One of the most beautiful (and popular) trails in Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness is the hike to Alice Lake. After spending two nights backcountry camping at Alice Lake, we’re sharing all our tips for hiking this trail and camping at the lake.
Hiking in Idaho’s rugged Sawtooth Wilderness has been at the top of my bucket list ever since I saw pictures of its blue-green alpine lakes surrounded by evergreens and towering jagged granite peaks a few years ago. If you spend some time up there, you may even start thinking this pristine scenery is common place as the Sawtooth Wilderness covers over 217,000 acres and has over 400 alpine lakes.
Luckily, we had some family move to Idaho recently, which gave us an even better excuse to make the trip. Plus, now we had local guides who knew all the best places to visit.
For our first time exploring the Sawtooths, we opted to hike the Tin Cup Hiker trail up to Alice Lake for a few nights of backcountry camping. This trail is a little under 6 miles, starts at Pettit Lake and ends at Alice Lake, and features absolutely incredible scenery along the way!
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Best time to Hike to Alice Lake
July through September is generally considered the best time to visit Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness. Summer is also the busiest time, so you can expect trails and campgrounds to be pretty packed. The highs in July and August are in the 80s, and the lows typically dip down in the mid-40s. There are also tons of mosquitos, so pack some DEET or natural mosquito repellant.
September averages are in the 70s, but the weather starts cooling down fast. If you can time it right, the very beginning of fall is a great time to go because the crowds and mosquitos are gone, but you can still catch some warmer weather and even some fall colors! There’s a small aspen grove about halfway through the trail that bursts into the brightest yellows, and lots of little shrubs that start turning red.
We did this hike at the end of September, and it was sunny, warm, short-sleeve weather as we headed out on the trail. Two days later, we were trying to beat a snow storm on the hike out. Luckily, we made it back to the car just before the snow really started coming down! October through May it’s pretty likely you’ll find snow on the trail.
Alice Lake Hike Overview
- 11.2 mile out-and-back trail starts at the Tin Cup Hiker Trailhead at Pettit Lake and has a 1,600 foot elevation gain
- Alice Lake is within the Sawtooth Wilderness which spans over 217,000 acres
- The trail to Alice Lake is part of the large Alice Toxaway loop trail that also connects Twin Lakes, Toxaway Lake, and Farley Lake. The entire Alice Toxaway loop is 19 miles and takes 2 to 3 days. We opted to hike out and back to Alice Lake, and added a short day hike to Twin Lakes in between
- No biking allowed, and all dogs must be kept on a leash
Cell Phone Service
- Stanley, Idaho is the last place you’ll likely have cell service, so download your trail map and anything else you need before you leave town.
- About 1.2 miles past the trailhead you’ll reach a sign marking the Sawtooth Wilderness. Here you’ll need to fill out a free wilderness permit and attach it to your pack. You need a permit whether you are day hiking or camping overnight. If you are camping, the permit notes that you must camp at least 100 feet from trails, lakes, and streams.
- There is plenty of water available along the trail from the creeks and the lakes if you need to refill, just make sure to use a water filter.
- The trail is well maintained and pretty busy in the summer months. Get up-to-date trail conditions online on the Forest Service website.
Getting to the Tin Cup Trailhead
The Tin Cup Hiker Trailhead is about 20 miles south of Stanley on State Highway 75. Turn west off of the 75 onto Forest Rd 208. About 1.5 miles down this road you’ll get to the Pettit Lake Campground, which has spaces for parking. Part of this road is unpaved, but you do not need four-wheel drive as long as there’s not a lot of rain or snow.
Alice Lake Trail Guide via the Tin Cup Hiker Trail
The Tin Cup Hiker Trail starts at the Pettit Lake Campground. The trail follows the edge of the lake for about the first mile. At 1.2 miles, you’ll reach for the sign for the Sawtooth Wilderness. Here you’ll need to fill out a free backcountry permit, even if you’re just day hiking.
There are four creek crossings along the way. In early fall all of them were easy to do just by walking across a log or hopping along the rocks. The water level is higher in spring, so you may want to bring some water shoes and be prepared to get a little wet.
The first half of the hike to Alice Lake was relatively flat and through evergreens. About halfway through you’ll hit a small grove of aspen trees. After that is where most of the 1,600 ft elevation gain takes place. You’ll be doing a couple switch backs up the granite mountain through a rocky trail.
A little over 5 miles in you’ll reach the first part of Alice Lake, with Idaho’s “El Capitan” on the opposite side. It was windy so the water was a little choppy, but I wish we would’ve seen it with the reflection on the water.
We hiked along the lake until we had hiked about 6 miles total. There are a few backcountry campsites along the trail, and a few small peninsulas that extend out into Alice Lake that make for some epic camping spots.
It took us about 5 hours hiking in (average kid-hiking pace), which included plenty of stops and lots of playing around with two young kids in our group. Plus, the weather was amazing, so we didn’t mind slowing down to enjoy all of the beautiful views.
