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  • Kayla Sulak

Travel Journal: A Week of Backpacking in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho

As an avid hiker, the Sawtooth Mountains have been on my radar since long before picking up outdoors photography as a hobby. It wasn't until I arrived there and began exploring that I realized, this is a really difficult place for a landscape photographer to come shoot! Although the town of Stanley, Idaho is seated at the base of the rugged, majestic Sawtooth range--and there are lots of lakes and scenic roads that are accessible by passenger car--this is not a place where photographers necessarily have a buffet of iconic, photogenic vistas right off the main road compared to, say, Yosemite or Crater Lake National Parks. Fortunately, I brought my backpacking gear.

Any of the best views in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (NRA) are a steep hike up and away from where the cars park; and since my favorite times to shoot are between the final evening hours and the first light of morning, I decided to make an overnight backpacking trip to camp at each destination I had in mind, instead of just day hiking to them.

A self portrait while backpacking deep within the Sawtooth Wilderness

Above: a self portrait while backpacking deep within the Sawtooth Wilderness

Planning the agenda for this kind of photography-based road trip is often a finely tuned art form that takes into consideration many factors: the moon cycle, weather forecasts, seasonal changes to a landscape, my payday cycle at work, and much, much more, in order to set myself up for the most success. I might start by doing a Google search for the best hiking trails in a given location, or look for photography guides that mention where the most picturesque vistas are in a region--however, I try to avoid eyeing other fine art photographs if I think it will make it harder to bring my own creative vision.

My preferred road trip strategy is to get equipped with a lot of research, make notes on my maps, and then fly by the seat of my pants WITHOUT a cut-and-dry plan. However, this time I had very lofty ambitions to hike nearly forty miles in several days, so I made a plan (and stuck with it) to complete a list of hikes in order of hardest to easiest, with half-day resting breaks in between. Saving the easiest for last seemed like the best plan of action, knowing I would be exhausted by the end of the week.

Day one after arriving in the Sawtooths involved getting familiar with the town of Stanley, scouting out the trailheads I would be hiking from, and then resting up from the long drive. One of the many things I loved about the Sawtooths NRA is how friendly it is to dispersed campers who want a free place to park overnight without all the amenities of an official campground--although, the area is full of world class campgrounds with camp hosts and varying amenities/hookups, too, if that's your jam! I found a dispersed camp spot with a nice rock fire ring near Stanley Lake, where I had a bonfire and lounged around before bed.

That first night brought my first encounter with the local wildlife, when a large creature shrieked and charged at me in the shadows, then proceeded to lurk beyond the reaches of my campfire light while making strange, deep barks in my direction. The heavy snapping of branches under its feet forced me to hide in my truck, and I never did identify what the monster in the dark was that night (however I've since matched its talk to recordings of a cougar). I hoped my nights way out in the wilderness would be a lot less creepy than that night by my truck!

Baron Lakes was the first hike on the list. Not only was it the longest, steepest and most remote hike of the week, at approximately 15 miles round trip and 3600 feet of elevation gain, but it involved taking a shuttle boat across Redfish Lake and being "abandoned" in the Wilderness until the boat comes back (unless you want to save your $17 and add another 8 miles, and a few thousand feet of elevation gain to your round trip hike).

As I walked down the pier toward the Redfish Marina, I was outside of my body. My legs kept moving forward, even though my brain didn't feel like it was connected to the movement. "Oh my God, I think I'm really going to do this. Am I going to chicken out at the last minute? I'm scared. My feet seem to keep moving forward even though I'm terrified. Apparently I'm really doing this," I wagered with myself about what I would do next. When the man at the marina desk greeted me, I blurted out that I'd like a round trip ferry ride for one, without hesitation; handed him my payment, and walked onto the boat with my backpack which I prayed had everything I needed. My feet suddenly felt heavier in the last few steps before hopping from dock to boat.

The boat, some sort of charter boat, glided across the choppy lake waters with the ease of a hot knife cutting through butter. Within minutes it pulled up next to a tiny dock on the other side of Redfish Lake, where I and about eight other people departed and scurried up our trails beneath the jagged peaks that towered above.

A trailhead in the Sawtooths NRA

Above: a typical trailhead in the Sawtooths NRA

Once I began walking up the trail, any remnants of self doubt were traded for a feeling of gratitude to have made it out that day. People who passed me on their way down were smiling and friendly. The hike to Baron Lakes start out as an undulating, gradual climb beneath eye catching peaks, until it reaches a junction for Alpine Lake where it gains most of the trip's elevation on the way up to there and the Baron Divide. After gaining 3600' to the top of the Baron Divide, there is a steep downhill hike to reach the shore of the very remote Baron Lakes.

