With peaks reaching over 10,000 feet, the Sawtooth Mountains are among the most rugged in all of the Inter-Mountain West. Deep snows linger until early July, which means most hikers of the Idaho Centennial Trail and the Wild West Trail will face winter-like conditions. Trail maintenance doesn’t occur until all the snow has melted, which means thru-hikers will most likely bushwack large sections. Immense blowdowns, avalanches, and the scars of forest fires plague hiking conditions. Ready yourself for a traverse of the Sawtooths through routes few people ever hike, even during peak season.
Unless you are lucky enough to hit the Sawtooths during a low snowpack year, or later in the season, you will experience deep snow. Luckily, elevations below 6,000 feet are snow free by the first week of June. Only the high altitude passes will force you to hike through the snow. This topographic assurance allows hikers to sleep below the snowline and cross the coldest sections while the sun is up.
- Icy avalanches and steep mountain passes are slippery and icy. Crampons are strongly recommended to prevent sliding off the mountain.
- Snow is white and reflective, don’t let your skin become burned in this section.
- If you are crossing the Sawtooths in the early spring, the stream crossings will be the most dangerous part of the hike. Use paracord tied to your waist to help assist in stream crossings.
Stream Crossings in the Sawtooth Mountains
When I hiked the Sawtooths, I hit them during peak melt. If you are a solo-hiker or on the short side, please do not attempt this section during peak melt!! Even small streams turn into raging whitewater rivers. There are no bridges in the Sawtooth Mountains. I would recommend hitting this section no earlier than June 15th, and even that date is a guesstimation. Check the current water levels and snowpack before embarking through the mountains. Wait for the peak melt to end. One week after traversing the Sawtooths, the water level dropped 1 foot. This is how fast it can come down. No reason to rush the hike.
The Remoteness of the Sawtooth Mountains
The Sawtooth Mountains are famous in the Boise Metropolitan area. As such, the most popular hiking trails in the state are located here. However, the Idaho Centennial Trail does not follow popular trails. Most of the hiking occurs in the western section of the range, where few if any, people ever make it in.
The trail enters the range through the south, crossing over Ross Peak Pass. It then plunges through the heart of the Sawtooth Wilderness area. There are no roads and after the Boise River, the only place to bail is Grand Jean. You will be following remote drainages through steep mountains. There is no cell service.
- Quite common in the Sawtooths.
- Black bear only but take all necessary precautions.
- Do not approach Elk, they are bigger than you.
- Never approach a Moose. These animals are big and aggressive, they fight wolves, they will not hesitate to fight you.
Wild West Trail Notes
Most rangers and locals will let you know the Sawtooths are “impassable” early in the season. While dangerous, the temperatures will be high enough that you won’t freeze. The high alpine lakes will most likely be frozen but the ice is soft, I wouldn’t recommend walking on it. The snowpack will cover all trails, which allows you to hike your own hike- quite literally. Follow the natural drainages and don’t give too much importance to the maps.