The 21 Lakes Tour

The 21 Lakes Tour
Jeff floating on Warbonnet Lake.

The Redfish Lake drainage in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) situated between the towns of Stanley, and Ketchum Idaho is a geologic masterpiece.  No doubt about it. If it were a person, Redfish Lake would be described as long, angular, and taught.  Alluring in itself, Redfish Lake is simply the starting point and front-line guard to additional beauty and wonder.

Many people travel from around the globe to see the first offering at Redfish Lake’s south-end; shangri-la. Buttressed by the uncompromising Elephants Perch on the south and the granular scree dominated Braxon Peak on the north it is easy to understand the claim.

For the vast majority of day hikers a trip to Flatrock Junction is a wonderful thing to experience.  The trip is 3.75 mile one-way from the south end of the lake on the Redfish Creek trail.

For the hearty hiker an additional leg to Alpine Lake and on to the Baron Divide is worth every single ounce of energy.  The journey is memorable. The trip is 6.5 miles one-way. The trail is steep but exceptionally well constructed.

For the over-night trail oriented back-packer a superb trip is the 9 mile one-way trip to Cramer Lakes.  Complete this trip and you can look locals in the eye knowing with 100% confidence they will respond with a gentle nod of acknowledgment.

But Wait There is More…

However, these trips are is simply the start of the treasure to be found and enjoyed in this region of the Sawtooths.

For me and my regular teammates; Chris and Sara Lundy of Sawtooth Mountain Guides there is an additional level of adventure and fun is to be had.  This is accomplished by venturing off-trail and cross-country to the south and west of the aforementioned trail-bound trips.

I call this region The 21 Lakes.  It is comprised of, you guessed it – 21 high mountain lakes.  The 21 Lakes is also contains bold stark peaks that jut from the the valley floors creating huge geographical relief.  Most of this region is completely off-trail.

Taking in all of The 21 Lakes will comprise of 50 – 65 hours of effort. Only four hours and 7.5 miles will be be on-trail. The 21 Lakes Tour includes climbing up and over three high elevation passes, covering three drainages and summiting Reward Peak.  To add an additional level of fun the trip includes floating on the three highest lakes in a Alpaca Raft.

The challenges for this particular photo-shoot are many. On the first day the smoke from the Pioneer Fire greets the team late in the day at Verita Pass (9,600) which requires crossing 1+ miles of large boulders at a steep angle from the Baron Creek drainage to the Warbonnet Lake Overlook. The crossing begins with a 45- 55 degree pitch as we raise to 9,680 feet and eventually settles in at 35+ degrees as we pass just below the summit of Old Monte Veritas. We drop into the saddle which is fairly broad and level. The smoke as the sun sets is material.  Next up is Warbonnet Lake.  This requires a descent of  650+ vertical feet descent on hardpan grist like scree.  It sound worse that it actually is and if you go with the flow and “ski the fall line” the trip is pretty quick.  The morning brings clear and a time to float on the lake.

On the afternoon of the 2nd day smoke greets the team as it reaches the Cony Lake and Cony Peak area. We confirm smoke at high elevation is not much fun. Each of the challenges mentioned above make for a colorful narrative but are easily outweighed in enjoyment by a factor of 100x given the remarkable beauty of the region with virtually no evidence of human impact. And truth be told – the challenges are not really all that tough in the first place.  There are no shots to be had on this night at this spot.  This situation is disappointing as the view (in normal conditions) was to be a major aspect of the shoot.  Such is life.

On the morning of the 3rd day, sun, light, high clouds, and clear air are in order.  We capture shots from Coney Lake looking east from dawn.  A long day of travel will take us through a bevy of lakes to the Summit of Reward Peak.  The ascent to the Reward Saddle (10,000 ft.) is steep and in middle of summer-time it is 1,200 vertical of nasty-bad sandpaper, sandblast scree.  The final 200 vertical is 45-59 degrees in angle.  With virtually no footing it is a three-man back -to-back line foot-in-front-of-foot.  This is where Chris and Sara are as good as it gets in terms of guiding.  We are not going to do anything stupid or rash.  We are properly equipped (poles, ropes, etc.).  All three of us are comfortable with heights and sheer drop offs.  Slow and easy, slow and easy.  While steep, if there was even an ounce of moisture in the ground, this effort is materially easier. We descend to Lake Kathryn – which is mind blowingly beautiful.  A rafting exercise, dinner, a game of pass-the-pigs and bedtime.

We rise two hours before sunrise and head back to the 1,000 vertical feet to the summit of Reward Peak.  What a view.  For 30 minutes we reconfirm\verify the shots we have planned for months. With a full 360 degree view it is many major peaks and drainages in the area. It is a field-day for JHL.  Then it is back down to LK, another rafting exercise, breakfast and then it is off we go for 9 miles of speed hiking and almost 4,000 of vertical drop back to Redfish Lake.

The Redfish Drainage on the way to Veritas Pass. From (way) left to right: Grand Mogul, Elephants Perch, Eagle Perch, Goat Perch, Redfish Point, Redfish Peak, Decker Peak, Red Bluff, Mt. Sevy, The Arrowhead, Mt. Cramer, The Terrible, and Payette Peak (way) in the distance.
Lake Kathryn and Redfish Lake (in the distance) from the summit of Reward Peak.
The Goat Creek Basin from the Summit of Reward Peak.
The Sawtooths from Coney Lake. Looking back at where we crossed over the day before.
Veritas Pass looking at Middle Baron Lake.
Fire in the sky and smoke in the air. Crossing over Veritas Pass as the sun sets.
The Rakers (south and North) at sunrise from Reward Peak.
The Goat Creek Basin in the trip from Coney Peak and Reward Peak