Alice-Toxaway Loop Backpacking Photography

Alice-Toxaway Loop Backpacking Photography

Twin Lakes Alice-Toxaway Lakes Loop Trail Sawtooth MountainsTwin Lakes #66175  Purchase

The final destination during my time in the Sawtooth Mountains was the classic Alice-Toxaway Loop. I could say that I saved the best for last, but that wouldn’t be accurate. The hikes to Baron Lakes and Sawtooth Lake were equally spectacular. All three destinations have something unique to offer the backcountry visitor.

The Alice-Toxaway Loop sits at the southern end of the range.  It is roughly 17 miles long, travels over one mountain pass, and visits four gorgeous alpine lakes. Aside from the main trail, there are several attractive side trips possible. The most popular being to Imogene Lake over a second pass.

The loop takes usually takes 2-3 days to complete. Some backpackers do the loop in two days, or even day hike or run the loop in one day, but to me that is ridiculous. Isn’t the pace of life today fast enough? It is not difficult to hike in one or two days, but you will be rushing through some of the best scenery of the Sawtooths, on a thoroughly enjoyable trail. For me taking less than three days would be unthinkable. I allotted five days but spent four days due to poor weather on the last day.

Alice-Toxaway Loop Sawtooth Mountains IdahoAlice-Toxaway Loop #66053  Purchase

Hiking to Alice Lake

The loop can be done in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. I chose clockwise since I was eager to spend a couple of nights at Alice Lake at the beginning. Starting at Petit Lake from the Tin Cup Trailhead the trail follows the lake shore then enters the forest for a brief spell. From the start to Alice Lake the trail has numerous creek crossings which can be difficult early in the season. Soon the trail begins to climb and the views open. Certainly, one of the best of these is a view far across the valley to the White Cloud Mountains and Wilderness.

Alice Lake Sawtooth Mountains IdahoAlice Lake #66110  Purchase

After this, the trail continues a pleasant climb through rocky terrain, dotted with wildflowers and babbling streams. Soon enough the trail levels out and passes by several small ponds near the outlet of Alice Lake. All along this stretch, the landscape is dominated by the lofty spire of El Capitan. Here, and at Alice Lake, there are many great places to set up camp. I chose one further along the trail at Alice Lake near some of the best photo ops. I spent the rest of the day relaxing and scouting for photo compositions.

Alice Lake camp Sawtooth MountainsCamping at Alice Lake  #66072  Purchase

Alice Lake camp Sawtooth MountainsCamping at Alice Lake  #66086  Purchase

There were some great spots along the far end of the lake for photography. However, from that perspective, El Capitan had a more rounded appearance. Hiking back to near the outlet of the lake it displayed a more impressive horn-like spire.

El Capitan Sawtooth Mountains IdahoEl Capitan, Alice Lake  #66114  Purchase

On to Twin Lakes

After a couple of nights spent at Alice Lake, I moved on to Twin Lakes. Twin Lakes is a very short hike from Alice, about a mile and around several hundred feet higher. Some say Twin Lakes has the better views, but that’s all subjective. I think Alice and Twin are equally impressive, they just have different personalities.

Backpacker Twin Lakes Sawtooth Mountains IdahoBackpacker at Twin Lakes #66137  Purchase

The focal point for photography was the impressive unnamed horn-shaped peak across the lake. I spent a good deal of time scouting and lining up compositions for evening and morning light. Along the way, I came across a huge gnarled old White Bark Pine. I just couldn’t pass up making some photos of its lumpy distorted trunk.

Whitebark Pine (Pinus albicaulis) Sawtooth Mountains IdahoWhite Bark Pine #66141  Purchase

The next morning I awoke before dawn and set up my gear in a preselected site and waited for dawn. There were some beautiful clouds and soft light to work with. Utilizing a wide lens I was able to use angles and shapes from the peak across the lake.

Twin Lakes Alice-Toxaway Lakes Loop Trail Sawtooth MountainsTwin Lakes #66170  Purchase

Unfortunately more clouds soon moved in and it became apparent that the weather would be making a change. After finishing up photography and breakfast I packed up camp and set out for the next destination on the loop, Toxaway Lake.

Toxaway Lake

Immediately the trail begins a switchback climb up to Snowyside Pass, the high point of the loop at 9416′. From here the views are spectacular. Although I continued on down the pass, an easy scramble to the summit of Snowyside Peak is a popular side trip. Below are Twin Lakes, set in a bowl surrounded by jagged peaks and ridges. The pass area would make a great spot to camp but after a short while, I needed to move on.

Alice-Toxaway Lakes Loop Trail Sawtooth MountainsThe trail above Twin Lakes #66198  Purchase

Toxaway Lake is several miles further on from the pass. The trail down passed through some beautiful meadows filled with wildflowers. I was disappointed to see how far down the trail descended, and it soon became apparent that Toxaway Lake would be just below the tree line. Getting nearer the lake mosquitoes became a problem for the first time on the trip.

