While the Grand Tetons get top billing, we found Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains not only every bit as spectacular, but also much more sparsely frequented. Whereas the Tetons were swarming with visitors, we did not see more than a couple dozen people on the trail in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Our first hike there – a five-mile ascent to the Wilderness’ eponymous lake – proved the most memorable of our home leave adventures.
The little bit of hiking we did in Yellowstone and the trails we had chosen in the Tetons were of the family-friendly variety because we had wanted to get Munchkin interested in hiking. However, walking at a four-year-old’s pace is not a recipe for getting very far. D insisted that we get at least one serious hike in on the trip – even if it meant he would have to carry Munchkin the whole way.
We had booked an AirBnB in Hailey, at the entrance to the Sawtooth National Forest, but most of the truly spectacular hikes start out around Stanley – an hour and a half away. We reasoned that if we timed the drive to coincide with Junebug’s morning nap we could hit the trail with a well-rested, happy baby. The only flaw to this plan was that it took us a while to get going. It was 12:30 by the time we finally reached the trailhead, and nearly 1 p.m. by the time we had gotten the bag ready and both kids loaded – Junebug in a carrier on S’s back and Munchkin in the hiking backpack D carried. It would be 7:30 p.m. by the time we returned to our car, with a 90-minute drive still separating us from home.
The trail was beautiful beyond words. The path meandered through a pine forest, ascending gradually but continually. There were a few relatively flat portions, but also plenty of steep switchbacks. Once we crossed over Iron Creek, the trail became rockier and steeper, compensating for the extra difficulty with spectacular views of the jagged Sawtooth Mountains on one side and the snow-dappled peaks toward which we were climbing on the other.
As we approached the snow line the hiking grew more difficult, especially for D, who was carrying all of our gear and a forty-pound child on his back. Munchkin, sensing D’s steps falter, acted like an anti-motivational speaker. “You’re tired, papa, right?” he’d whisper in D’s ear over and over, “I’m too heavy for you to carry.” This coming from the same kid who the previous day on an easy trail in the Tetons had made the opposite argument. “I’m only four. I’m not too heavy. Please carry me papa,” he had pleaded, fighting back tears.
We passed a turn-off for beautiful Alpine Lake, but continued climbing, the upper trail offering increasingly better views of the shimmering lagoon. There were several portions of trail that were still covered in snow, though most of it had already melted by the time we arrived in the Sawtooths. Clearly, even a few weeks earlier the trail above the snow line had been much more difficult to navigate.
At last we reached the near shore of Sawtooth Lake and had lunch – at 4pm. We lingered for an hour, hiked an extra quarter of a mile to a spot that offered a panoramic view of the entire lake, then retraced our steps to the turnoff for Alpine Lake. After a quick detour there, and with the sun beginning to inch down toward the horizon, we headed back toward our car. All told we covered 11 miles and ascended 1700 feet from the trailhead to the icy lake.
It was on this trail, while S hiked ahead with Junebug, that a bear crashed out of the woods and crossed the path not fifty feet ahead of her, scaring her half to death. It was also in the Sawtooth Wilderness that we had our fox sightings: a red fox and a black one – two differently colored members of the same species – who snuck out of the woods and scampered along the road as dusk approached.
The only negative to an otherwise stunning hike was that carrying Munchkin all day did not agree with D’s health. He felt his shin splints coming on as we neared the lake. By the time he and Munchkin made it back to the parking lot, D’s right leg was wooden with pain – an injury that lingered for several weeks afterwards.