Why should you backpack the Alice Toxaway Loop?

The Alice Toxaway Loop in Idaho is a minefield of the most amazing teal-blue alpine lakes we’ve ever seen! Framed by the jagged snowy peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains, Twin Lakes, Alice Lake, Toxaway Lake and a multitude of other smaller lakes along the trail make for the perfect place to setup camp. Waking up next to one of these beautiful alpine lakes is a serene and unforgettable experience. In the early mornings, the mountains cast a crystal clear reflection over the perfectly still water – a stunning sight!

If you are traveling to central Idaho, visiting the Sawtooth National Forest and hiking the Alice Toxaway Loop is a can’t miss! In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know to plan the perfect Idaho backpacking adventure in the Sawtooth Wilderness.

Hi there! We’re Sarah and Matt, two nomads road tripping across the United States with our cat, Fitzgerald, making a new place our home month to month while working full time and adventuring as much as possible. We spend any free time we can get hiking, camping, backpacking, and exploring new places! We hope that our experiences will help you plan for your next adventure and inspire you to be an outlier!

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    Alice Toxaway Loop Backpacking Overview

    Quick Stats

    Hiking distance | 18 miles (option to add 4 additional miles)
    Elevation gain | 3200 feet
    Epic-ness rating | 8
    Difficulty | hard
    Permits Required? |
    Yes (available on trail)
    Permit Fees |
    Free
    Designated campsites? |
    No
    Trip length |
    1-2 nights/2-3 days
    Dogs allowed? | Yes
    Fires permitted? | No

    Remember to Leave No Trace. Pack out what you pack in, stay on trail, be well-prepared, leave nothing behind, take only photos and memories with you, treat the area with respect and help preserve this beautiful spot for generations to come.

    Difficulty

    The majority of the elevation gain on this hike is fairly gradual and moderate. The most challenging part of the hike is by far the section between Toxaway Lake and Twin Lakes, where the switchbacks seem to never end. As a one night trip, this is a challenging loop. As a two night trip, it would be fairly moderate.

    The trail is typically well-marked and easy to follow. We always bring a GPS device for safety, but didn’t have any trouble finding our way on this trail.

    Water crossings

    Along the Alice Toxaway Loop, you will need to cross several streams. The depth of the water will vary by time of year and recent precipitation, but expect to wade through calf to ankle deep water. At some of the stream crossings, there are strategically placed logs that allow you to cross without getting your feet wet. However, at times you’ll likely need to get your feet wet to cross safely.

    We opted to swap out our boots for Chacos whenever the crossing required submerging our feet to keep our boots and socks dry for the rest of the hike, which certainly added extra time. If it’s a warm day and soggy socks don’t bother you, you can save some time by leaving your shoes on.

    We highly recommend trekking poles for extra stability to help you through the stream crossings. If you prefer to keep your boots dry, sturdy water shoes are also a must!

    Where to camp

    There are no designated camp spots on the Alice Toxaway Loop. That being said, you should look for a previously used flat piece of ground to pitch your tent and avoid disturbing the plant life. Although this is a popular backpacking loop, there are many amazing spots to camp, some of them near the shores of the beautiful alpine lakes!

    You can camp by any of the lakes on this loop: Twin Lakes, Alice Lake, Toxaway Loop or Farley Lake.

    Itinerary options

    The entire Alice Toxaway Loop is 18 miles in total, covering about 3200 feet of elevation gain. For an extra 4 miles and 800 feet of elevation, you can take a detour off the main loop trail to Edith Lake. The Alice Toxaway Loop can be completed as a one or two night backpacking trip, depending on your pace and how much time you have each day.

    Below we’ve compiled a few possible itineraries for a one or two night trip. We chose option 1, and had a great experience!

    Map of the Alice Toxaway Loop backpacking route in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho
    Map of the Alice Toxaway Loop backpacking route

    2 Days – 1 Night

    Option 1

    We love this option because it allows you to camp at Twin Lakes, which was our favorite of the many lakes on this trail! It tends to be less crowded than Alice Lake and is more scenic than Toxaway Lake. This option does cover more ground on day one, making for a fairly challenging first day.

