Planning a Trip to the Boulder Chain Lakes


Jason is an adventure travel writer with a passion for exploring the world's most beautiful and remote destinations.

Boulder Chain Lakes is a popular spot for hikers nestled in the White Cloud Mountains. You’ll get incredible views, fantastic hiking trails, and a range of camping spots to turn your trip into an incredible multi-day experience. 

It’s an incredibly popular trail with locals, but since the trailhead can be a little tricky to find, it’s often a quiet trail with light traffic. This makes it a great place for some quiet yet tough hiking routes for those with a little more experience. 

If you’ve ever thought about taking on the Boulder Creek Trailhead at Boulder Chain Lakes and don’t know where to begin, this post will help you plan a three-day trip of a lifetime. 

Looking for another bucket list-worthy trip to add to your list? Check out our guide to visiting Death Valley in one day. 

Boulder Chain Lakes: What You Need to Know

There are thirteen glacial and alpine lakes in Custer County, Idaho that make up the Boulder Chain Lakes. Situated in the White Cloud Mountains in Sawtooth National Recreation Area, the lakes sit in the upper part of Little Boulder Creek, just north of Merriam Peak. 

The main lakes are called:

  • Hatchet Lake
  • Headwall Lake
  • Hidden Lake
  • Hourglass Lake
  • Hummock Lake
  • Lodgepole Lake
  • Lonesome Lake
  • Scoop Lake
  • Shelf Lake
  • Sliderock Lake
  • Tiny Lake
  • Waterdog Lake
  • Willow Lake

But there are also other lakes, creeks, and basins to explore around the area. 

The lakes have a great hiking trail that’s just short of 24 miles. It’s an out and back trail that’s moderately trafficked and has a range of activities to do along it. 

The Boulder Creek Trailhead is at Livingston Mill, where you’ll need to sign in and out to take on the hike. Dogs are welcome but must be leashed, and the best time to visit is between mid-April and mid-September when the weather is best. 

Getting to the Boulder Creek Trailhead

To get to Boulder Creek Trailhead and hike the lakes, you’ll pass through Clayton and then turn off the highway. After around 30 miles past houses and ranches, you’ll turn up a dirt road and then it’s just five miles to the trailhead. 

It’s a narrow road with a steep drop off so drive carefully! You’ll be able to sign in at the trailhead before you set off. 

Things to do When Visiting Boulder Chain Lakes

There is so much to do and see when you visit Boulder Chain Lakes and the scenery is unmatched. Here are some of the top things to do while you’re visiting. 


There is great camping and fishing at every lake, so you can take your pick. For something a little more rugged, Four Lakes Basin is situated at 10,000 feet on the north face of a mountain. The terrain is rocky but it makes for some incredible views.

If you’re looking for something a little tamer, Quiet Lake is a great spot. It is one of the largest lakes in the wilderness and is an angler’s dream – filled with trout. It also has a nice trailhead that takes you to Slickenside Creek and Shallow Lakes which is a nice hike. 


Just like the Big Pine Lakes Trail in California, The Boulder Chain Lakes hike is a loop trail so you can start off in either direction. Going counterclockwise, the official trail starts at 1.5 miles where there is a trail fork. Head left to get to Ants Basin.

The trail gets fairly steep and separates the 4th of July Creek and the Warm Springs Creek. Ants Basin is carved out of an ancient glacier and covered in whitebark pine. It’s a beautiful spot to visit. 

Boulder Chain Lakes trail map

Dropping down, the trail continues east and around mile four you’ll come to Born Lakes. This is where the hike becomes difficult and you’ll need some mountaineering experience to continue on. 

The Devil’s Staircase leads directly to Boulder Chain Lakes, but there is also a separate scramble if you want to visit Four Lakes Basin and Quiet Lake. 

If you’re a beginner at hiking, this is a potentially dangerous trail, and there is a safer alternative via the East Fork of the Salmon River. 

But as you can see, there are some great options for hiking trails for beginners and those looking for a tough trek.


Whether you’re hiking the Boulder Chain Lakes or on a backpacking trip in the Channel Islands, you really do need more than one day to make the most of it. 

For a multi-day trip, the White Clouds have some great backpacking options. If you’re taking on the trail from the trailhead and want to visit Boulder Chain Lakes, you’ll need a multi-day trip to make the most of the route. 

There are tons of options including Hatchet Lake, Baker Lake, Castle Lake, Lonesome Lake, and more. So you’ll definitely want to take your camping gear and spend a couple of days exploring the range. 

Planning Your Trip to Boulder Chain Lakes

Woman standing near one of the Boulder Chain Lakes

If you’re struggling to put together an itinerary for your trip to Boulder Chain Lakes, here’s an easy 3-day plan to make the most of your time there. 

Day 1: Boulder Creek Trailhead to Willow Lake

Start out early at the Boulder Creek Trailhead to make the most of your first day hiking. It’s around six miles of gradual incline when you start out. At the top of the pass, you’ll get your first glimpse of the White Cloud Mountains views which are truly breathtaking. 

From here, the trail will go down to Frog Lake which has stables if you’re planning on taking a horse. Not far from here is the turn off for Boulder Chain Lakes and camp sites right by Willow Lake where you can rest for your first night. 

Day 2: Boulder Chain Lakes

The next morning, you’re well situated to get to Boulder Chain Lakes early and make the most of your day exploring. 

There are rangers and trail maintainers around most of the time if you need help with directions or have questions, and they’re all very friendly and willing to help.

Take a day pack with lunch for the day as well as some water filters, but leave your camping gear behind to save some energy. 

It’s an uphill hike to the lakes but fairly easy. The trail takes you past Lodgepole Lake which has one of the best views and then Hummock Lake. The trail does get a little lost so make sure to stay on track. 

Hidden Lake is up next and can be a little more difficult to find, but you’ll soon find the trail again on your way to Scoop Lake. 

If you want to make the most of your view, head up Windy Devil Pass. Be warned this is a steep hike, so it is best for experienced hikers and mountaineers. 

If you go at the end of the season, the ground could be snow-covered, so don’t forget your microspikes to make hiking much easier and safer. 

There are plenty of areas to stop for lunch and the trails are easy enough to follow, so you can choose which lakes you want to go see. 

When you’re done, make your way back to camp at your own pace – the trek back is downhill and relatively easy. 

Day 3: Willow Lake back to Boulder Creek Trailhead

It’s a nine-mile hike back to the trailhead and begins uphill so make sure you get your breakfast in early before setting off. 

It’s a steep hike back up past Frog Lake, but this is the most difficult part to do. After that, it’s just a few miles back to the trailhead parking lot. 

If you’re hungry after your hike back, Sawmill Station is a popular spot with hikers that serves milkshakes and cheeseburgers you won’t want to miss before heading home. 

Ready for Your Next Adventure?

You do need to spend two or three days at Boulder Chain Lakes to make the most of what it has to offer. Visiting all the lakes simply can’t be done in one day but turning it into a three-day camping trip will be worth it. 

From the incredible hiking trails to the unbelievable views and great camping sites, it’s a trip of a lifetime. 

Ready to plan your next adventure? Head to our guide on Solo Trekking through Nepal to learn about one of the best solo trips you can take. 

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