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?
41 thoughts on “Alice Lake – Sawtooth National Forest”
I cannot wait to go back. 🙂
This all sounds like such a fantastic experience with all the beautiful scenery.
It truly was!
I would swim. I spent much of my childhood paddling around in Lake Superior, by the Apostle Islands. Blissful, Brit!
I spent my childhood biking and playing in the woods, I think if I had access to Lake Superior I’d have swam too!
Thank you! The real time mental snap shots are even better.
Wow……amazing photos, so next trip to Sawtooth maybe not in the middle of summer??? They would have to had to airlifted me out in that heat😅 But the hike looked Glorious 👍🙌 Well done You two.
Yes, I’ve already decided next trip to this area will be in May, or October! Gotta beat the heat AND the skeeters! 🤪
I think with this summer heat, I would swim!! Even though as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten lazier when it comes to getting in the water (i.e. who’s gonna watch my stuff? I need to bring a towel and change of clothes? lol).
I hear you on the “who’s going to watch my stuff” thought. I have leaned more towards the mindset that people who are out hiking and enjoying some of the backcountry areas aren’t likely to steal my stuff. So I try to be a bit more flexible. Alas, the ground squirrel was the biggest menace of them all.
Wow. Beautiful. Stunning photos!
I’ve been binging on YouTube videos about missing hikers… stay safe!
Oh gosh, how scary! 😣
Sounds like bliss. You definitely have me in that lake! It’s so clear and beautiful, what a special experience ☀️
I can’t wait to jump into another one!
I’d swim in a heartbeat
That crystal clear water! And the trees and mountains, so pretty. Idaho is so truly varied. Thanks for sharing.
Varied is the perfect word to describe Idaho. 🙌🏻
Your photos that show a reflection of the scenery in the lakes are absolutely amazing. Enjoy following your journey too. All the best
Thank you!! I love the reflection shots.
Swim. Always swim! It is always worth it! Gorgeous photos 😍
I’m a believer now, I will forever be seduced by the alpine lakes!
This place looks gorgeous! Swimming in the lake I think makes the experience complete, especially with the view 😍
This entire day was like something out of a movie. 🤗
This looks way too incredible!! Wow!! I wish I was going to Sawtooth – my girlfriend is in Sun Valley for a competition and I was trying to find an excuse to join her up there and get to Sun Valley. Saving this hike for later!!!
I hope you make it, it’s definitely worth the trip.
It certainly looks like it! I would love to go this year if able!
I would totally swim! Your pictures are gorgeous! I am officially putting this hike down to do when we hit Idaho. What a beautiful experience for you. Thanks so much for sharing 🙂
You must go here! You won’t regret it. 😍
Oh man… Swimming in an alpine lake? I’m not sure my adult self would agree to do that. You know how much I hate the cold! 😉 My childhood self would’ve done it in an instant though. I used to be fearless with cold weather and cold water! At the Girl Scout camp I attended for a few years, they did “Polar Bear Swims” two mornings each session, where we could swim across the lake and back at 7 am. I never missed one! (For full disclosure… The hot chocolate we got right afterward was great motivation.)
PS Fun fact… Back when I was regularly running, I figured out that I had to finish my run before it hit 72°. Much above that and my back would start hurting (well okay, I’m assuming it was my kidneys or liver or something… but it felt like intense middle back pain!) and I’d be totally out of commission for the entire day. I have NO idea how people run when it’s hotter than that. My body just can’t do it! So I’d solely set my alarm based on the weather, how far I wanted to run, and when it would hit 72°. That meant some pretty early wake-up calls in Sac during the summers! 😂
I’ll say hot chocolate IS an amazing motivator for those swims. I remember in 2012 I did a polar bear 5k, and that was brutal. I actually froze in the water momentarily and my running partner had to grab me out. Other than that I used to do an annual polar bear plunge into a pool in the winter in AZ, but honestly that doesn’t count hah.
I cannot run in over 72 either. I feel incredibly unwell if I do. I used to run in peak heat when I was younger, and never connected the dots until I was older!
Spectacular pictures! I probably would not have swum. I don’t like the cold. Standing in the ocean ankle deep in Maine for about 2 minutes is enough for me. If you’ve done it, you know you start aching from the ankles up instantly.
I’ve never been to Maine, but I’ll take your word that the ocean is cooollldd up there.
The Sawtooths are great but I prefer the northern Salmo-Priest area (very tippy top). Hike the Upper Priest Lake for some awesome mountain views. I didn’t find many mountain lakes on my trips there but dip into those I find.
Put a few miles under someone’s boots, the heat of the afternoon, the respite from lugging a pack, and a cool mountain lake to themselves and you’ll have a lot of converts jumping in!
Ohh good to know, I will have to look into the Salmo-Priest area!
Alice Lake looks stunning! Thanks for sharing this little corner of the USA 😀 Even in hot weather (it hit 26C in Scotland this week while we were hiking), I can’t bring myself to swim in cold water.
I would give anything to swim in a Scottish lake right now. 🙂
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