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The Sawtooths is a hiker's paradise, but spring brings unique challenges

Posted at 2:11 PM, Jun 13, 2024

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area is a haven for backpackers and hikers with so many trails to explore in this majestic landscape in Idaho.

However, you never know what you might encounter in the spring as the snow starts to melt and creeks roar to life. I hiked into Sawtooths from Grandjean because I wanted to avoid the snow that most certainly exists in the higher elevations in the NRA.

The view from the Baron Creek Trail on Monday

I encountered downed trees blocking the trail, but it was the creek crossings that had the most impact on my hiking day trip. I wanted to check out the South Fork of the Payette Trail, but Baron Creek was flowing too high to safely cross so I ventured up the Baron Creek Trail.

"Creek crossing are probably the most dangerous thing about going into the Sawtooths, not the bears or the lightning strikes," said backpacker Brad Johns. "It’s definitely stream crossings in the spring because they can be raging."

Baron Creek is running high

I talked with Brad Johns after he backpacked into Hell Roaring Lake last weekend and he didn't find any snow along the way. He did find some the next day when he hiked to Imogene Lake and while he was gone a tree almost fell on his tent.

"I’ve learned a lot of lessons going through the mountains in the spring," said Johns. "You have to be prepared for everything, you end up bringing more gear than you need most of the time, but sometimes you really need it."

Watch out for trees that might fall

I talked with Melissa Bandy Ogden who hiked to Alpine Lake from Redfish Lake last weekend with her husband. She said they ran into snow about a half a mile from Alice Lake and explained that when there is snow it can be hard to follow the trail as it disappears.

That snow might have melted this week as this story is meant to give a baseline of the conditions that will continue to change as summer approaches and it turns into the busiest time of the year in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Alice Lake last weekend courtesy of Melissa Bandy Ogden

I talked with a ranger at the Sawtooth National Recreation Area Visitors Center and she wanted to remind people to pack out what you take in, know the fire regulations for the area you are going and be bear aware, it is a good idea to carry bear spray.

Hikers also need to keep their food and scented items in bear resistant product or hang their food 10 to 12 feet off the ground and four feet away from a tree like Brad Johns does.

A tree that fell on the Baron Creek Trail near Grandjean

"A bear canister is too much at least for me, it is too much weight," said Johns. "I use a pulley system that weighs nothing, it takes a couple of tries to get it down and then it is worthwhile."

Spring brings challenges, but it also delivers more solitude for hikers and backpackers. Brad tells us it's the best time of the year to fish the lakes.

Hell Roaring Lake last weekend courtesy of Brad Johns

"There is very little pressure on the lakes and the fishing haven’t been eating all winter," said Johns. "Last weekend up at Imogene I had one section of time where I literally got a trout every single cast for about a half an hour, it was amazing."

Brad's other recommendations are going early in the day because if you run into snow it softens by the afternoon making it more difficult to trudge through. He also advises going with someone else because hikers can take turns breaking the trail.

Crossing a creek on the Baron Trail

As for creek crossing the best advice is to turn around if it is above your comfort level. Brad says unclipping the waste band of your backpack can help you get out of the water if you fall in and also scout the area so you know possible exit points in case you don't make it across.

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area prohibits bikes and motor vehicles, that includes drones. Dogs need to be on a leash from July 1 through Labor Day, people need to get a wilderness permit which they can fill out at the trailhead and the weather can change rapidly.