Baron Lakes as viewed from atop the Baron Divide

Above: Baron Lakes as viewed from atop the Baron Divide

This was such a hot and sweaty hike that my new cell phone had stopped working a few miles in. For that reason, I was feeling hard pressed to catch the earliest boat back to town at 9 a.m. the next morning. I settled for camping on top of the Baron Divide with incredible 360° views of Sawtooths paradise, to avoid that steep "little" hike back uphill from Baron Lakes the next morning. The other hikers had opted to set up camp next to the various lakes below, so it was a lonely, solitary night on top of the Baron Divide, deep in the Sawtooths Wilderness for my first time.

At 6:30 a.m., I awoke in my cozy sleeping bag an hour later than intended, with no working cell phone to use as an alarm clock. I packed up and speed-walked/ran the seven or so miles back for the shuttle boat--the absolute fastest I have ever packed or hiked in my life, mind you, because I knew I would be cutting it so close that there was a chance I might even show up right as the boat was leaving. Plus, the one thing I forgot to pack this time turned out to be a cup of coffee, which definitely hurt my morale that morning.

After making it back to town, I found WiFi at a lodge and freshened up at a riverside hot spring near Stanley, Idaho. Life doesn't get much better than going backpacking, and then soaking your tired muscles in steamy, mineral rich springs--and eating some good food. The search for a post-hike breakfast led me a short drive away to the Smiley Creek Lodge. They cook up a mean country fried steak breakfast with potatoes and eggs! Later in the week I tried their Alturas chicken sandwich for lunch and was delighted again. This place is recommended if you ever visit the area!

The next two backpacking trips to Alice Lake and Sawtooth Lake were more popular destinations, but certainly no less magnificent. The trek to Alice Lake involves about five unbridged crossings along a cold, fast moving creek, but this doesn't stop hoards of people from visiting anyway. Only a few groups were staying overnight at the lake, so I had a chance to nab what may have been the best camping spot along the lake. My tent was set up on a small peninsula nearly surrounded by water--and somehow the mosquitoes were almost nonexistent. It had to be some sort of fluke. In the morning, I hiked the extra half mile farther to see Twin Lakes, yet another beautiful pair of alpine lakes which glimmered beneath giant peaks. Someday, I would like to continue onward from here to complete the entire Alice-Toxaway Loop that this trail follows.

Backpacking dinner beneath El Capitan at Alice Lake

Above: backpacking dinner beneath El Capitan at Alice Lake; below: my tent illuminated beneath the Milky Way at Alice Lake

My tent illuminated beneath the Milky Way at Alice Lake

The last destination of the week was Sawtooth Lake, a picturesque paradise seated directly beneath Mount Regan. There weren't a lot of spots for a tent next to the lake; however, after watching me wander aimlessly for a while, a man (a dad camping with his daughters) began chatting with me and then pointed me toward a nice flat spot on a bluff directly above their camp, where I had unrestricted views of the lake and surrounding peaks. It was a lot more windy and chilly than previous nights, but my dinner of rehydrated beefy mac and a can of pilsner was very satisfying after the steep hike. When it got dark, I was surprised and delighted to watch the Milky Way rise right behind Mount Regan from the comfort of my sleeping bag. That night was a wonderful gift.

Enjoying a beautiful morning at Sawtooth Lake

Above: enjoying a beautiful morning at Sawtooth Lake

In total, I hiked nearly forty miles of trails with 7,000 feet of elevation gain during my first trip to the Sawtooth Range. Once the week was over, it was almost hard to register that I had actually followed through with every mile of my lofty hiking plans--by myself, no less. Sometimes on adventures, my energy and motivation comes from a rather mysterious place within, and in retrospect it's almost like I was under a spell... perhaps the magical spell of babbling brooks and majestic mountains.

Each day on the trail was a roller coaster of emotions as I reflected within myself--from feelings of exhaustion, self doubt or loneliness, to being awe struck, inspired, and filled with a sense of immense accomplishment. It was demanding and challenging work, yet it left me feeling healthier and more energized afterward. Things like bills and petty life dramas become much smaller concerns the longer you spend time in the back country... and, you're allowed to appreciate the simpler things like sipping from streams, or debating whether the stars were brighter last night or tonight. Needless to say, I'm back in shape and ready for the rest of this backpacking season.

Where do you hope to go hiking this summer? See you out there perhaps! :) Happy Adventures, my friends!

- Kayla

#travel #Backpacking #Idaho #Camping #Hiking

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