Alpine lakes are sanctuaries in a rugged, precipitous world. When viewed from above on a hot day, a mountain lake shimmers like a mirage. During their descent, tired travelers daydream about diving into a sapphire lake, submerging their bodies in cool water. While bordering peaks are likely to be rocky and barren, the ground around the lakes is often flat, soft and lush—a welcome relief for hikers weary of steep trails and for backpackers in need of level ground for sleeping. Boggy meadows form by midsummer as lake waters recede, and moisture-loving wildflowers such as elephant heads and shooting stars appear among the grassy hummocks.
As anyone who has spent time in the mountains around Sun Valley can attest, our high lakes help define life in this region of the country. For my brother and me, the definitions started at a young age, when our parents dragged us along on their hikes—which almost always ended at a lake. I remember whining all the way up the short, steep pitch to Baker Lake. I remember getting lost, like so many others, on my first trip to Saddleback. I remember every dusty footstep on the way back to the car from Sawtooth Lake. And I remember anxiously awaiting my first glimpse of Betty Lake, and the disappointment I felt when it wasn’t, as my parents were assuring me, just over the next rise.
Shangri La Lake
It was back then that I learned to recognize particular features in the landscape, and began to learn their names. White bark pines were the trees we passed on the way to Titus Lake (and many others); they had a distinct round canopy from which grouse occasionally flew. Sego lilies were the pretty white flowers I picked for, but never gave to, my third-grade girlfriend. Talus was the field of suitcase-sized boulders that I hopped across on the way to Kane Lake, turning it into a game.
These memories, which are probably not unlike those shared by many area residents, are part of a collection of visual images that create a unique sense of place. Some areas have city parks and elm trees. Others have orchards or wheat fields. Cities have glass skyscrapers and taxis. This place has mountains of bold granite and pristine lakes of ice-cold, cobalt water. And with six major mountain ranges, each with its share of lakes, within a two-hour car ride of the Wood River Valley, the possibilities for exploration are profuse. Visiting all of them would take a lifetime . . . but what a rich lifetime it would be.
Each August, I lead a group of backcountry novices on a ten-day trip through the central Idaho wilderness. Our itinerary typically includes a “summit climb” to the top of the massive hunk of granite in the Sawtooth Range known as the Elephant’s Perch. The west face is a popular rock-climbing destination, but non-technical routes from the south also lead to the summit.
At the halfway point from our camp behind Redfish Lake to the top of the Elephant’s Perch are the spectacular Saddleback Lakes, popularly known as Shangri-La. Rather than making the grueling hike to the peak, some group members opt to spend a tranquil and relaxing afternoon by one of these lakes. At the end of the day, when the reunited hikers recount their experiences around the campfire, the stories of the summit team tend to outshine, at least in enthusiasm, those of the lake team.
The underlying sentiment is that climbing to the top of a mountain is somehow more significant than time spent on the grassy banks of a lake. In a time when recreation in the mountains has become more goal-oriented than ever, such misguided attitudes are bound to exist. But that’s fine with those of us who are left by ourselves to relish the incomparable beauty of a shimmering mountain lake.
It also demonstrates a simple fact, which is that the human experience with mountain lakes fits neatly into one of two categories. An alpine lake is either a destination or a waypoint: a place to pitch a tent at the end of a long day on the trail, or a place to dunk your head before continuing over a high pass. It is a welcome sight in either capacity, and seasoned backcountry travelers will attest that a mountain lake is worth the effort it takes to get there.
For backpackers, a high lake makes a perfect home base on overnight trips. Some people backpack in order to nab trout out of the clear water. Others go for the scenery, which ranges from spectacular to sublime. Still others go simply to breathe in the pure, crisp air and escape from the pressures of a busy world. Climbers use lakes such as Saddleback, Clarice, or the higher Bench in the Sawtooths as base camps for climbing, respectively, the Elephant’s Perch, the Finger of Fate (a prominent tower northwest of Hell Roaring Lake), or Mt. Heyburn. Smoky Mountain lakes such as Prairie, Norton, and Big Lost make ideal overnight loop trips.