    Day 1 | hike from Tin Cup Trailhead counterclockwise to Twin Lakes (11 miles)
    Night 1 | camp at Twin Lakes
    Day 2 | hike from Twin Lakes past Alice Lake and back to the trailhead (7 miles)

    Option 2

    Itinerary option 2 breaks up the Alice Toxaway Loop more evenly, making for two more moderate hiking days, rather than one challenging and one easy day.

    Day 1 | hikecounterclockwise from Tin Cup Trailhead to Toxaway Lake (8.5 miles)
    Night 1 | camp at Toxaway Lake
    Day 2 | hike from Toxaway Lake past Twin Lakes and Alice Lake and back to the trailhead (9.5 miles)

    3 Days – 2 Nights

    If you are looking to take your time and extend the trip into 2 nights, you can spend one night at Toxaway and the second night at either Twin Lakes or Alice Lake.

    Option 3

    Day 1 | hike counterclockwise from Tin Cup Trailhead to Toxaway Lake (8.5 miles)
    Night 1 | camp at Toxaway Lake
    Day 2 | hike from Toxaway Lake to Alice Lake, hang out at Twin Lakes along the way (3.5 miles)
    Night 2 | camp at Alice Lake
    Day 3 | hike from Alice Lake back to the trailhead (6 miles)

    Option 4

    If you are looking to add some extra distance for a 2 night trip, take a detour to Edith Lake.

    Day 1 | hike counterclockwise from Tin Cup Trailhead to Toxaway Lake (8.5 miles)
    Night 1 | camp at Toxaway Lake
    Day 2 | hike from Toxaway Lake to Edith Lake, then continue to Twin Lakes and Alice Lake (7.5 miles)
    Night 2 | camp at Alice Lake
    Day 3 | hike from Alice Lake back to the trailhead (6 miles)

    Sunrise at Twin Lakes, Idaho

    What direction should I hike?

    You may notice that in all of the itinerary options we’ve laid out, we recommend hiking counterclockwise. We recommend hiking counterclockwise for a few reasons:

    1. You’ll catch your first glimpse of Twin Lakes from the pass that overlooks it. Obviously, you get the same view going the other direction, but there is something amazing about this view suddenly appearing after a long, grueling climb up the pass.
    2. You save the best for last. In our opinion, Alice Lake and Twin Lakes were by far the most beautiful of the hike, so hiking counterclockwise allows you to save these for last.

    You can always reverse the direction depending on how much time you have on your first and last days.

    Alice Lake Idaho

    Alice Toxaway Loop hike details

    In this section we’ll go into detail on each section of the backpacking loop trail.

    Tin Cup Trailhead

    The hike begins from the Tin Cup Trailhead in Sawtooth National Forest, located just past the Petit Lake campground. The trailhead is about 30 minutes from Stanley, Idaho and an hour from Ketchum and Sun Valley.

    This trailhead is shared with several popular hiking and backpacking routes. Parking is limited and fills up quickly. Make sure you get an early start to ensure that you are able to secure a parking spot.

    Petit Lake

    The hike begins along the shore of the beautiful Petit Lake, starting off at water level and gradually gaining elevation for views looking down over the lake. In the morning, still air leaves the water perfectly calm and, if you’re are lucky, you will be able to see a mirror image of the mountains reflected on the pristine water. Even more reason to get an early start!

    Just a few minutes into the hike, you’ll reach an intersection and the trail diverges to the left and right. If you plan to hike the loop counterclockwise, take a right here.

    Petit Lake in Sawtooth National Forest

    Starting the hike

    Once you pass Petit Lake, the trail descends briefly and then begins a moderate and gradual incline. After a few miles in the forest, the trail opens up to a beautiful meadow with views of the Sawtooths. During the early summer months, the wild flower blooms here are incredible!

    Farley Lake

    At 5 miles into the hike (if going counterclockwise), you’ll catch your first glimpse of Farley Lake. The jagged Sawtooth peaks reflecting over the quiet lake make it a lovely spot to take a rest. There are also a few spots to camp here, though Farley Lake is certainly smaller than Twin Lakes, Alice Lake and Toxaway Lake.

    Toxaway Lake

    Continue for another 3.5 miles until you reach Toxaway Lake. Besides Petit Lake, Toxaway is the largest lake you’ll encounter along the loop trail. In our opinion, it’s also less scenic when compared to Twin Lakes and Alice Lake, but nonetheless beautiful.

