After leaving the humid and mild climate of Montana, driving into the mountains of southern Idaho was like driving through the gates of hell. The heat is so intense it smacks you in the face, but the landscape is stunning. Southern Idaho is unlike any place I’ve been to. The temperature and the air are remnant of Arizona, but the wilderness is similar to the North Cascades.
Driving through these winding mountain roads was something words cannot do justice to. The two lane roads go on for miles, hugging the river – a place of reprieve from the intense heat. The pavement is stained black in areas, suggesting extra wear and tear on slightly melted tires. The skies are clear and the air is sharp with such little moisture I needed extra water just stepping outside.
With all of these desert like features comes a unique beauty I don’t see much in the Pacific Northwest. Even the rest stops had amazing views.
Idaho was never a state high on my list of places to visit until a few years ago. I stumbled onto some photos of the Sawtooth Wilderness, and I immediately knew this was a place I would have to see in my lifetime. When planning a vacation to Glacier, I realized a small detour into Idaho before heading back home would not only be plausible, but also necessary.
Ironically Duncan and I ended up spending more time in Idaho than in Montana, despite the fact that our original goal was solely to travel to Glacier. Idaho turned out to be a gem among gems with its ever-changing landscape, and beautiful alpine lakes. I had one goal while on this vacation – hike as many times as possible.
I managed to officially hike five of these vacation days, and these hikes will forever be etched into my memories.
Just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the brown, dry, and desert like landscape of Idaho is the Sawtooth Wilderness. An equally hot climate, but with green trees and countless lakes. The first of two hikes we did in Idaho was Alice Lake – a 12 mile out and back trail ending at a glass like pocket of water just begging to be swam in by those brave souls who submerge themselves in frigid waters.
Definitely not me though…I couldn’t…
We stayed at a quaint little Airbnb about an hour and 20 minutes from the Sawtooth Mountains, meaning we had to wake up before the birds again to beat the heat. We arrived at the trail head around 0530, and while the temperatures were calm this time of day – the mosquitoes were not.
Pro tip: bring extra bug spray to the Sawtooth Mountains.
The first mile of this hike hugs next to the above lake before officially entering into the wilderness. While I have always been a fan of hiking early, this vacation was the first time I consistently woke up before the sun this many times in a row, and there is something magical about coming to life at the same time as the earth. The sun slowly rises, the shadows slowly fade, and the heat slowly engulfs you reminding you why you chose to start early.
The hike up to Alice Lake was moderate, but not overly difficult. The early start was incredibly helpful, and we took our time to soak in the surrounding views.
We arrived at the lake around 0830, and we passed by a handful of campers waking up. This area is a prime camping location, and the campsites are all spread out nicely so that you are not on top of each other. I will absolutely be coming back here to camp. We chose to hike to Alice Lake and then turn around, but this trail continues on for a 21 mile loop passing two other lakes. I will also be walking the entire loop next time!
When we arrived at the lake we first passed by a small lake that was cute, but was definitely no Alice.
We managed to find a camp spot that was vacant, and our original plan was to sit and savor the view for 30 minutes or so, eat a snack, and head back down before the peak heat of the day. Disclaimer: this is not what happened. We did in fact sit and savor the view, we ate a snack, and we made friends with a local ground squirrel, but we did not leave before peak heat of the day.
We instead found a rock to sprawl our bodies out onto, deciding to stay at the lake for a couple hours before heading back down. Duncan even suggested possibly putting parts of our bodies into the frigid waters, but we didn’t plan to swim.
What happened next cannot be explained by anything other than pure seduction by Alice. The day slowly turned into late morning, and the temperature slowly started to rise. By 1030, I was up to my knees in the water. The initial shock of the cold water hit like a knife, but after a minute or two my body adjusted and it was no longer frigid. When in Rome you eat pasta, when in Idaho you swim in the lake.
With the flip of a switch I decided I was going in.
What was meant to be a quick dip turned into over 30 minutes of swimming, only exiting the water to shoo off our squirrel friend who had gotten into my food garbage. I eventually got cold enough to get out and lay on the warm rocks, and I officially understand seals on a personal level now. The hike to the lake was fantastic, but the swimming was what really sealed the deal.
This was easily my favorite hike of the entire trip. The entire day was unbeatable.
Without pain we cannot truly feel joy, and the joy I felt from this morning of swimming was followed by pain on the hike back. The heat was so intense I could feel my organs cooking like squash in an oven. The last mile was so stagnant and long I had to switch into autopilot to get back to the car. Just moments from the trail head we were passed by a man running with his dog. What’s with these people running in the peak heat?
The pain was worth the joy, and I would have done this entire day over 10 times. To add more surprise to the Idaho weather, at the tail end of our drive home we were hit with some of the most intense rain and hail I have seen in a very long time. It was moving quickly in the sky, but lingered just long enough to soak me when I had to run into the grocery store. The drowned rat look has a whole new meaning now.
I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the Sawtooth Wilderness, this place is a unique beauty that can only truly be experienced in real time. 10/10 would recommend.
I am officially a believer of swimming in alpine lakes after a hot hike, and I hope to find many pristine lakes to wash my hiking filth off in this summer. Any and all recommendations are welcomed, no matter the state, and no matter the country.
Q: Would you swim?