Climate change ‘dries up’ Sawtooth memories
The Sawtooth Wilderness is best known and best used for its high country lake basins just west of Highway 75—but Idaho native David has a special spot for the lesser used river country on the southern end of the wilderness: Middle Fork Boise, Queens and Little Queens Rivers.
In summer 1976 David had a summer job with the Forest Service at Dutch Creek Guard Station a few miles from Atlanta, a remote former mining town/resort about 100 miles from Boise (half of the trip on winding dirt road) near the river trailheads on the Sawtooth Wilderness.
While other Forest Service employees drove to Boise or Atlanta on days off, David hiked back into the Sawtooths to climb a peak or visit a lake basin, writing me a letter; sometimes huddled in a raincoat under small trees while thunder boomed throughout a basin. In July David hosted my first visit to Sawtooth Wilderness: up Little Queens River into lake basins, then back on the Queens River.
We sauntered on river trails through ponderosa pine up and back from alpine lakes, snowy basins, and small groves of spruce, subalpine fir, and whitebark pine. Trails built for horses gave easy access. Sunny mornings and afternoon thunderstorms. I don’t recall other hikers.
A return 46 years later we found the same rocky peaks, rivers, lakes, and alpine meadows—but more people, bone-dry soils, many basins, and ridges dotted with burned trees and trails clothed in post-fire vegetation.
Like hikes in other Western mountains, our trip was indirectly impacted by effects of climate change: uncertain weather patterns and more than 30 years of large fires which severely damaged trails in some areas.
Our 2022 river country hike took us through results of at least 7 fires—including a twice-burned lake basin and a jungle on Johnson Creek where a well-built stock trail was obscured in chest high ceanothus.
During a layover in the mining town of Atlanta, we learned the town was evacuated in 2013 for the Little Queens Fire although the town was spared.
We also learned that Trinity Ridge Fire of 2012 had demolished David’s summer workplace—Dutch Creek Guard Station. It was not rebuilt and no longer even shows on maps!
Sawtooth Wilderness—forming the headwaters of the Salmon, Payette, and Boise Rivers—has dozens of jagged peaks, many over 10,000 feet in elevation, hundreds of alpine lakes, and serene basins with crystal-clear springs. Naturally, this dazzling landscape is a popular backpacker destination.
We have visited the Sawtooths many times, but they are so overused we prefer other places. These backpack trips were about our 6th and 7th dating back to 1975, although David day hiked Sawtooth Primitive Area in late 1960s. In 2016, a long trek included 1975 trip David took with his dog.
The 2022 trip repeated part of a 1976 loop on Little Queens and Queens rivers to high country from Atlanta area where David had summer Forest Service job. Although this area is still less used, revisit was negatively impacted by fire damage to trails.
The 2018 trip aimed to visit trailless basins in Warbonnet Peak area, but dry soils unsafe on steep climb above Baron Lakes. So we hiked trails around the first north-south ridge on eastern side of wilderness visible from Sawtooth Valley floor—starting and ending at Redfish Lake.
Solitude was the norm for both trips, even 2018 visit to popular area just after Labor Day weekend. We saw crowds mostly near trailheads or camping at heavily used lakes; people seem to park at lakes more than hike in Sawtooths. We shared campsites with no one on either trip.
We noticed dryer conditions likely from climate change. In 2018, some trails were powder dry, further pulverized by outfitters using stock to ferry camping gear into popular lake basins for hiker clients. Since 1970s trails have degraded and scarce lake campsites trampled.
Forest Service management should refocus on visitor enjoyment—purpose of Wilderness Act—by cleaning up fire effects on trails with power tools and providing more campsite options.
Visit statistics (of 2022 & 2018 trips combined): 16 days, 145 miles at an average of 1.9 miles per hour, and 400 feet per mile average elevation change.
Go to map below for more information on trailheads, GPS routes, mileage, elevation changes, and photos. (Click on white box in upper right corner to expand map and show legend with NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS.)
