Backpacking to Alice Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains

Sep 17, 2020

Wanting to visit Alice Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains? We’re sharing everything you need to know to backpack to Alice Lake or just take a day hike, including permits, where to start, what to expect, what to bring, and more! Ready for an epic hike in the Sawtooth Mountains? Keep on reading!

When we moved to Seattle, a coworker of mine (Kathryn) went on a backpacking trip in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. I remember seeing photos from her trip and being shocked that the gorgeous scenery was in Idaho! While I had been to Boise and loved the city, I had no idea that Idaho was home to such beautiful peaks and alpine lakes. And from then on we had a new bucket list item: visit the Sawtooth Mountains.

But due to the longer drive and lack of vacation time, we never made it happen during our time living in Seattle. So when we hit the road this summer, one of our top priorities was to finally visit the Sawtooth Mountains. And after a couple days in the area, we can say that it was 100% worth the wait.

One of the highlights of our time in the Sawtooth Mountains was backpacking to Alice Lake. We spent one night camping along this lake (watch our experience here!) and it quickly became one of our favorite hikes we have ever done. And we hope after this guide to backpacking (or even just hiking) to Alice Lake, you’ll be convinced to experience it for yourself!

Looking for more things to do in Idaho? Check out our other Idaho guides:

Reminder: Leave No Trace

Before starting your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave the places you explore even better than you found them.

  1. Plan ahead and prepare: Know the regulations, prepare for different weather conditions, and pack the 10 essentials.
     
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Travel on designated trails and camp at designated sites at least 200 ft away from water sources.
     
  3. Dispose of waste properly: Pack it in, pack it out. Carry ALL trash with you and dig a 6-8″ cat hole for human waste, 200 ft away from water.
     
  4. Leave what you find: Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
     
  5. Minimize campfire impacts: If fires are allowed, use established fire rings. Keep fires small and put out fires completely.
     
  6. Respect wildlife: Do not approach or feed wildlife, keep pets under control, and store your food properly.
     
  7. Be considerate of others: Yield to hikers going uphill and keep noises down.

Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!

About the Sawtooth Mountains

Even though Idaho is called the Gem State because of the abundance of minerals found there, we think it’s really called the Gem State because of the abundance of beautiful things to see in the state! It’s truly a hidden gem in the United States! And the Sawtooth Mountains, which are often considered the “Crown Jewel” of the Gem State is no exception.

Located in Central Idaho, the Sawtooth Mountains are home to hundreds of gorgeous alpine lakes and jagged peaks (they look like a saw!), with 50 peaks over 10,000 feet (the tallest being Thompson peak at 10,751 ft). It’s a can’t miss destination on your trip to Idaho.

Why hike to Alice Lake?

With so many epic hikes in the Sawtooth Mountains, why choose Alice Lake?

When researching what hikes to do in the Sawtooth Mountains, we did what we always do first: look at AllTrails. We searched for hikes in the Sawtooth National Forest and Wilderness and one of the first ones we saw was the Pettit and Toxaway Loop trail, which had a cover photo that left us speechless. It turns out that this trail includes Alice Lake and that photo was from right by Alice Lake, so we were sold.

Even though we haven’t hiked other trails in the Sawtooth Mountains, we can confidently say that if you can only hike or backpack one trail in the area, you wouldn’t be disappointed with Alice Lake. And here’s why!

The hike isn’t brutal. Despite being 12 miles round trip, it’s not that hard (and we say that even with carrying our heavy packs). There is elevation gain, but it felt pretty steady (once you get past the first flat part) and we didn’t find ourselves needing to stop a ton like we have had to recently. It’s totally doable as a day hike if you can handle 12 miles in one day and have enough time to do so!

The views are constant. From the second you leave the trailhead, you have views about 95% of the hike. From views of Pettit Lake, the Sawtooth Range, and of rushing rivers, the hike is definitely not boring when it comes to the scenery. And when you get to the lake…holy crap, prepare to be amazed!

The lake is stunning. With crystal clear waters, Alice Lake is gorgeous! When the sun hits the lake, it has this beautiful blue green color. And there are these really cool islands on the lake, which make the scenery a bit more interesting (if it wasn’t already interesting enough).

