A mountain paradise full of numerous alpine lakes surrounded by rugged peaks and wildflower filled meadows. What more could you want on a backpacking trip?
The Alice Toxaway Loop is an 18-mile trek into the heart of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains that is full of highlight-reel scenry. This hike is typically done as a multi-day trip, but ambitious hikers can complete it in a full day as well.
Distance and Elevation Gain
The total distance of the Alice Toxaway Loop is 18 miles with an elevation gain of 3,285 feet. The highest point on the trail is Snowyside Pass at an elevation of 9,390 feet.
This hike can be completed in 1-3 days depending on your goals and fitness level.
Loop Direction: I completed this loop in a clockwise direction, hiking to Alice Lake first and then over to Toxaway Lake.
I felt like this was the better way since you get most of the climbing out of the way in the first 7.5 miles with a long and (mostly) steady downhill to follow for the next 10.5 miles.
Also, by hiking counterclockwise, you’ll have the sun at your back for most of the hike instead of hiking into the sun, which gives you better views and offers improved photo-ops since you won’t be shooting into the sun.
The trail map I used for this hike is the Sawtooth and White Cloud Mountains Trail Map from Adventure Maps. This is an excellent map that is clear and easy to read and is also waterproof.
Fit hikers can complete this hike in one long day, but most people take 2-3 days to complete the loop. This is an outstanding backpacking trip since there are numerous camping options with spectacular settings.
I did this hike in one long day and had an enjoyable experience, but if I had to do it over again, I would split it up into a couple of days and camp along the way.
Please not that per Sawtooth Wilderness regulations, campfires are not allowed at Alice Lake, Twin Lakes, Toxaway Lake, or Farley Lake. Campsites must also be at least 100 feet away from any lakes and washing dishes must be done at least 150 feet away from lakes.
To complete this hike in 3 days — Camp near Alice Lake (mile 5.5) or Twin Lakes on night one, and camp near Toxaway Lake (mile 10-11) on night two. Although the mileage on day two is shorter, you’ll be crossing over a high pass and will have several side trip options.
To complete this hike in 2 days — There are a few options. You could either camp around Alice Lake or Twin Lakes, which would offer a more beautiful setting in my opinion, but it would mean a longer hike on day two. Also, the camping spots at Alice Lake are popular and can fill up quickly if you don’t arrive early.
The better option may be to knock out a bigger portion of the hike on the first day and hike over Snowywide Pass and camp near Toxaway Lake. This would put you at 10-11 miles on the first day and 7-8 miles on the second day. You could also do this hike in reverse.
How to get to the trailhead
The trail begins at the Tin Cup Trailhead on the shore of Pettit Lake. The Tin Cup Trailhead is about a 30-minute drive from Stanley and about an hour from Ketchum/Sun Valley.
From Idaho Highway 75, you’ll turn onto Forest Service Road 208, drive 1.6 miles, and then turn onto Forest Service Road 362, following signs to Pettit Lake. The roads to the trailhead are gravel and are accessible by low clearance vehicles.
The map below contains full directions to the trailhead via Google Maps.
Trail Breakdown and Highlights
Your hike will begin along the shores of beautiful Pettit Lake and you’ll enjoy nice views to the south across the lake toward McDonald Peak. The reflections in this lake are impressive during the morning hours.
The trail follows Petit Creek for 5.5 miles from the trailhead to Alice Lake and the elevation gain is gradual — about 1,600 feet total along this section.
You’ll hike through forest interspersed with open meadows with views of the jagged spires rising above the valley that are characteristic of the Sawtooth Range.
After 5.5 miles, you’ll reach Alice Lake. Prepare to be blown away by the scenery here as the rugged high peaks of the Sawtooth Range open up above the lake. This is one of the better places to camp if doing this hike as a multi-day trip.
From Alice Lake, it’s a little under a mile and another 400 feet of climbing before you reach a short side trail that takes you to one of the Twin Lakes — perhaps an even more gorgeous setting than Alice Lake. This is another good camping spot, though you’re a bit more exposed to weather and thunderstorms compared to Alice Lake.
If you camp at Alice Lake or Twin Lakes, you’ll have one short climb before topping out on Snowyside Pass, then it will be mostly downhill for the rest of the loop.
The views will continue to open up as you hike from Twin Lakes to the top of Snowyside Pass as the vegetation becomes shorter and more sparse.
By the time you reach the top of Snowyside Pass, you will have hiked 7.5 miles and gained 2,500 feet of elevation. But in terms of exertion, you could call this a rough halfway point of the trek since the rest of the hike is mostly downhill despite the distance being longer.
As you start to hike down the north side of Snowyside Pass, true to its name, you may encounter lingering snow in early and even mid-summer.
I was up there during the second week of July in an average snow year, and there were still snowy sections to hike through. However, they were easy to deal with as there were well-trodden paths through the snow.
You’ll reach the edge of Toxaway Lake at around the 10 mile mark. The trail follows above the forested lakeshore for another mile or so and there are plenty of good camping spots to be found in this area. From what I hear, the fishing is good too!
After leaving Toxaway Lake, you’ll continue on a gradual downhill course for the next 5 miles. The lakes tour will continue as you pass Farley Lake at mile 13.3.
After Farley Lake, the rest of the hike will mostly be wooded. After 16.2 miles, you’ll reach a marked trail junction. Instead of heading straight toward Yellow Belly Lake, you’ll take a right to head back to your starting point at Pettit Lake.
