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Beyond Words - The Sawtooth Mountains

Where do I begin? How do I find words or use language sufficiently to describe such a place as this? Some things are best left to personal experience. Yet, this particular day that I lived in this corner of our planet is now gone. The peach-red hues of the evening sun painted across the blanket of storm clouds that rested on the mountains, thus draped the mountains in soft oranges that deeply contrasted the deep blues of the forests below. The near mirror-like reflections of the mountains on pristine mountain lakes, with virtually no wind to disturb the sensitive lake surfaces. Antelope across the valley, and a curious squirrel on a log. A brilliant sunrise lasting just 5 minutes a little after 6 am, before low clouds blocked the direct sunlight on the mountains. Could any of this, and so much more of what I saw, felt, and heard, be replicated when you visit? Pictures may speak a thousand words, but is that ever enough?


I sought peace, I found peace. The Sawtooth Wilderness has been protected in such a way that you can find yourself alone on a back road, a forest trail, and a lake shore, all with remarkably rugged landscape all around you. Alone, long enough at times, that you forget that the world even exists. The mountains and trees draw your sight, mind, and heart upwards to the billowing clouds above. The crystal clear water of the multitude of lakes in the region reflect the world around you, further enhancing the immersive experience that the Sawtooths provide. I as a painter, who recently has been running empty on inspiration while my stock of paintings steadily dwindles, needed this trip more than I had first believed.


I drove to the Sawtooths Saturday evening, taking the route northwest along the Lost River Range, then turned southwest in Challis to Stanley. This stretch of highway follows the Salmon river for miles upon miles along exceptionally curved roads. The scenery is like something out of an old Western. Rugged country surrounds you on all sides as you slip back in time to a simpler life. You can almost see the gold rush unfold on the river below, or see fur trappers, or distant smoke from native tribes. As you exit the canyon and enter Stanley, the Sawtooths give you a grand welcome, immediately taking space along the entire western horizon, literally cutting the sky in front of you! This is my preferred way to see these mountains for the first time. Granted, from the southern pass you can see a bird's eye view of these mountains, something about the sudden wall of sharp peaks from the north just stops me in my tracks every time! I stopped at Redfish lake for some meditation time and a small rest after driving 4 hours to get there. I then proceeded to my usual camping spot in the forest several miles south where designated camping is no longer required. As I began the drive along the dirt forest road, the sky erupted into soft peach-red fire as the setting sun lit up the falling rain and the low hanging storm clouds. I couldn't believe my eyes! The contrast from the sky to the dark mountains below, was too much for my camera to truly capture. I chose instead to set the camera aside and simply bask in the glory of it all. I spent the night in my car as it rained on and off all night, plus a curious critter scratched and pawed at the bottom of my car all night. I felt much safer inside a metal case, rather than one made of thin fabric.


I woke at 5:30 am to more scratching from whatever creature decided to take refuge from the rain under my Rav4. The sky was already glowing softly with the pre-dawn blues and purples. I drove quickly to a nearby field where I watched in awe as the mountains turned blood red for a few short minutes. I held my breath and sat mesmerized, trying to soak it all in. Needless to say, you can expect several paintings coming from this weekend's trip! I chose to hike the 7 mile round-trip out-and-back trail to the Bench Lakes, all 5 of which lay nestled in the shadow of Mt. Heyburn above Redfish Lake. 3 of the 5 lakes were inaccessible due to 2 feet of snow that covered the trail in the persistent shade of the southern shoreline of Bench Lake #2. I was okay with that though, as lake #2 was stunning by itself, reflecting brilliantly the surrounding peaks, including Mt. Heyburn. The trail to the Bench Lakes was stunning! You rise well above the surface of Redfish lake, following a ridge-line for some time that provides panoramic views of the distant White Cloud, Boulder, and Smoky Mountains. I felt the hike was reminiscent to hikes I have done in the Tetons. Similar to the level of sheer beauty you find in the view, in the flowers and trees along the trail, in the unique wildlife, and in the abundance of alpine lakes available for exploring. There are countless more hikes to do in the Sawtooths, including the 70 mile inner loop behind the front range. I look forward to every new adventure I'll have in these mountains!


Speaking of new adventures, I found a long dirt road called Valley Rd that runs along the southern edge of the valley, and can I just say, this is my new go-to way to get to the southern pass when I leave the Sawtooths! Valley Rd is a fantastic way to scoot back and get a more complete view of the entire front range of the Sawtooths, Smoky, Boulder, and White Cloud Mountains. The Sawtooths, especially, have long foothills (remnants of the extensive glaciation during the last Ice-age). These foothills make viewing the jagged peaks impossible at times, especially along the regular highway that navigates the valley below.


I also stopped by Alturas Lake. I can confirm there was a major fire there last year. The many trees I photographed in my popular forest reflection photo have been burned. There is still some forest left, but it will take a full generation before the lake is back to its usual array of lush green mature trees. Sad in many ways, but I remind myself that forest fires are key to the overall health and growth of a forest. The old must be burned and cleared away so the new can thrive. The cycle of life and death continues despite our best efforts.


Wildlife included Sandhill crane, abundant antelope, deer, squirrel, hawks and falcons, and more. The antelope took the stage in many photos, and with the back drop of the Sawtooths, they rocked it in the limelight!


There is so much more I could share with you. All the little, memorable experiences are going to forever remain with me. I cherish the quiet moments where the beauty around me really settles in and I feel included in the whole scene. It's in those moments where I can breathe deeply and let go of all that weighs me down. It is those moments that I seek, and live for.


Enjoy some of the many photos I took (well over 500 this trip!) I hope they help portray what I have sought to describe.


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Catherine Sweet
Catherine Sweet
Jun 05, 2023

"Beyond Words" is right!! Both in the narrative and photos - stunningly beautiful!! It's an incredible experience we're grateful you had - a first person experience that can be described and photographed yet still only is completion within the beholder!!

Very appreciative of you sharing! 💕

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