Sawtooth HistoryNamed for their jagged peaks and U-shaped valleys, the Sawtooth Mountains encompass 678 square miles across 4 counties. The Sawtooth formation is due to the lifting and erosion of the Idaho Batholith of granite and granodiorite. Hundreds of lakes in the Sawtooth Wilderness were formed as glaciers eroded the earth then melted away as the Little Ice Age ended. Some perennial snowfields remain.
The Sawtooths were utilized by people as early as 8000 BC. A band of Shoshone Indians known as Sheepeaters for their bighorn sheep dining preference; were the last to roam freely in central Idaho. In 1878 Levi Smiley found gold, spurring the first white settlers from eastern U.S.; Sheep and cattle ranchers came after the miners left.
The Forest Service established a Sawtooth Primitive Area in 1937. Idaho Senator Frank Church introduced a bill in 1963 to create a Sawtooth Wilderness National Park encompassing the primitive area although it was not enacted.
The primary political push to protect the entire Sawtooth Valley came after molybdenum was discovered near base of Castle Peak in the White Cloud Mountains in 1968 and an ambitious mining venture was proposed. The Sawtooth National Recreation Area, created in 1972, encompassed the Sawtooths and White Clouds, banned mining, and the primitive area became Sawtooth Wilderness; now 218,000 acres.
2022 return: Alturas to AtlantaOur 1976 trip had started near Atlanta on south end of wilderness; this time we started our 2022 trip on eastside at Alturas Lake (site of David’s first camping trip as middle schooler) and eventually circled around and down to Atlanta. After steep climb over Mattingly Divide we looped the first north-south ridge on eastern side of wilderness visible from Sawtooth Valley floor—starting and ending on the Middle Fork Boise River with side trip to Leggit Lake.
We had to choose between Little Queens and Queens rivers to make loop; we chose Little Queens for more convenient lake visits.
Wrong choice! Fire-damaged trails in Little Queens area—some not cleared since the Idaho City Complex Fire of 1992—were the biggest change and disappointment.
After being dusted out by passing “dirt bikes” on first few miles of motorcycle trail from Alturas, we were pleased the machines had to turn off towards North Fork Ross Fork and Johnson Creek; only a few mountain bikes attempted super-steep route to Mattingly Divide on wilderness boundary, where we camped, battling mosquitos, on the wet broad pass. Before the pass, the 2021 Jakes Fire had burned trees on the hillside west of trail, but Forest Service used the trail for fire line, so it was in great shape with no fire damage.
Steep drop through fields of flowers and scary creek crossings (I waded) to the Middle Fork Boise River where we started meeting people. A group camped near river had been packed in by Backcountry Horsemen for a week of trail clearing. Clouds gathered on the high country above, but we only got a sprinkle or two.
Next day I got behind David on river crossings. He met a group who was a day ahead of us coming from Alturas; they had camped at Heart Lake off main trail and were headed for Spangle Lake. We did not see their camp but met another Alturas group there. Only 1 hiker (bound for Sawtooth Lake) had signed register but at least two other groups had come that way.
Hail caught us above Spangle; we put on raingear and went on to the pass. We met other backpackers who envied my rain pants. They were looping from Grandjean Trailhead up Payette River to lake country, as were others we met. Rain slowed; we stopped for a break and were passed by a family with dogs. I saw them on Ingeborg Lake while I was checking out campsites and assumed they camped around the bend from us.
Ingeborg Lake was lower than our last visit in 2016; we saw it had no inlet or outlet and perhaps result of dry conditions and less rain the last few years. David asked me to hike back to other side of lake to look for possible spring while he set up camp. Rain returned and I took refuge in some spruce trees. Rain continued off and on for an hour. I soaked my Gore-Tex boots and socks while hiking through basin; water was running a few inches over the ground! I found no spring.
On a clear cold morning, we switchbacked on good trail past several lakes to Benedict Creek where “Grandjean Lake loop” traffic departed. From muddy tracks the family that passed us had not camped at Ingeborg but hiked on in the rain; we never figured out where they camped.
On steep climb towards pass above Queens River, we met Pat and Roxanne and their spooky dog. They came up Queens and camped at Pats Lake, our destination for the night. Roxanne’s parents and grandparents worked on trails here; Pats Lake is named for her grandmother Pat who was cook for the trail crew! They did a loop last summer on Little Queen’s and Queen’s; the trail from Pats to Little Queen’s was “very brushy,” he warned. They weren’t doing it this year.
