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In Idaho, sometimes it’s the destination and not the journey. The Trinities fall into this equation. On the map, the Trinity lakes splash across the page maybe 40 miles east of Boise. Enter the coordinates into Google Maps and it computes a 100-mile horseshoe route that nearly closes the gap back to town. Past Anderson Ranch Reservoir, past Featherville, the Trinities sit atop a ridge road destined to nowhere. And the final miles are hard-earned … on a 20-mile, steep gravel road, shared with throngs of off-highway vehicles kicking up dust and grit.

But they are entirely worth it.

kids hiking in the mountains
Packing gear to Big Trinity Lake. Photo Credit: Steve Graepel.

A prominent subrange in the Boise Mountains, the Trinities pierce the skyline roughly halfway between Boise and the Sawtooths. Crane your neck high into the sky and you’ll spy a lookout crowning Trinity Mountain — the tallest of the bunch — soldiering over the forests. In the shadows of Trinity’s north face are more than eight basin lakes … brimming with large cutthroat trout.

Accessible only by foot, the Trinity lakes are a quaint alpine playground for hikers, climbers, backpackers and backcountry fishermen alike.

mountain lake
Big Lookout Lake is the first of the larger basin lakes. Photo Credit: Steve Graepel.

I’ve been keen to explore the region for some time now. Perhaps put off by the drive or maybe a case of too many options, our family finally made the trip to the Trinities this fall. The wagon choked with rods, rafts, tents and food for a weekend, we took the route from the south, approaching through Pine for a quick weekend getaway.

After three hours and the final 20-mile push up the winding gravel road, we finally crested the ridge, dropping us into the Big Trinity Lake campground. The 17 spots are first come, first served. $10 buys you water drawn from a spring, a vault toilet and a spot for the night. The Trinities are exceptionally popular with Magic Valley residents, so come early if your adventure stops here. We had other plans on this trip, though, to explore the Trinity backcountry.

We parked the wagon at the trailhead and strapped hydration packs to the kids. To make the hike more enjoyable (for the kids), Mom and Dad carried the bulk of the load.

family hiking in the mountains
The slopes above Big Trinity Lake are lined with bleached and charred lodgepole pines. Photo Credit: Steve Graepel.

Back in 2012, the Trinity Ridge fire raged through the area, burning some 150,000 acres of the Boise Mountains. The trail into the Trinities climbs aggressively out from beneath stands of bleached and charred lodgepole pine next to Big Trinity Lake. We paused at the pass overlooking the Trinity basin for a quick break and to take in the view. A hiker with a rack of rods strapped to his pack shared a picture of a chubby cutthroat he took earlier that morning, inspiring us to walk a little further than we originally planned.

While Green Island Lake sits closer, its shallow waters don’t support significant fish. So we chose to hike a mile further, into Big Lookout Lake, sitting at the foot of Big Trinity Mountain.

mom and son walking on mountain path
The worn path of Big Lookout Lake. Photo Credit: Steve Graepel.

Following the weathered signs, the kids made quick work of the hike, bounding to Big Lookout Lake with energy to spare. A handful of established campsites lined the shore, most of them taken. But a little extra hiking around the south side of the lake yielded a secluded spot all to ourselves.

Being (relatively) close to the car afforded us some luxuries, like smoked oysters, plenty of s’mores, a rod for everyone and a packraft. We set up camp; Mom started dinner and I inflated the raft. Feeling anxious, I tossed a fly in the water from shore. Strike! I called the kids over and produced a fat, vibrant cutthroat.

trout
A 12-inch rainbow trough pulled from Big Lookout Lake. Photo Credit: Steve Graepel.

The kids spent the following day doing what kids do best, bounding up and down the hills scavenging for treasures…perfecting the art of not doing much. Each took a turn piloting the raft, honing their technique loading a rod and casting a fly, pulling lunkers from the alpine lake. My son even found an elk skeleton on the far side of the lake, bleached from a hot summer in the sun.

With over 15 lakes (eight of reasonable size), there were plenty of options to explore and we contemplated staying a second night. The ambitious could hoof the four and a half miles deep into Rainbow Basin, which you would surely have to yourself.

But chores were calling and we chose to peel off early and head back to town. But the Trinities are a special place and will certainly call me back.

family hiking mountain trail
Hiking down the upper meadows. Photo Credit: Steve Graepel.

Plan Your Trip

From the Treasure Valley, head east on I-84 to Mountain Home. At the Mountain Home exit, head northeast on ID-20 towards Fairfield. Take 134 towards Anderson Ranch Reservoir (you’ll see a large white structure used by the highway to store road sand in the winter). Drive through Pine towards Featherville. Immediately after the bridge into Featherville, take a left onto FR 172. About 11 miles up the jeep road, you’ll see a sign for the Trinities with an arrow that that points up to the left; hook a sharp right onto the road tucked around the corner.

FR 172 will come to an unsigned “T” with FR 129. Go left. Big Trinity Lake Campground sits two miles south of the “T”, just paste Little Trinity Lake (no camping). A parking lot sits on the left at the trailhead with pump water and an outhouse.

Supplies can be purchased in Mountain Home; fuel and last-minute items can be purchased in Pine.

Sitting at 8,000+ feet, the Trinity backpacking season is short. Snow often blocks the road well into June and the campground doesn’t open until July 15. And the season closes November 10 or after the first significant snow, after which OHV’s are swapped for snowmobiles. But there’s still time this year and the best camping is right now.

Artist, writer, adventurer, father of two, Steve Graepel is in constant pursuit of the balanced life. Living in Idaho, he can pursue it with gusto. Steve’s work has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line and Gearjunkie.com.

Steve and his wife Kelly live in Boise, Idaho with their two children, Chloe and Ethan.


Published on October 12, 2017