4 - 5
FATMAP difficulty grade
Sawtooth Lake is just one of countless alpine lakes in the Sawtooth Mountains, but is among the most well known, due in part to sharing the name and also due to its exceptional scenery.
A handful of trails converge at Sawtooth Lake, but the trail from Iron Creek is the shortest and most popular.
To get there, drive to the Iron Creek Campground and follow signs to the trailhead.
Because it’s one of the top hikes in the area, you should arrive early if you want to beat the crowds. The hike begins in shady forest of tall spruce and fir trees, and goes only slightly uphill for the first two miles.
Eventually the gradient steepens, and simultaneously the forest opens up somewhat.
Meadows and boulder fields allow better views to the surrounding peaks, and you’ll suddenly realize you’ve entered the interior of the mountain range. The trail crosses a creek in a sunny clearing, then the real uphill begins, on switchbacks through rocky forest.
Atop the first set of switchbacks, at about 3.5 miles from the trailhead, is a signed side trail to Alpine Lake.
It’s a lake much smaller than Sawtooth Lake, but very much worth visiting if you have a little extra time and energy.
Consider saving it for the return journey, when coming down from Sawtooth Lake. A second set of switchbacks, tougher than the first, takes you higher in the valley.
Views keep getting better of craggy peaks overhead, and Alpine Lake is visible below.
Soon the gradient flattens out, and you’ll pass a small pond just before reaching a glimpse of Sawtooth Lake.
It’s a huge, blue lake surrounded by granite-gray slopes.
Don’t stop when you first see the water, though, because better views await around the corner.
The trail continues through a miniature canyon for a short distance, then emerges at an elevated viewpoint.
There you’ll see the entire lake and the 10,000-foot Mount Reagan hulking on the other side.
This overlook makes a good turnaround point, though the trail continues all along the lake, if you want to explore more. The water is shockingly cold, but may feel refreshing on hot day if you want to jump in.
In general, expect it to be much chillier and windier at the lake than at the trailhead.
Bringing layers of clothing as well as sun protection is a good idea at any time of year.
This hike is most popular in the heat of summer, but also in the fall for cooler weather and changing colors.
The trail is open in the spring, but remains snowy at the higher elevations throughout May and usually into June.
Expect muddy conditions in early summer. Most people do Sawtooth Lake as a day hike, but there are backcountry campsites near both Sawtooth and Alpine Lakes.
Whether day hiking or backpacking, you must fill out a permit because this trail enters a wilderness area.
These are self-issued along the trail and free of charge, but are required.
Dogs are allowed but must be on a leash during the busy season of July 1 through Labor Day.
If you plan to camp, be sure to know the additional [wilderness regulations](https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sawtooth/recarea/?recid=5969).