    While the main trail does not go directly down to the water, there are several spur trails that will get you there. There is a massive boulder along the shore of the lake, where we stopped to have lunch.

    The stretch between Toxaway Lake and Twin Lakes is the toughest section of the hike. By this point, you’ve been hiking for 9 miles, you’re starting to get tired and you still have a steep climb ahead of you. The trail begins to gain elevation at a quicker rate and switchbacks up the pass.

    However, the views looking back down over the small lake below are beautiful, and worth all the pain!

    Toxaway Lake Idaho
    Climbing from Toxaway Lake to the pass overlooking Twin Lakes

    Pass overlooking Twin Lakes

    Around 2 miles past Toxaway Lake, after a long and tiring climb, you will finally reach the top of the pass and come upon the most stunning view looking down over Twin Lakes. This was easily our favorite view of the entire Alice Toxaway Loop!

    It’s all downhill from here to the shores of Twin Lakes! There are many great camp spots here, primarily on the eastern side of the lake (the forested side, looking at the photo below). Just be sure to setup camp at least 100 feet from the water.

    View from the pass overlooking Twin Lakes

    Twin Lakes

    As the name implies, there are two side-by-side lakes separated by just a narrow peninsula. We setup camp here and spent a wonderful afternoon swimming, exploring and hanging out by the lakes. We awoke to the most serene sunrise illuminating the snowy mountains that reflected perfectly onto the calm waters of Twin Lakes.

    Twin Lakes was our favorite lake on the loop, and we highly recommend camping here for the night if your itinerary allows for it!

    Sunrise at Twin Lakes on the Alice Toxaway Loop

    Alice Lake

    The next morning, or after you’ve gotten your fill of Twin Lakes, continue for less than a mile until you reach the last (but certainly not least) lake on the loop, Alice Lake!

    The lake is huge, with a few small islands dotting it’s waters. While Alice Lake is a popular destination as a day hike, there is plenty of room to spread out along its shores. You can even hike all the way around the perimeter of Alice Lake to find the perfect slice of solitude to relax and enjoy the breathtaking views.

    El Capitan

    The beauty of Alice Lake’s crystal clear waters is rivaled only by the impressive jagged peak behind it, known as El Capitan of Idaho. El Capitan rises to an altitude of 9,900 feet, and its steep face is a popular destination for climbers.

    El Capitan behind Alice Lake
    Enjoying a coffee at Alice Lake

    Return hike

    Once you’ve spent sufficient time enjoying the beauty of Alice Lake, continue past the lake to get back to the Tin Cup Trailhead. From Alice Lake, the hike back to the trailhead is about 6 miles, entirely downhill. However, there are several more stream crossings, which can add some additional time to the return hike.

    Alice Toxaway Loop backpacking logistics

    Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains

    The Alice Toxaway Loop is located in Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest. With distinctly jagged peaks, these unique mountains certainly live up to their namesake! There are countless other incredible hikes and beautiful alpine lakes in the surrounding area, making a trip to the Sawtooth Mountains well worth a weekend or week long (or longer!) visit.

    The Sawtooth Mountains are located in central Idaho, about 3.5 hours from Idaho Falls and 3 hours from Boise.

    Where to stay before/after your backpacking trip

    Stanley, Idaho

    The charming little mountain town of Stanley, Idaho makes for a great place to stay when visiting Sawtooth National Forest. Here you’ll find a few hotel and cabin options, quaint restaurants and coffee shops and convenience stores to fuel up on essentials.

    Stanley is located just minutes from several trailheads, and about 30 mins from the Tin Cup Trailhead for the Alice Toxaway Loop.

    Campgrounds

    The Tin Cup Trailhead is located just past the Petit Lake campground, making it a very convenient spot to pitch your tent before embarking on your backpacking trip the next morning. The campground offers 9 single and 3 double sites, which are available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Due to the limited number of spots, the campground typically fills up early in the day, particularly on weekends.

    Dispersed Camping

    If you aren’t lucky enough to snag a site at Petit Lake campground, dispersed camping is available on several side roads off Forest Road 250 (the road leading from I75 to Tin Cup trailhead). Please note that fires are not permitted in dispersed camping zones.

