to the Sawtooths titled "Exploring the Sawtooths - A Comprehensive Guide."
The 144-page full-color spiral-bound guide is hot off the press. It retails for $33.

Leidecker broke into the guidebook business with a full-color guide to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River several years ago. His guide was very well-received. Being a licensed river guide, he could speak with authority about negotiating the Middle Fork's many rapids at various river flows, and provide lots of other helpful information.

I was kind of surprised when Leidecker mentioned that he's been working on a guide to the Sawtooths because that area has been covered quite extensively by other authors. Margaret Fuller published her 5th edition of "Trails of the Sawtooth and White Cloud Mountains" in 2011. Scott Merchant published "The Day Hiker's Guide to Stanley, Idaho" in 2009. There also are rock-climbing guides to the Sawtooths and valuable online sources such as, which has excellent information about climbing peaks in the Sawtooths. 

In the summer of 2011, Leidecker decided that he would try to produce the most comprehensive guide yet published on Idaho's most spectacular mountain range. He and his wife, Christine, spent the summer base-camping out of a motor home with their two young children, aged 2 and 4, and set out to the hike all of the trails in the Sawtooths and climb many of the peaks. They logged 751 miles on the trail, and spent 55 days hiking, backpacking and mountain biking, logging a total of 157,000 vertical feet of climbing and descending. Whew!
The Leidecker Family 
"On the off days, we shared the Sawtooths with our children, playing on the lakeshore beaches, exploring the trails in the foothills, and camping with family and friends. Needless to say, it was an incredible experience," he says.

What's different about Leidecker's guides is that they are in full color inside and out, which makes them more expensive. Among guidebook publishers (I am one of them), the rule of thumb has been that there is a magical price point of $20.00, and you need to stay below that. To do so, the inside pages must be black and white to keep costs down. Leidecker decided that he'd rather produce a book in color and see if the market follows him. At $33, he is really pushing the envelope with his Sawtooth guide from a price perspective, but the well-heeled Sun Valley market is the most likely place where people will pay that kind of money for a guidebook.

Leidecker's guide contains some nifty regional maps for all corners of the Sawtooth Mountains to show the big picture, and then it provides detailed color maps, color photos and written descriptions for all of the key trail and destinations. There are notes about mountain biking in the Sawtooths, but most of the Sawtooths are designated as wilderness (meaning no bikes allowed), and Leidecker notes that mountain biking in the range is very rocky and not as biker-friendly as many other venues.

A colorful guide to wildflowers in the Sawtooths is a nifty component to the book. I've always carried a separate wildflower guide on my mountain adventures, so that's cool to have the wildflower guide incorporated into the guidebook.

I asked Leidecker, after all the research, where are the "hidden gems" in the Sawtooths that no one knows about? As we all know, the mountains are very well traveled and probably the single most popular summertime backcountry destination in the state. He paused for a moment, and then said "If you go deep into the wilderness, you won't see as many people." The trails in the Atlanta side of the Sawtooths, for example, are the least-traveled because it's a long drive to reach the trailheads in that area. I certainly would agree.

I remember backpacking from Little Queens River to Browns Lake one time, and it was fabulous. We didn't see another human for 3 days. I caught some nice fish in Browns Lake with my fly rod. Leidecker's guide notes that this hike is 9.2 miles one-way, it features 3,220 vertical feet of climbing, and it's rated "hard." I agree with that as well.

How about the best trips for kids? Alpine Lake, accessed from the Iron Creek Trailhead near Stanley, is a great trail for kids. I took my kids on a day hike to Alpine Lake last year over Labor Day weekend. We saw an amazing number of families with young kids backpacking into Alpine Lake. I was impressed.
My boys on the hike to Alpine Lake 
It's about 4 miles one-way to Alpine Lake, with 1,173 vertical feet of climbing, and it's rated easy. Sawtooth Lake is just another mile or so up the trail (and 600 more feet of climbing) but there aren't hardly any places to camp there. It's a gorgeous location, though, to be sure! 

If you'd like to day hike to a peak in the Sawtooths, Leidecker's guide has all of the details for you to choose from. I also found a great list easy scrambles to Sawtooth mountain peaks on summit post. The #1 suggestion is Observation Peak, which has utterly spellbinding views from the summit, and it's the only peak in the Sawtooths with a trail to the top. That peak is 8.1 miles from Stanley Lake, with 2,664 vertical feet of climbing, and it's rated moderate. It's a great introduction to climbing peaks in the Sawtooths and getting a taste of what you'll see up there -- a veritable sea of spires and peaks for as far as the eye can see.

No matter how many books and maps you have on the Sawtooths, you'll have to check out Leidecker's guide and compare. Here's a web site where you can pre-order an autographed copy of the guide for just another 5 days. After that, the guide will be available in outdoor stores and book shops in Boise in a week or two. You also could buy it online on Leidecker's book site.

Before you go ... listen to these words from Liese Dean, the Forest Service wilderness manager for the Sawtooths, whom Leidecker quoted in his guide: 

"During your trip you will find that the Sawtooth Wilderness gets into your soul. What you don’t see is as important as what you do see. Climb a peak and you can sense that you are the first. Look up to the sky and see the stars as you’ve never seen them. Know that you’re alive with a dip in one of the hundreds of icy clear lakes. And when you return to everyday life, remember that the Sawtooth Wilderness remains a place where you can find yourself in a way that is not possible anywhere else.

"I have a responsibility to ensure that the Sawtooth Wilderness lasts forever. This responsibility
is not mine alone. With the freedom of wilderness travel also comes responsibility - to care for and to protect the land, the water and the wildlife. As you embark on your visit please take time to think about the fact that the choices you make on your wilderness trip can have far-reaching consequences. With Federal protection, careful management and responsible use, the Sawtooth Wilderness will remain an enduring resource to be enjoyed by all generations."

If you go to the Sawtooths this weekend, be sure to take in the Sawtooth Music Festival!

Here's the audio from Steve's appearance on 94.9 FM The River Friday, July 27, discussing this blog.

Have fun!
- SS

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