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USA: Idaho guide

In Idaho, hike the Sawtooth Mountains, explore gold mining history (in Custer and “Land of the Yankee Fork” State Park), and admire rainbows glowing in misty Mesa Falls. Tom’s Idaho images come from trips in 2023, 2020, 2007, and 2004.

Idaho favorite photos

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Sawtooth National Recreation Area

The Sawtooth Range (part of the Rocky Mountains) are made of the pink granite of the 50-million-year-old Sawtooth batholith. Drive, day hike, and backpack to impressive peaks and pretty wilderness lakes. Park your car/RV at one of the campgrounds, and at sunrise, see peaks of Sawtooth Wilderness reflect beautifully in Little Redfish Lake, Stanley Lake, or Pettit Lake.

Sawtooth Wilderness, managed by the US Forest Service, has some of the best air quality in the lower 48 states (says the US EPA), except when compromised by forest fires, as it was in fall 2020. Two significant fires were within 20 miles, causing some stinging eyes on the first hike to Bridal Veil Falls, but not as bad for the other hikes.

See my most recent article, “2023 Sept: hiking Oregon’s Wallowas & Idaho’s Sawtooths” for the following great hikes:

  1. Near Stanley, hike from Iron Creek Trailhead to Alpine and Sawtooth Lakes in Sawtooth Wilderness Area (10 miles round trip with 1700 feet gain).
  2. Starting from from Redfish Trailhead, hike 3+ miles round trip with 700+ feet gain through sparse aspen forest to reach the scenic Marshall Ridgeline on the the Alpine Way Trail above Fishhook Creek, in Sawtooth Wilderness Area.
  3. We backpacked via Fourth of July Lake to Washington Lake (both easily day-hikeable) in Sawtooth National Recreation Area to stay overnight, then backpacked onwards into Cecil D. Andrus–White Clouds Wilderness for the second night at Upper Chamberlain Basin. The route was 10 miles one way with 2170 feet ascent and 1600 feet descent — reversed on the third day. Drive one hour from Stanley to Fourth of July Trailhead, where the last few miles of the road got rough, albeit passable for our 2WD Prius.

Baron Lakes

Above: Backpack or day hike 11.8 miles round trip to Baron Lakes viewpoint. Directions: From Redfish Lake Lodge ( take the earliest boat in the morning to Redfish Lake Inlet Transfer Camp, riding about 10 minutes. Hike 3.2 miles then turn right at the fork and begin climbing. At 4.2 miles see Alpine Lake, then switchback past three smaller lakes. At 5.9 miles, see the breathtaking view of Baron Lakes (Upper, Baron, and Little) and jagged points along the ridge of Warbonnet Peak (10,210 feet elevation, pictured). Optionally descend past the Upper Lake to reach the shore of Baron Lake at 7.9 miles one way.

Stanley Lake Trail to Lady Face and Bridal Veil Falls

Sawtooth Wilderness reflects in Stanley Lake at the boat dock. Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho, USA. (© Tom Dempsey /
Sawtooth Wilderness reflects in Stanley Lake at the boat dock. Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho.

Inspired by what turned out to be inaccurate descriptions on some blogs, we hiked Stanley Lake Trail to Lady Face Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. Beautiful morning mountain reflections in Stanley Lake were the highlight of the day. However, reaching both falls turned out to be harder than expected — 9.1 miles round trip with 1000 feet gain (measured with GPS and altimeter). The main trail is wide and easy through pleasant scenery, even bikeable. But the side trips necessary to actually view each falls required scrambling with steep exposure on slippery, loose rocks (not recommended for children). By consulting a GPS map, I was able to find and follow the poorly-marked side trail straight up 400 vertical feet to Bridal Veil Falls. Carol turned back as the trail severely steepened. A later group got lost and also turned back.

Titus Lake Trail

From Galena Summit is a worthwhile hike to Titus Lake (3.75 miles round trip with 750 feet gain) in Sawtooth National Recreation Area. At its higher elevation, Titus Lake was clearer of smoke than Stanley village.

