Hiking in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho

Silver Creek Road, Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho

In September, Matt and I visited Ketchum, Idaho.  We were tucked away in the woods, staying at a cozy cabin that belongs to a friend.  This friend requested I not reveal any of their secret places.  To which I say, I’m flattered that you think my blog has so many readers.  Because if they all were to descend on Ketchum, Idaho at the same time, I’m pretty sure no one would even notice.  But I’ll only share the hikes, the ones that are printed on maps readily available at the visitors center.  Besides, the secret – the rugged beauty of the Sawtooth Mountains – is definitely out.

Ketchum, located in central Idaho, is an outdoor enthusiasts dream. The opportunities for fishing, biking, skiing, and hiking seem endless. Matt and I were there for one week. Each day after breakfast, we’d go for a hike, Matt would fish, then we would sit outside and read until dark, we made dinner, and then we would read again, this time by the fireplace. Our daily hikes venturing into the wilderness barely even gave us a glimpse of the gorgeous scenery. Each hike prompted adding more hikes to the list, a list that would require multiple visits to accomplish.

Our first hike was to Fourth of July Lake in the White Cloud Mountains. (The information for each of these hikes is taken from pamphlets and maps provided by the U.S. Forest Service.) After driving on a lonely dirt road for miles through an area that had a recent forest fire, we were surprised to find so many cars in the parking lot of the trailhead. The hike to 4th of July Lake is pretty easy, about 3.5 miles round trip with a 580′ elevation gain.

Fourth of July Lake
Fourth of July Lake

On our second day, Matt had procured a fishing license for the week. He wanted to fish the Big Wood River all day long so I walked for miles along the Harriman Trail, around Baker Creek, wishing I had brought my bike. The Harriman Trail is 18 miles long with 1500′ of elevation difference. The trail goes from North Fork (or the Sawtooth National Rec Area Visitors Center) to Galena.

The Harriman Trail
The Harriman Trail
The Harriman Trail
The Harriman Trail
Matt fishing in Baker Creek
The Big Wood River, along the Harriman Trail

We drove up to the town of Stanley because we really wanted to hike in the Sawtooth Mountains, but smoke from a nearby wildfire made the air quality questionable and the views almost non-existent. We stopped by Redfish Lake, Petit Lake, and then eventually settled on a short hike in to Yellow Belly Lake and McDonald Lake where the air was clear. The hike to Yellow Belly Lake was relatively flat and easy, but the fish were non-existent.

Looking towards the town of Stanley from Lower Stanley. The haze is from a nearby wildfire.
Lower Redfish Lake
Lower Redfish Lake
Petit Lake
At the edge of Yellow Belly Lake
McDonald Lake
Yellow Belly Lake

On our way back to the cabin, we stopped at two historic mining sites, Sawtooth City and Vienna. There is not much left in either location, so I wouldn’t recommend making the drive to either one. We did, however, run across a shepherd with his sheep, so that was cool.

A small cemetery at Sawtooth City historic site.
All that remains of Sawtooth City.
The road to Vienna. When we arrived at the historic site, there was not a single thing remaining of the former mining town, not even a rusty can.

Our next hike was to Baker Lake, which is technically not in the SNRA, but it is close enough. The hike is 4 miles round trip with a 850′ elevation gain. Aside from the parking lot at Redfish Lake, and the parking lot at the trailhead of the Alice Lake/Toxaway Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains (Both were packed.), the hike to Baker Lake was the busiest trail we had encountered.

Baker Lake
Baker Lake
Baker Lake – look at those cuties.
Baker Lake – I had to keep an eye on this guy. He wanted my snacks.

The following day, we hiked to Norton Lakes, they are near Baker Lake so also not in the SNRA. This hike is great, and the lakes are gorgeous. Matt had his best day of fishing here too. The hike to Norton Lakes is 4.4 miles round trip with 1500′ of elevation gain. This one is a bit steep in spots with a few river crossings that were very easy (at this time of year). We encountered several groups on this hike as well, but it wasn’t as busy as Baker Lake.

At the trailhead to Norton Lakes.
The trail to Norton Lakes.
Lower Norton Lake
Lower Norton Lake
Upper Norton Lake
Upper Norton Lake
Upper Norton Lake

We had planned to hike to Alice Lake, but the wildfire smoke still remained, so we chose Boulder Basin as our final hike for the week. This one rivals the hike to Norton Lakes as my favorite, despite Boulder Basin being more popular with dirt bikes/ATV’s. We quickly understood why people prefer that mode of transportation here – the trail gets really gnarly. Luckily we only saw two trucks and one dirt bike. The hike is about 10 miles round trip if you can drive in the 1.2 miles to the trailhead. You gain around 1800′ of elevation, and the trail quickly turns to shale, which then turns to large rocks with running water, kind of like walking through a shallow riverbed.

But it’s totally worth it for the scenery, Clint Eastwood filmed scenes from Pale Rider here, and the hike takes you to the ghost town of Boulder City. If you’re used to the well preserved old mining towns in Nevada and California, you might be disappointed, but at least it’s not Sawtooth City or Vienna. There is also a lake you can hike to beyond the historic site, but we ran out of time because the hike heading back down through the slippery rocks takes almost as much time as heading up.

Near the Boulder Basin Trailhead
The parking lot for the trailhead is just around the corner. We parked the car too early not realizing there is an actual parking lot ahead.
Boulder Basin – there are several old structures along the trail.
Boulder Basin
Boulder Basin
Boulder Basin
Boulder Basin
Boulder Basin – when the trail goes from rocky river to smooth, you’re almost to the historic site.
Boulder City – This mining town once had 700 residents.
Boulder City
Boulder City
Boulder City
Boulder City
Boulder City
Boulder City
Boulder Basin
Boulder Basin – Heading back down, here is a glimpse of the trail on the right. There is at least a mile of this.

And there you have it. Our first visit to Ketchum, Idaho was amazing. I’d love to visit again. If you go, please don’t all go at once. :)

Have you hiked in this area before? What’s your favorite hike? Leave me a comment, I’d love to hear about it!

4 thoughts

  1. We live in Hailey, which is just south of Ketchum. This past summer due to the pandemic, we decided to get out more. We have hiked to a lot of places but Baker Lake is my favorite. Our first time out was right after the fire they had up there. This summer it was beautiful to see just how it has grown and healing. Thank you for coming to our part of town. Most people call this a fly over state. But its really beautiful.

    Like

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