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Photo Gallery: 15 Favorite Backcountry Lakes

Posted On July 11, 2016 at 10:07 am by / Comments Off on Photo Gallery: 15 Favorite Backcountry Lakes

By Michael Lanza

Water makes up about 60 percent of our bodies—and, I suspect, 100 percent of our hearts. We crave it not only physically, for survival, but emotionally, for spiritual rejuvenation. We love playing in it for hours as children and we paddle and swim in it as adults. We’re drawn by the calming effects of sitting beside a stream or lake in a beautiful natural setting, an experience that possesses a certain je ne sais quoi—a quality difficult to describe, but that we can all feel in our heart.

I’ve come across quite a few wonderful backcountry lakes over the years. I’ve put together this list of my favorites to give you some eye candy as well as ideas for future adventures—and perhaps compare against your list of favorite backcountry lakes. If you know some good ones that are not on my list, please suggest them in the Comments section below this story.

Here’s to your next peaceful moment beside a gorgeous lake deep in the mountains somewhere.

 

Precipice Lake, Sequoia National Park.

Precipice Lake, Sequoia National Park.

Precipice Lake, Sequoia National Park

Precipice wasn’t even our intended campsite on the third day of a six-day, 40-mile family backpacking trip in Sequoia, in California’s southern High Sierra. We planned to push maybe a mile farther, to camp on the other side of 10,700-foot Kaweah Gap. But when we reached Precipice Lake at 10,400 feet, and saw its glassy, green and blue waters reflecting white and golden cliffs, and took a bracing swim, it wasn’t a hard sell when I suggested we spend the night there. It became one of my 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites.

See my story about that trip, “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park,” and all of my stories about Sequoia National Park at The Big Outside.

 

Alice Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Alice Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Alice Lake, Sawtooth Mountains

Idaho’s Sawtooths must be in contention for the title of American mountain range with the most beautiful lakes—maybe second only to the High Sierra. Like the Sierra, backpacking in the Sawtooths brings you to the shores of multiple lakes every day, shimmering in sunlight, rippled by wind, or offering a mirror reflection of jagged peaks on calm mornings and evenings. Alice is one of the larger and prettier of them, a spot I’ve visited several times without getting tired of the view across it to a row of sharp-edged peaks.

See all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, including “Jewels of the Sawtooths: Backpacking to Alice, Hell Roaring, and Imogene Lakes,” and “Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?

 

Image Lake, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington.

Image Lake, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington.

Image Lake, Glacier Peak Wilderness

Deep in one of my favorite wild lands, Washington’s sprawling and magnificent Glacier Peak Wilderness, Image Lake (also in lead photo at top of story) fully compensates a backpacker for the considerable effort required to reach it. Conifer trees and grassy wildflower meadows ring this lake tucked into a bowl high up a mountainside, giving it the appearance of being perched at the edge of the earth, with the icy and snowy slopes of Glacier Peak as its backdrop. Reached on the third evening of a five-day, 44-mile family backpacking trip, it’s one of the most surreal and unforgettable scenes I’ve ever come upon.

See my story “Wild Heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness: Backpacking the Spider Gap-Buck Creek Pass Loop.”

 

Star Lake and Mount Madison, Presidential Range, N.H.

Star Lake and Mount Madison, Presidential Range, N.H.

Star Lake, Presidential Range

A shallow, tiny tarn high in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, nestled in the treeless saddle between two of the tallest mountains in the Northeast, 5,366-foot Mount Madison and 5,799-foot Mount Adams, Star Lake hardly merits the descriptor “lake.” But its frequently wind-rippled waters, studded with ancient, granite rocks, with the boulder heaps of Madison or Adams rising behind, will quickly make you forget your tired legs and feet. Reaching it during or at the end of a rugged hike will feel more like the culmination of a pilgrimage. Treat yourself to a night at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Madison Spring Hut, a five-minute walk from Star Lake.

See my story “Big Hearts, Big Day: A 17-Mile Hike With Teens in the Presidential Range,” and all of my stories about New Hampshire’s Presidential Range and White Mountains.

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Sue Lake, Glacier National Park.

Sue Lake, Glacier National Park.

