Ship Island Lake in the Big Horn Crags in the Frank Church Wilderness Area, Sep 2 - 6 2008

Here is a bit of info about a trip into Ship Island Lake in the Big Horn Crags in the Frank Church Wilderness area of east-central Idaho. Here are a few good web sites.

Checkout this totally cool Ship Island Lake placemarker for Google Earth.
US Forest Service Frank Church site history, regulations, maps, etc.
Frank Church User Guide pictures, history, lots of good stuff about 'leave no trace' camping.
Ship Island Lake description. half way down the page, good description of the drive and trail.
Ship Island Lake hike review. a review of the hike.
Ship Island Lake pictures some great pictures.
Ship Island Lake review. good review of the hike and surrounding area.

See this topo map with highlights.
The yellow highlights are the trails we followed during the week and the pink 'X's are the campsites we used. Something interesting about the USGS map is that it does not show the most important trail we took. After Cathedral rock, the trail divides going south west along the waterfall trail and north east on the clear creek trail. About a quarter mile after the turn onto clear creek trail is the turn off north to crags trail 021. It is clearly marked with a sign on the trail, but is not shown on the USGS maps. This is by far the easiest way to get to the northern lakes, including, gentian, airplane and ship island. Going to ship island lake via the waterfall trail is not only longer by a mile, but also requires giving up 400 feet of elevation before climbing 1000 feet back up fishfin ridge to meet up with the crags trail 021 before going on to gentian lake.


There is no water for 6 or 7 miles after leaving the trailhead, depending on which trail is taken.

Here are annotated pictures and videos from the hike.

The trail is mostly soft and sandy and is comfortable to walk on. The trail seems like a roller coaster. Every few miles you are going up or down 500 or more feet in elevation. From the trail head all the way to airplane lake I think there were six or seven of the 500 ft roller coaster ups and downs. Expect the trip out to be as strenuous as the trip in. The views of the Big Horn Craigs are magnificient and the far west end of Ship Island Lake is particularly striking.

The fishing was fairly good in the deeper, bigger lakes. Three of us caught more than 12in long california golden trout in ShipIsland Lake. The big one I caught looked very much like this picture. We caught healthy sized trout in Airplane and Big Clear lakes. We didn't catch anything in Cathedral, Gentian, or Birdbill lakes. I was fishing with dry flies and a float and not doing as well as my buddies who were using lures. I think they said the dark colored 'panther martin' was the best.

We were surprised to find outhouses, with real toilet seats, at every major lake. We found outhouses at gentian, airplane, ship island, and big clear lakes. Amazing! They are open air, but much better than the bushes. Bring your own tp. There are two established camp sites at airplane lake. The main camp site is right off the trail. There is another, more secluded site a bit further west around the lake from the main camp site. I liked the second camp site because it is off the main trail, is more secluded, has easier access to the lake and has a nice little beach.

Our climb up Mt McGuire was not too difficult and the views were excellent (except for the cloudy skies). On our way up it looked like the easiest route was to say off the ridge for as long as possible, but that was a mistake. We traversed too far west across very large, unstable boulders before ascending directly to the top and it got a bit scary. Going down we stayed longer on the ridge before descending.

The big horn crags definitly live up to their billing. There are magnificant mountains, rocks, crags, cathedrals, spires, peaks, and ridges at every turn. There are so many lakes it would take many trips to visit them all. It is a challenging backpack trip, but well worth it.

Useful links

Leave No Trace.