5 Lake Backpacking/Hiking Trips Anyone Can Do
Guest writer Jason Rojas is an outdoor enthusiast who has explored all around Idaho's beautiful wilderness. Here are his picks for the top 5 lake backpacking/hiking trips that anyone can do. For more of his amazing Idaho photos, check out his Instgram @hiking_stuff.
Looking for a hike around Idaho but not sure where to start? With 19,000 miles of trails in Idaho the good news is there are no shortage of trails for day hikes or backpacking. Depending on how snowy the winter, some trails are ready to hike as early as April or May. This post will detail some hikes that I have done personally over the last few years since moving to Idaho.
You could do this hike in the morning and still have plenty of time to shop and eat in nearby Sun Valley. To get to the trailhead from the south, drive through Sun Valley on Highway 75 for about 20 minutes until you turn left on NFD 162. Simply follow the dirt road until you see the Norton Lakes sign and turn right. There is parking for about 12-15 cars. Signage at the trailhead is pretty clear where to go.
The well maintained trail begins by climbing sharply and never quite lets up. Luckily, after only 2 miles you’ve reached Lower Norton Lake at about 9,000ft with towering peaks as you look across the emerald lake. Along the way you’ll have a mix of pine forest and meadows that give varying views of a rugged mountain ridge to your right, and tons of wildflowers and sage in the meadows. You may even run into deer. To make this hike really satisfying, continue another half mile up the trail to Upper Norton Lake. This glassy lake is about the same size but more isolated. Both are stocked with fish and have a few small camping areas if you plan to make this an over-nighter. Because of the proximity to Sun Valley and the short trail expect to see other hikers. If you are feeling really ambitious, go past the upper lake to Norton Peak along a multiple switchback trail to the 10,336 foot Norton Peak. You’ll be rewarded with great views of both lakes and the Smoky Mountains. This area has many alpine lakes and over the crest lies Miner Lake if you want an even longer trip.
Imogene and Hell Roaring Lakes
Difficulty: Intermediate to Strenuous
Imogene Lake boasts 3 islands, one of which is sometimes accessible, waterfalls and ample camping. I recommend making it at least an overnight trip as the hike is approximately 9 miles one way, with the last four miles being fairly strenuous. The trailhead is the same trailhead for Hell Roaring Lake. From the south, take Highway 75 and turn left just before Fourth of July Creek Road onto Decker Flat Road. This is a very easy turnoff to miss. There are no signs and as soon as you see some cars, you’ve missed it. After the turn, drive over the bridge, past the large parking area for a short distance and park right by the sign. Unless you have a rock crawling 4X4, I wouldn’t continue driving to the upper trailhead.
The trail begins flat and rocky, out of reach of the easily heard creek. There is much evidence of forest fires and old burn areas. Don’t expect much shade before you reach Hell Roaring Lake. The trail winds away from the creek only to meet it later just as you think you’ll run out of water. This is also a horse trail, which means manure and lots of dust on the trail certain times of year. It’s usually not too bad until late in the season or after heavy use. I’ve done this hike over 4th of July weekend (HOT!), Memorial Day weekend (creek too high to reach destination), and late July/early August (just right). It’s about 5 miles to Hell Roaring Lake and a foot bridge crosses the creek outlet to reach the final goal. Early in the season this may be impassible from snow runoff.
This is a perfect lunch pit stop, turn around point, or end to the first day of hiking. At least half a dozen camp sites are available at this 7,407 ft lake. Admire the rocky spire across the lake known as the Finger of Fate before continuing. As you pass Hell Roaring, the trail begins climbing rapidly with a lot of switchbacks in addition to steep, but well graded, slogs up to Imogene at 8,430 ft. This portion of the trail is more scenic since you are now higher with good views of the lake you left behind and Mount Cramer. Also, cooler temps and more shade mean less misery. You cross a foot bridge near a staggeringly beautiful and rocky waterfall immediately before reaching Imogene Lake. Imogene is a large, truly beautiful glacial lake with smaller surrounding lakes and waterfalls. Spend a layover here searching for them. If you have the time or energy, I’d recommend circumnavigating the entire lake on the easy to follow trail. You’ll get a quite a different view from the opposite shore.