On the way out, we were trying to get back before the snow storm hit. The sense of urgency and the fact that we were now going downhill helped us get back in about 3.5 hours. I would expect an adult (with no kids) could do this trail in about 2.5 hours each way.
Backcountry Camping at Alice Lake
It’s free to camp anywhere around Alice Lake, as long as you’re at least 100 feet (about 35 steps) from all lakes, rivers and trails according to the Sawtooth Wilderness permit rules. Leave No Trace principles recommends 200 feet.
If Alice Lake is busy and it isn’t looking like there’s a lot of room to pitch a tent, try hiking an extra mile up to Twin Lakes for more space.
Follow leave no trace principles, including no fires. We met a park ranger while we were camping who was picking up trash and taking apart fire rings. Please help keep this area clean so we can all enjoy this pristine wilderness.
Camping at Pettit Lake Campground before or after the hike
If you plan to camp at the Pettit Lake Campground (the start of the trailhead) either before or after hiking to Alice Lake, note that campsites are available on a first-come first-served basis. According to the Forest service website, the Pettit Lake Campground was open through September 21, 2019. However, when we were there at the end of September, it looked like people were still using the campground. There is drinking water and vault toilets at the campground. The cost is $16 per night for sites that include one vehicle and $32 per night for double sites, which includes two vehicles.
Hotels in Stanley, Idaho
If you want to spend a few days using Stanley as a home base for exploring the Sawtooths and need a hotel, check out the cozy Stanley High Country Inn. Doubles start at $85.
Day Hikes from Alice Lake
The Tin Cup Hiker trail continues up to Twin Lakes and around to Toxaway Lake before returning to Pettit Lake. The loop, known as the Alice Toxaway Loop, is a 19-mile trek with 3,500 feet total elevation gain.
Twin Lakes is only another mile up the trail and just as beautiful, so if you plan to camp for more than one night, it’s worth it to add in this in as a short day hike.
Backpacking Gear You’ll Need
You’ll of course need all the basics for backpacking, like a backpack, tent, and sleeping bag. Here are a few other things we needed for this trip:
Water Filter – If you plan to camp overnight, you’ll want to bring a water filter so you can refill from the surrounding creeks and lakes. Water filters physically filter out protozoan cysts and bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.
Water Reservoir – A water reservoir is the best way to carry your water when backpacking, just make sure that nothing leaks before you head out. I brought an old camelback that we hadn’t used in forever, and I spent the first half of the hike getting sprinkled on. We recently got the Platypus Big Zip EVO Reservoir. I really like how the whole top zips opens, which makes it so easy to refill and clean, and has no leaks so far!
Portable Camp Stove – No campfires are allowed, and unless you plan to eat protein bars the whole time, you’ll probably want a small stove to boil water for a dehydrated backpacking meal. The MSR PocketRocket 2 Stove boils water in about three minutes, so you won’t have to wait too long for a hot meal.
Spork – Since it’s always good to save weight and space while backpacking, this spork means you’ll only need to bring one utensil. It’s extra long, so it’s perfect for the freeze-dried backpacking meal bags.
Bear Bag – Bears aren’t common in this area, but black bears have been spotted down by the lake before. Make sure to pack all your food up in a bear bag before leaving on a day hike or turning in for the night.
Headlamp – A dependable head lamp is a must anytime you go out on a hike.
Lantern – This solar powered Luci lantern is a two-in-one, because not only is it a great light source, but it can also be used to charge your phone with a USB port.
Sleeping Bags and Mats – We use Sea to Summit mats and sleeping bags and absolutely love them. I have the Altitude Women’s Down Sleeping Bag rated for 15F, and while I don’t think it got quite that cold on our trip, it definitely dipped below freezing and I was warm enough. I’m 5’7″ and opted for the long; after using the bag, the regular probably would’ve been a pretty snug fit for me. Aaron uses the Trek Down Sleeping Bag. These sleeping bags come with a compression sack and can be zipped together.
If you’re a side sleeper, the Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated Air Sleeping Mat is a game changer. It’s still super lightweight, but I never hit the bottom while I’m laying down and my back never feels cold. This mat has totally changed how I view camping, because now I can actually sleep at night. If you don’t feel like you need the extra cushion, then the Ultralight Insulated Air Sleeping Mat is a solid choice.
Hiking Shoes – Trail runners or minimalist hiking shoes work great for the trail as long as there isn’t snow. I thought it was going to be cold and rainy (maybe even snowing on the hike out), so I wore waterproof hiking boots. I’d wished I’d opted for these Lems Mesa hiking shoes because they’re so light and flexible while still being super sturdy. Aaron wore the Lems Trailhead and said they were great for this trail. Read up on our recommendations for minimalist hiking shoes here for more information. Don’t forget merino wools socks – these ones by Darn Tough are awesome.
Lip Balm – I’ve made the mistake of not bringing lip balm with me on a camping trip, but never again! I love this Herbal Rescue lip balm by Raw Elements – it feels moisturizing and refreshing without burning dry lips.