Thursday, July 18, 2013

Try any of these three backpacking destinations in Central Idaho ... they're Idaho classics!

Fishfin Ridge in the Bighorn Crags (courtesy Summit Post) 
Wilson Lake, Bighorn Crags (courtesy Will Whelan)
Scenic hiking! Bighorn Crags
Alice Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness 
Hatchet Lake, Boulder Chain Lakes, White Cloud Mountains (courtesy Idaho Alpine Zone)
Hi all,

It's mid-July, nearly all of the snow has melted in the high-country, so the backpacking season is in full swing. This week, I'm going to highlight three backpacking trips in Central Idaho that I'd call "Idaho classics." Try to make plans and pick these off when you can. They are all stunningly beautiful and certainly worth the effort!

All of these backpacking trips end up at high mountain lakes where you can cool off and go swimming and/or go fishing. That's the big payoff. Plus, you have the option of hiking to high peaks or ridges above the lakes for a big view.

1. Alice Lake-Toxaway Lake Loop in the Sawtooth Wilderness. This loop is approximately 18-miles long, with 3,250 feet of elevation gain and loss. The trailhead starts from Pettit Lake, south of the Smiley Creek Lodge. A three-day trip for this loop would be great to allow time to enjoy the high mountain lakes before hiking back to your rig, but it certainly can be done in two days. I'd rate the hike strenuous.

Alice-Toxaway Loop (click to enlarge)
2. Boulder Chain Lakes in the White Cloud Mountains. This trip is also strenuous, but well worth it to get into the Boulder Chain Lakes in the Little Boulder Creek drainage. It's about 8+ miles to the first group of lakes, and another mile and more elevation to the upper lakes. Elevation gain is 3,500 feet to the upper basin. The cool aspect of this destination is the amazing choice of so many lakes to explore and consider for that premium lakeshore camp site. There are more than 10 lakes in the general area, once you reach the Boulder Chain Lakes Basin.

The only drawback to this trip is the time it takes to get to the trailhead. The best way to do it is to drive to Stanley on a Friday evening, and keep going toward Challis to the East Fork of the Salmon River Road (Forest Road #120) near Clayton. Go right up the East Fork Road and camp at the trailhead. It's about 4 hours to the trailhead.

Boulder Chain Lakes in the Little Boulder Creek drainage. 
3. Bighorn Crags in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The drive to the Crags is even longer ... it takes at least a half day to get there, so it's best to plan a trip in the Crags for 4-5 days, or even a full week. Drive to Challis, go north of town, and turn left onto the Morgan Creek Road. Take the Morgan Creek Road over a summit into Panther Creek, then go left on Forest Road #112 in Cobalt and climb up to the Crags Campground Trailhead. It's 47.6 miles of dirt road to the trailhead.

From there, it's a strenuous hike of 7+ miles to Wilson Lake and Fishfin Ridge, a good place for the first night's camp. The main destination that a lot of people seek is Ship Island Lake, a huge, long lake that's set deep in the heart of the Crags. Like I said, allow plenty of time to explore the area.

Crags campground to Ship Island Lake (click to enlarge)
Here's what my friend Will Whelan says about the Crags:

 "The Crags are fairly similar to the Sawtooths, but a couple of differences stand out: 1) The Crags are embedded in a huge wilderness, and it takes hours of driving on dirt roads to even get there. As a result, the place has a really remote feel. No lights at night. 2) The free-standing vertical spires at places such as Fishfin Ridge are really remarkable. In places, they are tightly stacked together, making for very entertaining hiking as you pass in and around the jumbled landscape."

When it comes to backpacking, Idaho has a ton of great adventure opportunities throughout the state. There are many other places you can go, but these three are some of my all-time favorites. They are challenging to be sure, but the payoff in terms of scenery and fishing make everything worthwhile.

Have fun!
- SS


Unknown said...

Great article! Quick question: On the Boulder Chain Lakes info, you said that it takes about 4 hours to get to the trail head. Is that 4 hours from Stanley?

Unknown said...

Great article! Quick question: In the Boulder Chain Lakes section, you said that it takes about 4 hours to get to the trail head. Is that 4 hours from Stanley? 4 hours from the road? Just needed a bit of clarification, my girlfriend and I are planning our first trip later this month.

Steve Stuebner said...

Hey Brady, that's 4 hours from Boise ... about 1 hour from Stanley. Have a great trip!

Unknown said...

My boyfriend and I are heading up to do the Toxoway Loop this weekend. I think we'll take three days, just so we have time to relax and really explore. I hadn't heard of Boulder Chain Lakes before; I'll have to add it to the list! Great article.