    When to backpack the Alice Toxaway Loop

    The best time to hike Alice Lake is summer through early fall (June through October).

    During the spring and early summer months, the trail may still be snow-covered. In the Sawtooth Mountains, the first snow typically falls in mid-October, but obviously this can vary by year. Keep an eye on recent precipitation and weather conditions to decide whether to take on this backpacking trip.

    Remember that even during the summer months, nights in the Sawtooths get cold, so be sure to pack a warm sleeping bag and extra layers.

    Backpacking Permits

    Advance permits are not required for backpacking – just a fill out a Wilderness Permit on the trail.

    There are two boxes with permits located along the trail, just past Petit Lake going both clockwise and counterclockwise. Be sure to fill out a permit and drop it in the box along your way.

    Sawtooth Wilderness backcountry rules

    Are dogs allowed?

    Dogs are allowed on the Alice Toxaway Loop trail, but must be kept on a leash during the peak summer months (July 1 through Labor Day).

    Can I have a fire in the backcountry?

    Fires are not permitted on the Alice Toxaway Loop. Bring your camp stove to prepare dinner.

    Where can I setup camp?

    In the Sawtooth Wilderness, you must set up camp at least 100 feet from lakes and streams and 100 feet from the trail. There are no designated campsites, but look for previously used spots to preserve the area.

    How do I store my food?

    There are black bears in the Sawtooth Wilderness, so be prepared to store your food and any scented appropriately – either in a bear can or rope to hang a bear bag.

    What do I do with waste?

    Help keep this beautiful area clean for everyone! Be sure to bury human waste at least 6-8 inches deep and 200 feet from any water sources. During the winter or early summer, the ground is often frozen making it impossible to dig a hole, so you must carry a WAG bag and pack out human waste. Pack out all toilet paper and other trash. Bathe and wash dishes and laundry at least 150 feet from streams and lakes.

    Alice Toxaway Loop packing list

    In addition to your standard backpacking gear, below are a few additional items we highly recommend making sure you bring for the Alice Toxaway Loop hike.

    Bug Spray | The mosquitos around the water at night are absolutely brutal here. They will bite right through your layers! If you don’t have bug spray, you may find yourself seeking relief in your tent.

    Warm Layers | Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody
    Even during the summer, it gets quite cold at night here. Pack a warm sleeping bag and extra layers for when the sun goes down. My Arc’teryx jacket is incredibly warm, lightweight and packs down small!

    Water shoes | Chacos
    If you don’t want to be stuck with wet boots, bring a pair of water shoes to change into for the stream crossings.

    Bathing suit | Is there anything better than laying in the sun on a warm summer day beside a beautiful alpine lake? The water is cold, but taking a plunge feels great after long day of hiking!

    Compact towel | PackTowl lightweight towel
    This compact lightweight towel packs down small, making it great for carrying on backpacking trips and perfect for drying off after taking a dip in the lake!

    Bear Spray | Counter Assault
    Since there are bears in the area, carrying bear spray with you is a must. Each person in the group should have their own can and carry it within arm’s reach (ie. attached to your hip – it’s nearly worthless packed away in your backpack)

    Bear Can | BearVault
    Because you’re backpacking bear country, you’ll need to fit anything that smells (food + toiletries) into a bear can. We can typically share the small can for short trips (1 – 2 nights) and the larger can or two small cans for longer trips.

    Our Backpacking Essentials

    Good gear can make all the difference on a backpacking trip. Below we’ve compiled a list of our tried and true backpacking gear essentials – we use these items every time we backpack and couldn’t live without them.

    Backpack | 40L Osprey Tempest / 65L Osprey Ariel / 55L REI Co-Op Flash
    For one-night backpacking trips, I (Sarah) love my 40L Osprey Tempest! It fits the essentials but is super lightweight. For longer trips and/or carrying more weight (think water), the 55L Osprey is more spacious, really comfortable, and provides more hip support. Matt’s go-to pack for most trips is the lightweight 55L REI Flash.

    Backpacking Tent | Mountain Hardwear Aspect 3
    A reliable tent makes all the difference in the backcountry, and the Mountain Hardwear Aspect 3 has not let us down. Though it’s not cheap, it’s lightweight (less than 4 pounds), durable, easy to set up and feels spacious enough to fit 2 people comfortably.