After what seemed like a long hike I finally arrived at the lake and began looking for a campsite. Further on down the lake is a junction that heads up to Imogene Lake, and many other in the adjacent basin. I must have passed up the main camping area since near the outlet I had some trouble locating a suitable spot. When I did find one it was just when it began to rain. During the rest of the day and most of the next morning, it rained steadily. Any chance of meaningful photography at Toxaway Lake was gone.

Twin Lakes Sawtooth Mountains IdahoTwin Lakes #66185  Purchase

The Hike Out

The next morning the rain eased up a little but clouds still shrouded the surrounding peaks. I took advantage of the break in the rain, packed up, and headed down the trail. Long sections of the trail were now muddy ponds and streams. Eventually, the rain stopped but the clouds still hung low.

The trail continued a gradual descent as it passed Farley Lake. I was disappointed to have missed out on photographing at Toxaway Lake, and now Farley Lake would also be a casualty of the weather. After Farley, the trail descended more rapidly and entered deep forests of pine. It passed through an enormous avalanche path made during the previous winter. Huge trees snapped like match sticks were laying everywhere.

Alice-Toxaway Loop Trail Sawtooth Wilderness IdahoAlice-Toxaway Loop #56141  Purchase

The last section of the trail seemed to be the longest and most uninteresting. A monotonous hike through lodgepole pines, a tricky stream crossing, and then a climb over and down a ridge to the trailhead at Petit Lake. Along the way I came across an interesting sight, a large group of backpackers all sleeping in separate hammocks. There must have been six to eight hammocks spread out among the trees. They reminded me of some sort of giant insect cocoons! I must admit that they didn’t look like the kind of shelter I would enjoy being confined to during the previous day of rain.

The Alice-Toxaway Loop was now in the bag, and it lived up to its reputation in every way. I would highly recommend this trip for beginners and advanced backpackers, it has all the elements that hiking dreams are made of!

Little Redfish Lake Sawtooth Mountains IdahoLittle Redfish Lake #66227 Purchase

Last Day at Little Redfish Lake

Now, after two weeks of Backpacking and photography in the Sawtooth Mountains, I was just about ready to wrap things up and move on. However, I was treated to one final glorious morning of photography at Little Redfish Lake. As usual, I was there before dawn and ready. As the sun came rose it lit up the clouds in pinks, purples, and then orange, and yellow. A truly wonderful finale to one of the most memorable groups of hiking trips I’ve ever done.

As a celebration, I made a brief stop at Sunbeam Hot Springs and had a good soak along the Salmon River. Now on to the main attraction of this trip, the Wind River Range of Wyoming!

Sunbeam hot springs Salmon River IdahoSunbeam Hot Springs  Idaho #66250 Purchase

If You Go

Round Trip Distance:  19 Mile Loop
Elevation:   About 2900′ gain, Highpoint 9416′
Difficulty:  Moderate to difficult
Red Tape:  Free Permits are required, available at the trailhead

To get to Tincup Trailhead hiker’s parking lot, drive about 18 miles south of Stanley on U.S. 75 and another two miles west along FR 208. The small scenic town of Stanley Idaho makes a great base for trips into the Sawtooths. Lodging, groceries, restaurants, outdoor gear stores, and a great bakery are in town. Redfish Lake Lodge also has many similar amenities.

As mentioned earlier in this post, the Sawtooths are an extremely popular destination. Not only for hikers and backpackers, but also tourists, front country family camping, river rafters, and fishing. During the height of summer just about every campsite, both front country, and backcountry will be filled before noon. Therefore, make your plans accordingly to avoid frustration.

One of the best perks of the area is the numerous natural and wild hot springs. Soaking in one along the Salmon River is one of the greatest post-hike activities.

Leave No Trace

As I said in my previous post, don’t even think about visiting this or any other wilderness area unless you are prepared to strictly follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT). The Sawtooth and all other wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children and grandchildren will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

  • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
  • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
  • Leave what you find.                                            
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  • Respect wildlife.  
  • Be considerate of other visitors.

Check out more of the photos from this trip in my Idaho Archives.
All the photos in this post are available as Fine Art Prints and for Commercial Licensing.

Photo Gear Used On This Trip

Nikon D850
Nikkor Lens:
14-24mm 2.8G ED
24-70mm 2.8E ED
70-200mm 2.8E FL ED
Gitzo 1532 Tripod
Really Right Stuff B-55 Ball Head
Assorted Lee Graduated Neutral Density Filters
B+H Polarizing Filter
Vello FWM-N2 Remote Shutter Release

Little Redfish Lake Sawtooth Mountains IdahoMount Heyburn, Little Redfish Lake #66244  Purchase

Alice-Toxaway Loop Backpacking Photography


2 Replies to “Alice-Toxaway Loop Backpacking Photography”

  1. A tremendous trip! Hauling around my D800 and a few lenses on a day hike is becoming burdensome so hats off to you for hauling that much gear over such terrain! The imagery is beautiful, especially Little Redfish Lake which I hope made it worth the effort.

    Take care,

    1. Thanks Joseph, I’m glad you like these. Hauling a 4×5 system for 20 years in the backcountry got me used to carrying heavy loads. Although I must say that as I get older even a DSLR system feels too heavy.

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