Hiking The Most Beautiful -26- Miles in North America

May 21, 2021 | Central Idaho, Epic Idaho, Featured

That’s not clickbait. I’m serious when I say this is the most beautiful 26 miles in North America. I doubt you’ll convince me otherwise. I’ve done the Grand Canyon. Sure it’s spectacular, once in a lifetime, all that. But if you asked me “would you like to do a 26 mile stretch down the Grand Canyon or the Alice-Toxaway loop,” it wouldn’t be close. Maybe that’s just my Idaho roots talking, hometown bias. Either way, you get it. This is a freaking stunning hike.

Pettit Lake in the Sawtooth National Forest.

The Alice-Toxaway loop in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho starts and ends at Pettit Lake and the Tin Cup Trailhead. I’m not going to add driving directions to this post, you won’t need them. Google Pettit Lake or Tin Cup Trailhead. Both spots are popular and right off highway 75, you will easily be able to find it. There is a parking lot and many camp sites in the vicinity. The hike to Alice Lake has become increasingly popular over the years, and if you visit on a Saturday you’ll probably have to find different parking and walk a few hundred yards to the trailhead. This hike is busy but it’s Idaho busy. The parking lot fits about 50 cars. Many are backpackers leaving their cars parked for several days so when you see a full parking lot don’t be discouraged. You’ll see people on the trail but it’s not like hiking in Zion or Yellowstone. There’s plenty of room to spread out. I found parking in the parking lot and car camped at Pettit Lake the first night before starting my hike the next morning.

Day 1- Alice & Twin Lakes

 

Hiking to Alice Lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Idaho.

Is the first day the best? It’s very possible. How the hike to Alice Lake isn’t as famous as Angel’s Landing is beyond me. A 6 mile butt blaster up an ever changing landscape dotted with wildflowers, thick douglas fir, creek crossings, old wooden bridges and peak after peak after peak. Culminating in the stunning view you see at the start of Alice Lake. The Sawtooth’s El Capitan rising up over a glistening blue oasis at 9,999 feet. O ya, when can you do this hike?Up in this kind of elevation the trail will not be open until June, and still you’ll see snow on the ground. Technically after June you can hike this loop until the first snow, but I’d say September is your last month. You might be able to do it in October but by then the Fall colors will be practically gone, lakes will be receding, it’ll be cold, forest fire smoke will probably be in the air. Stick to June-September with June and September being the least crowded.

Alice Lake has some great campsites around it, but this is a really popular spot for day hikers. Many people stop here if they can find a spot. About a mile further down the trail are the Twin Lakes, in my opinion an even more stunning spot than Alice. This is what I’m talking about when I say the most beautiful 26 miles. The well known and breathtaking Alice Lake may be the second most beautiful lake you see on day 1!

Twin Lakes in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Idaho.

I suggest finishing day 1 at Twin Lakes. There are more places to camp and it put’s you right at the start of Snowyside Pass, one of the harder stretches on the trail.

Day 2- Snowyside Pass, Toxaway and 8165’

 

Twin Lakes in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Idaho.

If you took my advice and stayed at Twin Lakes you are in the a great position for day 2 with several options to choose from. First you’ll climb the pass. It will take you a couple hours to complete and if you choose not to go to Imogene, this will be the last real climb of the trip (more on Imogene in a sec). In the afternoon Snowyside Pass is covered in sun which can make it a hot, sweaty trudge. But since you were smart and did it first thing in the morning, you’ll get it done before heat becomes an issue. Plus you’ll get the stunning sunrise view over Twin Lakes. Once you reach the saddle you’ll start your decent to Toxaway Lake. Because of the suns trajectory you’ll have shade on this side of the pass. So as the day heats up you’ll have the cool side of the mountains to hike. Pass several smaller lakes as you continue downhill to Toxaway Lake, the largest lake in the Sawtooths. Toxaway is about 10 miles from the trailhead, 4 miles from Twin Lakes. It’s large and doesn’t attract many day hikers so there are plenty of places to camp.

Toxaway Lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Idaho.

Toxaway Lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Idaho.

Here’s where those options come into play. Chances are you’ll get here early. Option one is to take it easy, relax, swim, enjoy the day. Option two is to hightail it to Imogene which is 6 more miles of climbing. Follow the trail as it parallels Toxaway. About a half mile from the start of Toxaway is a well marked junction. Make a left and follow the sign uphill to Edna Lake (trail 92). This trail will take you past Edna, up over Imogene Pass at 9300’ before descending into the basin that holds Imogene Lake. Option 3 is to spend some time at Toxaway, then take the easy stroll to Farley Lake, skip Imogene, and leave yourself 5 miles for the last day of the trip. Option 4 and the one I did is to spend some time at Toxaway, before finding a lake closer to Imogene.

Waterfall on the Alice-Toxaway loop in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Idaho.

Unnamed lake on the Alice-Toxaway loop in the Sawtooths.

