Along the edge of the southern Sawtooths exists a typical summer scene at Alturas Lake – boaters, swimmers, campers and fifth-wheels escaping the heat of an Idaho summer. In contrast, at the headwaters of this swimming hole lies a peaceful slew of crystal clear lakes, stunning waterfalls, and vertical granite slabs. With no officially marked trail on any map, this area of the wilderness caught my interest.

Alpine Creek Trail

Rock spires come in to view at the beginning of the Alpine Creek Trail. - Alpine Creek Trail, Idaho, Mountains, Sawtooth Wilderness
Rock spires come in to view at the beginning of the Alpine Creek Trail.

At first glance, the Alpine Creek trailhead leads a relatively mundane (by Sawtooth standards) hike along a glacial valley. However, rewards are plentiful if one is willing to endure a little route-finding and even some scrambling past the trail’s dead end. At the trailhead there are two options – stick to the left and you join the bikes and motorcycles along Alturas Lake Creek heading towards Mattingly Divide, and eventually end up in Atlanta after a few very long day(s). Today we are staying right along Alpine Creek, reserved for foot traffic only.

While this trail drags fairly flat with little elevation gain, constant fields of wildflowers make up for it, as well as Sawtooth Peaks and dense forest to shade the summer sun. As the official trail comes to an end, traversing the muddy forest leads to two more choices – cross Alpine Creek and hike to the south canyon, or stay right and head towards the north canyon. The south features a steep wall along a large waterfall to negotiate, but awards a large island-laded alpine lake that few will want to make the effort to visit. The north features a more gradual climb along with a string of smaller lakes and waterfalls, and probably sees a greater density of people since it’s an easier hike.

North Alpine Creek Canyon

As you reach the end of the official trail and head north, the sound of endless waterfalls encourages the uphill climb. Lake 8523 is only the start of beautiful alpine, and it’s worth it to continue past. Each of the many small lakes and creeks on the way to the top of the basin look as though they are a perfectly crafted scene from a painting. As you crest the steepest of the waterfalls, you are nearly at Lake 9167, which gives way to the final pass to Flytrip Basin. Looking back on the canyon reveals a beautiful view of Perfect Peak among many other rock features.

A grand bristlecone pine still standing the test of time at the top of the valley. - Alpine Creek Trail, Idaho, Mountains, Sawtooth Wilderness
A grand bristlecone pine still standing the test of time at the top of the valley.

Camp at Lake 9167

At camp, subtle hints of fire from many years ago show how spectacularly fast nature recovers. Mini-wildflowers thrive along the shore of this high alpine lake – so clear it’s begging to be jumped in. During my trip, forest fires littered the west, however I got lucky with the wind and had beautiful light filtered through the forest and jagged peaks. At the north of the lake, Snowyside Peak stands tall. Past this peak leads to one of the most popular Sawtooth’s Trek – the Alice to Toxaway Loop. If you make your way to the ridge between Lake 9167 and Lake 9050, you’ll find good potential to make a loop out of this area by exiting via the south canyon.

Dawn at Lake 9167. - Alpine Creek Trail, Idaho, Mountains, Sawtooth Wilderness
Dawn at Lake 9167.
First light shrouding the peaks above Lake 9050. - Alpine Creek Trail, Idaho, Mountains, Sawtooth Wilderness
First light shrouding the peaks above Lake 9050.
Impressive rock formations at Lake 8523. - Alpine Creek Trail, Idaho, Mountains, Sawtooth Wilderness
Impressive rock formations at Lake 8523.

South Alpine Creek Canyon

Navigating the southern portion requires a bit more effort. Crossing Alpine Creek can cause confusion as the creek breaks off into many forks, and some maps have the trail wrong. Once you’ve made it past, you are greeting with a section of large trees downed by avalanches during the 2016-17 record winter. Stay to the left of the creeks, make the climb, and before you know it you’re cresting the shore of the lake at 8522’, sometimes referred to as Leah’s Lake.

Leah's Lake, waterfall, Sawtooth Wilderness, backpacking, Idaho
The waterfall from Leah’s Lake was still a raging torrent mid-July.
reflected trees, alpine lake, island, Sawtooth Wilderness, Leah's Lake, Idaho
One of the lake’s island backlit with crisp, alpine light.
sunrise, Leah's Lake, Sawtooth Wilderness, backpacking, Idaho, mountains, alpine lake
For a moment, the sun broke through the morning’s storm clouds and illuminated the basin.
sunrise, clouds, Leah's Lake, backpacking, Idaho mountains, Sawtooth Wilderness
Magnificent clouds and light painted a scene that so few see.

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