Jewels of the Sawtooths: Backpacking to Alice, Hell Roaring, and Imogene Lakes
By Michael Lanza
We sit on the bank of Pettit Lake Creek and remove our boots and socks to ford it. It’s the third week in June, and winter is just winding down in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. The creek barrels downhill, barking and bursting with snowmelt. My friends Chip and Jan Roser are already partway across, moving carefully over the rocky bed. At the opposite bank, Chip turns around and shouts to us, “It’s freezing.”
It’s certainly very close to freezing, anyway—this creek was snow just a little while ago. In fact, if this water was only a few degrees colder, we could walk across its surface without getting wet.
Nate, my 13-year-old son, steps into the creek, and immediately—almost instinctively—turns around and steps back up onto dry land, his eyes wide. A shiver rips through his body and rattles the words that squeak from his mouth as if each word is a complete sentence: “It’s. Really. Cold.” His voice and eyes telegraph a clear message: He doesn’t want to step back into that water.
I just nod, giving him a moment to contemplate on his own the even less-appealing idea that our overnight hike to Alice Lake—one of the prettiest and most beloved jewels of the Sawtooths—won’t happen without us getting to the other side of this frigid, 20-foot-wide stream. It was Nate who suggested we backpack to Alice Lake, for reasons that go back half of his short lifetime.
I watch his face reveal his thoughts as his expression shifts from shock to dread, resignation, and then determination, all within about a minute. Then I tell him, “You can do this. We’ll get across it quickly.” Chip comes back over to take Nate’s pack for him, and the three of us, using poles for balance, start across. It is foot-numbing, brain-freezing cold. At midstream, the water rises above my knees and up Nate’s thighs. I remind him to step carefully and not rush in this pushy current. “Oh my god, it’s freezing,” he says, gasping the words.
And then we’re across. Nate all but leaps onto dry ground, bends over with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily, and shakes the chill from his body like a dog shaking off water, laughing at how painfully cold that was. Pain is funny after you’ve survived it.
We’ve come here to backpack overnight to Alice Lake, and possibly hike above Alice to Twin Lakes and the 9,200-foot pass separating this valley from that of Toxaway Lake, because Nate wanted to return to the scene of an event from seven years ago. When he was six, he and I backpacked the 18-mile Alice Lake-Toxaway Lake loop in late summer, taking three days—our second “boy trip“ together, the name Nate gave years ago to our annual father-son adventures.
Now, he recalls that first, big backpacking trip together only in fragmented and foggy pieces of a six-year-old boy’s memory, like the reassembled shards of a shattered mirror reflecting a broken, partial image. A frigid creek ford did not pose enough of an obstacle to keep him from wanting to revisit that special place in memory.
Beyond the ford of Pettit Lake Creek, our uphill hike to Alice Lake turns less exciting, though not devoid of smaller challenges. At around 8,000 feet, still below Alice, we encounter nearly continuous snow cover in the forest. Between short, sun-warmed segments of open trail, we walk long stretches over densely consolidated but melting, mushy snow two or three feet deep, stepping over the knee-deep postholes of previous hikers. We follow the trail around a pond reflecting the sharp arrowhead of 9,901-foot El Capitan jutting into the sky.
By early evening, a few hours after leaving the trailhead, we reach the lake and find two patches of open ground for our tents, where direct sunlight slashing through gaps in the tree canopy has melted away the snow.
At almost 8,600 feet, Alice Lake, about three-quarters of a mile long, remains mostly frozen today—officially the first day of summer, although the mountains appear oblivious to the calendar. But open water at our end offers a flawless reflection of a row of jagged, snowy mountains. Cotton-ball clouds dapple a sky as deeply blue as the ocean. The water is so clear that rocks on the lake bottom look as sharp and as close as words on the page of a book in your hands.
It’s a view that makes for great photos—and perhaps helps jog the memory of a teenage boy from a time when he was a small boy.
I remember pieces of that first trip here with Nate, like the unrestrained, convulsive laughter that erupted from him each time he hoisted a rock as large as he could lift overhead and slam-dunked it into Alice Lake; he couldn’t get tired of the baritone splash it created, as if it surprised him each time. We’d stopped at Alice’s shore expressly for the purpose of bombing the water with rocks, after camping the night before a bit shy of the lake. As a thunderstorm rapidly approached on the first afternoon of that long-ago trip, I had hurriedly erected the tent moments before the bruised and blackened sky tore open. Torrential rain and loud, tent-rattling gusts, accompanied by the percussion of thunder, pounded our thin, nylon walls so loudly that my little boy slithered his sleeping bag up very close to mine.
Tonight, we get friendlier weather than that night below Alice Lake seven years ago: It’s clear and windy but not cold. The four of us relax around the campsite, Nate joining in our adult conversations, as I recall he and I engaging in a serious debate, seven years ago, over which dinosaurs would emerge victorious in head-to-head battles. It being the summer solstice, the sun doesn’t set until nearly 10 p.m., when the wind calms and the temperature drops quickly.