There are lots of campsites! We visited on a holiday weekend (Friday, July 3, which a lot of people had off) and we had no issues getting a spot. The first handful were taken, but we found an amazing secluded spot. And we saw groups coming after us with no issues either.

While you definitely cannot go wrong with any trail in the Sawtooths, Alice Lake is a solid choice and will not let you down!

Alice Lake Trail Stats

Miles: 12 miles round trip to the end of Alice Lake
Elevation Gain: 1,700 ft
Starting Elevation: ~7,000 ft
Ending Elevation: ~8,700 ft

The official trail to Alice Lake is Trail 095, but if you want to track your progress on a map, the closest map we can find on AllTrails is for Pettit Lake to Twin Lakes (we will talk a bit more about Twin Lakes later!), which is a bit further than Alice Lake. But this map is still great to follow, as Twin Lakes are not that much farther and you will pass Alice Lake and can set up camp.

When to Backpack to Alice Lake

Alice Lake Idaho

The best time to visit the Sawtooth Mountains and Alice Lake are between July through September. Temperatures will be the warmest in July and August and the best time to catch wildflowers are mid July to early August. The first snow arrives in late September/early October, but the hike is still traversable in light snow, just be sure to check conditions.

We backpacked to Alice Lake on July 3 and the conditions were perfect! The daytime temperature was great and at night it cooled down a good amount, but not so much that we were freezing when putting away our tent the next morning. We had seen reports of parts of the trail past Alice Lake, closer to Toxaway Lake, had snow on it and was trickier to pass, but we didn’t see any snow on the portion of the trail we completed.

One important thing to know: rain and thunderstorms are common in the summers so make sure to pack a rain jacket. We got rained on out of nowhere a couple times during our afternoon at our campsite!

Permits for Alice Lake

There are no fees or parking passes required to hike to Alice Lake and you do not need to get a permit in advance. All you have to do is fill out a backcountry permit at the wilderness border, which is about 1.2 miles into the hike, whether you are backpacking or not. After you fill it out, make sure to attach it to your pack.

What to Bring to Alice Lake

While we recommend bringing everything from our backpacking packing list, especially the Ten Essentials, there are a handful of items that were especially nice to have with us!

External Charger
This is a must for a multi-day backpacking trip! While you’ll have no cell phone service, being able to charge your phone to take photos, look at a map, etc is crucial. We recommend this RAVPower Charger, which has two charging ports!

Map
We highly recommend getting the Alltrails app so you can see the map (even without cell service) and make sure you’re going the right way. It’s also nice to see how far you have to your next stop. 🙂 If you do not have AllTrails Pro, make sure to save the map in advance and open it up so you can view it on the trail without service.

Important note: we had NO cell service really anywhere between Ketchum and Stanley, so make sure to download offline Google Maps in advance so you don’t get lost finding the trailhead!

Good Meals
After a long day of hiking, there is nothing better than a hot meal. We are big fans of Wild Zora backpacking meals, especially the beef ones, as they are super natural and healthy. They also make some amazing meat and veggie bars and hot cereals!

Cathole Trowel
Nature may call during your trip and when it does, you’ll need a cathole trowel! You’ll want to make sure you go to the bathroom 200 feet from a water source and that you dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter.

As for toilet paper,Leave No Trace says “use only plain, white, non-perfumed brands. Toilet paper must be disposed of properly! It should either be thoroughly buried in a cat hole or placed in plastic bags and packed out.”

We did not see any backcountry toilets, so if you gotta go, you’ll need a trowel 🙂

Clothing items
The mornings were a bit chilly and the afternoons were warm, so definitely bring layers! And as we mentioned before, bring a rain jacket, even if the forecast looks good. We were thankful for it during the quick rainstorms we experienced.

If it’s warm out, bring a swimsuit so you can take a dip into the lake! Warning: it’ll be very cold!

Water filter
While we have a pretty large Camelbak bladder to store water, we always carry a water filter with us on backpacking trips in case we run out. There are plenty of places to get water along this trail!

Headlamps
Having a headlamp is not only one of the 10 hiking essentials, but is especially important if you plan to hike at sunrise or sunset, or just have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Bear Canister
Black bears are a possibility in the Sawtooths, but grizzlies do not inhabit the area. While we did not see any bears during our trip, we always pack a bear canister when in the wilderness to safely store our food. It’s a bit of a pain to carry, but worth it to avoid any mishaps with wildlife. 

