Sawtooth Association

The Alpine Examiner

July 29, 2023

Naturalist Blog

Getting to the heart of what matters in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area

Gotta Catch 'Em All! My Search for the American Pika

Photo Credit: Cal DeCoursey, 2016 SIHA Photo Contest Submission 

Disclaimer: Please respect wildlife and refrain from using animal calls to draw animals to you as they can cause distress in wildlife. 


With an abundance of trails to wander, alpine lakes to swim in and wildflowers to sniff, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is the perfect vacation spot for outdoor lovers of any breed. If you enjoy observing wildlife like I do, a variety of species are commonly spotted. Frequent sightings include elk, mule deer, pronghorn, over 140 species of birds, and over a dozen fish species such as the endangered sockeye salmon.


In my time here, I have spotted an abundance of wildlife, including having the unfortunate pleasure having a standoff with a dusky grouse on a trail. However, one species has eluded me: the American pika. Nicknamed the Rock Rabbit, the herbivores are closely related to rabbits and hares, which are in the order of Lagomorphs. They are the smallest of the Lagomorphs, reaching 6 to 8 inches long and weighing 4 to 6 ounces. Coming from the East Coast, I have been fascinated by these resilient creatures of the Western Rocky Mountains. 


Highly adaptive, they are found in alpine high elevation regions, typically higher than 8,500ft and create dens along talus slopes, which are naturally occurring loose rocky areas. Padded toes and sharp curved claws give them the ability to easily move across rocky terrain. They spend warmer months creating hay piles by traveling to and from meadows, gathering grasses and flowers to dry out and use as insulation in their dens and food for the winter. Alpine habitats do not have much vegetative cover, which makes it difficult to find places to hide from predators such as hawks, eagles, owls, and pine martens. Fortunately, their brown-black fur camouflages them in their environment. Unfortunately for those wishing to see this species, it makes it difficult to find them unless you know where to go.


My quest to find the elusive pika began when I arrived in the Sawtooth Mountains in June. I acquired leads and soon after I followed my first one to Sawtooth Lake, a popular hiking spot to a beautiful high alpine lake sitting at an elevation of 8,430ft. It was a perfect location to look for pika.


Sawtooth Lake
Photo Credit: Hali Bedenharn

Arriving at my destination, I sat in silence taking in the view of talus slopes and the ice covering a quiet and beautiful lake, but I became discouraged. Silence is not what you want to hear when it comes to pika. Pika have a distinct warning call, aimed to warn others about predators or if fellow pika are getting too close to their rock nests. I crossed Sawtooth Lake off my list and followed my next lead out of the Sawtooth Mountain Range and into the White Cloud Mountains.


My excitement grew as I followed Fourth of July Creek Road to the trail head. On my left were talus slopes and I was told there would be more further on the trail. Led by hope and the thrill of the hunt I set off to Washington Lake. At an elevation of just below 9,500 ft it is a great location to hear and spot pika. This location was also the homebase for my first backpacking trip!


Talus slopes along Washington Lake
Photo Credit: Hali Bedenharn


After setting up camp, I walked over to the talus slopes alongside the lake and any apprehensions I had were washed away as the first “Eppp!” echoed through the basin.




With patience and close observation, I soon spotted movement along the rocks and set my sights on my first pika. Higher up on the slopes I saw more movement and I soon realized that I would be observing a different type of hunt. A pine marten swiftly ran across the rocks, quickly followed by pika warning calls in the area; I did not see if it was successful. 


Photo Credit: Hali Bedenharn

Can you spot the pika among the rocks? 


Soon after I spotted three others and my search for the American pika came to a close. Having the opportunity to observe such a resilient and determined creature was a worthwhile experience. If you too are on the lookout for one, be sure to follow the Call of the Pika.



is a 2023 naturalist for the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical
Association. She enjoys hiking, bird watching, and finding hidden gems.