A drive of approximately two hours from Twin Falls will have you ready to start an enjoyable 2 mile hike to mountain lakeshore camping. A favorite for scouts and horse riders, anyone from Oakley or the surrounding area will probably be well aware of this short but steep hike to 4 lakes in the Albion Mountain Range. Nearby Cache Peak and Mount Independence form the basin for these alpine lakes.
To start your hike, head south of Burley toward the city of Oakley on ID 27. Head east on Oakley’s main street which turns into the Oakley-Elba road and finally Independence Lakes road. This is a relatively steep and rough gravel road but going slow in a mid-size SUV was no problem. There is a good sized parking lot with an outhouse and picnic area.
This is a beginner trail because it is wide, well-worn and short, but some may consider the continuous incline for 2 miles and 1,100 feet of elevation gain moderate hiking; Especially if you are carrying more than 30 pounds of gear. I did this hike at the end of July and was rained on the entire time so plan accordingly. As you make your way up somewhat confusing switchbacks, the stunning views of the valley stretch for miles. You can see the South Hills and, in the far off distance, catch a glimpse of Utah. As you come off the mountainside to climb, the trail is very wide and easy to follow. The pine trees provide shade for a break if needed. After some vertical walking, the first lake is at roughly 8,800 feet and the second 9,000. There is no trail after the second lake to the others. Pick your way over the boulders because they’re worth a visit and also short walks. Some clear campsites can be found at the lakes and several have fun boulder fire pits and plenty of tent space.
Redfish Lake website for details. If you start at the southwest boat drop off, this relatively exposed hike is 3.3 miles one way with approximately 1200ft elevation gain to the first Bench Lake. It is flat with lots of switchbacks.
Along the way are magnificent views of the lake and surrounding peaks. The serene first lake is very clear water with trees right up to the bank and mountain backgrounds. There are plenty of logs and rocks for resting and snacking. Continue the less than half mile to the second lake around the left side of the first. The next three lakes are off trail and I had a difficult time finding even one, so be careful if you decide to veer off for some bushwhacking. This hike can be hot midday and it will probably take you at least 2.5 hrs round trip. Thankfully, you can head back to the Redfish Lodge for dinner and a drink afterward.
Difficulty: Beginner to Intermediate
Although the hike is not strenuous, the last few driving miles are. I was amazed to see a Volvo station wagon at the trailhead. I would seriously consider/recommend a high clearance 4WD vehicle due to deep muddy troughs in the road with water in them. Make sure to check your spare tire before going. To get here from Sun Valley, take Trail Creek Road up the mountain until you see a sign for Kane Lake, about 20 miles. Make a sharp right and buckle up for several miles of bumpy road. However, there are beautiful mountaintop views as you creep along. Once you reach the trailhead with minimal parking a small sign lets you know you’ve reached the right place. Go through the gate, close it behind you, and you’re on your way.
Located in the oft traveled Pioneer Mountain Range, this hike has quite varied terrain over 3.5 miles. It will take you through open marshy meadows, forest, rocky fields, small boulder scrambling and finally an unspoiled high mountain lake at 9,000 ft., overshadowed by 11,000 foot peaks. If it’s high water, consider holding off on this hike until later in the summer due to some creek crossings. Late summer or early fall should be no problem. Located in a large mountain cirque, Kane Lake was one of my favorite and most scenic trips. It has cliffs on one side and Goat Mountain on the other.
When you reach the top of the ridgeline, you’ll wonder if you’re off track as Kane Lake is still another 100 yards or so up and over a slight ridge. Once you arrive you are greeted by a mountain wall with a tent like point. There’s wildflowers, rocks to jump off and a waterfall across the lake. In addition, there were lots of icicles at this time of year and we could hear ice splitting and falling down at various times throughout the day, echoing of the mountains. In late September this hike was variably rainy, sunny and windy. Night time temps were low 20s.
I hope you enjoyed this article and learned about some spots you’ve never been. Douglas Lorain has written a great backpacking book about Idaho if you want more hikes and greater detail.