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Unearthing Idaho - El Capitan

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- When I walk through an airport, I like to stop in the gift shops and check out what’s unique to that area. Arizona has postcards of the Grand Canyon, New York has Niagara Falls and California has Yosemite. These places are widely known across the world and are some of the most visited spots on the planet. When I stepped into the Boise International Airport gift shop, I had no idea what to expect. I found pictures of tumble weeds, table rock and rodeos but nothing about what the state looked like.

Idaho is one of the forgotten states. Most people have no idea what amazing secrets hide in the Gem State’s backcountry, particularly in the Sawtooth National forest.

One of the most awe inspiring and beautiful places I’ve found goes by the name of El Capitan; if any place deserves a post card, it’s this one. Located between Sun Valley and Stanley, Idaho, this epic peak is easy to get to. The trailhead is car accessible and simple to find. Parking lots are packed in the summer months, with peak visitation during August. Not to worry though, there are more camping areas along the trail than there are parking spots.

The Tin Cup trailhead, which leads to Alice Lake below El Capitan, kicks off next to Pettit Lake, a gorgeous little body of water popular with swimmers, boaters and fishermen. The trail snakes through towering trees next to the lake and before long ascends into the mountains. At over five miles and 3,000 feet of elevation to the lake, it’s far from a brief walk in the park. But it offers some incredible views along the way.

A long stretch of the trail presents breathtaking sights under its pine needle canopy and before long, the path intersects with crystal clear creeks draining from the alpine lakes above. A bit of rock hopping and quick thinking are required to get across but if you’re like me, it’s a welcomed challenge.

The trail tends to drag on a bit and every time I reached an opening in the trees, I expected to see the towering mountain above. I started to wonder if the small cliffs peeking above the trees were what I was looking for. Don’t worry though, you’ll know it when you see it. El Cap’s sheer magnitude is incredible and impossible to mistake for anything but something known as “The Captain”.

I distinctly remember stumbling over a crest and witnessing the mountain for the first time. It’s jagged edges perfectly reflected by Alice Lake left my jaw on the floor. I was just able to pick it up in time to move out of the way of a caravan of horses passing me on the trail. It was a surreal experience to say the least and one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. At that moment, I thought, why isn’t this on a postcard somewhere? Why don't people talk about this? But I’m glad it’s not well known.

Due to its lack of popularity, I could experience the area how I wanted. I mean, not everyone brings a swimsuit on these hikes and since no one was around, boxer swimming was totally acceptable! I wouldn’t recommend it though, unless you’re used to freezing water. The water temperature was ridiculously cold even in the middle of July. It was a rewarding experience none the less. After all, how often do you get to swim in such pure water? Once I decided hypothermia wasn’t on my list of things to do, I grabbed my fly rod and decided to cast out a line.

The lakes are teeming with small cutthroat trout with some of the most vibrant colors I’ve seen on a fish. They’re a bit picky however. They’re naturally occurring and are only accustomed to eating specific mountain insects. I was having some luck with white wing nymphs around dusk but take that advice with a grain of salt.

There’s more to do than just swimming or fishing. Summiting El Capitan is quite a feat, but if you have the time and energy, I hear it’s an amazing view over the valley. I wasn’t feeling up to the challenge and with night closing in, I decided it wasn't going to happen on that visit.

Spots like Alice Lake and El Capitan will continue to be a rare sight that few are fortunate enough to experience. Next to Alaska, Idaho seems to hold the title as one of the last largely unexplored states teeming with hidden gems like El Capitan. Idahoans are generally respectful of these untouched natural wonders and covet their secrecy. So, get out, gear up and experience this state before the world discovers what it’s hiding!