Idaho is home to many outdoor wonders worth searching for — and Hidden Lake certainly belongs on the treasure map.
This summer, three family members and I set out to find this gem in the Payette National Forest north of McCall — one of countless Idaho treasures available to anyone with a free afternoon and a good set of hiking shoes.
CHARTING A COURSE
After arriving at a trailhead marked by an established campground and Forest Service information board (trail maps are available), our small group of hikers embarked on a trail that winds through flower-filled meadows, coniferous forests and, occasionally, rocky mountain terrain.
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About 1 mile in, a trail junction marked by aged wooden signs points the way to three trail options: Hidden Lake, Hard Creek Lake and Upper Hazard Lake.
One mile down, two more to Hidden Lake.
Two small terriers, Winston and Wicket, led the way as we followed the trail through the trees. Bees buzzed between patches of sego lily and Indian paintbrush while an unseen woodpecker pounded out a cadence.
“What a beautiful area,” said Kate Matley, who was visiting from Arizona with her husband, Tony. “You guys are so lucky to have a place like this so close and accessible.”
The July sun beat down on the group, but shade and frequent water breaks kept the heat at bay. As we crested the steepest, rockiest incline of the day, our internal odometers started to kick in.
“We’ve got to be getting close now,” Tony said.
Moments later, a man on horseback confirmed that suspicion — and gave a positive report on the trout fishing.
“Enjoy it,” he hollered at us over his shoulder. “You’re going to have it all to yourselves!”
The pace quickened in anticipation of a cool, alpine swim. The trail flattened out and crossed over tiny Hard Creek, but Hidden Lake stays true to its name until the last possible second.
After three sturdy miles and a handful of false alarms, Hidden Lake finally appeared — a shimmering emerald surrounded by towering evergreens and granite bluffs.
Lily pads bobbed in the shallows, and the only sounds were the songbirds and the low gurgle of the outlet creek.
We shed our packs and took in the scenery. Tony had the foresight to pack in a camp couch, a chore for which he reaped a comfy reward.
“This is perfect,” Tony said. “Well, except for the horseflies.”
A quick round of bug spray remedied that issue, and the group turned its attention to relaxation. Float tubes were quickly unpacked and inflated, while Tony repositioned the camp couch near the shoreline.
The water was clean, clear and surprisingly comfortable for an alpine lake. Even Winston, our 4-pound Yorkie, donned his lifejacket and joined the expedition.
There was only a light breeze, so the small lake was easily navigable with a tube. I kicked from my fishing float tube with the rest of the group in tow.
A BAND OF CUTTHROATS
Eventually, we busted out the fishing poles. Panther Martin spinners are my usual go-to lures on mountain lakes, and sure enough, the second cast of the day produced a small cutthroat trout.
Two casts later, a bigger fish struck and put on a show, flashing his golden sides at the surface before making a run for the lily pads. Eventually, he tired and we marveled at his brilliant colors as he recovered alongside the tube. If this were an overnighter, he would’ve made a perfect campfire meal, but this was a day trip, so he lived to swim another day.
We floated, fished and relaxed the afternoon away as the pine shadows grew taller on the west bank. An occasional “fish on!” broke the stillness of the mountain air, but the majestic peacefulness of the great outdoors left little else to be said.
As we paddled ashore and packed our bags, a foursome of campers arrived just in time to take our place on the water.
As they launched into the lake on inflatable rafts, we began our hike out, eagerly awaiting a return trip, and grateful to have discovered this hidden Idaho treasure.