Alice Lake Hike | Sawtooth Wilderness Backpacking
Alice Lake Hike | Written by Brian Callender | Photography by Julie Boyd
Backpacking Alice Lake: Hike Details
Starting Elevation: 7,100 ft.
Distance: 14.5 miles, roundtrip (where you set up camp will vary your mileage slightly)
Elevation Gain: 1,768 ft.
Hike Type: Overnight
Difficulty Level: Difficult
Food Storage: There are no bear boxes at the Pettit Lake Campground or the trailhead. The lake is very popular and was packed when we arrived. Since we were on a long road-trip, we ended up leaving scented items, hidden in our car. We still brought our bear canister with us backpacking as bears, while not frequent in the area, are still present.
Restrooms: Pit toilets are available at the trailhead. We recommend using the campground pit toilet since it sees a bit less usage than the ones closest to the start of hiking the trail.
Cell Service: Basically non-existent outside of the small mountain town of Stanley. We recommend a paper map or downloading a map from AllTrails and anything else you need before you head to the campground area.
Permit: Yes, for both day-hikes and overnight trips. Permits are self-issued once you enter the Sawtooth Wilderness, approximately 1.2 miles into the hike.
Date Hiked: July 23-24, 2020
Getting to the Tin Cup Trailhead
Alice Lake is located in central Idaho within the Sawtooth Wilderness. The hike begins from the Pettit Lake Campground, which is the best place to input on your GPS.
From Boise (153 miles, 3 hours): Take ID 55N for 33 miles, turn right onto County Highway 17, which then becomes ID 21 N before turning right on Forest Road 208. Follow signs to Pettit Lake Campground. Note: Much of this route is windy, so prepare yourself for slow going.
From Twin Falls (127 miles, 2.5 hours): Take US 93N for for 24 miles, then continue onto State Highway 75N for 97 miles before turning left on Forest Road 208. Note: Parts of this route are windy as well, particularly once you leave Sun Valley.
Forest Road 208 is a dirt road, but no 4×4 clearance is necessary to make it to the trailhead. Camping at the lake is first come, first served, and was very busy when we arrived around lunch time in July.
Hiking Alice Lake Idaho
The Alice Lake hike begins at the Tin Cup Trailhead which is also part of the greater Alice-Toxoway Loop. Since we were visiting as part of an 11-day road-trip, we opted to only visit Alice Lake for a one night backpacking trip. Most who end up completing the full loop, spend 2-3 days and there is a quick junction to head towards Toxoway Lake which would be the counterclockwise route.
For the first mile, the trail follows Pettit Lakeshore and is flat and easy. Since we started after lunch, we found ourselves routinely pulling over as people were heading back to the parking lot. At 1.2 miles, you’ll enter the Sawtooth Wilderness where you’ll need to fill out your permit for both day and overnight hiking. The trail begins a slow, steady climb at 1.75 miles and then just before the 2 mile mark, you’ll meet up with the river.
Next up is a series of creek crossings starting at 2.4 miles. It’s nice to have waterproof hiking boots here as we weren’t concerned if our feet got a little wet. On our way back the following day, we saw people walking around, trying to scout out ways to get around where there was less water, and others taking their shoes off.
For the second crossing at 3.10 miles, we followed the log across without issue. Then, at just under 3.5 miles, the trail comes out of the trees and begins to switchback up an exposed slope. This is also the part of the day when the thunder started. We knew it was in the forecast, but hoped it wouldn’t impact our hike. To keep our things dry, we opted to throw on our rain jackets (despite it not being very cold) and our pack covers. We ended up taking both off a short time later as the rain didn’t materialize beyond a light sprinkle.
Once you reach 4.25 miles, the trail starts to get rocky, a departure from the soft dirt at the outset of the hike. 4.5 miles is the third creek crossing, followed shortly by the fourth. A fifth is located just past 6 miles before arriving at Alice Lake. Most of the crossings were manageable by hoping on rocks and logs, although if you are hiking earlier in the season or during in a heavier snow year, your experience may be different. The skies decided to open on us here so we waited for it to lighten up before crossing and continuing on.
Just past the 6 mile mark, you’ll reach the outlet for Alice Lake. This was a beautiful little spot with a nice view of El Capitan, a nearby peak. Continue further along the trail to reach the actual lake.
From here, we spent some time trying to decide where we wanted to camp. We made the mistake of not doing a ton of research on the best camp sites and with heavy packs on, we were ready to be done hiking for the day. I did some scouting for campsites and then the rain started. We huddled under a tree listening to the pouring rain, thunder and lightning, nervous we wouldn’t have a moment to set up our tent.
Eventually, the rain subsided and we quickly found the best available campsite that wasn’t completely flooded. After setting up the tent, Julie headed to the lakeshore to filter water while I inflated our sleeping pads, set up our tent interior, and threw everything inside. Just as I had finished setting everything up, the rain started again and I went to find Julie who was hiking back up from the lake. I grabbed one of our water bladders, and we hurriedly jumped into our tent. Not a moment too soon, as the rain was unrelenting for the next couple of hours. Ours plans for a hot meal were quickly thrown out as we just hoped to stay dry, our first real test on our relatively new tent.
By some miracle we fell asleep (thank you exhaustion!) and actually got a decent night of rest. We awoke the next morning to clear skies and the happy realization that we had made it through the worst thunder and lightning storm we had ever experienced. Quickly, we packed up camp and headed down to the lake for sunrise.
The rough weather the night before definitely paid off with picture-perfect reflections for sunrise. While some clouds would have made the photos that much better, we were mostly happy that they were nowhere to be found.
After enjoying Alice Lake one last time, we started our return journey to the car. We were alone for the first quarter of the trail before encountering day-hikers and backpackers alike, most commenting on the previous night’s storm. Near the end of the trail, we chatted briefly with a ranger who also acknowledged the storm and asked us if we had filled out a permit (but didn’t need to see it, which makes sense since they are self-issued). While our hike up to Alice Lake was mostly filled with moody clouds, the hike out was filled with green trees, blue skies, and even a cloud inversion. A beautiful hike!
Final Thoughts on Backpacking Alice Lake
Alice Lake is an incredibly beautiful alpine lake, and despite the weather challenges, it was one we were so happy to have been able to visit. Since we were on a longer road trip, and this was not our long term destination, we decided to only visit the one lake. However, if we were to come back again, we would definitely do the loop and visit the other lakes. Sawtooth Lake is another premier lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness, and is on our list for a future visit. You could certainly spend a good amount of time in this area hiking and backpacking to your heart’s content!
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