Exploring the Sawtooth Mountains

Back before the pandemic first began to break, I had several workshops and trips planned and was looking forward to a full year of photography. Then things began to get bad, and I had several trips canceled. I won't get into my personal beliefs about the quarantine, but in the end the cancellations were out of my hands, as state and national parks at the locations I was traveling to were closed, restaurants were closed, and travelers had no choice but to quarantine for 14 days. When things began to open up again, my friend Kristen Wilkinson and I decided to try for a road trip to get some photography in. We discussed several options, but in the end, settled on the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. It was a place we both wanted to photograph, and it's not overrun with a lot of people like Yellowstone or Yosemite. In the end, it was a solid choice.

We left New England on July 5th, and made the drive to Idaho over four days, arriving in Idaho on the 8th. We spent July 9th driving around the Sawtooth Mountains, mostly around Stanley, Idaho. We had a list of locations we'd researched, and before we started arriving at locations in the dark, we wanted to scout them out, figure out what kind of hike would be involved, and see where the best positions to work from would be. This paid huge dividends the next morning. We'd visited Stanley Lake and photographed there during our scouting, and were able to find the exact spot we wanted to start with, and also calculate what time the sun would clear the peaks to the east and start to show direct sunlight on McGown Peak at the west end of the lake.

The image above, Sawtooth Afire is the result. As the sun began to clear the eastern hills, McGown Peak began to glow with this beautifully soft, warm light. With the clouds moving through, it was there and gone very quickly. I was able to work fast and make two different compositions before the light was gone again.

Another great find on our scouting day was this old cabin at the edge of a cattle ranch. We had passed it while scouting and pulled over to photograph it, but at the time there were no clouds in the sky. When we passed it again a few hours later, clouds had moved in and really completed the scene. So we pulled over again and made some more images. The sage brush in the foreground, and the mountains in the background while the sky filled with clouds just made it all a perfect scene that I'm so glad I was able to capture.

Our third day in the Sawtooths, we decided to really push things. There is a series of alpine lakes high above Redfish Lake, known as the Bench Lakes. The Bench Lakes trail is an 8 mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of about 1200 feet. That gets you to the first two lakes. There are two others beyond these two, but the trail to them is more or less "unofficial". After we reached the second lake, I asked Kristen how she felt about going to the third lake, which was about  a mile past the second, and another 300 feet up in elevation. Her response was "well, we're here," so off we went in search of the third lake. The image above,"Grand Mogul" was taken along the Bench Lakes trail as we made our way to the first two lakes. Grand Mogul is a 9,733-foot high peak in the Sawtooth Mountains.

After a good bit of bushwhacking since the trail to the third lake was more or less nonexistent, we reached the third lake. By this time, we had been on the trail for around 5 hours and the heat was starting to come up. When we began the hike, it was 5am, and the temperature was about 30ºF. It was now nearing 80º. After exploring the third lake and making some photos, we turned around and headed down. The good thing about hiking up a mountain? Going back is all downhill. Since we'd stopped for photos all the way up - the morning light was better - we were much quicker getting down. All told, we were hiking/photographing for eight and a half hours. We reached the trailhead a little before 2pm, hot, sweaty, and ready for a nap! The total hike was 11.6 miles, gained 1500 feet in elevation, and burned 6000 calories. Bear in mind, I was carrying a pack of camera gear and water weighing easily 20 lbs, plus my tripod (should have left that, didn't need it). 


The day after the Bench Lakes hike was a rest day of sorts. We'd planned to meet up with a friend of mine who lives in Idaho, and he was going to show us some of his favorite photo spots. He had a wealth of sites that included abandoned cabins, nice mountain views, and even an abandoned gold dredge. But for me, the payoff was the old ghost town and cemetery.  The image above "Bonanza Cemetery", was taken near Bonanza, Idaho, and Custer, Idaho. Both abandoned mining towns. Custer and Bonanza Cemetery both fall within Challis National Forest. Custer is now included in Yankee Fork State Park, and is in process of being restored as a museum of Idaho's gold mining days.

I was taken with the cemetery. There were a number of markers with names, but the ones that drew me were marked "UNKNOWN". I made the image above as the sun got lower in the sky and shined through the trees. It seemed to enhance the marker I was photographing and indicated a peaceful rest as the weeds and trees reclaimed the ground around the marker.

Our last day in Idaho, we decided to explore the Sun Valley area, which technically isn't the Sawtooth Mountains, but rather, the Pioneer Mountains. This is also part of Challis National Forest. While driving along, we came across this stand of aspens. The light hitting them was so soft, and the repeating of the multiple tree trunks so beautiful, we stopped for a while to photograph them. I was immediately reminded of Ansel Adams' "Aspens" and wanted to make my own version. Adams stuck in my head quite a bit on this trip, as you'll see in a future post. It was a fitting end to this leg of the trip, and a harbinger of things to come for the next leg.

Stay tuned!