Steep but Beautiful Hike to Silver Lake

A small stream along the trail to Silver Lake, Sawtooth Mountains National Recreation Area, Idaho
A small stream along the trail to Silver Lake

The trail to Silver Lake is quite a bit more than meets the eye.  It’s only a little over 6 miles RT, but the elevation gain means the trail is much steeper than you might think.  It was harder than I expected, and I was closing in on 150 miles in the past three weeks.  But the views are spectacular.  So if you don’t mind a bit of puffing and panting – and a high-clearance-required road to get to the trailhead – it’s a great option if you’re near Ketchum.

Quick Stats

Round Trip Length: 6.4 miles Trail Type: Lollipop loop Elevation Gain: 2,460ft. Pets: Leashed July 1-Labor Day; Yes the rest of the year Fees: $15/vehicle

The pond we discovered above Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
The pond we discovered above Silver Lake

Silver Lake isn’t exactly in the Sawtooth Mountains.  It’s just outside of the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness in the Boulder Mountains north of Ketchum.  I decided that it was too far to drive to the traditional area of the Sawtooths National Recreation Area, so we’d do this for a day before heading north.

Hiking up the road en route to Silver Lake, Sawtooth Mountains National Recreation Area, Idaho
Hiking up the road

I also decided that we should eat lunch before we headed out (a very good idea, even if it was only 11:30am by my watch, which was still on EDT).  As we shifted snacks and chewed our pulled-pork-from-a-packet sandwiches, a national forest jeep hurtled up the dirt road, intent on… well, it quickly became obvious that he was intent on us.  We knew we weren’t doing anything wrong, so we kept eating and packing daypacks, even when his eyes gleamed as he saw our New York license plate.  I made sure I was in front of the van when the ranger – who was actually from the Fish and Wildlife Service – hopped out of the jeep.

A waterfall below Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
A waterfall below Silver Lake

We chatted for a few minutes.  It turned out that he thought we were poachers.  (I kid you not.)  But I guess we didn’t look like poachers, and even if he’d searched the van, he wouldn’t have found any firearms that would have been used by a poacher.  We wished him a good day, and he dashed off to stay on the lookout for more likely law-breakers.  To be honest, I felt sorry for him – he and his crew were trying to perform the not-quite-impossible task of retaining law and order with hunters, and we were bystanders in a much bigger problem.

On the Shores of Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
On the Shores of Silver Lake

As it turned out, he wasn’t the only person who dashed around on that dirt road.  Someone else flew up on their side-by-side as we ate dinner that night.  He was in a dreadful hurry; leaping out of the go-cart and hastily dialing a number on his cell phone.  He talked for several minutes – I’m not sure about what, but it didn’t seem urgent – and then he headed back down the mountain.  Apparently cell service is better up at the trailhead than at the campground at the base of the road!

The Silver Lake Trailhead, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
The Silver Lake Trailhead

There are two ways to begin the hike to Silver Lake.  One is to continue up the road (which is closed at this point) – this is the way I came down.  The other is to take the obvious trail straight up the hillside (about 0.2 miles shorter than the road).  We chose to take the trail route up.  It cuts off a few switchbacks and offers great views (as does the road) back down into the valley and over into the Smokey Mountains.

Hiking back down the road toward the parking area.  The peaks across the valley are the Smokey Mountains.  Silver Lake Trail, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
Hiking back down the road toward the parking area. The peaks across the valley are the Smokey Mountains.

After 0.3 miles, the path more or less ends at an old dirt road.  You have two choices here: Turn right (not logical, I know, but it happens to be correct) to follow the road and then turn left when you reach the “main” road, or else cross-country straight to intersect the “main” road further up.  We continued straight and met the main road about a tenth of a mile later.

Hiking up the old road that is the Silver Lake Trail, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
Hiking up the old road

Turn left and continue to follow the old, disused road another 0.3 miles up to what is obviously the old parking lot – Google Maps still shows the road as open, so I’m going to guess that the road hasn’t been closed for more than 2-3 years.  Turn left-ish here to follow what’s either a well-defined trail or a continuation of the road up into the trees.

An unnamed peak after leaving the old parking area along the Silver Lake Trail, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
An unnamed peak after leaving the old parking area

The trees don’t last very long, and you’re fairly quickly out in open meadows again.  At this point, you’re beginning to hike up the valley in which Silver Lake is nestled – even if you’re nowhere close to it yet.  Enjoy views to the left of UN10570 and to the right (at the right of the head of the valley) of Silver Peak.

Hiking up the valley toward Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
Hiking up the valley toward Silver Lake

As the path continues upward, it becomes rockier and rougher, eventually working its way along the steep hillside.  Meadows and rock areas continue through most of the rest of the hike.  Few people talk about this section because, while it’s beautiful, it’s mostly just a long, steep hike upward.

The rockier Silver Lake Trail, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
The rockier trail

The one really fun thing is meeting up with the outlet of Silver Lake and a few other small lakes and springs.  It’s lovely as it jumps down its classic alpine-creek course.

I don't know if this has an official name, so I'll call it Silver Creek below Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
I don’t know if this has an official name, so I’ll call it Silver Creek

There were also still wildflowers in this area, even though it was mid-September.  Gorgeous!

Wildflowers along the trail to Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
Wildflowers!

The trail also led us by views of a very nice waterfall.

The waterfall below Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
The waterfall below Silver Lake

We continued to follow the trail upward (it’s still steep!) until it crossed the creek about mile 2.4.  At this point, we basically lost the trail.  But what a lovely setting to lose something as important as the trail!  The little creek babbled through lovely meadows below towering cliffs.