Alice Lake-Toxaway Lake Divide
Early the next morning, Chip and I strike out on a short hike as Nate and Jan sleep in; my son still appreciates his sleep as much as he did as a first-grader, and Jan may just be smarter than us. We head up the trail toward the Alice Lake-Toxaway Lake Divide, the 9,200-foot pass between these two valleys. The sun, though still low, shines warmly from a cloudless, cerulean sky. The overnight temp dropped into the high 30s, firming up the snow, making for easy walking. A couple of times, we lose the trail, hidden beneath the snow cover, but eventually regain it and reach the pass.
Around us unfolds a mountain landscape barely beginning to emerge from winter on this summer solstice. White covers almost all that we can see. The Twin Lakes, just 300 feet higher than Alice, remain completely locked in ice. When we made plans for this weekend, we’d thought we might hike 10,651-foot Snowyside Peak above the pass, fifth highest among more than 40 peaks that rise above 10,000 feet in the Sawtooths. But that will wait for another time. We make a quick descent back to camp to have breakfast with Nate and Jan.
By late morning, the four of us shoulder our backpacks for the hike out. Falling behind Chip and Jan, Nate and I find a logjam below Alice Lake that we walk across easily to avoid one boots-off, feet-numbing ford of the creek that we see other backpackers making. Even better, down lower, we will find a user trail along the northwest side of Pettit Lake Creek that allows us to avoid the frigid crossing that started this trip.
But before we get down that far, as we’re hiking through pine forest about 30 minutes below Alice Lake, below the snow line, I stop beside a small clearing amid the trees just off the trail—an established campsite. And I immediately realize what I’m looking at. “This is it,” I tell Nate. “This is where we camped that first night.”
He instantly knows what I’m talking about: our boy trip when he was six. I’m sure he’d have walked right past this spot without remembering it. But he agrees I’m correct, and strolls around the big patch of packed dirt, smiling and chattering on about how special that trip was, as I imagine him searching his memory for elusive fragments of those few days half his lifetime ago.
Then Nate tells me: “I love our boy trips together.” I agree enthusiastically, even as I know that it will be many years before Nate understands how much I enjoy these trips.
Hell Roaring Lake
As Alex and I start up the Hell Roaring Trail in Idaho’s Sawtooths at 7:20 p.m. on a Friday in early August, it occurs to me that I’ve once again proven the age-old theory that it’s impossible to get away for the weekend at a reasonable hour on a Friday unless you just resolve to take the entire day off from work.
To compound my sense of poor execution of this weekend trip, we’re walking for maybe 20 minutes when we hear the first rumble of thunder.
“Uh-oh,” I say to my 11-year-old daughter, knowing it will take us about two-and-a-half hours to hike the five gently uphill miles through ponderosa pine forest to Hell Roaring Lake. She just smiles and shrugs.
It starts sprinkling on us, but it’s a mild evening. Alex tells me the rain “feels pretty nice, actually.” That’s my daughter—reliably positive. Even when it rains steadily for nearly an hour as we’re hiking, she seems to not notice it, chatting with me almost non-stop.
This three-day hike to Hell Roaring and Imogene Lakes in the Sawtooths is Alex’s and my annual father-daughter adventure that she dubbed our “girl trip” when she was younger, as a counterpoint to Nate’s and my “boy trip.” I’m good with the name “girl trip”—it makes me feel accepted in spite of a glaring shortcoming.
The rain stops before we reach Hell Roaring Lake at 9:40 p.m., just as darkness settles in completely. Wandering around behind the beam of my headlamp, I find an empty campsite and pitch the tent, and then Alex and I crawl inside our sleeping bags and play Yahtzee until 11 p.m. She beats me by two points—and rubs it in. We’re a little competitive with each other at games.
On Saturday morning, before Alex awakes, I walk along the nearby shore of Hell Roaring Lake. The still water on this calm, early morning reflects the thickly forested opposite shoreline and the rocky peaks beyond it, including the distinctive spire called the Finger of Fate, which slashes like a cutlass into a mostly clear sky.
After a leisurely breakfast, I load my pack with only what we’ll need for a dayhike, and Alex and I set off up the trail for the two-and-a-half-hour walk to Imogene Lake, four miles and 1,600 feet above Hell Roaring.
Over the past 16 years of exploring the Sawtooths, it has often seemed to me that everywhere I went in these mountains was somehow even more beautiful than every corner of this range that I’d visited before. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the part of the Sawtooths I’m in at any given time strikes me as the best part simply because of the nature of the Sawtooths: They are rich with scenery so breathtaking that it can’t seem possible that someplace else is more lovely than wherever you’re standing right now.
Still, today’s visit to Imogene Lake (lead photo at top of story), my third at least, reminds me that Imogene must surely be one of the gems of a range littered with hundreds of gorgeous lakes.
