Another Sawtooth Summit – Edith Lake Backpacking

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In some travel, the miles melt away. They slip gracefully by. An open road runs like velvet beneath car tires and distance is reduced to hours spent floating smoothly along.

Backpacking is different. You have to earn your miles. You feel the distance in each trudging footstep, in every shift of your pack’s weight on your shoulders and hips, in the sweat collecting on your brow and neck. The miles don’t come easy, or with much grace.

But the reward of going into the wilderness with all you need strapped to your back is this: incredible scenery few people experience, and the extreme satisfaction of getting yourself and your gear to these remote places and back.Farley Lake Sawtooth Sunrise

The hike to Edith Lake was my second backpacking trip into the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho. Jesse and I hiked to Sawtooth Lake last July, and got rained out and thunder struck. For all the earth rumbling excitement last year brought, we had a tranquil trip this time.

Wind and lightning were replaced by a placid lake and cloudless sky visible through our tent. We fell asleep to an indigo sky full of stars, woke to the moonrise that bathed the peaks in silvery light, and then woke again to the golden light of dawn so warm in the cool morning air.

The trail to Edith Lake is part of a larger loop based at Pettit Lake. The Alice Lake / Toxoway Lake loop is said to be one of Idaho’s top backpacking trails, rivaling the world’s best hikes. Backpacker Magazine picked it as the essential hike in Idaho.

From the forested foothills in the meadow valley, into the rubble strewn canyons, and up near the peaks where glacial lakes pool in placid blue green depths, this area is stunning to behold, and it offers granite slabs and gushing waterfalls that rank with those in Tuolomne Meadows of Yosemite National Park.

This backpacking trip was the kind of experience that leaves you glowing. Adrenaline and altitude, alpine lake water, and the kind of views near impossible to capture in a photograph.

But it’s not all excitement and endorphins. We didn’t reach the trail head at Yellow Belly Lake until after 10:30, well after our goal of an early morning start. We missed the trail as it veered into the forest, and instead followed a muddy road to Yellow Belly Lake so our hike began with backtracking. Deer flies and mosquitoes buzzed around our heads and tried to bite through our clothes. After three and a half miles, we lost shade, and couldn’t find the camp sites suggested in our trail book.

It turned hot, we were hungry, sweating profusely, and lost. But after more backtracking, we finally set up camp at Farley Lake. We took off our shoes, made lunch, and fell into drooling naps for an hour of the afternoon.

After the break, revitalized and on the cooling end of the day, we left our heavy gear and camp behind to climb to Edith Lake.

Veering off the Toxoway Lake trail and further loop, we took the smaller and less traveled trail that cut north. Switchbaking through forest, then a trail of rubble, over creeks, we found ourselves passing Edith Lake’s outlet again and again as we wound our way up to the lake. Two of these passings brought teetering leaps between boulders, and one of the most perfect waterfalls I’ve ever seen.

In a wall of smooth lumps of granite, the wide outlet creek cascades and splits, tumbles around trees and over channeled boulders, in a massive woven tapestry of water thirty feet across. The water slides and splashes wide down this gentle face, and then pools into a calm basin before tumbling again over the next drop, sparkling in the late afternoon sun but cool in the blue shadows.Edith Lake Waterfalls 2

Edith Lake

Edith Lake is small but crystalline, and snow still melts on the rocky shore. When we reach this destination, we take a few photographs, rest a moment in the chilled wind blowing over the lake’s glassy surface, and depart back downhill towards our camp to make dinner as the sun sets.

My favorite parts of backpacking are always dusk and dawn, when the light is most dramatic and everything comes alive with golden brightness and shadows. The air is cool and calm, and the landscape quickly changes from its flatly bright daytime persona to something with more depth and deviousness.

Jesse filters lake water and we boil it near the tent. Dinner is served. Then, we retire to the tent, watching through the mesh membrane the sky turning from honey and pink to dusty purple and deep blue. The stars come out. We sleep.

In the morning, we do it all again. Filter water, light the stove, stir coffee and hot chocolate powder into plastic mugs, wait for our dehydrated meal to rehydrate and become surprisingly good. Roll up sleeping bags, mats, the tent. Repack our backpacks. Fill our water bottles. Apply sunscreen, bug repellent. Zip, buckle, cinch, high-five, and hit the old dusty trail for some more hard earned miles.

Farley Lake Camp SunriseAnd when it’s all over, when we’ve reached our waiting vehicle and have unstrapped, it’s the best kind of exhaustion I’ve ever felt. Because it wasn’t easy. We didn’t just sit idly by and hardly notice the distance traveled. We felt every foot of elevation gain, every stone and stream along the way there and back again.

