Hiking to high mountain lakes is a great way to beat the heat. You must travel to high elevations to find these little hidden jewels, and the best reward is taking a refreshing swim immediately upon arrival.
Plus, there’s the awe-inspiring scenery. Just sit back and marvel at the peaks and craggy rocks and all of the rigors of daily life will melt away.
On the first Saturday in August, Wendy and I decided to do a double-lake hike off of Lick Creek Road near McCall. We picked Snowslide and Maki lakes, knowing that it’s a relatively short hike (3.5 miles one-way, 7 miles round-trip) to reach both lakes. We figured we’d knock it out in a day.
From our cabin in McCall, it’s a 30- to 45-minute drive up Lick Creek Road in the Payette National Forest to the signed Snowslide Lake Trailhead. There’s a tiny parking area on the right-side of the road that could fit 2-3 cars. Lick Creek Road is amazingly well-graded right now … that was a treat.
At 10:30 a.m. on a busy weekend in McCall, we were quite surprised to see no vehicles in the trailhead parking lot. Turns out, we had Snowslide Lake to ourselves. Ditto at Maki Lake. Given that this is one of the best-known hikes in the McCall area, we felt blessed!
The trail to Snowslide Lake starts out at a moderate grade, just enough to get your heart running, and then it pretty much shoots straight up the mountain in a series of spiral staircase-like switchbacks — some with loose rock. Your kids might just run up that grade like it’s nothing. After about an hour of climbing, Snowslide Lake and 8,400-foot Snowslide Peak open up before your eyes. Time for a swim!
There are several nice campsites at Snowslide. We’ve seen quite a few campers up there from time to time. Great spot to take kids backpacking for the first time because of the short distance.
We continued on to climb to a high saddle above Snowslide, our route to Maki Lake.
Here, we encountered an Edelweiss moment — just a huge patch of wildflowers growing on that mountainside, including bright purple fireweed, big fields of red paintbrush, penstemon, yarrow, and poison hemlock, among others. Wendy counted more than 30 species of forbs on our trip.
Nature’s beauty takes your mind off the steep climb, and, suddenly, I arrive at the saddle, opening up views of a big swatch of the Payette Crest, including Fitsum Peak (8,500 feet), Nick Peak (9,000 feet) and Sawtooth Peak (8,800 feet), all lined up along sculpted rocky ridgeline fins surrounding us.
Now, after a short rest at the saddle, the discovery part of our trip began — kind of a little treasure hunt to find Maki Lake. The trail to that lake is marked near the saddle, but it fades into the mountainside pretty quick. But, some thoughtful hikers have built a series of rock cairns that provide rough guidance on finding Maki Lake.
Normally, you can see high lakes below a ridge, but this one is completely hidden. The rock cairns guided us to the lake, and we were ready for another swim. Our pointer, Huck, was eager to swim as well. Maki Lake lies in a pretty setting in a bowl-like basin above the East Fork of Lake Creek. A green line of grasses and sedges line the lake, creating a neat avocado-colored shadow at the water’s edge.
Here, we watched small trout rise to take dry flies while we munched our lunch. I felt like a fool for not bringing my fly rod, but it was one of those trips to McCall where I left quickly and brought only my mountain bike, SUP and hiking shoes … sometimes you forget an essential item.
There was nice deep water close to shore so the lake was excellent for swimming. Having the place to ourselves, we enjoyed the skinny-dip experience and soaked in some solar rays on this warm, sunny day.
Huck, meanwhile, waded into the lake and tried to snag fish when they leaped or took a fly on the surface. He’s kind of nuts about trout fishing. He has no chance of catching a fish, but he’s happy to try.
On the way out, we followed more of the old original trail to the saddle, also marked by rock cairns. Now we had a series of switchbacks down to Snowslide Lake and a series of spiral staircases back to the trailhead. We took our time, made sure of our footing, and had no issues on the way out. When your legs and knees are tired, it’s easier to slip and fall.
We have hiked to the primary lakes accessible by trail from Lick Creek Road over the years, including Snowslide, Box, Duck and Hum (no trail). I recommend all of them. See if you can pick them off one by one, and take your kids to go fishing, swimming, camping, backpacking, etc.
It’s important to seize the day and plan trips to the mountains in August and September because it’s the best time of the year as the fall weather and colors kick in. We’re right on the cusp of that right now, but I’d say we have a few more weeks of wildflowers in the high country before things start to turn as the days get shorter and colder.