If it doesn’t cause heart failure, plunging into a mountain lake’s placid water first thing in the morning can add years to life and an indelible image to memory. Just the anticipation of the freezing water can be enough to cause goose bumps; but in the moment after entry, upon your body’s full acceptance of the invigorating shock, a calm descends. You feel completely awake and alive—no caffeine required. >>>
Lakes are always good for a fishing story. Once, in my haste to make it over a nearby pass before an imminent thunderstorm, I hurried by an unnamed gem in the southern Sawtooths without taking time to tempt the large trout trolling the shallows near shore. I never forgot the lake or its fish, however, and when I returned eight years later with a group of backpackers, I told them that they’d have to wait.
I assembled my fishing pole and tied on some fly or another—in spite of opposing local lore, I don’t think the fish in the Sawtooths really care—and tossed it into the lake. It was midday and there was a breeze, but these slightly disheartening details didn’t faze me. Fishing this lake seemed like destiny. Sure enough, on my second cast, a fish took my fly. It wasn’t a big fish, maybe twelve inches or so, but it didn’t get away. As I removed the fly from its lip, I could see that it wasn’t a cutthroat, a rainbow, or a brookie. It must have been some more exotic variety, perhaps a golden trout. I don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that I got a second chance—and how often is it possible to make good on one of those?
Even when alpine lakes aren’t destinations in and of themselves, they are exquisite features of the environment when encountered during a big day in the mountains. The lakes in the Chamberlain Basin, for example, are a convenient stopover point when going to or from Castle Peak, a popular climb in the White Cloud Mountains.
addleback is ideally suited for a refreshing swim after climbing the west wall of the Elephant’s Perch. The puddle near Washington Lake in the Pioneers is the jumping-off point for the northeast ridge of the Devil’s Bedstead.
Short stints spent lakeside sometimes leave their mark as profoundly as longer ones. I once spent two hours sleeping by a fire on the shore of Pass Lake near Leatherman Peak in the Lost River Range. It was after dark, and my brother and I were halfway through the kind of goal-oriented mission not usually compatible with peaceful time spent by a lake. But earlier, some two thousand feet above, on the high, barren spine of the main Lost River crest, we had run out of water and descended to the lake to refill our bottles.
It was autumn, and at 9,000 feet, the temperature was below freezing. A thin skin of ice had formed on the lake, with several fractures in the veneer that made it look like a cracked windowpane. As subtle currents drove the ice across the water, it creaked and groaned and sent out reverberating shrieks like the cries of Tolkien’s Ringwraiths. The fire had warmed only half my body, and the remainder of our ridge traverse, to be run in the dark and cold, loomed ahead. Despite the unnerving wails, the unsatisfying heat, and the prospect of suffering, Pass Lake was a refuge and a respite—and there would be times in the next twelve hours when I ached to return.
We can thank glaciers and global warming for the existence of our higher alpine lakes. Although the great continental ice sheets that crept south from Canada didn’t extend into central Idaho, glaciers in the higher ranges such as the Sawtooths, the Big Horn Crags, and the Pioneers carved countless alpine cirques. As recently as 4,000 years ago, when the global climate warmed and glaciers receded, the ensuing melt water filled the basins and dotted the mountain ranges with crystalline lakes. A few of the larger glaciers in the Sawtooths ran down to the lowest valleys, leaving big pools of water such as Redfish, Alturas, Petit, and Stanley as evidence of their passing.
With easy access from Idaho Highway 75, some of the large lakes, especially Redfish, have become popular destinations complete with developed campgrounds, boat ramps, and sandy beaches. Despite the crowds and motorboat traffic, they still possess a wilderness-like quality. Visitors often comment on the Caribbean-clear water, which many locals take for granted. And the spectacular backdrops—rugged peaks with snow-filled couloirs—add to the lakes’ character.
Deeper into the glacier-carved canyons, however, lie the true wilderness lakes. Some are easy to get to and may be swarming with day hikers. Others lie at the heads of steep, hanging valleys and require exploratory, off-trail scrambling. These are the lakes where adventurous travelers can wake in the sun and take a morning swim in the nude, knowing they are the only people around for miles. To have unfettered access to these jewels is a great gift—a gift best appreciated not by reading about them, but by seeing them, live and in the flesh.
Erik Leidecker is co-owner of Stanley-based Sawtooth Mountain Guides, and a regular contributor to Sun Valley Magazine. He lives in Hailey with his wife, Gretchen, and daughter, Sascha.