North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes

Boulder Mountains

Sun Valley + Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

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North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes

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  • Trail sign at the North Fork of the Big Wood River parking lot.- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • A young hiker starts up the steeper switchbacks leading into the Amber Lakes Basin.- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • Section of trail climbing toward Amber Lakes.- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • After many switcbacks and more than 1,000 feet of climbing the trail passes alongside this pretty, open meadow with nice views deeper into the Boulders.- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • The lowest Amber Lake.- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • The outlet stream from the highest lakes meanders through a large patch of Idaho bluebells.- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • Idaho bluebell (Mertensia campanulata).- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • A view toward Ryan and Kent Peaks, the highest in the Boulders.- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • A spring cascades down mossy banks.- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • Middle Amber Lake (9,026 feet).- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • Hundreds of dead tree trunks ripped out by winter avalances accumulate in the middle Amber Lake.- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • Looking into the high Boulders from the Middle Amber Lake.- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • An alpine snowfield above the middle Amber Lake.- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • An alpine snowfield above the middle Amber Lake.- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
  • Spectacular views above Amber Lakes.- North Fork of the Big Wood - Amber Lakes
Overview + Weather
Pros: 
One of only a few lakes in the Boulders. View of the high Boulder peaks. Nice Douglas fir trees.
Cons: 
Creek crossings. Mosquitos. Trail ends at the lowest lake.
Region:
Sun Valley + Sawtooth Mountains, ID
Congestion: 
Low
Pets allowed: 
Yes
Net Elevation Gain: 
2,009.00 ft (612.34 m)
Parking Pass: 
Not Required
Preferable Season(s):
Spring, Summer, Fall
Suitable for:
Hiking, Horseback
Total Distance: 
8.60 mi (13.84 km)
Trail type: 
There-and-back
Trailhead Elevation: 
6,880.00 ft (2,097.02 m)
Current Local Weather:
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Hike Description

Hike Description

Contributor

North Fork of the Big Wood Overview

The North Fork of the Big Wood drainage is the hiking epicenter of the Boulder Mountains. The main canyon accesses two large tributaries, the West Fork of the North Fork (WFNF) and the East Fork of the North Fork (EFNF). The hikes ascend dramatic, steep-walled canyons, that access multiple alpine cirques ringed by the highest peaks in the range. 

The underlying geology of the North Fork of the Big Wood River is a combination of sedimentary and volcanic rock. Neither is particularly durable, and both rock units tend to break apart. A wide variety of individual rock units provide a wash of reddish and brown hues that blend together in large, sweeping faces of talus and scree in the upper elevations. Below treeline, much of the underlying rocks are covered with forests and soil, but canyon walls are consistently steep down to the valley floor.

Amber Lakes

This switchback-heavy trail up to the Amber Lakes Basin reaches a small “pond.”  Two additional lakes are nestled in rocky bowls a few hundred feet above and are easily visited with a little Class 2 scrambling. It’s a long trip into this secluded north-facing basin, but it is certainly worth a day’s exploration.

The route begins on the West Fork of the North Fork Trail.  After a mile of easy walking through a pretty Douglas fir forest, a junction turns left to begin the climb up to Amber Lakes. There is no bridge at the creek crossing, which can be intimidating and dangerous during the runoff. Several long switchbacks climb through a thick lodgepole pine forest and help keep the grade to a minimum. 

Once in Amber Gulch proper, the trail zigzags into and through a large talus field of red, weathered igneous rock. From here the route travels through small, dense trees that are re-vegetating avalanche paths from both sides of the canyon. It is not uncommon to encounter debris from winter slides that obstruct the trail. The trail continues past some open meadows and through several more switchbacks before reaching the lowest Amber Lake.

Additional Adventures

The West Fork of the North Fork Trail continues for 3 miles up the canyon and passes several pretty waterfalls before petering out around 9,400 feet. There is an off-trail hike to Window Lake that is an ambitious undertaking for a day hike, but it is well worth the effort.

Off-Trail Hiking

The upper two Amber Lakes are far more scenic than the small pond at the end of the trail. If you have the energy, there is a relatively straightforward off-trail loop linking the two lakes that is worth the trip. The loop can be hiked in either direction

Reference: All content excerpted from Exploring Sun Valley - A Comprehensive Guide to the Boulder, Pioneer, and Smoky Mountains 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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