Unfortunately, just when you thought it was all downhill from here, you will have about a 500 foot climb after this trail junction before the final descent back to your car at Pettit Lake.
Once you top out at this high point, the view back down toward Pettit Lake will lift your spirits, knowing you’ve almost completed the trek!
Best time of year to hike the Alice Toxaway Loop
The prime season to complete this trek is from July through September. If you want to catch wildflowers are their prime then mid-July through early August is your best bet.
Temperatures are at their warmest in July and August, and it can get quite hot along lower portions of the hike. However, the Sawtooths and surrounding valleys are notorious for chilly nights, even during mid-summer, so make sure you pack layers.
Afternoon thunderstorms are fairly common in the Sawtooths during the summer, so be sure to follow the forecast closely before your hike and to time your crossing of Snowyside Pass during the morning hours — since this is the most exposed section of the hike.
Toxaway Lake is more heavily treed and less exposed to lightning and weather issues, whereas Alice Lake and especially Twin Lakes are more exposed.
Later in the season, September is a beautiful time of year and you won’t have to worry about bugs. Thunderstorms are less common in September as well.
The first snows usually arrive in mid/late September and October, though if snow cover remains light then this hike would still be do-able if properly prepared. Pay attention to conditions closely, however, as a heavy October snowstorm could pose an avalanche risk.
Possible Side Trips
There are a couple of options for additional exploring if you are turning this into a multi-day trek.
From Snowyside Pass, you could leave the trail and scramble up 10,651-foot Snowyside Peak. This is an exposed Class 3 scramble, so only attempt this if you are comfortable with heights and route-finding, and have prior scrambling experience.
I attempted to summit this peak and made it about two-thirds of the way up before threatening weather forced me to bail early. I found the rock conditions to mostly be stable aside from a couple of loose gullies, but route-finding was definitely required as there were no cairns or any real signs marking a route.
Another good side trip if you’re camping at Toxaway Lake would be to hike to Edith Lake. This would involve a 2.25 mile hike one way, but you would lose 484 feet of elevation before gaining 722 feet of elevation to reach the lake.
This hike is dog-friendly but technically they are required to be on leashes from July 1 through Labor Day. There is plenty of water available for dogs as well for them to stay hydrated and to cool off on a hot day. Just make sure to pick up and pack out your dog’s poop!
Wildlife, bugs, and water
Deer, elk, moose, and mountain goats are some of the big game mammals that inhabit the Sawtooths. I saw a lone mountain goat near Snowyside Pass when I did this hike.
There is a healthy black bear population in the Sawtooths, but grizzly bears do not inhabit this area.
Wolves and mountain lions also live in the Sawtooths but are rarely seen.
The mosquitoes get pretty gnarly around all of the lakes on this hike, so you’ll need to come prepared, especially if you’re camping. The skeeters are at their worst in July and early August, so if you want to avoid the bugs, plan a late summer or fall trip from mid-August on.
There are some minor stream crossings hiking north from Snowyside Pass down to Toxaway Lake, but generally water crossings are not a problem on this trek. Also, as you’ve probably figured out by now, there is no shortage of water on this hike for filling up.
Pre or Post Hike Camping Options
The developed Pettit Lake Campground is located right near the trailhead. A camping spot here is $16 per night and amenities include drinking water and restrooms. The campsite is first-come-first-serve and is typically open from June through late September.
There are plenty of free dispersed camping spots as well on Forest Service Road 208, and dispersed camping can be found along trailhead access roads throughout the Sawtooth Wilderness.
Sawtooth National Forest requires you to camp at least 100 feet away from all bodies of water.
Be sure to visit the Sawtooth National Forest website to check if any fire restrictions are in place.
Here are a few items I consider to be essential for this hike:
- Bug spray if hiking before mid-August
- Extra layers
- Ski hat and lightweight gloves
- Down jacket (if camping)
- Bear spray
- Water purification system
- Personal locater device, such as a SPOT or DeLorme beacon
- First aid kit
Here are a few items I might bring depending on current conditions:
- Trekking poles
- Microspikes (if hiking early or late in the season)
- Rain jacket and rain gear (if anything but a dry forecast)
Where to Find Weather Forecasts
Here are links to National Weather Service point weather forecasts near the start of the hike and across the upper portions of the hike that take elevation and terrain into account.
Keep in mind that there is a greater margin of error in mountain forecasts for remote areas, but the NWS point forecasts are one of the more reliable sources.
The National Weather Service in Pocatello is the local office for this area, and although somewhat technical, you can read the NWS Forecast Discussions to gain some insight into the weather patterns for this area.
Post-hike food and drink
Once you leave the Pettit Lake area, there are several good food and drink options about 30 minutes away. The Redfish Lake area, while popular, has the Redfish Lake Lodge and Restaurant with excellent food if you’re looking for a celebratory meal.
On warm days in the summer, the beach at Redfish Lake is the place to be. Take a dip in the lake, then pull out a camping chair and hang out on the beach while enjoying a cold beer.
The Lakeside Grill is also located outside near the hotel and next to the beach area, and the fish tacos I had from there were outstanding.
In the small but awesome town of Stanley, I highly recommend the Sawtooth Hotel for a meal and a drink. Don’t miss out on their dessert options either! This place has excellent food, a good beer selection, and a fun, relaxed atmosphere.
The Stanley Baking Company & Cafe is also an excellent spot for breakfast or lunch. There are several other dining establishments in the town of Stanley that will fit any budget.