At 59 years old, Danny Osterhout has lived in Declo long enough to know Independence Lakes are an often-overlooked alpine treasure.
He longs for more opportunities to saddle up a horse or lace up his hiking boots to make the quick jaunt into the lake system, nestled at just over 9,000 feet, in the valley between Mount Independence and Cache Peak.
From a bird’s eye view, neatly plowed rectangular farm fields on the Albion range are just a valley beyond the lakes, but civilization seems a world away in the lake’s high mountain setting.
“I don’t go nearly as much as I should,” Osterhout said, who used hike the lakes as a scoutmaster. “You’ll often catch a few wildflowers along the way. We always tried catching a few fish for the frying pan; the fishing isn’t guaranteed, but it’s good. It’s just a beautiful spot, right here in our backyard. It’s something we should take advantage of.”
The trailhead into Independence Lakes is located about 20 miles south of Albion, along state Highway 77, also known as the Elba/Almo Highway.
Many hikers simply park and pack in the day’s supplies from the trailhead. However, the area also serves as a base camp with several camping spots, complete with fire pits and restrooms.
The northwesterly trail is well-groomed and easily spotted at the trailhead. While motorized vehicles are not allowed, groups on foot, bike and horseback easily share the terrain making its way into the Sawtooth National Forest.
Horses are more than welcome – but certified, weed free hay for the stock is necessary under state guidelines to help control the spread of noxious weeds.
It’s about three miles from the trailhead to the first of four lakes included in the Independence system. Depending on the water year, a fifth lake may also be present, according to David Ashby, recreation manager with the U.S. Forest Service Minidoka Ranger District.
“The trail starts easily enough, but it’s a pretty good hike into the lakes during the last mile or so,” Ashby said. “It’s about 1-1.5 miles to the fourth lake from the first lake.”
The trail isn’t too difficult for children, though, and its well worth the bit of effort required toward the end of the hike, said Kent Kidd, of Declo, who has made the hike with his wife and children, as young as 7 years old.
“Hiking in and out was all I wanted to do in a day and it was a great family activity,” Kidd said.
Those planning a trip to Independence Lakes in the fall should be aware of hunting in the area – upland bird and big game hunting, primarily mule deer – It’s not a bad idea to wear brightly colored clothing. Also, travelers should be aware of the 20-degree drop in temperature from the trailhead to the lakes.
Of course, fishing is open year-round, said Idaho Department of Fish and Game Regional Fishery Manager Doug Megargle, and Yellowstone cutthroat trout are stocked in the main pond every two years.
A population of Arctic Grayling is also found in the ponds, he said, and Independence Lakes is one of three waters in the Magic Valley to find the fish, which is a member of the salmon family.
“The Independence Lakes gives people crystal-clear lake experiences,” Megargle said. “Once you’re up there its hard to remember you’re in Southern Idaho and not in an alpine environment. It really is unique for the area.”
While anglers should always check the most recent fishing regulations, the current limit is six fish, per person, per day.
Megargle said the cooler alpine ecosystem allows the fish to grow slower, meaning the Independence Lakes fish have longer life spans than at other freshwater lakes.
“Some can be 13 years old, compared to the typical 5-year life span,” he said.
Fishing is typically best within the first two ponds, although fish can flood into the downstream lakes during peak spring flow. Besides patience, all an angler needs to lure in a cutthroat, or the rare Grayling, is a line set with a bobber and worm, said Osterhout.
“Typically the fish are about 8-10 inches long,” Osterhout said. “We take a frying pan and they’re the perfect size.”
Those in better physical condition often hike up above the terrain of the fourth pond, where visitors are gifted with views of the entire lake system, “There is a very nice view on top of the butte, but that hike is not for beginners,” Ashby said.
In 2011, the Forest Service plans to have a new trail loop, traversing past all the lakes before heading up a saddle and then coming back full circle to the main trail. Ashby said the distance with the loop makes for a moderate 12-mile hike.
But there is no reason to wait until next year. There’s still time for hikers to make the trek before snow closes access in late fall. The current trail system is well worn and easy for beginners. Bring some basic fishing gear and you may even stay for supper in the crisp, clear alpine air.
Directions to trail-head from Oakley Idaho
Directions to trail-head from Albion Idaho: