Hike cross-country from Alpine Lake and Upper Redfish Lakes to one of the best views in the Sawtooth Wilderness. The rewards are solitude and Idaho beauty.
Sawtooth Mountain Wilderness: Upper Redfish Lakes Cross-Country Hike (2017).
Alpine Peak: 9,861' - Sawtooth Wilderness: Never Stop Climbing Mountains
On Reward Peak's north ridge looking east to Lake Kathryn. Redfish Lake in the distance.
From Reward Peak's summit
6:30 a.m. - Alpine Lake
The day in central Idaho's beautiful Sawtooth Mountains is unusually cool and dry for August. After taking the motorboat shuttle across the long, deep blue Redfish Lake, you disembark at the Redfish Inlet Transfer Camp underneath the towering Grand Mogul, an intimidating peak that signals you are now approaching wilderness. You hoist your backpack and begin the hike to Alpine Lake. Your pack isn't too heavy and you hike along waterfalls through a glacier-cut valley with towering rock cathedrals under an azure sky. At Alpine Lake, you find the best camping spot with plenty of room, with no one else around, and giant flat rocks on the shore on which to sit. The air is fresh and there's no mosquitos. You are lulled to sleep that night with the mountain silence and the late quacks of two ducks on the lake. You wake in the deep night to see the inside of your tent lit up and peer outside to the most amazing sight: peaks brightly illuminated, glowing from a full moonrise with crystal-clear stars above.
The next morning, you hike off-trail, navigating straight up to the ridge overlooking the lake on soil and pine needles still damp with morning dew. You walk up a challenging rock-filled gulley only to descend to emerald lakes below, and then up another rock and snow-filled gulley to one of the most incredible views you have ever seen - you blink a few times to make sure you are really there. A sunny and windless 10,000-foot summit, with no threat of thunderstorms. Lounge on the rocks - eat lunch, take photos, read the summit register. Serrated ridges, deep bottomless canyons, and sapphire-blue Lake Kathryn drop below your feet. You take your time to return to camp, meandering through bright green wildflower-filled meadows and on granite over a stream murmuring somewhere deep underneath. You lie on shaded glacier-smoothed granite for a short nap. You see no one else the whole day. That night you sleep deeply in the fragrant forest.
I once heard someone say, "It's not material things that matter, it's the experiences you have that matter." The scenario described above was actually the experience Fred and I had last month in the paradise that is the Sawtooth Wilderness. We summited Reward Peak during a glorious 3-day backpacking trip.
In 1927, Arval Anderson, surveying for the USGS found a note on the summit dated in 1925 which offered the finder a $25 reward for returning the note.
"I never knew a man who felt self-important in the morning after spending the night in the open on an Idaho mountainside under a star-studded summer sky."
- Frank Church, former U.S. Senator from Idaho
Entry point (8,760 feet elevation) from ridge above Alpine Lake's southeast side into gulley. The saddle at top of gulley overlooks Upper Redfish Lakes with Reward Peak on the horizon.
Alpine Lake (8,330') to Upper Redfish Lakes (8,660')
This part of the hike climbs the steep gulley seen from the south end of Alpine Lake, then descends through forest to two Upper Redfish Lakes divided by a a granite strip with rocks showing glacial striations and chatter marks, and a few sweet camp sites. From the southeast shore of Alpine Lake, hike south 450 feet up to ridge to follow it to the gulley entrance at about 8,760 feet. The gulley is steep with stable rock at bottom and loose rock and scree middle-to-top. From the ridge saddle, Reward Peak can be seen to the southwest on the horizon. Point 9337 sits just above the east side of the gulley.
Ascending gulley from Alpine Lake to ridge overlooking Upper Redfish Lakes and Reward Peak on horizon
Fred (lower left) nearing saddle at top of gulley from Alpine Lake, below.
Redfish Lake and moraine seen in distance upper right.
From saddle on ridge separating Alpine Lake drainage from Upper Redfish Lakes drainage looking north to Alpine Lake.
From saddle after first gulley climb; looking south to Reward Peak on horizon right side of largest tree in photo. Walk up gulley with a few snow patches to its summit. Upper Redfish Lakes in basin below.
Once you complete the steep and tedious climb out of the gulley from Alpine Lake, and descend into the basin that contains Upper Redfish Lakes, it feels like true wilderness with negligible signs of human impact. The first two lakes are visible below. A narrow trail follows the wide granite outcropping situated between two lakes. The morning colors of blues, yellows and greens were vivid on the lake as we filtered water. The land is pristine, the large smooth white rocks still cool from the night before. Due south of the second Upper Redfish Lake is Lake Kathryn, considered the third Upper Redfish Lake, situated on the other side of the cirque's ridge. Lake Kathryn is a beautiful lake, deep blue with a small island in the middle.
