We planned a trip to the Sawtooth Mountains after seeing a picture of Alice Lake in the summer and decided that it is somewhere we must go. Many people don’t think of Idaho as a vacation destination (and keep it that way!), but there are so many amazing places in Idaho.
I can’t count the number of times that people asked us if we were going to Idaho to see potatoes when we mentioned that we were going to Idaho for vacation. While there are potatoes in Idaho, there are also some of the most beautiful mountains and wildernesses in the lower 48 states.
The Sawtooth Mountains were the centerpiece of our trip to Idaho and we were sad to leave even after a week there. There are so many beautiful things to see in the Sawtooth Mountains. Read further to see all that you need to know to visit the Sawtooth Mountains.
****Note: This post may include affiliate links to products I recommend. I may earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you) from purchases from these links. But no worries, I only include links to products that we have tried or truly recommend!
*****Everything in this article is my personal opinion and experiences. Check your own resources and choose to do anything I discuss at your own risk. Some of the things in this post may be dangerous and not recommended for every body.
About the Sawtooth Mountains
The Sawtooth Mountains are part of the Rocky Mountain Range, located in central Idaho. Within the Sawtooth Mountains are the Sawtooth Wilderness, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and Sawtooth National Forest. There are almost 400 lakes within the Sawtooth Mountains. There are currently no glaciers within the Sawtooth Range.
Before visiting, we wondered why they are named “the Sawtooth Mountains,” but as soon as we saw them, we realized why they have the name. The peaks have multiple short jagged edges, just like a saw.
Where are the Sawtooth Mountains?
The Sawtooth Mountains are located in central Idaho. Stanley, Idaho is a main hub for people visiting the Sawtooth Mountains.
Boise, Idaho to the Sawtooth Mountains: 130 miles, 3 hours
Missoula, Montana to the Sawtooth Mountains: 260 miles, 5 hours
Jackson, Wyoming to the Sawtooth Mountains: 300 miles, 5 hours
How to Get to the Sawtooth Mountains
The best way to get to the Sawtooth Mountains is by car. If you are coming from far away, the closest large airport is in Boise, Idaho. From Boise, you can rent a car to drive the rest of the way to the Sawtooth Mountains.
If renting a car in Boise, I recommend using Booking.com. We always use Booking.com to rent cars as they always have the cheapest deals and often have free cancellation.
**Note that many of the national forest access roads are gravel and most (if not all) rental car companies have rules regarding travel on gravel roads. If you rent a car, please be sure to talk to your rental agent about where you plan on driving and if it is okay for your rental car.
Where to Stay in the Sawtooth Mountains
There are many options for places to stay in the Sawtooth Mountains depending on your budget. One thing to note is that there are not many AirBnbs available in this area since most of the land is federally owned. While we often like staying in AirBnbs, this wasn’t really an option in the Sawtooth Mountains.
Camping can be a great option if you love nature and are on a smaller budget. There are some absolutely amazing campsites in the Sawtooth Mountains. While there are many reservable campgrounds in the Sawtooths, some of the best campgrounds are only first-come, first-serve. If you have flexibility in your trip, first-come, first-serve may be your best bet.
Some campgrounds that we stayed at in the Sawtooth Mountains were Point Campground at Redfish Lake, Glacier View Campground, and Pine Flats Campground. My favorite campground we stayed at was the Point Campground which is only a few steps away from a beach on Redfish Lake.
If you plan on reserving campsites in advance, most campgrounds and sites are listed on Recreation.gov.
Backcountry camping is also an option if you are prepared and comfortable in your backcountry camping skills. In full transparency, we tried backcountry camping at the end of June in the Sawtooth Wilderness and it was a train wreck for us haha. Even at the end of June, the temperature around Alice Lake was in the low teens and it was piling on snow, so we ended up not staying overnight out in the wilderness.
On the western side of the Sawtooth Mountains, we stayed in the Sawtooth Lodge. Sawtooth Lodge is super cute and rustic, located around 6 miles out a gravel road in the national forest. It is so serene and peaceful there. The Sawtooth Lodge has a warm pool filled with water from their private hot spring. Also, along the road to the Sawtooth Lodge, there are some nice hot springs alongside the river. They have several different types of lodging, but we stayed at one of their cabins.