Hiking toward the headwall of the valley above Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
Hiking toward the headwall of the valley

To get to Silver Lake, we should have headed west here (turned left if looking upstream).  But we didn’t know that, and my ten-year-old GPS was having trouble accepting the fact that it could, indeed, show GPS tracks that I loaded just for this purpose, let alone maps.  So we continued to follow the stream uphill.

The blue pond at the head of the valley above Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
The blue pond at the head of the valley

This took us much further up the valley to a gem of a lake, cupped just below the headwall and UN10726. It was deep blue, and it was so worth seeing!

Trying to capture the blue color of the pond above Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
Trying to capture the blue color of the pond

Some of my group scouted around and managed to figure out the general location of the much larger Silver Lake.  So after eating a snack, we trotted off through the forests and rock slides to descend (south, mostly, and a little west) to the shores of Silver Lake.

Hiking down toward Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
Hiking down toward Silver Lake

After the lovely gem higher in the valley, Silver Lake was a bit of a disappointment.  It’s bigger, and I’d imagine in the morning it could be quite lovely.  But as it was, the sun was at the wrong angle for enjoying it or taking pictures.  Beyond that, we were all pretty tired (most of the group had flown in the night before at 2am home time), and the sun was moving far too quickly toward the horizon.

Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
Silver Lake

We never did locate the trail to Silver Lake and instead just went overland back to the stream crossing (east and a little north).  Note that the stream crossing is just above where the stream drops into a small canyon, so you’ll need to stay far enough north to avoid the steep walls of the gorge.

Cliffs while hiking down from Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
Cliffs while hiking down

Going down was easier, though I wished I’d thought to bring my hiking poles.  The sun slowly sank, we picked our way down the very steep trail, and the golden hour light made some of the views even better!

Views across the valley to the Smokey Mountains from the Silver Lake Trail, Sawtooth Mountains National Recreation Area, Idaho
Views across the valley to the Smokey Mountains

At last, 6.4 miles later, we returned to our van in the parking area before the sun ducked behind the mountains.  Yay!  Mission accomplished… though I’d like to be in better mountaineering shape before trying Silver Lake again!

Hiking down the dirt road in the evening light from Silver Lake, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
Hiking down the dirt road in the evening light

Round Trip Trail Length: Around 6.4 miles, depending on your route

Elevation Gain: I went 2,460ft. (7,730ft. to 9,787ft.)

Facilities: None, although there is a small (free, I believe) camping area with pit toilets at the bottom of the road.

Fees: None

A lupine near the Silver Lake Trailhead, Sawtooth Mountains National Recreation Area, Idaho
A lupine near the trailhead

Trail Notes: Given the grade of this hike, you’ll probably want to bring along your hiking poles and some good lungs (just kidding, but you get the idea).  We did meet a couple of young guys obviously out looking for good places to hunt.  (They weren’t thrilled to see us, and they didn’t bring anything back… I’m guessing they were just scouting, though they had enough gear with them.)  There are very few “private bushes” on this hike (or near the parking area), so you might want to take advantage of the trees near the old parking area.  I’d imagine the entire hike would be a profusion of wildflowers in the early summer.

The waters of Silver Lake, Sawtooth Mountains National Recreation Area, Idaho
The waters of Silver Lake

Trail ★

Road ★

Signs ★

Scenery ★

Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this? ★

Overall Rating: ★

The rising moon near Silver Lake, Sawtooth Mountains National Recreation Area, Idaho
The rising moon

GPS Coordinates for Silver Lake

TH: 43.8126420°, -114.5485810° (43°48.75852′, -114°32.91486′ / 43°48’45.5112″, -114°32’54.8916″) (7,734ft.) (0.0)

Meet road: 43.8174530°, -114.5449180° (43°49.04718′, -114°32.69508′ / 43°49’02.8308″, -114°32’41.7048″) (8,178ft.) (0.44)

Unnamed Lake: 43.8410770°, -114.5485890° (43°50.46462′, -114°32.91534′ / 43°50’27.8772″, -114°32’54.9204″) (9,787ft.) (2.90)

Silver Lake Outlet: 43.8382050°, -114.5480140° (43°50.29230′, -114°32.88084′ / 43°50’17.5380″, -114°32’52.8504″) (9,670ft.) (3.28)

End at TH (via road): 43.8126130°, -114.5484980° (43°48.75678′, -114°32.90988′ / 43°48’45.4068″, -114°32’54.5928″) (7,734ft.) (6.38)

The gpx file for Silver Lake can be downloaded – please note that this and the GPS Coordinates are for reference only and should not be used as a sole resource when hiking this trail.

Download GPX File size: 148.9 KB Downloaded 13 times

(Note: I do my best to ensure that all downloads, the webpage, etc. are virus-free and accurate; however, I cannot be held responsible for any damage that might result, including but not limited to loss of data, damages to hardware, harm to users, from use of files, information, etc. from this website.  Thanks!)

One more photo of the small pond above Silver Lake, Sawtooth Mountains National Recreation Area, Idaho
One more photo of the small pond

Getting to the Silver Lake Trailhead

From Ketchum, ID, drive north on ID-75 (toward Stanley, not toward Sun Valley).  After about 15.7 miles, turn right onto Silver Creek Road (a small sign should say Silver Creek).  (This turn is 45.2 miles south of Stanley, ID.)  Continue straight to cross the bridge – do not turn right or left into the camping areas.  After crossing the Big Wood River, the road begins twisting up into the mountains.  The road is amazingly steep and dirt/gravel – don’t try this in wet or snowy weather.  After 2.4 miles, the road ends in a small parking area.  Per aerial imagery on Google Maps, the road continues, and no parking area exists here, so I’m thinking that the road has been fairly recently closed at this point.  Park here.

Visual trail map and elevation profile for the Silver Lake Trail, Sawtooth Mountains National Recreation Area, Idaho
Visual trail map and elevation profile for the Silver Lake Trail

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