That’s what backpacking is all about. Rugged vitality. Being self-reliant. Going the distance, by foot.

But most of all, it’s about going beyond what is easy to have an honest experience with the world, when there’s very little between you and nature. To feel the weight of your bones pressing into the earth, while the bright band of Milky Way emerges as the silvery moon sinks beneath the steep teeth of granite mountain… that is everything.

10 Comment

  1. retto112 says: Reply

    I’m glad I stumbled upon your blog! The way you tell the story of your trip makes me want to do it myself. Also, all of your pictures are stunning. I’m especially fond of the one of your campsite overlooking the lake. It made me jealous, I’m not going to lie. I’ve never slept in a tent like that under the stars, but it must be a surreal feeling knowing that you were the only tool you used to get to that spot, where you’re so isolated, but not really alone. This is now on my bucket list, so thanks for that. 🙂

    1. I’m glad you stumbled upon my blog too. Your comment was one of the nicest I’ve ever received, so thank you!! That photo is one of my favorites also, and you’re right, it was a surreal feeling. I hope you can experience it one day.

  2. JD says: Reply

    I’ve been to Farley Lake once before but I don’t remember such a picturesque camping spot! Where (aboutst) is that spot on the lake? I showed your post to my wife and the city girl said if it looks like that she would go backpacking with me…so THANK YOU!!

    1. Ha! You’re welcome. I hope she does join you for a backpacking trip! With the right gear and some perseverance on the trail, it’s worth it to find these beautiful places. About the camping spot – we got a little lost when trying to find a camp site… (missed the tiny trail leading towards the lake, went a half mile too far, had to backtrack and push on towards the lake even when the trail ended, and got lucky with this spot overlooking the water). We ended up less than halfway down the length of the lake, before the big peninsula. If you look at this google map zoomed section:,-114.9318345,17z we were on that little protruding edge directly above the FA in the Farley Lake label. Hope that helps! Thanks for reading, and good luck with your city girl.

      1. Lee Tate says: Reply

        Hi. I have a question about campsites at Farley Lake. We have a group of about 8 hiking the loop in September and most have their own “one man” tents. Do you think there are there enough campsites (flat areas) at Farley Lake for a mix of say 6 solo & duo size tents? If so, is that in one (say 50 yard) area, or would they have to be spread out over considerable distances along the lake? If not Lake Farely what about the small lakes between Farely and Toxaway? Are campsites more plentiful around those lakes? Any guidance is greatly appreciated. I’ve seen close-up photos of people camping at those sites, but I can’t tell how many tents they can hold.

        1. Hi Lee! It’s been a few years since I hiked this section of the trail, but from what I remember your group should definitely be able to find enough campsites at Farley. I’d say Farley is a better bet for camping than the smaller lakes, but I haven’t done the full loop all the way to Toxaway so I can’t say for sure.

          We use the Trails of the Sawtooth Wilderness Area book by Margaret Fuller for reference (we’ve found hers are the most complete and comprehensive guides for the area) and even with the directions, we had a hard time finding the trail that supposedly leads to camping areas around the lake. Once we bushwhacked a little we found a perfect flat spot on that point. Be warned you may have to go off-trail and be a little patient in finding spots. It’s wilderness camping, after all!

          I plan to do the whole loop this year too actually, so I may be able to provide some more info in a few weeks.

  3. Hi, noticed your blog on the blogexchange subreddit. I really enjoy the descriptive language you have used, helps the reader feel like they are there with you. The photography is really good too, some beautiful pictures which would stand well on their own. Thanks for sharing!
    Barry Stingmore recently explored…Free Photographer LondonMy Profile

    1. Thank you, Barry! I’m glad you found me. Although I can really only take credit for the writing on this post (my boyfriend Jesse shot and edited most of these photos) we both appreciate the kind comment from a photographer. Your website has some stunning shots, by the way.

  4. Tim M. says: Reply

    Thanks for sharing! I’m planning a trip to the Sawtooths in early July and wanted to know how bad the mosquitoes were during your trip. I’ve heard some horror stories and want to know what I’m in for when we’re in the back country. Any tips? Thanks!

    1. If it’s calm, the mosquitos can be bad around dusk, especially if you’re camping in areas that are boggy, or if you’re near calm backcountry ponds and lakes. Some areas also have deer flies in June and early July as well, but that’s usually lower in the valleys and not up in the high mountain lake areas. I wouldn’t say the mosquitos are horror story worthy, but bug repellent is a must! We’ve taken bug repellent wipes before and they’re super easy to pack.

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