So let’s take a closer look at option 4. There are two ways you can do this. As I mentioned above you can head up to Edna Lake and stay there. That eliminates some of the climbing you’ll have to do the next morning. The other option and the one I did was continue straight at the junction towards Farley Lake. This takes you past the entire mile long Toxaway Lake at a pretty even keel. After Toxaway you’ll pass Bowknot Lake. I explored Bowknot but found the camping sub par for this area. Continue on to the next lake a little further down the trail. You’ll hear a waterfall before seeing the lake. Follow the sound just off trail to a gorgeous waterfall and an unnamed lake I call 8165’. At the base of the waterfall and at the top of it are multiple campsites for you to choose from. The sound of the waterfall keeps the sound of anyone nearby at bay, and it’s a soothing way to fall asleep at night. If you choose to stay at 8165’ you’ll miss Edna Lake and if you stay at Edna you’ll miss 8165’, Bowknot, and the last half of Toxaway. But staying at Edna will give you an easier day 3 and you’ll repeat less of your hike coming back from Imogene. Choose wisely! Or don’t, honestly it’s all a good option.

Day 3- Is the Imogene side trip worth it?

Imogene Lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Idaho.

Yes. Ok moving on. Just kidding but not really. Yes, the trip to Imogene is worth it. I loved this lake, and Imogene Peak is a fabled mountain in the Sawtooths. If you’re a Sawtooth nerd like me, staying under Imogene Peak is a bucket list item. But this is unequivocally the hardest climb on the Alice Toxaway loop. Technically it’s not part of the loop. You will need to climb from 8165’ or if you stayed at Edna Lake 8404’ to the 9300’ Imogene pass. On the other side of the pass the trail is made up of big, loose, rock. Not the pleasant gravel you have on the rest of the loop. You’ll take a dozen switchbacks up over the pass, and a dozen switchbacks down the pass to Imogene Lake. Then you’ll have to do it all over again the next day.

Imogene Lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Idaho.

I was exhausted by the morning of day 4 having to climb back out of Imogene basin. I had too much gear and was making a film. I found this climb much more difficult than Snowyside Pass, especially on the morning of day 4 when the lactic acid has built up and you’re feeling tired. So if you have young kids, or aren’t in great shape, or you have a grandparent with you, I’d recommend skipping this side trip.

If you start your day from lake 8165’, continue on the loop for less than a mile until you come to another well marked junction for Edith Lake (Not to be confused with Edna). Turn left and begin your climb to Edith. There is no camping allowed at Edith, tons of signs are posted around the lake that say no camping, still you’ll see campers there. I ran into a group of 10 that literally had a no camping sign sticking out from between a couple of their tents. I may or may not have had a few words for them. Climb past Edith and eventually you’ll connect with trail 92 from Edna Lake at the base of Imogene Pass. If you are coming from Edna, you will see the well marked junction for Edith Lake. This is the way you want to return after visiting Imogene. Instead of back tracking to Edith and Toxaway, make that turn at the junction towards Edith.

Imogene Lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Idaho.

This is a good time for me to point out, this trail is super well marked. There is no compass navigation, no route finding skills necessary, you barley need a map back here. There are nice wooden signs that will tell you the direction and distance to these places, so don’t worry too much about getting lost.

Day 4 & 5- Farley Lake

Farley Lake and Parks Peak in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Idaho.

One of the best things about the Alice-Toxaway loop is that it’s super customizable. I’m a guy that likes options. I don’t want to do your trip, I want to do mine. As this article comes to an end, I encourage you to explore your options, even while on the trail. I didn’t plan on finding that waterfall and staying at lake 8165’, my plan was to stay at Toxaway. But I got there early, wanted to hike some more that day, and said to hell with it! I’ll find another place to camp and sure enough my decision paid off. I saw people camping after Snowyside Pass at the lakes before Toxaway. I saw people doing it backwards (which I don’t recommend but to each their own). There is no wrong way to hike Alice-Toxaway. Well, maybe a weekend in June is the wrong way, but you get the idea!

No matter what you do, you will pass Farley Lake. Farley is a tricky one. It’s a beautiful lake, but for some reason everyone kind of hates on it. In my research leading up to this trip people glossed over Farley, called it unimpressive. Unimpressive? I did not think that at all. Farley is magnificent, more impressive than Toxaway in my opinion. It’s a big lake with Parks Peak shooting out of it like a damn volcano. There’s a lot of water, a lot of spots to camp, a waterfall, why does Farley get such a bad wrap? I have thoughts.

Farley Lake and Parks Peak in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Idaho.

First thing is the trails and banks around Farley are not well developed. At the other lakes there might as well be driveways leading you into campsites. At Farley you’ll have to do some bushwhacking to find a spot. I was asked (no hyperbole here) 5 times the one evening if I had seen or knew where to find a good spot. I found a great spot, but I had arrived early and searched for a good thirty minutes to find it. Second, swimming is tough at Farley. There’s a lot of deadwood along the banks, and like I said the banks are high, you’re above the lake not on it. Third is you’re very close to the trailhead, a little less than 5 miles. This attracts day trippers and overnighters making Farley somewhat crowded. And people will walk through your site looking for one of their own, there’s no way around it. At Twin Lakes, sure there were several groups, but everyone was spread out, no one was bothering anyone, trails didn’t lead you into people site’s, it seemed more chill (like a regular Ernest Hemingway there with that description). So knowing all that, do you stay the night at Farley, or do you cruise by it and make it back to Stanley in time for a nice dinner? This is the dilemma you have with Farley.

Alice-Toxaway gets more and more people every year. I think that’s great, it’s a great place, it will change your life. Just remember to treat it with the same amount of care and respect you would your own home.

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