A Sawtooth Labor Day

I began writing about our Labor Day weekend adventures back in the fall and quickly abandoned it. I discovered that I just didn’t have the desire to reflect on it. When I think of it now, I’m surprised I already felt so depleted. We had yet to reach the isolated, dark days of pandemic winter. Although that trip was not our last excursion to the woods, at the time it felt like a significant juncture.

Labor Day weekend is often viewed as the end of summer, and this has typically held true for us. With the school year underway, Zach’s schedule fills up and we are limited to day trips instead of weekend trips. The temperatures aren’t yet low enough to preclude tent camping, but it becomes harder and harder to get away as easily. This year, that wasn’t quite the case, but Labor Day weekend was still our final camping trip of the year. Poor air quality from regional wildfires didn’t incentivize spending a lot of time outside breathing the hazardous air for large blocks of the September. Tangled with other engagements, we weren’t able to get away for a final trip. Despite what I thought earlier in the summer, we were able to make a full weekend in the Sawtooths a reality, spurred when our pals from Utah agreed to camp with us. Having humored our proselytizing about the Sawtooths’ beauty long enough, they were going to shut us up once and for all. I was slightly worried that the Sawtooths would be overrun, as I’d heard all summer long from other Boiseans, but Zach and I could get up there before the work day ended on Friday and hopefully stake our claim to a decent camping site.

Two weeks before, Zach and I spent a night camping in Sun Valley, so we staked out some dispersed sites past Alturas Lake in the hope that we would be able to easily find a spot over the holiday weekend. We were surprised to arrive and find spots that had all been full two weeks earlier vacant and available. We chose a large partially wooded spot where the sagebrush plain met the forest, offering a magnificent view of the Sawtooth Range. On Friday evening, it was mostly clear with a slight haze beginning to creep in as I cooked dinner and Zach went to rendezvous with Ryan and Lisa. 

Our view
Our spot

Ryan and Lisa planned to leave on Sunday afternoon, so I wanted to make sure we did a nice day hike on Saturday – nothing too grueling, but with a pretty result. I chose Hell Roaring Lake believing it would be less crowded than some of the other lake destinations AND because we could shave off 4 miles and 300 hundred feet of elevation by starting at the upper trailhead courtesy of Ryan and his 4Runner. Initially, my plan seemed to work. Although we passed a slew of cars at the lower trailhead, the upper trailhead was full but quiet. I (correctly) assumed that many of the cars were backpackers destined for Imogene Lake, beyond Hell Roaring. Our three-mile hike to the lake was tranquil, fairly level, and warm. It was hot that day, and the trail didn’t provide enough cover to keep us cool. When we arrived at the lake, we had a stunning view almost immediately. We crossed the lake’s outlet and had an expansive vista of Hell Roaring Lake backed by the Sawtooth’s signature granite peaks and the Finger of Fate.

Our view at the lake’s outlet

The trail continued along the southwestern edge of the lake where there were several occupied camping spots, until it turned to leave the lake behind on the ascent toward Imogene. Many of the closest lakeside spots were already taken by other day hikers, so we looked for a decent spot away from others. We settled on a fairly nice stretch of “beach” where Zach and Lisa could swim, Ryan could play an endless game of fetch with Sasha, and I could string up my hammock. The wind across the lake was chilly, obliterating the heat of the day. There did appear to be a steady flow of backpackers making their way to Imogene, and we continued to encounter them on our way back to the trailhead. (Something to keep in mind for future Labor Days.) Sufficiently tired, we drove back to our campsite, noting the smokey haze that had begun to settle over the mountains. After dinner, Lisa and I remained at camp while Zach and Ryan went off in search of a fishing spot along the Salmon River to whittle down the last remaining hour of sunlight. 

Our little “beach” spot

The next morning, we all awoke early, assisted by irreverent phone alarms, and piled into the 4Runner to go into Stanley for breakfast. Zach and I were insistent on showing Ryan and Lisa why we love the Sawtooths so much, and Stanley Baking Company factors in pretty highly. Due to the pandemic, we couldn’t treat them to a true Stanley Baking Co. experience, but their new take-out window was a good second best. (They were allowing patio dining, but at 7:30 in the morning, it’s too close to freezing to enjoy sitting on a patio.) We hauled our coffees, pastries, and back-up treats back into the car and left town in search of a morning fishing spot for the guys. Ryan found a great spot along the Salmon River for them to fish while Lisa and I (+ dogs) were able to warm up and even bask in the sun. Neither of them found any success in those waters, but by the end we were all caffeinated, full of delightful buttery pastries, and shedding our warmer layers. 

