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The Palisades Lakes: Two Lakes for the Price of One

Posted by Jim Steele on May 19th, 2008 filed in Idaho

Living in the shadows of the Tetons, just an hour or so from Yellowstone, and right under the Gros Ventres, it’s easy to forget that there are lots of other great areas to hike – even within an hour or so from Jackson.

The Lower Palisades Lake

The Lower and Upper Palisades Lakes hike is a great excursion in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in Idaho. You’ll walk up a canyon along Palisades Creek to the Lower Palisades Lake, skirt the edge of a marshy area for a mile and a half, and then make a modest climb up a mountain to the Upper Palisades Lake. Along the way, you could see just about any kind of wildlife, including bears and mountain goats. The trail is well maintained and there are several camping areas.

View Larger Map

This is a busy trail – various groups make this trip, including plenty of Boy Scout troops. In addition to hikers, joggers and fishermen, you’ll see people on horses and possibly a few mountain bikers. This popularity comes with a cost. I suspect that the parking lot sometimes fills up, and the trail’s proximity to Idaho Falls means that you might not get the seclusion you’d have in a more remote trail. And the lakes, while beautiful, just aren’t as spectacular as some of the lakes in the Tetons.

The trail has the major benefit of being accessible earlier in the season than many of the Teton trails. The trail was almost snow free to the Lower Lake and halfway between the Lower Lake and Upper Lake on May 17. However, there was still plenty of snow on some of the slopes.

To get to the trailhead, drive south to Alpine then turn west on U.S. Highway 26. Drive west past Palisades Reservoir, past Palisades Dam, and past the town of Palisades, which features The Dam Store. From the town of Palisades, continue northwest toward Irwin and the town of Swan Valley. Two miles past the town of Palisades, you’ll drive over Palisades Creek; turn right (north) on Palisades Road, just past the creek. You could also access this area by driving over Teton Pass and Pine Creek Pass.

After two miles on the dirt road, you’ll come to a Forest Service campground. Parking spots are available on the south end of the campground. Park here, then walk over the bridge into the campground; the trailhead is on the south end. It used to be on the north end of the campground but has been relocated to the south end; it skirts the hill just above the campsites.

According to the signs at the trailhead, you’re four miles from the Lower Palisades Lake and seven miles from the Upper Palisades Lake. To get to the Lower Lake, you’ll follow the trailhead straight up a canyon, following Palisades Creek the whole way and alternating in and out of the trees. A series of bridges will take you across the creek four times, with the first bridge about a third of the way to the Lower Lake and the last three coming within about a mile and a half of the lake. After the last bridge, you’ll switchback up a modest hill, pass the junction with the Lake Canyon trail and then finish the trip to the lake. This is a busy, well-maintained trail; along the way, you’ll notice various places where the trail has been rerouted. The elevation gain on this trail is modest – about 500 feet – and fairly gradual.

Palisades Creek

Between the campground and the Lower Lake, you’ll pass numerous cliffs. Keep an eye out for mountain goats; I saw two about halfway to the Lower Lake. I also ran into someone who had seen a bear near the mountain goats. You could also see moose, elk or deer.

Mountain goat

The trip through the canyon between the campground the Lower Lake is quite enjoyable – especially if you’re lucky enough to see mountain goats along the way. The cliffs, along with the alternating width of the canyon, could make this an interesting trip for a geologist. The Lower Lake is fairly small, but if you continue on for less than three miles, you’ll be rewarded with a view of the much larger Upper Lake, which is tucked between two fairly steep slopes.

A long marshy area extends northeast from the Lower Lake. From the south lakeshore, you’ll cross the fifth bridge over Palisades Creek. Continue northeast for a mile and a half along the shore of the Lower Lake, then along the edge of the marshy area. Watch for beaver dams; I saw several on my most recent trip.

A beaver dam

A mile and a half past the south end of the Lower Lake, you’ll come to a junction. You’re 1.2 miles from the west shore of the Upper Lake, or you could head west on the lightly used Chicken Spring Canyon trail. There are also campsites on the east bank of the creek.

More interestingly, you’ll see a small, old cabin along the west bank of Palisades Creek. The cabin is marked with a sign prohibiting camping. Inside there is a bunk and a stove, along with a sign asking that visitors treat the cabin with respect, as it may save someone’s life.

Cabin near Palisades lakes

From here, you’re on your own. I didn’t make it to the Upper Lake on my most recent trip so I’m not going to write about the trail. Past the Upper Lake a trail leads to Waterfall Canyon, which features a 900-foot waterfall. I haven’t been there for years but remember it being beautiful; this hike is a possibility for later this summer. Waterfall Canyon is just one of the many options to turn this into a longer trip. Check out this topo map of the area.

Trail conditions: I hiked this trail on May 17. The trail was almost completely free of snow between the campground and the Chicken Springs Canyon trail. Palisades Creek was gushing and very muddy. There was one area where runoff had covered a significant portion of the main trail. The mosquitoes weren’t a problem, although I would guess that there are times of the year where they are quite the nuisance.

One Response to “The Palisades Lakes: Two Lakes for the Price of One”

  1. The Mountain Goat » Chicken Springs Canyon and the Upper Palisades Lake Overlook Says:

    […] My earlier article about Lower Palisades Lake […]