Paradise found in the Sawtooth mountains

From left, Curtis Hoffman and Levi Painter are high on the slopes of Alpine Peak above Sawtooth Lake in central Idaho on Aug. 12. The pair were climbing to the summit of the peak on a smoky morning. (Jerry Painter photo)

A couple of weeks ago the Painters were holding a family reunion in the Stanley Basin area of central Idaho. Of course, hikes were involved.

This area is an outdoor paradise, pure and simple.

My oldest son was excited to take his dad up a fun peak next to Sawtooth Lake in the backcountry. So before dawn, my son Levi, son in-law Curtis and I drove to the trailhead at Iron Creek Campground. We arrived at a mostly packed trailhead parking lot at dawn.

I remarked at all the vehicles.

“This is one of the most popular trails in the Sawtooths,” Levi said.

We set a brisk pace up the trail and didn’t see anyone until we approached Alpine Lake, 4 miles up the trail. Here we met a few early rising backpackers hiking out. We didn’t hike down to the lake, but continued on to Sawtooth Lake, another 1.2 miles. At the other end of the lake (about another .7 miles), we passed a group of women backpackers just rising up for the morning. Sawtooth Lake is enormous — about a mile long. It is dominated by the picturesque Mount Regan on the south side. This calm morning it looked like a massive mirror reflecting the peaks and sky surrounding it.

Our goal was Alpine Peak on the east side of the lake. Its long ridge separates Sawtooth and Alpine lakes. From the upper end of Sawtooth Lake, we zig-zagged up the west side of Alpine Peak about 1,000 feet to reach the north-south ridge of the mountain.

Here, the scrambling became fun as we made our way along the narrow ridge to the summit. At times, the huge dropoffs on either side made my son in-law nervous. He lives in Beaverton, Ore., where big cliffs are hard to come by. After a short easy scramble of perhaps a quarter-mile, we arrived at the summit. From here, the views are outstanding. Two things were difficult not to stare at: Mount Regan and Sawtooth Lake. We discussed the possible routes up Mount Regan, but most of them looked like they had a couple of terrifying obstacles to climb.

Coming off Alpine Peak, we took the opposite side — the east slope — through scree, talus fields and some long patches of snow. The snow sections allowed us a chance to boot-glissade (basically skiing on your hiking shoes).

After a couple of thousand feet of descent angling north, we arrived back at Alpine Lake. At the lake, we started bumping into fishermen and backpackers camped along its shores.

“From here on out you can expect to see hikers on the trail about every three minutes,” Levi said. His words were spot on. Every few minutes, we passed hikers coming up the trail as we hiked back to our car. We arrived back about 1 p.m. Cars were parked a quarter of a mile down the road. The trailhead parking lot was double parked in some spots.

We drove to Stanley Lake to meet up with the rest of the family hiking up a nearby trail to visit waterfalls.

If you’re interested in the outdoor wonderland of the Stanley Basin area, I recommend the recently updated guidebook by my friend Margaret Fuller, “Trails of the Sawtooth and Boulder-White Cloud Mountains.”

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