The mountains behind us had ribbons of smoke drifting overhead

Ryan and Lisa wanted to leave early in the afternoon, so we had just enough time to take them to Pettit Lake, our favorite of the drive-up Sawtooth Lakes. We knew it would be busier than normal, but crossed our fingers for the best. Luckily, we arrived slightly ahead of the afternoon revelers and were able to claim a spot on the beach away from the crowds. Zach and I inflated the kayaks, so Lisa and I could go out and cruise the lake. The haze had settled in more overnight and there was a slight hint of smoke in the air, but overall, it was still a gorgeous day to be out on the water. Lisa and I took our time paddling out into the middle of the lake and then edging along the side to maximize our conversation before offering them up to the guys for a chance to escape the ever-encroaching populace of the beach. We left just as more groups began to breach the perimeter of our spot, seemingly in belief that the pandemic didn’t exist in a place so beautiful. We went back to camp to let them break down and say goodbye. It was a lovely end to their time, although I wished they were staying another day.

Pettit Lake

After they drove off, we decided there was enough time to sneak in a short evening hike. I had two hikes on my list for the remainder of the trip, and we selected Heart Lake, an unsigned trail in the White Clouds. At the trailhead, there were two four-wheelers, though we never encountered their occupants, so we ended up having the trail and lake solely to ourselves. I felt guilty after we had dragged Ryan and Lisa to the much more crowded Hell Roaring Lake instead of something off the beaten path. Although, I suppose we could have just caught this trail at the right time of day. (We began our trek at 5pm.) The trail, though brief and easy to follow, was rather steep in spots and unmaintained. In part to allow us to move at a faster pace, we let Tru hitch a ride in the pack as we negotiated with downed trees and loose footing. The trail mostly followed Heart Lake’s outlet creek, which was truly a picturesque babbling brook, as we wove our way through a burn area, and up a steep crest before reaching the lake. The lake was hushed and serene. We gawked a bit at the outlet and then skirted along the edge toward a well-placed log where we sat to have our trail beers and watch the fish jump. (Zach lamented not bringing his fly rod!) Heart Lake was flanked by a sliver of trees on the opposite shore and then a sheer wall which shone bright in the late evening light. It was a beautiful moment, and I really regretted not being able to share it with Ryan and Lisa who would have relished the peace. The sun had already begun its descent, so we kept track of our time to make sure we would make it back to the car before dark. 

At the lake, we could tell that we had made it above the smoke line, as we could see a clear blue sky. As we hiked back to the car, we shifted back into the haze. We knew the forecast called for a stiff, cold breeze to blow in overnight, dropping the temperatures significantly, and we hoped that would clear out the smoke for our hike in the morning. Yet, we weren’t disappointed to catch the sunset as we re-entered the valley, emboldened by the smoke hanging in the sky.

In the morning, even before we wiggled out of our sleeping bags, we could feel the difference in the air. The cold air had definitely blown in. The view from our campsite was unblemished, and again, I wished Ryan and Lisa had stuck around. The sky was beautifully clear and bright. We made breakfast and sat in the sun to warm up, then took our time packing up. I tried to convince Tru to pose for a photo by walking him along the road by our site… he lost interest quickly and started to wander off into the sagebrush littered with smells he’d rather follow.

I had one final short hike planned before we began the trip back to Boise: Yellow Belly Lake. Perched in the drainage above Pettit Lake, Yellow Belly is accessible by foot and by rugged 4×4 road. I read that the trail was rather tame, but pleasant as it parallels the outlet creek from the lake. Although there were several cars at the trailhead, it seemed that we had timed it right again. We passed few others on the trail, and it was a pleasurable saunter to the lake itself. At the lake, we were struck by its bold cerulean hue. It was clear at the shoreline and were the breeze not so cold and gusty, it would have invited us in for a dip. We found a decent spot to string our hammock and set up for an hour or so along the shore. I think we both knew it was our last trip for a while, and that knowledge deepened our desire to remain as long as possible. We returned to the car, made a pit stop at Stanley Baking for coffees before they closed, and began our drive to Boise fulfilled and happy. 

1 reply »

  1. I am absolutely speechless about the beauty of your photos! I can’t even imagine seeing land like that! I have always lived on the east coast and we don’t have sights like that!

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