Matt Leidecker Images Alpine Lake Pano

The Beauty Beyond | High Alpine Lakes

Story and Photos by Matt Leidecker

Many people are initially drawn to the Wood River Valley by the manicured slopes of the world-famous Sun Valley Ski Resort on Bald Mountain. The nearly 360-degree panoramic view from the summit looks out across a maze of mountains that surrounds the communities of Ketchum/Sun Valley, Hailey, and Bellevue. The stunning beauty and recreation potential of these peaks provides fodder for the familiar Sun Valley phrase, “you come for the winter, but stay for the summer!”

During the warmer months, visitors can access the more than 200 stunning alpine lakes tucked into the landscape’s many nooks and crannies. Knowing how to access these sparkling gems can be a bit intimidating, so we have provided this quick primer for both newcomers and locals alike.

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NOTE: As always, be sure to check local resources and SNRA for any fire-related or other warnings and/or closures before heading out.
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Sawtooth Foothill Lakes

The Sawtooth Mountains tower over the quaint town of Stanley, Idaho, 60 miles north of Ketchum on Highway 75. During the last ice age, glaciers cleaved the peaks into ramparts of towers and spires that give the range its namesake skyline. Over time, these conveyor belts of ice left massive, finger-like deposits of rock waste at the glacier’s terminus on the Sawtooth Valley below. When the glaciers retreated, these natural moraine dams impounded melted snow, forming a handful of large, sparkling, emerald-blue lakes at the foot of the Sawtooths.

Situated at a relatively low elevation of 6,500 to 7,000 feet, these large lakes are accessible by road and are ringed by campgrounds, public beaches, boat ramps, lodges and other amenities. It is easy to spend a day, a long weekend, or an entire week camping, waterskiing, sailing, stand-up paddleboarding, or simply lying on the beach and enjoying the stunning mountainous backdrop at one of these azure gems.

Redfish Lake

An easy contender as the crown jewel, Redfish is the most developed of the bunch. The historic Redfish Lake Lodge offers rooms, cabins, a fine dining experience as well as casual gazebo food, convenience store, boat marina and rentals, lake shuttle, and a beautiful sandy beach. Several campgrounds surrounding the lake are available for advance reservation ( Casual strolling and biking paths as well as more advanced hiking trails that penetrate the Sawtooth Wilderness round out the recreational options. Flanked by the iconic Heyburn and snow-capped Grand Mogul peaks, the view from the Lodge porch is unforgettable.

Alturas and Pettit Lakes

Though less developed, Alturas and Pettit Lakes offer many of the same recreational amenities as Redfish—without the crowds. Boat ramps provide access for motorized and non-motorized watercraft. Pettit is ringed by several private homes and has only one small public beach, while the long, honey-colored Alturas inlet beach is a magical place to barbeque and swim on a hot summer afternoon.

Stanley Lake

Situated a few miles north of Stanley along Highway 75, Stanley Lake offers campers and paddlers the more peaceful option of a non-motorized lake. Stunning views into the snow-filled couloirs that split the north face of McGown Peak make this a perfect setting for campers, boaters, or visitors to the day-use inlet beach.

Worth the Effort

Beyond the road-accessible lakes in the Sawtooth foothills, there are literally hundreds of high-alpine hiker-accessed lakes that offer beautiful scenery and a bracing mid-summer swim. What follows is an option in each of the five local ranges that is “worth the effort.”

Sawtooth Mountains – Alpine & Sawtooth Lakes 

Partly due to its unique geology, the Sawtooth range contains the highest concentration of lakes. Underlain by a vast expanse of crystalline granite, the glacially carved Alpine Lake cirque forms the perfect punchbowl to collect melting ice and snow. Alpine is one of the shorter trails (3.9 mi./1,173 ft.) and provides hikers with a stunning view of a quintessential Sawtooth skyline of jagged spires. For ambitious hikers, Sawtooth Lake is a short walk (.9 mi./557 ft.) deeper into the range. As hikers crest the upper basin, they are greeted with a breathtaking view of the precipitous north face of Mt. Regan dropping directly into the rippling water of Sawtooth Lake! 

White Cloud Mountains – Fourth of July Lake

Across the valley from the rugged Sawtooths is a more secluded range known for shimmering limestone walls that reflect the bright summer sun. The White Cloud Mountains also contain a wonderland of mountain lakes accessible to fit and healthy hikers. Fourth of July Lake is a great family-friendly option (1.7 mi./640 ft.) whose grassy shorelines and flower-filled meadows offer a beautiful backdrop to jagged red granite spires that decorate the ridgelines above. 

Smoky Mountains – Norton Lake

While the underlying porous volcanic geology of the Smoky Mountains does not support many bodies of water, a cluster of lakes at the head of the Baker Creek drainage attracts most aqua-inclined hikers. Norton Lake presents a steep and challenging climb (2.3 mi./1408 ft.) with a scenic payoff of colorful slopes of broken rock that sweep down to the shoreline. It is possible to loop past Big Lost and Smoky Lakes on the return trip to the car.

Boulder Mountains – Silver Lake

North from Ketchum along Highway 75, the massive 4,000-foot western escarpment of the Boulder Mountains towers above the road. While relatively few of the cirques draining this massive front hold permanent water, Silver Creek is one of the few that contains a small but beautiful collection of lakes. The crux of accessing Silver Lake is the rugged 4WD road to the trailhead. From there it is a short but steep walk (1.5 mi./1328 ft.) to the red bedrock shoreline of Silver Lake. Spend some time exploring the stunning but unnamed aqua-green spring-fed pools that surround the main lake.

Pioneer Mountains – Arrowhead Lake 

The Pioneer Mountains make up the famous view from the top of the Sun Valley resort. It is the loftiest of the local ranges, topping out at 12,009 feet on the summit of Mt. Hyndman. For some reason, lakes are scarce in the “Pios,” but for hikers who brave the long approach, the rewards are immeasurable. Arrowhead Lake is nestled deep in the remote Wildhorse Canyon (accessed via Trail Creek summit from Sun Valley). It is the most challenging option, requiring a 4WD high-clearance vehicle to access the trailhead and some off-trail hiking to make it all the way to the lake (4 mi./2,062 ft.). The reward, however, is a stunning panorama of the sheer but hidden north faces that make up the backside of Hyndman and Old Hyndman Peaks!

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