On the eastern side of the Sawtooth Mountains, the Redfish Lake Lodge is probably the most popular place to stay. It is super cute. Even if you do not stay at the Redfish Lake Lodge, there are multiple amenities available to any visitor. In the summer there are free concerts along the lake with views of the mountains behind the performers. Also, the eatery beside their marina has some of the best soft serve ice cream.
Things to Do at the Sawtooth Mountains
Redfish Lake is personally one of my favorite areas of the Sawtooth Mountains. The lake is ginormous and there are so many things to do. In addition to all of the things to do particularly at the lake, it is also a gateway for exploring deeper in the Sawtooth Wilderness via various trails.
The Redfish Lodge on the Redfish Lake is an amazing place to start your exploration of this area. There are great views of the mountains as well as various amenities and boat rentals. Various campgrounds surround the Redfish Lake and there are several day-use areas. Some very popular trails start from around Redfish Lake. If you’re interested more in Redfish Lake, check out my blog post on Redfish Lake.
Pettit Lake is another main area to explore and enter into the Sawtooth Wilderness. There are a few campgrounds and day use areas around Pettit Lake.
Pettit Lake Day-Use Area
The day-use area at Pettit Lake has lake front access and beautiful views of the mountains across the lake.
Tin Cup Trailhead
The Tin Cup Trail and Alice Lake Trail are some of the most popular and well-known trails in the Sawtooth Mountains. We started the Alice Lake Trail from here. If you take the Tin Cup Trail or Alice Lake Trail (which are the same trail up to Alice Lake since Alice Lake is on the Tin Cup Trail), you will walk along Petit Lake on the northern side. If starting from the Tin Cup Trailhead, you are about 1 mile from the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness. For more information regarding specifics of the Tin Cup Trail or Alice Trail, see my hiking in the Sawtooth Mountains blog post.
Yellow Belly Lake Trailhead
From the Petit Lake area, you can hike to Yellow Belly Lake, which is slightly north of Petit Lake. From the Tin Cup Trailhead, the hike is 5.1 miles round trip.
Visit the town of Stanley
Stanley, Idaho is a super cute little town in the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains that has some of the most gorgeous views of any town we have ever visited. No matter where you are in town, there are spectacular views of snow-capped peaks. My favorite place in Stanley is Perks & Peaks Coffee, which I promptly visited every morning before our hikes. I have a whole post on Stanley, Idaho and things to do in and around the town. For more information check out my Stanley, Idaho blog post.
Hike in the Sawtooth Wilderness
One of the major things to do in the Sawtooth Mountains is hike. Above I mentioned some of the hikes that can be done in the Sawtooths, but there are really endless hikes for every skill level. No matter what hike you do, in the Sawtooths you will see some amazing views. Alltrails.com and the national forest service can be a great resource for finding hikes in the Sawtooth Mountains that are suited for your fitness level. For more information on specific hikes to do, see my post of best hikes to do in the Sawtooth Mountains.
Go to a hot spring
Hot springs in the Sawtooth Mountains were one of my very favorite things in Idaho. Since hot springs are very fragile and can be easily found with a little research of your own., I will not be providing the names of the specific hot springs we visited. I encourage you to do your own research to find hot springs you might be interested in visiting. I mostly used Google Maps to find the hot springs that we visited that were unnamed. There is a book from Falcon Guides about Pacific Northwest Hot Springs (which includes Idaho), but we didn’t end up buying it. Also, some will not appear any where on the internet, but you will see steam rising from the side of the river and if there is a pull-off that is a good indication that there is a hot spring there.
If you do visit a hot spring while in the Sawtooth Mountains, please respect it and leave no trace. There are not many of them and many people that want to visit them, so it is essential to leave it better than you found it and to not leave any trash or destroy it. Most hot springs are maintained by the locals that regularly use them, so please respect the hot springs (and anything else!) during your visit.
See the Views from the Road
On our trip, I fell and hit my head (that’s a story for another day), so we had to spend some time taking it slow. We decided to drive around the Sawtooth Mountains on the main roads and were so surprised at how gorgeous the views are even from just the road. The road from Ketchum to Stanley is absolutely gorgeous and has many pull-offs along the road to soak in the views (and some even have informational panels with info on what you’re looking at). If you want to see multiple views of the Sawtooth Mountains, especially if you are unable to hike or spend a lot of time in the area, driving is a good way to see it from all different angles.