Lake Kathryn is named after Kathryn Mills, according to Iowa State University's archives of the Vandervelde Family Papers. This fact leads me to consider whether Kathryn Mills was associated with the Iowa Mountaineers, a group important to the Sawtooth Mountains' climbing history. This group led mountain ascents all over the world from 1940 until 1996. The Iowa Mountaineers claimed first-time ascents of 18 peaks in the Sawtooth Mountains in 1940's, including Warbonnet Peak in 1947, a challenging sheer-wall spire where all routes to the top are Class 5 climbing. Lake Kathryn is located ~ 5 miles southeast of Warbonnet Peak, and at the base of Reward Peak.
Three glacial landforms in granite: Glacial polish, striations and chatter marks
As the glacier moves downstream, the boulders and coarse gravel trapped under the glacier abrade and chip bedrock
Chatter marks are crescent-shaped and oriented at right angles to glacial movement. Striations are parallel to glacial movement.
Morning at second Upper Redfish Lake
Upper Redfish Lakes to Reward Peak
From the south end of middle Upper Redfish Lake, hike west for a short distance to the large ridge that contains Packrat Peak, and then south to enter into the wide rock-filled drainage that goes directly to Reward Peak, a pyramid-shaped peak at top of drainage. We hiked west into a beautiful forest with intermittent meadows and wildflowers, across and along the creek with bubbling small falls stepping down toward the Upper Redfish Lakes.
Large granite rocks are stable throughout the drainage ascent, with brief snow patches to walk through, or around. We got lucky with the cooler-than-usual August temperatures. We hiked up to Reward's northeast ridge to look over the other side to Kathryn Lake. Large granite boulders dominate the last 40 feet to the summit, requiring using hands to maneuver around them. Paths lead through the scree and talus toward Lake Kathryn. Climb a small rock chute to find yourself on a surprisingly wide and flat summit. The view is expansive everywhere you look. Walk west of the summit's register and USGS marker - but not too far! The mountain drops off in a towering cliff below your feet, and when you look down, you cannot see its sheer walls. Lake Kathryn looks like a smooth lapis lazuli gemstone embedded in rough granite.
It feels like the top of the Sawtooth Mountains here, with distant serrated dark peaks lining a 360- degree horizon; however Thompson Peak, the highest Sawtooth peak to the north is almost 700 feet higher. Packrat Lake sits in a deep basin to the north. The view is so spectacular I think of Lucy Jane Bledsoe's quote from her book, The Ice Cave:
Beautiful meadows and streams between Upper Redfish Lakes and drainage to Reward Peak
Our route from middle Upper Redfish Lake (lower left) to summit of Reward Peak
From the lake, hike west toward long ridge that contains Packrat Peak, then south up wide gulley
Lake Kathryn middle left in photo
Drainage to Reward Peak, furthest peak on horizon
After a break upon reaching top of Reward's north ridge - step through large boulders last 30 - 40 feet to summit
Lake Kathryn from Reward Peak's north ridge
Reward Peak summit - 10, 074 feet looking north
Packrat Lake at left; summit register under large flat boulder
Packrat Lake and Packrat Peak above it upper right in photo
The descent is not too difficult - just a lot of picking through boulders until you reach the forest and meadows surrounding Upper Redfish Lakes. Not in a rush to get back to camp, we took a long break sitting in the soft meadow grass as we listened to the melodic stream. Mellowed and relaxed, we took another break on the large polished granite outcrops that separate the Upper Redfish Lakes.
When climbing steeply out of Upper Redfish Lakes basin, the saddle and gulley overlooking Alpine Lake is toward the right (northeast), just left of the furthest point to the right on the ridge as you climb - Point 9337. From below, it is difficult to get bearings because you can't see the top. Once on the saddle, the lowest point on the ridge above, the gulley down to Alpine Lake is steep and tedious, rocks slide as you step down, and the large boulders at the bottom take some navigation unless you can circumvent these and stay higher on the gulley slope. We heard a pika chirping its alarm as we clumsily made our way down.
The gulley ends in a beautiful meadow, where we hiked steeply down, back to camp. The two ducks on the lake quacked and paddled toward each other as dusk settled in. We were in our sleeping bags before twilight. The glow in the tent awoke me again, I checked the mountains above the lake. They weren't as spectacularly lit as the previous night; the moon not as high yet, but still a memorable sight. Commit the scene to memory. Never stop climbing mountains.
Parting shot of first Upper Redfish Lake with wide drainage that leads to Reward Peak, behind the closest peak in photo
Descending gulley back to Alpine Lake
Elevation profile from top of gulley on ridge separating Alpine Lake and Upper Redfish Lakes to Reward Peak summit and back down, then up again to top of gulley. Each vertical line represents 0.5 miles. Red horizontal line interval = 250 feet of elevation.
Lopez, Tom. Idaho: A Climbing Guide - Climbs, Scrambles and Hikes. 2000. The Mountaineers Books.
Vandervelde Family Papers. Iowa State University.
About this blog
Exploration documentaries – "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west. I hope to hear about your adventures!
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