Bug Spray
The mosquitoes were super annoying during our trip, so make sure to pack some bug spray!

Need to grab supplies before you go? Here are some shops nearby to grab food items, camping items, and other outdoor gear:

Where to start your hike to Alice Lake


The hike to Alice Lake begins at the Tin Cup Trailhead, which is about 40 minutes south of Stanley, Idaho and 1 hour north of Ketchum, Idaho, which are great places to stay before or after your hike (more on this at the end of the guide!). 

If you’re coming from Twin Falls like we were, expect about a 2.5 hour drive, and if you’re coming from Boise, the drive will be a little over 3 hours. But trust us, the views on all of the drives are incredible!

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The trailhead starts from a parking lot right next to the Pettit Lake Campground and while there are a good amount of spots, it gets full very fast. This could be due to people parking there as overflow for the campground or because there are a few trail options that all start at this trailhead. When we arrived on a Thursday night, the parking lot was almost 100% full, but despite that, we didn’t see many people on the hike.

Trail 095 starts from the Tin Cup Trailhead and very soon after you start the hike, the trail will split into two. Going to the left will keep you on Trail 095 to Alice Lake, while going to the right will take you onto Trail 041 going towards Toxaway Lake. 

About the Trail

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During our trip to Alice Lake, we camped out at the trailhead the night before in our van and hit the trail around sunrise. With the 4th of July holiday, we wanted to ensure we didn’t run into too many people and wanted to get a good campsite. 

When you first start the trail, you’re walking through the forest next to Pettit Lake, giving you views right from the beginning. This part of the trail is super flat and easy. About 1.2 miles into the hike, you enter the Sawtooth Wilderness and will need to fill out the permit we mentioned earlier. There are a couple specific rules for the Sawtooth Wilderness worth mentioning:

  • Drones are not allowed
  • Fires are not allowed
  • Dogs are allowed, but must be kept on a leash. Also, please pick up and pack out your dog’s waste! Carrying bags of dog poop for miles is just a fun perk of dog parenting 😉

After getting to the Sawtooth Wilderness, you’ll leave Pettit Lake behind and start to hike along a creek, which is very beautiful! The trail will start to open up and you’ll begin to get more views of the jagged peaks and begin gaining elevation. And you’ll also get to start experiencing an exciting part of the trail: creek crossings.

Along the trail there are at least 4-5 creek crossings (we lost count!). The first two have logs you can cross, while the others, depending on the water levels, you will just walk through the water. Come prepared knowing that your feet and legs will get wet! The water will likely be ice cold, but it’s part of the fun!

After crossing a couple creeks, you’ll emerge from the forest and enter a rockier part of the trail, where you’ll switch back through rock fields before entering the forest again. This part is fully exposed (so wear sunscreen!), but the views are amazing!

Once re-entering the forest, you’ll have more creek crossings before finally reaching a smaller lake right before Alice Lake. The view from this lake is incredible! You’ll start to notice some campsites, so keep your eyes open for spots just in case you cannot find one later.

A little less than half a mile later, you’ll be greeted with your first sight of Alice Lake and the gorgeous mountains surrounding it. Prepare to have your breath taken away! The peaks surrounding the lake are often referred to as the “Dragon’s Back” and you’ll understand why once you see them. They are jagged (our favorite word to describe the Sawtooths haha) and rugged and oh so beautiful!

As you hike along the lake, this is where you’ll start to notice more campsites. Find an open spot (the spots are flatter dirt surfaces and usually pretty easy to distinguish from non-spots) and set up your tent! We snagged a pretty awesome site that was tucked a bit down from the trail and had no other spots around it, so we had a lot of solitude. We also had a lake view which was amazing, although lake access would’ve been tricky.

From the trailhead to our camping spot at Alice Lake, which was about 6 miles, it took us just under 4 hours, even with our 25-30lb packs and stopping to film. The hike down the next morning was much faster at about 2.5 hours. With about 6.5 hours round trip of hiking time, Alice Lake is definitely doable as a day hike if you do not want to backpack. Just make sure you have enough time to actually enjoy the lake!

