The S.F. of the Payette is the linchpin of the entire Sawtooth Mountains. In the lower half of the drainage (see Taylor Springs for an overview), Trail Creek and Baron Creek connect over three divides to the Salmon River. It is the headwaters of the South Fork (upstream of Elk Lake), however, that really tie the range together. Above Smith Falls, the upper canyon splits into five separate alpine basins that link over passes to the Salmon, Middle Fork, and North Fork of the Boise Rivers. The trails in the upper South Fork connect the disparate ends of the Sawtooths together, allowing a variety of long backpacking loops or even point-to-point traverses through the entire range. The Sawtooth Wilderness Overview offers suggestions for multi-day backpacking loops.
On a map it is a little unclear which of the upper canyons extends the furthest upstream in order to claim the title of “headwaters” of the South Fork of the Payette River. At a quick glance, the five drainages that contain Everly, Benedict, Ardeth, Virginia, and Hidden Lakes are nearly equidistant from where the canyon splits above Smith Falls. Though the map labels the outlet of Virginia Lake as the South Fork of the Payette River, it is actually a half-mile further to the top of the Benedict drainage. It may seem like splitting hairs, but if someone wanted to claim to have hiked to the true “source” of the South Fork, it would take them to the springs emerging beneath the east face of Plummer Peak!
With so many trails connecting over multiple divides, there are many ways to access the canyons in the upper South Fork of the Payette. For example, Hidden, Virginia, Edna, and Vernon Lakes are actually closer to trail heads in the Salmon River drainage (Redfish, Hell Roaring, Yellow Belly, or Pettit). It will, however, require climbing over one or even two high mountain passes to get there. Everly and Plummer Lakes also happen to be closer to the Queens River trailhead, but this does not take into account the time and effort it takes to simply reach the remote community of Atlanta. How to approach these alpine basins depends on the specific itineraries of individual hikers, but things like snow cover and water levels at major stream crossings should certainly be considered.
For hikers venturing upstream of Elk Lake, the main stem of the canyon continues for 2.3 miles to Smith Falls. Initially, there are some nice views of the polished slabs beneath Elk Peak but the canyon bottom is covered in dense forest that quickly swallows the trail shutting off all views. The ford across the South Fork could be an issue during early summer runoff. Smith Falls is a stunning cascade pouring over a glacially-polished bedrock slab. The slab itself has been undercut by erosion along a black dike that can be traced up the canyon walls in both directions. There are nice swimming holes at the base of the falls for those willing to brave the refreshing dip.
After a long and steady climb above Smith Falls to the junction near the top of Benedict Canyon, hikers will encounter a wonderland of glacially-polished slabs. Below the outlet of the grassy and uninspiring Benedict Lake, the creek begins a tumbling descent down the creases and folds of an expansive granite shield. The trail, which climbs right alongside the playful creek, is one of the more beautiful in the Sawtooths.
Benedict Lake itself feels somewhat like a flooded marsh. Fortunately for those looking for a more alpine experience, both Three-Island and Rock Slide Lake do not disappoint. Perched right at tree line, both lakes offer a pleasant variety of shoreline real estate from shaded camps in the trees to sloping alpine meadows beneath talus cirques. The Ingleborg divide above Rock Slide lake connects to the Middle Fork of the Boise River to the Spangle Lakes adventure.
Hiking distances and ascents are as follows:
Note that the surrounding ridges are very gentle by Sawtooth standards so it is quite easy to explore the open and uncomplicated terrain, or climb over the southern divide to Low Pass, Confusion, and Surprise Lakes.
The east side of Peak 9,798 has a chiseled granite face that looks like it might offer a few easy one- to two-pitch slab and corner routes. Otherwise, climbers will have to get creative with the vertical terrain found on the north face of Peak 9,930 or Point 9,610, an extension of the Plummer Peak ridgeline.
The Benedict Lake trail connects over the Ingleborg Divide to Ingleborg and Spangle Lakes in the Middle Fork of the Boise River drainage.
Most of the trail lies within the Sawtooth Wilderness. Please observe the following regulations:
• Mountain bikes are not allowed past the wilderness boundary.
• Self administered wilderness permits are required and available at the trailhead.
• Dogs must be on a leash between July 1 and Labor Day
• Camp 100-feet from trails, lakes and streams
• Pack out all garbage.
• Human waste should be buried in a cat hole 6-8 inches deep, buried and well disguised. Pack out all toilet paper.
• Campfires allowed ONLY in a backcountry pan or fire blanket
• Campfires are NOT allowed at some lakes and in some drainages in the Sawtooths. Please review the campfire restrictions at individual trailheads.
• Permits required for all stock use in the wilderness. No grazing allowed in the Salmon River watershed (This includes the Alpine Lake drainage)
• No equine stock at Edith Lake. ALL stock prohibited in the Goat Creek and Alpine Creek (Alturas Lake) drainages.
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