ALBION • It’s an alpine sight worth a hard hike, but you can drive all the way there.
Lake Cleveland, an 8,300-foot-high lake in a basin of the Albion Mountains, gives the non-hiking crowd a taste of the same high-altitude beauty that backpackers enjoy.
And put your canoe on the car. Whether you visit for the day or bring your tent, you’ll want to get out on the water for a dramatic perspective on the high, forested rock walls surrounding three sides of Lake Cleveland.
Paddling our tandem kayak there in early July, my husband and I met a solo paddler who said her mother used to bring the family to Lake Cleveland for a week every summer. Now a grandmother herself, our fellow paddler was camped beside the lake with a bunch of relatives, their boats lined up on the bank beside their tents.
It’s easy to see why this piece of Mount Harrison inspires loyalty: alpine wildflower meadows, sweeping views across mountains and valleys — and camping that’s as close to wilderness as you’ll ever get in an RV.
Particularly popular with Mini-Cassia families, Lake Cleveland’s two campgrounds are full most weekends from early July — when snowdrifts recede enough to open access — to Labor Day, the Sawtooth National Forest says.
In fact, weekends are so crazy that Roger Anderson, recreation specialist for the forest’s Minidoka Ranger District, recommends visiting Lake Cleveland on weekdays.
Even better: September and October. “That’s my favorite time up there, after everybody else is gone,” he said.
But don’t wait too long. Forest managers usually close the lake’s entrance road in late October because of snow. When the road is icy, people drive down into the lake’s basin and can’t get back out.
“It’s not a road to drive even with a little bit of snow,” Anderson said. “We’ve had to call more tow trucks than I can tell you to get people out of there.”
From Interstate 84, take exit 216 near Declo and follow Idaho 77 south about 18 miles, through Declo and Albion, to Howell Canyon Road. Turn right (west) onto Howell Canyon Road. At the Pomerelle ski area sign, turn right (west) and drive another seven miles up Howell Canyon Road. The paved road is steep and winding, but magnificent wildflower displays carpet the slopes as you climb.
Look for the Lake Cleveland entrance sign on your right; there’s no fee to visit.
Winter weather can show up any time of year, the Sawtooth forest warns. Come prepared for mountain weather and driving conditions.
Where to Camp in a Tent
At the mouth of the lake, the road turns to gravel and continues around the lake’s right side, ending in a small campground on the southwest bank. The nine campsites in this “West” campground are first-come, first-served, and the Forest Service doesn’t recommend trailers here because of a tight turn where the road dead-ends. Some campers bring trailers anyway, but most use tents.
Most of these campsites are right beside the water, so if you brought a boat this is where you want to be. There’s no dock, but it’s easy to launch a canoe or kayak from the grassy and sandy stretches of bank beside the campground.
No motorized boats are allowed on two-acre Lake Cleveland, so rowing here is a peaceful experience — except when wind whips up waves at the north end of the lake.
We found the “West” campground blissfully quiet at night, but don’t expect solitude during the day. Day use swells the lake’s population, and those high walls around the lake seem to amplify the voices of swimmers and picnickers.
Where the road ends, a wildflower-edged hiking trail and an impressive flight of stone steps finish the loop around the lake, and anglers dot the banks on every side, fishing for cutthroat and rainbow trout. Whether you’re at Lake Cleveland for the day or overnight, take time to walk the loop.
Where to Camp in a Trailer
Just to the northeast, out of sight of the lake, the “East” campground loop has 17 campsites, all roomy enough for large RVs and trailers. Seven can be reserved (through www.recreation.gov and reserveamerica.com), and 10 are first-come, first-served. Reservations here open six months in advance of the reservation date.
Sites in both campgrounds are $10 per night. Both have outhouses but no drinking water, electricity, garbage service or other facilities.
The “East” campground has generous separation between most campsites, screened by trees and elevation differences, and we found it quieter than the lakeside campground.
If you’re walking in this campground, resist the temptation to follow the little “Lake Trail” sign; take my word for it, and just follow the road to the lake.
Do, however, look for the “Albion Lookout Trail” sign at the northeast end of this campground. After a pretty walk in the woods, this trail ends at a makeshift bench overlooking a broad sweep of the Albion Valley and the mountains beyond.
A Worthwhile Side Trip
For an even better view, drive another two miles up Howell Canyon Road, which ends at the 9,240-foot-high summit of Mount Harrison. There, climb the stairs of the fire lookout tower to a platform that offers a 360-degree panorama across the Snake River Plain and south into Utah and Nevada.
In fact, do it more than once.
After dark, my husband and I watched distant lightning storms from the fire lookout tower and picked out the lights of southern Idaho cities. Those simultaneously blinking red lights in the northeast? They’re wind turbines near American Falls.
In daylight, the Mount Harrison perspective helped me piece together the big picture of a few places I’ve visited: The Jim Sage Mountains, where I shadowed a nighttime sage grouse trapping team for a news story. Mount Independence and Cache Peak, which guard the alpine lakes that were my first backpacking destination. And the Big Cottonwood area, on the rolling edges of the South Hills, where I spent a day with volunteers replanting charred slopes.
Take time, too, for the interpretive signs around the Mount Harrison Lookout. One tells the story of a bomber that crashed on the mountain in 1945. Another describes the lookout’s historical role in firefighting. Others tell about the mountain’s remarkable plants and animals — including the rare Christ’s Indian paintbrush, a wildflower that grows nowhere else on Earth.
Look closely in July and August, and you’ll spot the yellow blooms from the road as you leave the summit.
Lake Cleveland is in the Sawtooth National Forest’s Minidoka Ranger District, 208-678-0430; call for road conditions before any late-season trip to the lake. Learn more at www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/sawtooth/recreation/camping-cabins/recarea/?recid=5790&actid=29