Great fishing at beautiful Pats Lake; it was quite burned on the far end. Very few mosquitoes that night or for the rest of the trip—we figured the big rainstorm harmed current brood.
Next morning, we found our way through basin below—heavily burned in the Idaho City Complex Fire of 1992—using GPS route as trail was mostly nonexistent. It started as fairly good contour trail on far side of the basin, slowly descending into Johnson Creek.
Near the bottom trail was cloaked in ceanothus—a fire-stimulated plant that had never been cleared from the trail. It probably could not be cleared now with hand tools which the Forest Service insists on using in wilderness (strict interpretation of Wilderness Act prohibitions not shared by Park Service which uses mechanized tools where it deems necessary).
Near the bottom before crossing Johnson Creek, the ceanothus jungle was higher than our heads. The springy plants literally knocked me backwards onto my pack. We crawled through brush over a big log across the creek (David, ferrying our packs, slipped and had a painful fall) and found our way to a clearing.
Climbing straight up we found trail burned by more recent Little Queens Fire of 2013 contouring along a side slope; ceanothus hadn’t taken over yet. There were only a few logs to clamber over up to the pass into Little Queens River. It took 7 hours to go 5 miles from Pats Lake!
Other side, severely burned by the Little Queens Fire, left open hillside with a few logs to cross. After a turnoff to Browns Lake, once a popular destination, it got more brushy closer to river. We stopped for a break and noticed a group overtaking us—a young woman striding ahead, others lagging. They soon caught up with us: 3 women, 1 guy, and a quiet border collie.
This was the group David met at Heart Lake junction! They camped at a lake above Pats and were behind us all day. They wore shorts, had blackened scratched legs, and seemed surprised at brushy trail. They were meeting a ride at Queens trailhead the next day. We learned we all lived in Hailey! They forged ahead; more showers came, and I briefly donned raingear.
We camped in tall grass surrounded by a few young trees near Little Queens River. The whole canyon was open burned landscape with some blackened poles but much brilliant pink-blooming fireweed. Next morning we found a nice campsite to cook breakfast in unburned Douglas fir, waded Little Queens, and happily found a big bridge over Queens River just before trailhead and picnic area. We clambered up old jeep road to camp on burned ridge above Atlanta. A rainstorm met us; we huddled under remnant trees until wind and rain calmed down.
Sprinkles next morning but tapered off as we wound down into town. I was hoping it would pour while we had a cabin but only scattered clouds during our two-day layover in Atlanta.
Atlanta interludeAtlanta was settled by miners. Gold was discovered in 1863; gold and silver mining started slowly because of the area’s remoteness; the only way to town was circuitous route through the mountains. We found a gravestone for two mail carriers who apparently died in a mountain blizzard. Mining took off after a road was built up the Boise River in the 1930s making it easier to transport equipment, food, and ore.
Atlanta was a “party town” when David worked nearby in 1976, many people driving dusty road up from Boise. Our waitress at Beaver Lodge mentioned several bars and restaurants in the 1980s when there was still active mining and larger population. Now Beaver Lodge was the only place for lodging and food—the restaurant was open noon to 7 and served burgers and other sandwiches. During our layover we had late “breakfast” and dinner around those hours.
The restaurant was busy—mostly Universal Terrain Vehicle (UTV) groups probably from various area campgrounds. We had Cabin #1 of six—a large rustic wood frame—and seemed to be the only guests. We were told it would fill up for Atlanta Days the coming weekend.
In a cluttered antique shop, we met the town’s amateur (but a bit reticent) historian who sent us to find the cemetery. We wandered by a three-story wood frame building, Atlanta Christian Chapel, and were invited in for a tour and cookies (being made for returning youth on a backpack trip). Churches from Caldwell built the chapel and offer Sunday services. We checked out mostly closed Atlanta Guard station. A friendly couple sitting on porch of a house rented from the Forest Service offered hospitality and Diet Dr. Pepper.
