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

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Finding Paradise on the famed Salmon River, the "River of No Return" in Central Idaho

The Salmon River cuts a mile-deep canyon across Central Idaho ... it's BIG COUNTRY! 
Hi all, 

I had the privilege of floating the Idaho's famed Salmon River (aka River of No Return) last week, and it turned out to be a perfect time to float the river in terms of river flows and great weather. Combine that with great people, delicious gourmet meals and the best campsites on the river, and geez, how can life get any better than that? 

Craig Bachman, a friend and antitrust lawyer in Boise, had drawn the permit, and Craig invited an all-star crew of Bachman peeps, friends, musicians and 5 dogs. We had a total blast.

The 85-mile-long Main Salmon River of No Return section is considered one of the top venues in North America for a week-long wilderness whitewater vacation. There are three others that I love to do as well -- the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and the Selway. Hells Canyon and the Lower Salmon are great multiday trips as well, but they're typically done over a long weekend. 

The Main Salmon is arguably the best family wilderness whitewater vacation in America because it isn't as difficult to navigate as the Middle Fork, the Grand Canyon or the Selway, so it feels safer for kids, seniors and others who may not know how to swim very well. It's also an excellent river trip for beginning kayakers, novice inflatable kayakers and novice rafters -- large pools follow rapids, making it easy to recover swimmers. Follow an experienced boater down the river, and you'll learn a ton. 
My son Drew enjoyed the river and caught a fish
Being on a more mellow river trip also reduces the stress meter. The Salmon is bordered by beautiful, spacious campsites where you can hang out and relax, swim, or play volleyball, bocce ball and horseshoes. The sweet river flows we had for our trip allowed us to float just a couple of hours during the day, and then relax and hang out in camp, go for a hike, take a nap, whatever.

There are a couple of new rapids on the Main Salmon that created some excitement because I hadn't run them before. Alder Creek is the first one to come up, just a few miles from the put-in, but at higher water, it was washed out and not an issue. Black Creek is the more significant new rapid. On Day 2, we paddled up to what used to be Salmon Falls, a Class 3+ rapid, and that's gone now, buried by a deep pool. A short ways downstream, you hear the roar of Black Creek Rapids. A horizon line  provides a hint that it's a steep drop. We scouted left, and at our water level, we could run it either on the left or right; there was a large hole in the middle. Two of our kayakers got knocked over by strong lateral waves and swam the left route. But there's a big pool below for an easy rescue. 
Paul, Rachel and Mike in Barth Hot Springs 
Below the rapids, Barth Hot Springs awaits for a soothing soak. The water was quite hot on the day we visited -- we guessed it was 105-106 degrees. 

Day 3 is always fun on the Main Salmon because it's a whitewater day ... we ran Bailey (big wave train on the right), Five Mile Rapids (stay left to avoid huge holes on the right), Big Mallard (always run left) and Elkhorn (watch out for big rock or hole in the middle of the wave train). And we topped it off with landing at Ground Hog Bar, one of my favorite campsites of all time. Ground Hog has a sweet swimming beach next to a sandy, shallow water landing. We set up the volleyball net in that shallow area, making for a nice, cool game on a 95-degree day. 
In-water volleyball court at Ground Hog Bar  
Volleyball action ... we never lost the ball! 
Lawrence and Rico kept us entertained in camp
The top of Ground Hog Bar has a shady "kitchen" area and tons of choice tent sites, also in the shade. Plus, there's room for a horseshoe pit and bocce ball court. 
Sylvan Hart aka Buckskin Bill 
On Day 4, we floated to Buckskin Bill's place on Five Mile Bar, and my son Drew was thrilled to learn that he could get a chocolate ice cream bar there. He didn't know that would be an option on a wilderness river.  Buckskin Bill's also has a small museum with many pictures of Sylvan Hart, a mountain man who lived on the Salmon River for many years beginning in the 1930s. He made knives and deer skin clothes, built custom rifles and and battled with the U.S. government over various issues. Drew and I climbed up into a little fortress that Buckskin Bill built into the mountainside, including a turret where he could hide and protect himself from unwelcome intruders. 
Buckskin Bill's fortress
The River of No Return is steeped with history. Be sure to bring the book of the same name with you on the float trip to learn all the great stories that Cort Conley and Johnny Carrey put together in the highly entertaining book. You can learn who were the first people to float the Salmon River, you'll see Pine Creek Rapids, the spot where Lewis & Clark turned back and took an overland route via Lolo Pass, Jim Moore's Place near Campbell's Ferry, an historic site with old cabins still standing, and much more. 

On Day 5 and Day 6, the Salmon River slows down as the gradient decreases and long flat-water sections can be difficult to push through in big headwinds. Luckily, at our water level, we just cruised through the flatwater with ease and practically no wind. That's just lucky. Having slogged through "Lake Salmon," as it's fondly referred to, in low water many times, I kicked back and smiled as we glided through the canyon. We did a little fishing at the mouth of large streams like Warren Creek and Mann Creek and had some success. Way to go Drew! 

On the last day of the trip, I felt a tinge of melancholy, knowing that our magic carpet ride was about to end ... but we had some excitement as well, knowing that Chittam Rapids, a well-respected drop in high water, stood between us and the takeout at the Carey Creek boat ramp. We took a moment to scout it, and there was plenty of room on the right side to avoid some holes in the middle. Vinegar Creek Rapids had some big splashy waves down the gut, and even Carey Falls had some punch, especially for the kayakers. 

It always feels like a river trip ends too soon, especially one as sweet as this one was. But there's always next year~! 

A few notes: 
  • Logistics - Put-in is at Corn Creek, northwest of Salmon, Idaho, and the takeout is at the Vinegar Creek or Carey Creek boat ramp, east of Riggins. 
  • Hire a guide or do it yourself? If you don't have your own whitewater rafting/kayaking equipment, maybe you have friends who can take you on the river. If not, you can hire an outfitter to enjoy a vacation on the Main Salmon. Go to for information on outfitters who run the Main Salmon. 
  • Shuttle - One of the biggest costs of doing the Main Salmon is shuttling your vehicle from the put-in to the takeout. You can do a vehicle shuttle for $350-$400 per vehicle; hire a jet boat to carry your group and river gear from the takeout to Corn Creek (price varies); or hire a bus and trailer to drive your group and river gear to the put-in, and pick you up after the trip is over. For our group of 17, it was most cost-effective to hire a bus. We used Caldwell Transportation, and it worked out great. 
  • Trip timing - When the summer gets hot, it's a perfect time to float the Salmon River. July and August are a great time to go. Trips in June may encounter high water and sometimes the weather can be iffy in June. In May, same drill as June. A late-season trip in September can be really nice, with more moderate temperatures in the 70s and 80s, and stable weather. In October and November, it's steelhead season on the Salmon River. Try doing that sometime. 
  • Getting a permit - For do-it-yourselfers, you need a permit to float the Main Salmon. That's because it's very popular, it's in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness area, and only 8 launches are allowed per day. To get a permit, go to and apply for one next year. Permit applications are due by the end of January. You'll be notified if you got a permit or didn't get one in late February. If you hire an outfitter, no permit is necessary. Last-minute cancelations can be picked up on as well. 
There you have it! Have fun! 
- SS