Ask Me: Dayhikes and Backpacking Trips in Idaho’s Sawtooth and White Cloud Mountains
I appreciate your generosity in offering to help with planning for our upcoming Idaho trip. We’re looking to do a few things. Primarily, we’ll be dayhiking, but we’re also planning on at least one overnight backpacking trip. If there’s a three-day, two-night trip we shouldn’t miss, we’d be open to that, too. Our six-year-old son is traveling with us and he’s an experienced hiker and backpacker. He can do 8 to 9 miles/day with around 2,000 feet of elevation gain. We usually build in a rest day in between the hard days to let him recover. We’re bringing our ducky so we can paddle a lake or two and we might bring our mountain bikes.
We’ll be driving my truck, which is highly modified for off-road travel and we’re interested in doing some backcountry roads and camping, getting away from the masses. Other things of interest are hot springs, good ice cream, tasty local beer and anything a six-year-old boy might find super cool. Of course, as a landscape/adventure photographer, I’ll be on the hunt for incredible sunrise and sunset scenery.
I think that about covers it. Looking forward to your suggestions. Thank you for taking the time to do this!
First of all, having visited your website, I have to say you have some great photography and I’m looking forward to seeing the images you take home from Idaho.
I have found, especially when hiking with my kids, that it’s hard to shoot that great early-morning and evening light in the mountains if I’m dayhiking rather than backpacking, especially in ranges like the Sawtooths and White Clouds, where many of the really scenic lakes and other spots aren’t very close to roads. Still, if you haven’t seen this story already, it describes some of my favorites dayhikes and backpacking trips in the Sawtooths. Check out, too, menus of all of my stories at The Big Outside about the Sawtooth Mountains and White Cloud Mountains.
See this feature story about backpacking with my kids (on two separate trips) to Alice Lake, Hell Roaring Lake (lead photo at top of story), and Imogene Lake in the Sawtooths. Like the headline says, these are some of the jewels of the Sawtooths. Your high-clearance truck will conveniently get you to the upper trailhead for Hell Roaring Lake, which saves you a few miles of uninteresting trail hiking (that you face when starting at the lower Hell Roaring trailhead), and makes reaching Imogene Lake on your first day a more reasonable objective for your son. Imogene is beautiful and sits in a big basin, ringed by peaks, that gets nice morning and evening light. Same with Alice Lake. Hell Roaring is nicer at sunrise than sunset, I think. (My photos of Hell Roaring Lake in that story were taken in early morning.)
You might consider a three-day traverse (requiring a shuttle) of around 22 miles from upper Hell Roaring Lake Trailhead to Tin Cup Trailhead at Pettit Lake via Imogene Lake (first night’s camp), Toxaway Lake (second night’s camp) and Twin Lakes and Alice Lake (possible second night’s camp, but that’s a big second day). Toxaway and Twin Lakes are also really scenic spots to camp. The classic, three-day loop is an 18-mile hike from Tin Cup Trailhead to Alice Lake or Twin Lakes on day one, Toxaway Lake on a short day two, and finishing back to Tin Cup on day three.
Sawtooth Lake is an 8.5-mile round-trip hike from the Iron Creek Trailhead, with 1,700 feet of vertical, and you could get lucky and find glassy water there with a killer reflection without being there at the crack of dawn, if you’re dayhiking.
You can dayhike or make a short, overnight trip to Saddleback Lakes, which sit in a lovely, wooded basin right at the base of one of the biggest, sheer, granite walls in the Sawtooths, the Elephants Perch. Take the seven-minute boat shuttle across Redfish Lake from Redfish Lake Lodge. Hike two miles up the Redfish Creek Valley—with views of granite walls on both sides—to an unmarked junction with the climber trail that diverges left, just after you cross a small creek on the main trail; you have to watch for it. Follow that trail, which isn’t maintained but isn’t bad, another mile uphill, passing below the Elephants Perch, to the first Saddleback Lake. You can explore the other lakes in that basin.
Another suggestion in the Sawtooths: Hike from the Alpine Creek Trailhead, at the end of the road past Alturas Lake, to the end of the Alpine Creek Trail; it’s an easy three miles or less. At the end of the maintained trail, a user trail climbs very steeply up the headwall you can see above you, several hundred feet and difficult, including some scrambling up ledges. My son was 10 when I took him up it, but it sounds like your son may do fine on it. Right after you crest that headwall, you enter a lakes basin and walk maybe another 30 minutes or less to the shore of unnamed Lake 8522, which has beautiful campsites. I got some nice predawn (with stars), sunrise, and dusk photos while camping there.
In the White Clouds, I’ve explored and posted stories and photos about the Big Boulder Lakes area, a three-day backpacking trip if you want to have time to explore the lakes, as well as a 28-mile loop from Fourth of July Trailhead. The latter, though, includes a seriously steep and loose off-trail section you probably wouldn’t want to take your son up, but you’ll see photos in that story of some of the choicest areas of the White Clouds, including the Boulder Chain Lakes and the Chamberlain Basin below 11,815-foot Castle Peak, both of which can be reached on good trails on backpacking trips of three days. This Ask Me post about backpacking in the White Clouds might also be helpful to you.
If it’s not too hot, visit the Sunbeam Hot Springs about 20 minutes north of Stanley, right beside the highway.
Also, depending on your time and interest in seeing areas beyond the Sawtooths and White Clouds, consider driving from Stanley to Boise via ID 21 south to Lowman, the Banks-Lowman Road through the canyon of the South Fork of the Payette River to Banks, then ID 55 along the main Payette River south to Boise. The entire drive is spectacular. If you’re comfortable taking your ducky in class III whitewater, the main Payette River from Banks down to the Beehive takeout is a world-class, two- to three-hour float with a handful of class III’s, some II’s and I’s and lots of calm water in between the rapids; it’s relatively benign drop-and-pool whitewater and really fun and gorgeous. I’ve run it in a ducky, with my son (14) in a hard shell kayak, and my wife and daughter (12) in a raft, it’s a great time.
I hope that’s helpful.
Wow. This is some fantastic information! Thank you so much for taking the time to put all of this together for me. I’m confident Idaho will blow our minds and that we’ll be making multiple return trips over the coming years.
I really appreciate your kind comments on my photography. It’s always nice to hear such things but especially so when they come from someone who knows how to handle a camera themselves.
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