Atlanta-Alturas: mellow Middle Fork, twice-burned LeggitThe road out of town took us past ramshackle houses to Atlanta’s famous Hot Springs, two large ponds with nearby picnic tables. We looked for a dam on the river at Power Plant Recreation Area (we later found it on Google Earth imagery 2 miles west of Atlanta, built in 1906-1907 by miners). We saw vehicles and big horse trailers at the trailhead. Power Plant Trail skirted around edge of a very large campground with only a few sites occupied.
Trail contoured along the Boise Middle Fork a few miles through orange-bark ponderosa pine above vivid green pine grass carpet, then climbed to junction with unmarked trail to Leggit Lake. A tired-looking hiker had spent three nights at the lake; saw fish but caught none. He said trail was poor but discernible. It started as steep jeep trail; we lost it crossing a boulder field from a recent fire. We wandered along dry creek bed and found trail winding up through burned trees. Higher up we hiked over logs and through abundant floral growth from the 2013 Leggit Fire and a recent avalanche. Cairns marked the obscure trail.
We could see a rocky basin above cliffs. Trail switchbacked through small fir downed by avalanche then shot steeply up the hillside and cleverly edged along the side of what our hiker friend had called “The Wall.” We soon were gazing at a beautiful alpine lake in a rocky basin. Six hours to hike five miles up Leggit basin. David caught one one giant trout for dinner; tried for another but was glad no more hits, one was more than enough.
We did better finding trail down, noticing our errors were from following creek instead of the side slope. One couple with dog carrying its own pack were backpacking for their third annual visit. Back on the jeep road I met another couple day hiking who wanted to know how far to the lake. Four rough miles. I suggested they aim for beautiful flower basin two miles ahead.
Back on the Middle Fork we met a large pack train with horses and mules, returning from the lake country; they seemed to be locals. This explained the trailers at the trailhead. We camped in trees near Mattingly Creek and a beautiful field of flowers.
Early next morning we made steep hike up and steeper drop down. Two horses had come up from the river and over the divide; I noticed they took soil around slippery parts of the trail. I was relieved that the highly compacted motorcycle trail was fairly gentle and not too slick.
We met a group of 10 dirt bikers (the leader warned of more coming) then many mountain bikers, a day hiker and kids on bikes being pulled on leash by a rowdy Wirehaired Pointing Griffon. I got to our vehicle, glad for end to Saturday chaos and sore feet from compacted trail.
2018 revisit: Slidy Slopes, Powdered Trails & PeopleDrought thwarted a fall 2018 plan to visit trailless lakes and avoid crowds in a popular part of the Sawtooth Wilderness south of Redfish Lake.
Three days after Labor Day weekend, the campgrounds and trailheads at Redfish Lake were still packed with people. But we planned to elude the crowds. Like many others we’d take shuttle boat across Redfish Lake and hike up Redfish Lake Creek but we’d soon leave the beaten path for trailless lake basins behind Warbonnet Peak.
Or so we thought.
That plan fell apart on dry scree slopes above Baron Lakes. The goat route and/or social trail along a knife-edge ridge seemed to end in cliffs. We slid our way down to Upper Baron Lake and camped at the far end. A very dry year had rendered soils slippery and hard to hike.
Next morning (without packs) we checked out a route to the saddle, clawing half a mile up slippery glacial till behind the lake. Looked like steeper ascent climb to saddle above. David’s preplanning with Google Earth imagery indicated a more precipitous drop to the lake. He nixed returning for the packs, voted to bag cross-country and loop trails around the Sawtooths.
Turns out we missed a “social trail” (hiker made route) that went right to Warbonnet Basin!
I found out about this after our trip. While checking for links to trailless Sawtooth hiking, I discovered that a long-distance hiker took our same route to the pass above Baron in August 2017 after a very snowy winter with much wetter non-slippery soil conditions.
Unlike us, he made it to the pass, and discovered a fairly good social trail from Alpine Lake (a heavily used lake we had passed on our way to Baron) to the pass that descended to Warbonnet Lake. David’s fears of a steep cross-country drop were unfounded. The hiker successfully visited Warbonnet, Bead, Packrat and Upper Redfish Lakes plus other trailless lakes. Fishing was great.
