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Jul 24 2015

Cool Respite in the Pioneers

A hike to Sawtooth Lake is the perfect anecdote to a hot day in southwest Montana

Exploring Montana, Featured

Every time I’m on the freeway heading south towards Dillon and within twenty miles of the small university town, I gaze in awe at the eastern face of the Pioneer Mountain range. The two tallest peaks, Torrey and Tweedy, stand in brotherly close proximity, sharing a ridgeline from more than eleven thousand feet. Although I’ve never yet had the chance to hike either of these giants in the east Pioneers, they’ve inspired me to experience of some of the range’s other delectable fruits.

Instead of taking the freeway north from Dillon and seeing these two towering over the eastern front, I drive toward Jackson, Montana and turn off on the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, which separates the East and West Pioneers. I keep on this road for only a few miles and, just before the popular hangouts, Elkhorn Hot Springs and Maverick Ski Area, I spot the trailhead sign on my right and turn onto a dirt road. Soon, two peaks appear from their seats tucked into the backside of the range’s eastern slopes. A craggy ridgeline leads up to Sawtooth Peak, with Highboy Mountain in the distance beyond. Highboy stands just over ten thousand feet and Sawtooth just under.

I continue to follow the markers to the trailhead for about three miles on a dirt road until I come to a small roundabout parking area with a nice trailhead leading into the trees. Immediately after starting on the path, new growth emerges from an area ravaged by a rogue fire back in 2003. Purple aster and Payette beardtongue paint the otherwise dry start of the four-mile trail. The well-maintained trail to Sawtooth Lake meanders along Clark Creek. The hike becomes quite relaxing as the trail turns into a shaded path.

The less-than-strenuous conditions of the trail and the creek flowing close by makes this hike one of my favorites in the area, as do the golden trout that bite excitedly off of the south shore and jump consistently throughout the lake.

I was anxious to take a swim in Sawtooth Lake when I started the hike in 80-degree weather, but, as is common in Montana, a cool wind and sprinkle of rain began to develop by the time I reached the lake. So I took advantage of the fishing instead. I didn’t end up catching a fish this time, but this is rarely the case for those who bring their rods up to Sawtooth. Just reaching the top of the trail and hear the rolling of the lake’s waters on this breezy day is satisfying enough.

The lake offers a perfect view of its namesake peak and neighboring Highboy Mountain. This trail-hike doesn’t offer much of an overlook however. For a more picturesque view, there are plenty of other hikes along this side of the range with a panorama of the valley below and the western Pioneers beyond.

Sitting and eating my lunch, I look up at these two prominent mountains standing just east of the lake, and I try and picture a route up to the ridgeline from this western side. I don’t find anything promising, but the sight of Highboy up close is enough to motivate me to find a way up there in the future so that I can look out over the series of lakes below, such as Pear and Boot lakes.

These unique lakes scattered throughout the Pioneers, surprising when driving up from the relatively dry Dillon area, keep me intrigued and eager to explore more of this range and southwest Montana’s numerous other mountain ranges. Each offers its own touch of Montana beauty for everyone to enjoy.

- Zach Schmaus, MWA intern and University of Montana Western student