At a bit over 8,400 feet, Imogene is big by mountain-lake standards, more than a half-mile long and a quarter-mile across, dotted with a few islands. Several established campsites occupy its granite-lined shore. A semi-circle of rocky peaks surrounds the deep, clear waters. Alex and I eat lunch at the lake’s northeast corner, and then walk the trail around to the southern end and laze around on ledges just above the water. When we finally start the hike back to our camp, as we’re following the trail along the lakeshore, the light suddenly shifts in a way that makes the entire scene before us—the mountains reflected in the glassy lake—look deeper, more three-dimensional, and luminescent.
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Later, back at our campsite, Alex and I play Yahtzee again and she beats me again—then reminds me that I haven’t won a game on this trip. Lying on her foam pad, Alex asks me, “Dad, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” I tell her I don’t understand the question. She repeats it several times until giving up on my ignorance of philosophy.
After dark, we step outside the tent to watch the first stars slowly emerge. Alex calmly says, “Look, a mouse.” She shines her headlamp on the tiny creature as it scurries about, sometimes within inches of her bare feet in her flip-flops, and yet she never flinches.
“It doesn’t freak you out?” I ask her. “No, it’s kind of cute,” she says.
Then we turn off our headlamps and look up at a sky riddled with stars and the glowing streak of the Milky Way, and I quietly wish that we could count on memory to preserve an accurate record of moments like this forever.
See my story “Boy Trip, Girl Trip: Why I Take Father-Son and Father-Daughter Adventures,” and all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, including “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains,” and “Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?”
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR any backpackers, including families, capable of hiking up to several miles a day with less than 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Challenges include the hot, alpine sun, the possibility of thunderstorms, and mountain passes above 9,000 feet if you hike beyond Alice Lake or Imogene Lake (see The Itinerary below). Trails are well marked and obvious, so route-finding won’t be a problem for anyone with solid compass and map-reading skills.
Make It Happen
Season The prime hiking season in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains usually begins in early or mid-July, once snow has largely melted out of the high passes, and continues through September and often into October. Summers are mostly warm and dry with occasional afternoon and evening thunderstorms. Go between August and mid-September for mild days, cool but not frigid nights, and fewer mosquitoes and horseflies around the lakes and creeks than in early summer.
Alice Lake: From the Tin Cup Trailhead at Pettit Lake, hike 5.3 miles and 1,600 feet uphill to Alice Lake, at almost 8,600 feet. It’s a couple miles farther and 600 feet uphill to the pass at the Alice Lake-Toxaway Lake Divide—you’ll pass the Twin Lakes en route—then a couple more miles downhill to campsites in the woods at the west end of Toxaway Lake, at a little over 8,200 feet. From there, it’s about nine miles to complete the loop back to Tin Cup Trailhead.
Hell Roaring and Imogene Lakes: From the lower Hell Roaring Lake Trailhead, hike above five miles, without gaining much elevation, to Hell Roaring Lake; from there, it’s four miles and 1,600 feet uphill to Imogene Lake.
You could combine Hell Roaring, Imogene, Toxaway, Twin, and Alice lakes on a traverse of about 25 miles, requiring a vehicle or bike shuttle. See more details in my story “Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?“
To reach the Tin Cup Trailhead for Alice Lake, drive ID 75 about 16 miles south of Stanley and turn west on FR 208. Several minutes down that road, and turn right onto FR 362. Continue a short distance to the Tin Cup Trailhead parking lot at the northeast corner of Pettit Lake.
To reach the lower or upper trailhead for Hell Roaring Lake, drive ID 75 about 15 miles south of Stanley and turn east onto FR 210; follow it about five minutes to the lower trailhead, which is marked by a sign and has limited roadside parking.
To shorten the hike to Hell Roaring Lake by about three miles, some people drive to the upper Hell Roaring trailhead on FR 97, beyond the lower trailhead. It requires a vehicle with high clearance. I attempted driving that road in my Subaru Outback, but turned back maybe a third of the way up because of deep ruts and big rocks. I had to drive in reverse for at least 300 yards down that rough, narrow road, before I found a spot wide enough to turn around. I’d recommend either taking a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, or parking at the lower trailhead.
Permit Free, self-service backpacking permits are available at trailhead kiosks in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
Map Earthwalk Press Sawtooth Wilderness Hiking Map and Guide, $9.95, available in outdoor-gear retailers and other stores in Boise, Stanley, and Ketchum, and online, including at rei.com.
• There are black bears in the Sawtooths. While incidents of bears attempting to get human food are rare, hang your food about 20 feet off the ground over a branch at least several feet away from the tree trunk (beyond the reach of a bear climbing the trunk). Over the course of numerous trips, I’ve had only one encounter with a black bear in the Sawtooths (in the Redfish Creek valley), and it was non-threatening; we had to throw rocks to scare it out of the tree it was climbing after our hanging food bags.
Contact Sawtooth National Recreation Area (208) 727-5000 in Ketchum, (208) 774-3000 in Stanley, fs.usda.gov/sawtooth.
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