Cramer Lakes Loop with the MassesThwarted from cross-country plans, we hiked back over Baron Pass, descended to Redfish Creek, crossed and hiked up to Cramer Lakes. We passed many campers at Lower and Middle Cramer lakes, but at the far end of Upper Cramer, found a nice sandy spot all to ourselves. We cooked fish David caught at Middle Cramer (as it turned out, only lake where he caught fish).
Next day we crossed the pass above Cramer Lakes, descended past Hidden Lake and crossed South Fork of the Payette River. Just past junction to Edna Lake, we saw a pack string pursuing us to Sand Mountain Pass—perhaps an outfitter packing out his base camp at Edna Lake with about 18 stock (mules and horses). Trails were powder soft from stock use.
Descending Sand Pass we saw many people on switchbacks below. Imogene Lake, a large popular destination, was occupied in every nook and cranny. At lake’s upper end we noticed a social trail climbing to a basin above Imogene. We passed Mushroom Lake, ringed by day hikers, and climbed on to a smaller, unnamed lake. As we scoped out campsites, a couple carrying large fly rods trooped by. “You have to fish the upper lake,” they enthused.
We hiked up to check out the third unnamed lake. It was much larger and windy with choppy waves. David made a few casts but found no interest from the fish. Perhaps he needed a fly rod.
Solitude on Redfish RidgeWe left the masses after Hell Roaring Lake. The lightly used trail climbed and dropped sharply between basins. It had not been cleared for several years, so we had downed logs to scramble over. Using GPS, we ventured off trail to Decker Lake. It had a bathtub ring, seemed dammed, with no fish, but offered nice camping in solitude.
After nearly constant people from Baron to Hell Roaring lakes, we saw no one on the trail except two women we met near the end starting their backpacking trip from the Redfish shuttle.
At Redfish Inlet junction (heading northeast), the trail left wilderness. Immediately the trail work got better; logs were freshly cut with chainsaws. This trail, which followed a ridge above Redfish Lake, was open to mountain bikes. We encountered only two: a father and daughter cycling switchbacks near trailhead at Sockeye Campground.
Our last leg was a loop back to our vehicle on road through still busy campgrounds. Campers were awed seeing backpackers and wanted to know if we had gone “up there?” pointing to iconic Sawtooths visible from Redfish. We had. Wow.
Managing For PeopleThe iconic Sawtooths draw crowds; but a limited loop trail system concentrates most use in the northeastern third of the wilderness. As in previous trips, we saw minimal campsites, all overused and mostly right near the lake shores—because there is little naturally flat area.
Building a few more campsites on slopes and/or timbered areas away from popular lakes would be much more fruitful than vigilante removal of fire circle rocks and elaborate trailhead signs about “fire pans.” Further, some management (for example, rotating camping from year-to-year among most popular lake basins) or restriction of commercial outfitter packing into wilderness from popular trailheads seems appropriate for this wilderness gem.
Also, the Forest Service could spread out use by building more connector trails over the ridges. The agency could discourage multiple social trails into popular trailless areas by offering a single well-cairned route.
Finally, noticing the immediately improved trail management (downed log cutting) in adjoining non-wilderness where chainsaws are allowed, (and abysmal lack of trail work on many fire-damaged and/or eroded trails in the wilderness) makes us question the Forest Service “minimal tool” policy which interprets the Wilderness Act to disallow mechanical tools in wilderness. The Park Service policy allows chain saw use in wilderness where expedient.
Both agencies base policy on Wilderness Act: Section 4. (c) Prohibition of Certain Uses which states no motorized equipment in wilderness. However, this list of restrictions starts with a disclaimer: except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act. According to Section 2. (a), the purpose of wilderness is the use and enjoyment of the American people. We think it is necessary to keep trails open for public “use and enjoyment” and so does the Park Service.
It is unconscionable that Johnson Creek Trail connecting to Little Queens River and part of a Queen-Little Queen River loop is such a ceanothus jungle 30 years after the fire! A trail crew with power brushcutters could clean up that trail in a few days.
(Click upper right box above map to “view larger map” to see legend including NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up)