Sue Lake, Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is known for majestic peaks that look like kitchen cutlery pointed at the sky, abundant megafauna like mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and grizzly bears—and, of course, its glaciers. But it also has some pretty darn nice lakes. I haven’t hit them all yet (working on that), but I have hiked to several, including the ledges overlooking this backcountry gem. Perched high above treeline, the view of ocean-blue Sue Lake floating in a sea of mountains is worthy of the short detour off the Highline Trail.

See my story “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” and all of my stories about Glacier National Park.

 

May Lake in Yosemite National Park.

May Lake in Yosemite National Park.

May Lake, Yosemite National Park

A friend and I reached May Lake on the last afternoon of one of my top 10 best-ever backpacking trips, a weeklong, 151-mile tour of the most remote areas of Yosemite. We arrived as the sun dipped toward the western horizon, casting beautiful, low-angle light across the lake, which sits at the base of craggy, 10,845-foot Mount Hoffman. But you can visit May on an easy dayhike of 2.5 miles round-trip. Bonus: There’s a High Sierra Camp on May’s shore that’s a good base camp for hiking the area, including the steep jaunt up Hoffman, which has arguably the nicest summit view in Yosemite.

Watch for my upcoming story about the second leg of that 151-tour of Yosemite, an 86-mile backpacking trip through northern Yosemite. Meanwhile, see my story about the 65-mile first leg of that seven-day adventure, “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park and California national parks at The Big Outside.

 

Mirror Lake, Lakes Basin, Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon.

Mirror Lake, Lakes Basin, Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon.

Mirror Lake, Eagle Cap Wilderness

Early on the clear and calm, third morning of a 40-mile family backpacking trip in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness, I left our campsite and walked down to the shore of this lake, anticipating the scene I’d capture in pixels. Mirror Lake, in the popular Lakes Basin, earns its moniker, offering up a flawless reflection of its conifer- and granite-rimmed shore and the cliffs of 9,572-foot Eagle Cap Peak high above it. Our hike made a long loop through some less-visited areas of the wilderness, but you can reach Mirror Lake on weekend-length hikes, too.

See my story “Learning the Hard Way: Backpacking Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness,” and all of my stories about backpacking in Oregon at The Big Outside.

 

Phelps Lake, Grand Teton National Park.

Phelps Lake, Grand Teton National Park.

Phelps Lake, Grand Teton National Park

Not the first lake that comes to mind when you think of the Tetons—Lake Solitude, justifiably popular, is better known—Phelps nonetheless often delivers a glassy, upside-down picture of the densely green forest and cliffs across it, and you can sometimes see moose in early morning. The trail circling the lake is an easy, quiet, and pretty hike, and the campsites in the woods beside the lake are a great destination for an easy backpacking trip with young kids or a first night on a longer trek of a section of the Teton Crest Trail.

See my story about a family backpacking trip in the Tetons, “Walking Familiar Ground: Reliving Old Memories and Making New Ones on the Teton Crest Trail,” and all of my stories about the Teton Crest Trail and Grand Teton National Park, including my several Ask Me posts about the Tetons.

Do you like The Big Outside? I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by a USA Today Readers Choice poll and others. Subscribe for updates about new stories and free gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the bottom of this story, at the top of the left sidebar, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.

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Imogene Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Imogene Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Imogene Lake, Sawtooth Mountains

Imogene has broken my heart repeatedly—but not for disappointing scenery. I’ve just had to endure the heartbreak of hiking past it a few times without ever camping here. (It graces my list of the best backcountry campsites I’ve hiked past.) On a weekend backpacking trip with my daughter, we dayhiked from Hell Roaring Lake to Imogene, walking the trail that hugs one shore and scrambling out onto a finger of granite that juts into the lake. Like Alice Lake (above), it can be reached on a weekend backpacking trip or built into a longer trek in the Sawtooths.

See all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, including “Jewels of the Sawtooths: Backpacking to Alice, Hell Roaring, and Imogene Lakes,” and “Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?

 

Ouzel Lake, in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Ouzel Lake, in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Ouzel Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park

Tucked into the ponderosa pine forest at around 10,000 feet, in the park’s Wild Basin area, Ouzel is reached on a moderate hike of less than five miles and 1,500 vertical from the Wild Basin Trailhead. Although it gets some dayhikers, you can have a protected campsite in the trees there all to yourself, as my family did on a three-day, early-September backpacking trip. My kids, then 10 and seven, played and fished for hours in the shallow waters near our camp and the lake’s outlet creek.