Alice-Toxaway backpacking loop to Idaho’s impressive El Capitan

Backpack or day hike to scenic El Capitan, Alice Lake, and Twin Lakes. A great 19-mile loop adds Toxaway Lake, best hiked counterclockwise for dramatic build-up, recommended over 3 days. Add one mile round trip if camping at idyllic Twin Lakes, as I did.

The peak of El Capitan (9901 feet) reflects in backcountry Alice Lake at sunset in Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho. (© Tom Dempsey /
The peak of El Capitan (9901 feet) reflects in backcountry Alice Lake at sunset in Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho.

On October 6-7, 2020, starting from Tin Cup Trailhead, I backpacked the Alice-Toxaway Loop clockwise for 20 miles in two days. The first day to idyllic Twin Lakes was a moderate 7.4 miles with 2090 feet gain. Carol joined me for the first 4 miles then returned to sleep in the comfort of the RV. Tenting in the backcountry wilderness at Twin Lakes, I was rewarded by a sunset view from a bluff over Alice Lake nearby.

My new solo tent, tested that night, is the 18-ounce TarpTent ProTrail Li. The tent’s super lightweight is possible by using hiking poles and four staked lines as support. This roomy tent worked great, helping make the weight backpacking (less than 17 pounds base weight not counting food, water, camera and smartphone) resemble that of day hiking.

My second day returned via Toxaway Lake and Farley Lake for an athletic 12.5 miles with 1260 feet up and 2940 feet down, joyfully met by Carol in the last 2 miles.

On our August 2007 backpacking trip, Carol and I enjoyed 2 nights at Alice Lake, doing Toxaway Lake as a day hike over 9390-foot Snowyside Pass round trip.

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Idaho history, ghost towns, Custer, Yankee Fork

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“Land of the Yankee Fork” State Park and Salmon-Challis National Forest Historic Area

Yankee Fork Gold Dredge operated from 1940-1952 near near Custer Historic Site, Idaho. This floating gold dredge chewed a wide swath of stream gravel leaving rocky dredge tailings along 5.5 miles of the Yankee Fork, a tributary of the Salmon River, near Stanley, Idaho. It recovered an estimated $1,037,322 in gold and silver at a cost of $1,076,100.

Explore the former gold mining town of Custer which dates from 1879-1910. Custer Historic Site now preserves this ghost town near Stanley. The city of Custer was named after General George Armstrong Custer, who was killed in battle in 1876. Custer is now part of the “Land of the Yankee Fork” State Park and Challis National Forest Historic Area. The past comes alive when you see old relics such as an ore stamping mill, old wooden rocking chair, plunge bath tub, gears of a hand cranked clothes washer, a foot cranked Singer sewing machine, lanterns, a wooden wagon (pictured in show).

The Sunbeam Dam, on the Salmon River, Idaho, was built in 1910 to make electricity for the Sunbeam Mine, which was abandoned in 1911 after bankruptcy. The dam and cliff were breached in 1934 to allow salmon and steelhead to migrate to their spawning beds.

Mesa Falls, North Fork of Snake River, in Caribou-Targhee National Forest

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Upper Mesa Falls plunges 114 feet over a 300 foot wide cliff face along Henrys Fork (also known as North Fork, a tributary of the Snake River) in Caribou-Targhee National Forest in southeastern Idaho. Turn off Highway 47 on the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway about 15 miles north of the city of Ashton. On sunny days from about 9 am until 1 pm, the mist from powerful Upper Mesa Falls creates a beautiful rainbow. The falls flow over Mesa Falls Tuff, which formed 1.3 million years ago. A cycle of rhyolitic volcanism from the Henrys Fork caldera depositing a thick layer of rock and ash which compressed and hardened over time. Between 200,000 and 600,000 years ago, the river eroded a wide canyon which was subsequently partly filled with basalt lava flows. The Henrys Fork of the Snake River carved a channel through the basalt to create today’s inner canyon.

See a more distant view of Lower Mesa Falls (65-foot plunge) along Henrys Fork from a roadside viewpoint, separate from the Upper Falls viewing area.

Google Maps for waypoints in this article

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