Alice Lake, Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Aptly named for its jagged peaks, the Sawtooth Mountain range is a photographer’s delight. Located in central Idaho, the Sawtooths offer a variety of photo ops, from roadside vantage points to stunning landscapes far into the backcountry. One of my favorite places is Alice Lake. To reach its trailhead, drive 20 miles south of Stanley on U.S. Highway 75. The trail begins at Pettit Lake at around 7,000 feet and gains about 1,600 feet during the six-mile hike. While the trail is quite scenic, the real payoff comes once the lake is reached.

During the backpacking season of July, August and September, expect reasonably warm days and chilly nights. As with any high elevation, alpine area weather can change in a hurry, and it pays to be prepared. On more than one occasion, I’ve gone to sleep in the Sawtooths wearing shorts and a T-shirt, only to wake up to wintry conditions and snow. Afternoon thunderstorms also are common, so keep a close eye on the incoming clouds if you’re planning a climb on an exposed ridgeline, pass or summit.

Photo Experience
At Alice Lake, serrated mountain peaks frame a perfect reflecting pool that’s especially suited for sunrise photography. Pick your favorite composition near the lake’s outlet and wait for the light. Other photo ops include El Capitan (the Idaho version), a rock formation that makes a great subject. If the lake’s waters are too choppy, ponds just downstream often are sheltered enough to provide reliable reflections. Although day-hiking photographers won’t leave this area disappointed, most of us catch the first and last light of the day. Backpacking and spending a night or two is the ideal solution for capturing the magic hour at sunrise or sunset. I use .6 and .9 Lee grad ND filters to help balance exposures during first and last light, and B+W circular polarizer filters help control reflections on the lake. The rest of my backpacking photo “toolbox” usually consists of a medium-format film camera with a 45mm lens (about a 24mm equivalent in 35mm format) and a Hasselblad XPan panoramic 35mm film camera with 45mm and 30mm lenses. Kodak Ektachrome E100VS, Fujichrome Velvia 50 and Fujifilm 100 Acros are my usual film choices. A Gitzo GT2540 tripod, cable release and lens-cleaning supplies round out my kit. (DSLR users most likely will find a wide-angle prime lens or wide-angle zoom helpful for composing landscapes at Alice.)

Best Times
The Sawtooth Mountains make a great photo subject year-round for shooting from the valley floor. It’s best to wait for the summer backpacking season to try to get into backcountry lakes like Alice. On an average year, due to melting snowpack, access to the higher lakes opens up around the first of July. If I could pick a peak photogenic time for the area, it would be in late July after enough snow has melted so it’s easy to get to the lake while there’s still some snow on the surrounding mountains. Winter comes early and stays late in the Sawtooths as well. The nearest town, Stanley, often has the daily lowest temperature in the Lower 48, and snowstorms typically close in on the high country the first of October.

Contact: Sawtooth National Forest and the Stanley Ranger Station,, (208) 774-3000.

Essential Gear

Ballheads provide stability without restricting mobility. For meticulous alignment of your shot, the unique “ball” design of the head allows you to rotate the camera freely, often in 360º, instead of limiting movement to the horizontal and vertical axes of most traditional tripod heads. The MH 7000 series from Giottos is an economical solution, capable of supporting a pro DSLR or medium-format system, while maintaining a light weight and low price. Contact: Giottos (HP Marketing Corp.), (800) 735-4373,