Visit Ketchum and Hailey
Ketchum and Hailey are a little over an hour south of Stanley, Idaho. They are definitely the closest “bigger” towns close to Stanley. There are restaurants, hotels, hospital, and pharmacy. The area is a huge skiing destination and is popular at all times of year. Ketchum and Hailey are popular with celebrities and was the last place that Ernest Hemmingway lived before his death. Many notable people have homes in Ketchum and Hailey.
Visit Stanley Lake
Stanley Lake is located west of Stanley. It is a beautiful lake with fantastic mountain views. There is a beach area and a dock. We launched our kayak from here and was one of my favorite places we were able to kayak in Idaho. Unfortunately there are no kayak rentals here, so you must bring your own kayak or SUP if you plan on taking to the water.
Some magnificent hikes start from Stanley Lake. Lady Face Falls Trail has great views of the mountains behind expansive wildflower fields. The hike is technically 5.3 miles, but you don’t need to hike the whole hike to have the best views. I would say that some of the best views along the trail are within the first mile of the hike.
Enjoy the Water
There are a lot of opportunities to enjoy the lakes and streams throughout the Sawtooth Mountains. Kayaking is a great way to enjoy the Sawtooths. The only main lake I know of in the Sawtooth Mountains that has kayak or boat rentals is Redfish Lake from the marina. If you want to kayak a lot, but don’t have a kayak (or are coming via plane and can’t bring a giant kayak with you), I recommend getting an inflatable kayak like the one that we have. If you go this route, make sure you follow all national forest and Idaho laws regarding watercraft and possible permits needed.
Another option for enjoying the water around the Sawtooth Mountains is to go on a rafting trip. Sawtooth Adventure Company runs several trips out of Stanley and would be a good option if you’re looking for a rafting trip as they have multiple options. We were unable to go on a rafting trip during our visit, but would love to on our next time in the Sawtooths.
4 Day Itinerary in the Sawtooth Mountains
This itinerary can be tailored to the type of activities you want to do. Feel free to modify to include or exclude hikes of different lengths and difficulties.
Spend the morning hiking the Fishhook Creek Trail, have a picnic lunch at the end of the trail, spend the afternoon relaxing at Redfish Lake. In the evening, watch sunset over Redfish Lake
Grab breakfast and coffee at Peaks & Perks in Stanley, head to Stanley Lake. Spend morning hiking the trails from Stanley Lake, have a picnic lunch by the lake. Spend the afternoon kayaking on Stanley Lake or relaxing on the beach at the lakeside. Have dinner at a restaurant in Stanley
In the morning do a rafting trip from Stanley. In the afternoon make the drive to Ketchum and Hailey, stopping for views along the way. Have dinner in Ketchum.
Hike starting from the Tin Cup Trailhead, spend the afternoon relaxing or kayaking at Petit Lake. After dinner go to Redfish Lake Lodge for ice cream while watching the sunset.
Tips of Visiting the Sawtooth Mountains
Spend a solid amount of time in the Sawtooth Mountains
The Sawtooth Mountains is not one of those destinations that you can visit in 1 day. To fully experience the Sawtooths and see what they have to offer, you will need to spend at least several days here. You can tailor your trip to what you have time for, but many of the prettiest area are spread out and will take time to visit.
It will be colder than you expect
We planned our trip to the Sawtooth Mountains in late June, thinking it would be prime summer weather. However, we were very surprised that it was still quite cold and even snowing at the higher elevations during our visit. What we thought would be warm weather camping turned into us bundled in our warmest clothes at night as the temperatures dipped into the low 30’s. Make sure that you pack warm clothes and layers, even if visiting in the middle of summer.
Leave no trace
The Sawtooth Mountains are a special place to locals and visitors alike. At the moment, they aren’t heavily visited and Idahoans like it that way. Please respect the land, the area, and people during your visit. Many beautiful places around America have been ruined by mass tourism and general disrespect of natural spaces, so please leave no trace and leave the Sawtooths better than you found it.
I hope that this guide helps you in planning your trip to the Sawtooth Mountains. I tried to cover everything possible, but please let me know if there are any questions you have after reading this or if I missed anything!
Thanks for reading!