See my story “The 5 Rules About Kids I Broke While Backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park.”

 

Lonesome Lake, Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range, Wyoming.

Lonesome Lake, Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range, Wyoming.

Lonesome Lake, Wind River Range

I’ll never forget the first time I hauled a heavy backpack stuffed with climbing gear on the steep trail over Jackass Pass, at nearly 10,800 feet, and caught my first glimpse of the soaring spires and pinnacles of the Cirque of the Towers, in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. I don’t think I’d seen anyplace like it before, and I’ve seen few since that compare to it. A popular spot—where black bears have reputedly learned to boulder V3 to reach stashed food bags—the Cirque’s prettiest spot is the shore of Lonesome Lake across from the sheer granite walls of 11,884-foot Pingora Peak.

See my story “A Walk in the Winds: Hiking a One-Day, 27-Mile Traverse of Wyoming’s Wind River Range.”

 

Todd Arndt hiking past Wanda Lake on the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park.

On the John Muir Trail at Wanda Lake in Kings Canyon National Park.

Wanda Lake, John Muir Trail, Kings Canyon National Park

The seven-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail that I made with some friends featured many unforgettable moments and a lifetime’s worth of stunning scenery—and aching feet—but few moments as quietly lovely as the early morning that we hiked along the shore of Wanda Lake. We were climbing toward 11,955-foot Muir Pass when we reached this uppermost lake in the Evolution Basin, a high valley scoured from granite by long-ago glaciers and studded with lakes. As my friend Todd walked along the lakeshore, I captured perhaps my best image from that entire trip.

See my story “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in Seven Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?” See also all of my stories about the John Muir Trail and about outdoor adventures in California.

 

Jerry Hapgood hiking to Lake Ellen Wilson, Glacier National Park.

Jerry Hapgood hiking to Lake Ellen Wilson, Glacier National Park.

Lake Ellen Wilson, Glacier National Park

I’d heard Lake Ellen Wilson was possibly the most scenic backcountry campsite in Glacier before I first visited there; but the moment a friend and I crested Gunsight Pass at 6,900 feet and got our first view down into the giant horseshoe of stone that holds the lake, I knew it would become one of my all-time favorite backcountry campsites. We soaked tired feet in the lake’s cold, emerald waters, a 20-second walk from our campsite, gazing up at 1,000-foot cliffs with several waterfalls pouring off of them. The sun-warmed beach pebbles felt like a heated bed with built-in massage.

See my story “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” and all of my stories about Glacier National Park.

 

Rock Slide Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Rock Slide Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

Rock Slide Lake, Sawtooth Mountains

Yes, I’m very partial to the Sawtooths—but I’ve also spent enough time there to see many of its glorious mountain lakes. A friend and I spent two nights at Rock Slide on a four-day, 57-mile hike in the more remote, southern end of the range, exploring lake-speckled valleys that birth the Middle Fork Boise River and a tributary of the South Fork Payette River. But Rock Slide Lake was this adventure’s highlight, repeatedly dishing up perfect reflections of the surrounding forest and cliffs and gorgeous sunset and sunrise light setting clouds ablaze.

See my story “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.”

 

Floe Lake, Rockwall Trail, Kootenay National Park, Canada.

Floe Lake, Rockwall Trail, Kootenay National Park, Canada.

Floe Lake, Kootenay National Park, Canadian Rockies

For my family’s first backpacking trip in the Canadian Rockies, we chose one of the best: the 34-mile (54k) Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park. A world-class trek, its defining feature is a single, massive limestone cliff, towering up to 3,000 feet above the trail—like a string of El Capitans lined up for miles. While highlights included one of the tallest waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies, Helmet Falls (estimated 1,154 feet, or 352m in height), sightings of mountain goats, climbing over three mountain passes, and up-close views of glaciers hanging off cliffs, one of the Rockwall’s special spots is the camping area on Floe Lake, where we spent our final night. I woke early the next morning to catch the lake reflecting a massive, crumbling cliff and its glaciers.

Watch for my upcoming story about our family backpacking trip on the Rockwall Trail in Canada’s Kootenay National Park, at The Big Outside.

See all of my stories about backpacking, family adventures, and national park adventures at The Big Outside, as well as these stories:

Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites
My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips
New Year Inspiration: My Top 10 Adventure Trips
My 25 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever

 

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