As for crowds, we were very pleasantly surprised by how much solitude we had on this hike. Between the 4th of July long holiday weekend and seeing how packed the parking lot was, we were a bit nervous that it would be a madhouse. But once we were on the hike we kept wondering where all the people were because we didn’t see that many people. 

We saw maybe 6 people when we were going up to the lake (they were coming down) and between 6-10 people total on our way down on the 4th of July. We did see groups at the lake at their campsites, but the hike was nowhere near as busy as we thought it would be.

Additional Trails from Alice Lake

If you want to extend your hike beyond Alice Lake you have a couple options depending on how much extra mileage you want to add and how much time you have to spend in the Sawtooth Wilderness.

Twin Lakes

About 0.6 miles from Alice Lake lies Twin Lakes, which as the name implies, are two lakes right next to each other, both with gorgeous mountain views! After setting up our campsite, making lunch, and napping, we took a quick (errr…not so quick since we kept stopping to take photos!) hike to these lakes and it was totally worth it! You gain about 200 ft in this 0.6 miles, so it’s not too difficult at all.

Complete the Pettit and Toxaway Lakes Loop

Pettit and Toxaway Loop

Our original plan when backpacking to Alice Lake was to actually backpack the entire 17.7 mile Pettit and Toxaway Loop Trail which also includes Farley, Toxaway, and Twin Lakes. However, after a couple days of non stop adventures in Southern Idaho, we were a bit exhausted and decided to just stick to Alice Lake.

Had we done our original plan, we were going to hike to Farley, Toxaway, and Twin Lakes first, which would’ve been about 11.7 miles, and then camp at Alice Lake for the night and hike out in the morning. If we had done this, we would’ve gone to the right when the trail split off just after the Tin Cup Trailhead.

While we are bummed we missed these other lakes and the additional views, we are glad we had more time to relax and experience Alice Lake. We would’ve been kind of rushed trying to do all 17.7 miles in a two day, one night trip. In the future, we will try to spend at least two nights out in the Sawtooth Mountains so we can see more!

If you do decide to extend your hike by completing the whole loop, you can start by either doing Alice Lake first and continuing past the lake to the others, or by going right at the trail split and saving Alice Lake for the end. There are campsites along the way at the different lakes, so you will have different options of where to stop.

Where to stay before or after hiking to Alice Lake

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If you’re looking for places to stay before or after your backpacking trip or hike to Alice Lake, here are our suggestions.

  • Pettit Lake Campground is open from June-September and is first come, first served. The sites are $16/day for a single site with one vehicle and $32/day for a double site with two vehicles. Make sure to bring cash to pay the fee! There is also a vault toilet at the campground and drinking water.
  • One thing we loved about the Sawtooth Mountain area were all of the free campsites! These campsites have zero amenities, but they typically have great views and are free, which is hard to beat! We love to use Campendium and freecampsites.net to find free campsites.
  • Sleep at the trailhead! We slept in our van at the trailhead so we could make sure we had parking and so we could get an early start. And we weren’t the only ones! We saw multiple people sleeping in their cars. The parking lot was PACKED, even on a Thursday night, so we were happy we did this, even though it wasn’t very glamorous.
  • Redfish Lake Lodge is a great option if you want something a bit more luxurious than camping. Located 30 minutes north of the Tin Cup Trailhead, it’s very convenient and the views are EPIC! 
  • Rent an Airbnb! Between Stanley and Ketchum, there are a handful of solid Airbnb options for you to rest up at before or after your hike. We’re sharing a few spots on our 2 Days in the Sawtooth Mountains guide if you’re looking for specific recommendations!
  • Book a hotel in Stanley or Ketchum. In Stanley, check out Triangle C Cabins and in Ketchum, we’d recommend Hotel Ketchum.

PS: If it is your first time staying at an Airbnb, click this link to get $40 off your first stay!

Where to eat before or after hiking to Alice Lake

Stanley Baking

The best way to reward yourself after a long hike? FOOD! Here are some spots pretty close to the Tin Cup Trailhead if you need fuel before your hike or if you want a post-hike feast!

Stanley

Backpacking to Alice Lake?

Pin this guide to backpacking Alice Lake to prep for your trip!

about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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