Idaho – Backpacking the Sawtooth Wilderness

Since we are based in the Seattle area, most of our adventures take place in Washington and Oregon, but we have always heard about how wonderful and beautiful the Sawtooth Wilderness area is, just a short jaunt away in Idaho!  So in late August of 2022, we decided to take a few extra days off work to extend our weekend and make our way down to backpack this area for the first time.  

We decided to do a super chill, out-and-back, 2 night backpack to Cramer Lakes.  We wanted to spend our 2 nights in the same campsite rather than venture further into the wilderness, and that made for a really nice, relaxing time at an easygoing pace. 

Alpenglow above Middle Cramer Lake

The Details

  • PERMITS: free, self-issued permit at the trailhead
  • DOG FRIENDLY? yes!
  • GETTING THERE: The hike starts at the Redfish Inlet Trailhead, which is accessible by boating across Redfish Lake at the Redfish Inlet.  The closest town to this is Stanley, ID
    • DIFFICULTY: moderate- starts out flat then gradually climbs to the lakes, water crossing
    • DISTANCE: we hiked to a spot in between Upper & Middle Cramer Lake, which ended up being 7.5 total miles (out-and-back) and about 2000′ elevation gain. You can make this shorter by stopping at Lower Cramer Lake, or extend your hike even further into the Sawtooths.
    • Late August is that magical time of year- my favorite time of year actually- that transitions from summer to fall.  This means we didn’t have to deal with many pesky mosquitoes, the night air was a touch cooler compared to the midst of summer, and we never felt like the area was crowded as it otherwise may have been during peak summertime   
    • Water access is plentiful- great for dogs to cool down in, and for us to always have drinking water to filter!
    • There is a stream crossing in the middle of the hike that you will have to wade through- we took off our hiking shoes and switched to sandals for this part of the hike
    • Food storage is required!  We used to have a hanging bear bag system, but switched to using a bear canister in 2022 and never turned back
    • Check out our packing list for what we like to bring on a backpacking trip!

The Experience

Day 0: Getting to Idaho

  • This entire day consisted of us driving into Idaho and finding somewhere to stay the night near Redfish Inlet. 
  • We were hoping to snag a first-come-first-serve campsite at Sunny Gulch Campground but we didn’t have any luck (arrived too late in the evening), so we found a dispersed camping area on some Forest Roads just east of the campground instead (FR-70654E and FR-70654f).
Red circle = FR-70654E where we set up our dispersed camping; Yellow arrow = entrance to Sunny Gulch Campground; Brown arrow = pit toilet access, a short walk from our dispersed camping site;
Photo credit: Google Maps

Day 1: Hiking in

  • We woke up before first light to pack up camp, took a short drive to Redfish Inlet, and then bought a boat ticket (“Hiker’s Boat Shuttle” – see website for details for times they run and costs) to get across the water to the actual trailhead for our hike. 
    • Of course there is the option to simply hike 5 miles around the lake to get to the trailhead if you didn’t want to pay for a boat ride
  • The boat ride is a quick 10-15 minutes.  Once you get off the boat, there are picnic areas and pit toilets right at the trailhead
    • Here, you must submit a free, self-issued permit at the trailhead before beginning your hike
  • The hike starts off with a gentle climb, and shortly after starting, incredible views of the surrounding mountain peaks begin
  • About 3.7 miles into the hike, there is a creek crossing that you’ll have to wade through.  I am a petite 5’2” but the water level reached my calves so I swapped my hiking boots for my Chacos sandals for this portion, then changed back shortly after crossing.  
  • Lower Cramer Lake comes into view first, but we decided to continue on
  • We decided to set up camp in between Upper & Middle Cramer Lake which was within earshot of a nearby waterfall which was just lovely to fall asleep to
  • This was about 7.5 miles and just under 2000’ elevation gain to get to this point

Day 2: Our second day and night at our campsite

  • Our second full day here was pristine.  The scenery was incredible.  The beauty of backpacking at this slow pace and simply allotting an entire day to enjoy the area is to truly enjoy nature at its finest. I believe everyone should have at least a few days per year completely disconnected from digital devices, phone service and civilization.
  • I sketched in my journal, and we all spent time reading books in our camp chairs or hammocks, jumped into the lake, and took a million photos of the alpenglow on the mountains reflecting on the lake.  There was no agenda, no plan, no alarm clocks..
  • It was a fantastic day to recharge and feel grateful for these public spaces, and the peace and tranquility Mother Nature can offer our minds and souls

Day 3: The return hike

  • We had arranged to catch the 12pm shuttle boat back to the Redfish Inlet, so we woke up before sunrise to pack up and hike 7.5 miles back down to the trailhead. 
  • We arrived at the trailhead earlier than expected, so we ate lunch while waiting, and there were a number of other hikers/backpackers joining us for the 12pm shuttle service, so we made sure we stayed near the front of the to ensure we made it on the boat. 
  • Then we drove all the way home, and that was it! 
  • We can’t wait to return to the Sawtooths Wilderness again as there is still so much left to explore in that stunning area!

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