    Campstove | Jetboil Flash
    Picture this: you wake up in the dark in the backcountry, aiming to catch the sunrise somewhere nearby but its so cold you don’t want to get out of bed… then you remember you’ve got a Jetboil and piping hot coffee can be ready within minutes! Morning made.

    Coffee | Sea to Summit Collapsible Coffee Filter
    If you’re a coffee snob (like me…) who needs *real* coffee in the morning, even in the backcountry, the compact Sea to Summit collapsible filter makes it easy. Pair with the Jetboil Flash and Sea to Summit cups and you’ll have your cup of joe in no time!

    Sleeping Bag | REI Co-op Women’s Magma 30 / REI Co-op Men’s Magma 30
    At this price point, you can’t beat the REI Co-op Magma 30 (Women’s and Men’s). We both use this sleeping bag, and it’s lightweight enough for backpacking without sacrificing on warmth and durability.

    Sleeping Bag Liner | Sea to Summit Reactor Thermolite Sleeping Bag Liner
    I’m a very cold sleeper so I often bring this Sea to Summit sleeping bag liner,even for summer nights. It’s super cozy, lightweight, adds 8 degrees of warmth and helps keep your sleeping bag cleaner.

    Trekking Poles |Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking Poles / Distance NFZ Trekking Poles
    I had always thought trekking poles were silly until one very steep, exposed, slippery hike in Death Valley left me feeling quite insecure even with solid tread on my boots. Immediately after I bought my Black diamonds and haven’t hiked without them since.

    Sleeping pad | Women’s Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xlite Sleeping Pad / Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xlite Sleeping Pad
    I often sleep better on my Them-a-rest sleeping pad than I do in a hotel bed… this thing is so comfy and weighs only 12 ounces! Only downside I have found is it is a bit noisy if you tend to move in your sleep a lot.

    Inflatable Pillow | Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow
    This Sea to Summit inflatable pillow is super lightweight and packs down tiny (I have actually lost it a few times because it packs down so small), so it’s great for camping and backpacking trips. The best part, it is shockingly comfortable! I am a light sleeper (in a normal bed), so this is huge for me!

    Dehydrated Meals | Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai with Chicken
    Backpacker’s Pantry has a huge variety of dehydrated meals that we’ve found to be surprisingly tasty. The Pad Thai and Chana Masala are our all time favorites!

    GPS | Garmin InReach Mini
    The one piece of gear you hope you never need to use, but is worth its weight in peace of mind. We always carry our Garmin In-reach Mini in case of emergency in areas without cell service and it gives us (and our parents) peace of mind. It can also be used to simply let a loved one know you’ve arrived at your destination.

    Headlamp | Black Diamond Storm 400
    Navigating around a campsite is nearly impossible after dark without a headlamp. We both use Black Diamond Storm 400’s, and we’ve found them to be reliable and long-lasting despite the compact size.

    Water Filter | Katadyn BeFree 1.0L Water Filter
    There is plenty of water along the trail so we highly recommend packing a water filter to save some water weight. The Katadyn BeFree is small and couldn’t be easier to use.

    Be confident you have everything you need with our Sawtooth backpacking checklist!

    Our interactive excel checklist is complete with all the essentials you need for backpacking in the Sawtooths and customizable based on your trip length.

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    Backpacking Checklist

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      Tips for a great backpacking trip

      Lastly, we will leave you with a few tips to make your backpacking trip goes smoothly!

      • Don’t forget to fill out a Wilderness Permit. Rangers do patrol the trails and you may be asked to show your permit.
      • Remember to be bear aware. While there are no longer grizzly bears in the Sawtooth Wilderness, there are black bears in the area. Do not leave food unattended and bring bear spray to be safe.
      • Get an early start. The trailhead parking fills up, so it’s best to get an early start to avoid the hassle of searching for parking. You also have a better shot at finding an epic campsite if you arrive early.

      Other Useful Resources

      Planning a trip to Idaho? If you enjoyed this article, we think you may also be interested in these:

      The Alice Toxaway Loop is easily one our all time favorite backpacking trips. We hope you love the alpine lakes and jagged peaks of the Sawtooth mountains as much as we do! Let us know if you have any questions about planning your trip in the comments below.

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