McDonald Lake to Mays Creek

Sawtooth Wilderness

Sun Valley + Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

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McDonald Lake to Mays Creek


  • Yellow Belly is one of several large, glacial moraine boulder lakes on the east side of the Sawtooth Mountains. McDonald is the small lake in the foreground surrounded by yellow grass.- McDonald Lake to Mays Creek
  • The smaller McDonald Lake is just a short trip upstream from Yellow Belly Lake. McDonald is a marshy place in the spring, but the surrounding grassy marsh/meadow is more easily explored when things dry out in the fall.- McDonald Lake to Mays Creek
  • Looking into the Sawtooths from the east shore of Yellow Belly Lake.- McDonald Lake to Mays Creek
  • McDonald Lake in the fall. The canyon in the background is the Farley/Toxaway drainage.- McDonald Lake to Mays Creek
  • A view toward Farley Lake at the McDonald Lake outlet.- McDonald Lake to Mays Creek
  • Trail sign in the forest along the Mays Creek Trail.- McDonald Lake to Mays Creek
  • FS-037 goes to the Mays Creek "trailhead," while FS-315 goes to the Hell Roaring Trailhead.- McDonald Lake to Mays Creek
Overview + Weather
Short walk. Good for kids. Mountain bike accessible. Grassy shoreline views from McDonald Lake.
Not many views. Mosquitos. Complicated route to Mays Creek Trailhead.
Sun Valley + Sawtooth Mountains, ID
Pets allowed: 
Net Elevation Gain: 
769.00 ft (234.39 m)
Parking Pass: 
Not Required
Preferable Season(s):
Spring, Summer, Fall
Suitable for:
Hiking, Biking, Horseback
Total Distance: 
5.20 mi (8.37 km)
Trail type: 
Trailhead Elevation: 
6,940.00 ft (2,115.31 m)
Current Local Weather:
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Hike Description

Hike Description


McDonald Lake can be accessed from either the Yellow Belly Lake or the Pettit/Tin Cup trailheads. McDonald is just 0.5 miles upstream from Yellow Belly, so people will typically visit both lakes on the same hike. It is possible to drive a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle to the western shore of Yellow Belly Lake, but the road is narrow, very bumpy, and extremely slow going. The easy and flat hike to either lake is a great option with kids.

McDonald Lake

McDonald is a bulbous lake with a northern lobe that is filled with sediment and covered by a grassy marsh and meadow.  It is just a short walk from the southwest shore of Yellow Belly Lake, and it offers some nice views of Imogene and Parks Peak from the eastern shore. The McDonald Lake Trail connects to Mays Creek via a switchbacking climb and then a cool traverse along the crest of a moraine ridge.

Mays Creek

The Mays Creek hike sees very little use mostly because the car shuttle between “trailheads” is inconvenient and the trail stays in the trees for the entire way from McDonald Lake. There is no parking where the trail joins the Mays Creek road, so it is best to leave your car at the junction with the upper Hell Roaring Trailhead road (#365, just off the map page).

Hiking distances and ascents are as follows:

• From Yellow Belly Trailhead to McDonald Lake: 2 miles, 200 feet.
• From Pettit/Tin Cup Trailhead to McDonald Lake: 1.9 miles, 540 feet.
• From Yellow Belly Trailhead to Mays Creek Trailhead: 5.2 miles, 769 feet.
• Yellow Belly to Pettit to FS-365 Loop: 6.6 miles, 747 feet.

Additional Adventures

The trail continues up the canyon beyond McDonald Lake. The first stop is Farley Lake, and the next is the stunning Toxaway Lake near the head of the canyon. 

Mountain Biking

It is legal to ride your mountain bike to McDonald Lake. The trail over the moraine into Mays Creek enters the wilderness, however, so technically mountain bikes are not allowed to connect the two.

The loop from the Yellow Belly Trailhead connecting with trail 041 over to Pettit Lake and back around on road 365 is a fun and easy mountain bike ride (6.6 miles and 747 feet).  The ride is great for beginners and can be ridden in either direction from the Yellow Belly or Pettit Lake side.

Wilderness Regulations

Most of the trail beyond McDonald Lake lies within the Sawtooth Wilderness.  Please observe the following  regulations:
• Mountain bikes are not allowed past the wilderness boundary.
• Self administered wilderness permits are required and available at the trailhead.
• Dogs must be on a leash between July 1 and Labor Day.
• Camp 100-feet from trails, lakes and streams.
• Pack out all garbage.
• Human waste should be buried and well disguised in a cat hole 6-8 inches deep.  Pack out all toilet paper.
• Campfires allowed ONLY in a backcountry pan or fire blanket.
• Campfires are NOT allowed at some lakes and in some drainages in the Sawtooths.  Please review the campfire restrictions at individual trailheads.
• Permits required for all stock use in the wilderness.  No grazing allowed in the Salmon River watershed (This includes the Alpine Lake drainage).
• No equine stock at Edith Lake.  ALL stock prohibited in the Goat Creek and Alpine Creek (Alturas Lake) drainages.

Reference: All content excerpted from Exploring the Sawtooths - A Comprehensive Guide by Idaho River Publications.

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Published in collaboration with Idaho River Publications

Our mission is to inspire adventure with beautiful, comprehensive and waterproof map-based guidebooks.  Owner, publisher, and photographer Matt Leidecker, grew up exploring and guiding on the rivers in central Idaho.  His award winning Middle Fork of the Salmon River – A Comprehensive Guide is the standard by which other river guidebooks are measured.  Printed on virtually indestructible YUPO paper, IRP guides are truly unique all-in-one resources for adventure.  Each book is loaded with full-color maps, stunning photographs, and information on the history, geology, and wildflowers.  Visit Idaho River Publications to explore our guidebooks to the Rogue River in Oregon and the mountains of Central Idaho.

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