What I Learned Hiking The Sawtooth Mountains

In the fall of 2018, we took a weeklong hiking trip out to the Sawtooth Mountains in central Idaho. The trip took all kinds of twists and turns, starting from the first minute we set out.

What I Learned Hiking The Sawtooth Mountains | Flashpacker Chronicles

Getting to Idaho

Our trip got interesting almost immediately. We were delayed for several hours on the runway for our first flight out of Greenville. As a small local airport, it is almost impossible to find direct flights out of Greenville and we were connecting in Chicago for the second leg of our flights to Boise. When we took off we estimated we’d have about 25 minutes in the Chicago airport to catch our next flight.

We made up a bit of time in the air, but then taxied on the Chicago runway for 20 or so minutes. We were so late getting in that they had reassigned our gate to another flight and no longer had any available gates. When we finally did arrive at a gate and deplane, we sprinted through 2 terminals to try and catch our next flight before the boarding door closed. As we rounded the last corner we saw them close the door.

We immediately went into plan mode. My wife, the ever-observant, noticed that we’d passed a concierge desk on our sprint over and immediately turned us around. There were no lines and a concierge agent available. We pleaded with the agent to switch us over to the only other flight flying out of Chicago to Boise, but it was scheduled to leave in 15 minutes and he was convinced we wouldn’t be able to make it. After 5 minutes we realized he wasn’t going to release our tickets and took matters into our own hands.

We sprinted down the terminal and made it to the gate before it closed and sweet-talked our way through the gate agent and the captain of the plane to be allowed to board. Yes, that’s right, we boarded a plane that we did not have tickets for. I was completely mind blown that we pulled it off, but my wife truly killed them with kindness and they just couldn’t say no. We were on our way. The Trip Begins!

Once we landed, we weren’t quite done with our travel day. We left the airport and tackled the 3 hr drive over to Sun Valley, Idaho to spend the night.

We woke up in the morning and desperately needed to stretch our legs after the travel day. We found a short and easy 3 mile hike near the Sun Valley lodge and explored the area and visited the Ernest Hemmingway memorial. With our legs loosened up, we jumped back in the car for another quick drive and in just over an hour we were checking into our picturesque log cabin Airbnb with the Sawtooths stretched out in front of us.

What I Learned Hiking The Sawtooth Mountains | Flashpacker Co

Alice Lake Loop

On our first full day of the trip, we tackled Alice Lake Loop, an 11-mile trek through mostly shrubland with excellent views of the lakes, streams, and cliffs making up the terrain. The hike had about 1600 ft of elevation change and the trail was mostly made of light scree and gravel. We made it up to Alice Lake, had a picnic lunch, and headed back down the loop to end the day.

What I Learned Hiking The Sawtooth Mountains | Flashpacker Chronicles

The Trail That Broke Me

On the second day, we woke up ready to tackle the Alpine Lake trail. A 15 mile out and back trail, the Sawtooth peaks to a pristine hidden lake. Just to get to the hike was an adventure as we had to book a boat trip across Redfish lake to the trailhead.

The trail had some beautiful views, a few creek crossings and several must take pictures.

What I Learned Hiking The Sawtooth Mountains | Flashpacker Chronicles

Once we reached the peak we spread out our packed picnic, stretched our legs, and took a well-deserved rest. After maybe an hour lunch we packed back up and headed back down the mountain.

What I Learned Hiking The Sawtooth Mountains | Flashpacker Co

An important note here, unlike many of the previous hiking trails we had tackled on hiking vacations, and unlike any of the hiking trails that we frequented here in the Southeastern United States, this trail was almost completely made up of medium to large sized scree. That means we were hiking 15 miles on pointy, heavy, rock gardens. I honestly didn’t think much of it, until about halfway through our return trek. I realized the bottoms of my feet were getting very tight and stopped several times to stretch them.

What I Learned Hiking The Sawtooth Mountains | Flashpacker Chronicles

We made it back to the car without much incident, but once we made it back to our cabin I realized something was wrong. I couldn’t put any weight on the balls of my feet without intense pain. At this point, I thought they were still just extremely tight and I tried using a lacrosse ball to massage the bottom of my feet and loosen them up. This did not last very long as I couldn’t stand the pain.

An hour later, the rest of the family was preparing dinner while I was relaxing with my feet up trying to recover. My father-in-law walked by and gasped at the sight of my feet. “The balls of your feet are black!” Sure enough, the balls of my feet were bruised and swollen black. This was not ideal for the second day of a hiking vacation.


What I Learned Hiking The Sawtooth Mountains

I spent the next two days in the cabin icing and elevating my feet. This was not how I had planned to spend my vacation. I had plenty of time to reflect and I realized a couple of things.

  1. Your equipment doesn’t always make your trip, but it can certainly break it. Unlike everyone else on the trip, I had packed the cheapest pair of hiking boots I owned in order to save space. I’d been on hiking vacations before and was confident it wouldn’t be a problem. I was dead wrong.
  2. The beginning of your trip is not the time to take risks. I was beginning to realize something was wrong about halfway through the return hike. Rather than stopping then to figure out what was going on, rest and recover, I tried to “tough it out” and ended up making things much worse.
  3. You have to be adaptable. We have a saying “bend like the willow” when we’re on a trip. Things will inevitably go wrong. They happen on every trip and you have to roll with the punches. In this case, that meant finding out how to make a trip where I was supposed to walk 50+ more miles enjoyable when I could barely stand without pain.

Bending Like the Willow

After realizing it would be a while before I was back on my feet hiking, we started researching other activities that we could tackle. Being in the middle of Idaho, in a town called Stanley with less than 100 year-round residents, I wasn’t expecting much. But once we started looking and found one or two things, they just led to more great ideas.

Our biggest win, when bending like the willow, was the discovery of Redfish Lake. This gorgeous, pristine lake has easy drive-in access via the Redfish Lake Lodge and boasts all kinds of amazing activities out of the Redfish Lake Marina. We spent the next two days swimming in the clear, cool water, sunbathing on the beach playing guitar and listening to others doing the same, and paddleboarding as far out into the lake as we dared.

What I Learned Hiking The Sawtooth Mountains | Flashpacker Blog

After a couple of days on the lake, we wanted to get back on the mountains, but my feet still weren’t quite up to the task. So we found a local stable and booked a full-day horseback trail ride. It was an excellent way to get back out on the trail, see the amazing views, and even better; we had a chance to learn the history of the town from our local guide.

What I Learned Hiking The Sawtooth Mountains | Flashpacker Blog

After a day back on the trail, it was time to reward ourselves with a real Idaho farmhouse dinner experience. We booked a reservation at the famous Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch and enjoyed a farm-style dinner with music and drink. The sunset view from the front porch of the tiny hotel was breathtaking and even though we weren’t hiking our way down from a 20-mile hike as we’d planned, everything seemed right in the world.

What I Learned Hiking The Sawtooth Mountains | Flashpacker Chronicles

About the Author

Stephen Gary | Flashpacker Co Stephen Gary is the co-founder of Flashpacker Co. He’s been a digital nomad for the past 5 years traveling all across the globe exploring new cities, languages and new passions. Find more from him over on our travel blog.
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