Jennie Lake hike has it all: wildflowers, stunning views and fishing
Some hikes are all about the beautiful or unique destination — leaving you to decide whether the trip was worth the effort.
Some are all about the journey — a great walk that ends at a ho-hum attraction.
The best hikes are the ones that capture your attention from start to finish. That's Jennie Lake Trail, a route that provides access to an alpine lake tucked into the Boise National Forest north of Idaho City at nearly 8,000 feet.
The first half of the 4.4-mile hike (8.8 miles round trip) features the rushing sounds and cool views of Bear Creek, with occasional waterfalls to make you forget that you're climbing about 400 feet per mile — and going to face a few uphill stretches on the way back out. That creek also provides an option to filter water if you didn't bring enough.
The second half leaves the creek — "I really like how quiet it is," my son told me — and treks through stunning wildflower displays. All the major colors are represented — red, orange, blue, purple, yellow, white and, of course, all that green.
"This year in particular — the last two or three weeks — it's been a spectacular hike as far as wildflowers," said Brant Petersen, the Idaho City district ranger for the Boise National Forest.
The hike, which begins at 6,030 feet of elevation and ends at 7,850, presents its stiffest challenge in the final third of a mile, a 250-foot climb to the shore of the lake. And the destination is well worth one last push.
Jennie Lake has a greenish hue with rocky Wolf Mountain towering behind it. The hike includes about 1,800 feet of elevation gain but most of the steep areas are short-lived. It's a good trail for families with adventurous kids — we had a 10-year-old and 13-year-old in our group and saw a couple younger children. We took 2 1/2 hours to reach the lake and 2 hours to return to the trailhead.
"For a high-elevation lake, it's a moderate hike," Petersen said.
The water is so shallow along the shore that you can watch foot-long trout swim by — or try to catch them. Fish are stocked every few years and the lake didn't freeze as much as usual last winter, Petersen said. The result is some unusually large trout for a high-elevation lake. A fisherman recently caught a 16-inch cutthroat trout, Petersen said.
The area traversed by the Jennie Lake Trail was less damaged by the massive Pioneer Fire in 2016 than some nearby areas of the forest. Petersen estimates about one-third of the area seen from the trail burned.
Primitive camping sites are scattered around the lake. It's a popular backpacking destination on Fridays-Sundays in the summer months.
"The most popular hike there is a weekend or an overnighter," Petersen said.
But if you'd rather day hike, the trail is a good excuse to explore the surrounding Boise National Forest. We went up Saturday without a campground reservation and searched for a road-side spot. That was much easier than we expected — even with a Saturday arrival. We set up camp alongside the Crooked River.
When choosing a spot, beware of burned trees that could fall in the wind and sleeping too close to creeks that can flood in a thunderstorm because the ground doesn't absorb water like it did before the Pioneer Fire, Petersen said.
"Stay out of those snag patches that are charred and burned from the fire," he said. "Any standing dead tree, don't camp under them."
If you prefer the campground experience, the Edna Creek Campground (reservations available) is at the Idaho 21 intersection with Forest Service road 384, the point where hikers leave the highway and enter the system of gravel roads. Edna Creek has a couple walk-up spots set aside but the reserved spots are sold out on Saturdays until Aug. 11.
Or, there's the Willow Creek Campground (no reservations, no fees) at the intersection of Forest Service roads 384 and 348, where you take 348 toward Jennie Lake. Willow Creek has four sites and a vault toilet; no one was camped there when we visited.
Dispersed camping is available on 384, a two-lane gravel road, and 348, which is a one-lane gravel road with few places to turn around. A large group had set up at the Jennie Lake trailhead.
From any of the spots in the area, you'll likely have easy creek access and a vast forest to explore. We hiked to the top of the ridge across the road from our campground — a good warm-up for the Sunday climb to Jennie Lake — skipped stones in the river and played horseshoes. We saw others fishing, playing badminton and otherwise relaxing in an area where cell phone signals don't penetrate and there are no creature comforts other than what you bring with you.
Petersen recommends the Bear River Trail as an alternative if the Jennie Lake parking area is full. It's 2-3 miles farther down 348. It has the creek and wildflowers of the Jennie Lake Trail but lacks the lake at the finish. The popular and family-friendly Crooked River Trail, which is about a mile from Idaho 21 on 384, has been closed because of the danger posed by thousands of trees that burned in the Pioneer Fire. Petersen hopes to have that trail open sometime this season.
Drive 18 miles north of Idaho City on Idaho 21, just past the Whoop Um Up Park N' Ski area. Turn right on Forest Service road 384. After 6 miles, take the branch to the left on road 348. Drive until you see the "Jennie Lake TR" sign and turn left. It's about a 45-minute drive from Idaho 21 to the trailhead. The trail is easy to follow all the way to the lake.
The Jennie Lake Trail usually is accessible in mid-June and snow-free around July 1. It's accessible into October. "The use, especially after Labor Day, drops to nothing," Petersen said.
The round-trip hike is roughly 8.8 miles with 1,800 feet of elevation gain.