Exploring a Wilderness Hopeful: Backpacking Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains

By Michael Lanza

In the long dusk that prevails in the shadow of tall mountains, we hike steadily uphill through pine forest broken by an occasional meadow with views of distant, rocky peaks. When dark falls, we don headlamps and continue hiking into the night.

My backpacking partner, my 12-year-old son, Nate, has never hiked late at night. For him, this is a new and mildly thrilling experience—it feels a little like breaking a rule without consequences. After all, there are wild animals out here, including bears and mountain lions that wander nocturnally in search of something to eat—such as a large, slow, two-legged creature with poor night vision and a useless sense of smell.

But Nate seems unafraid. Maybe it’s because he’s with me. Or maybe he figures the bear or cougar wouldn’t waste its energy on a skinny, virtually meatless human like him and would go straight for me instead.

Nate and I are backpacking roughly 22 miles over three days to the Big Boulder Lakes, a cluster of more than a dozen bigger lakes and tiny tarns well above 9,000 feet in the White Cloud Mountains, in central Idaho’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area. It’s our annual father-son adventure. We’re buzzing with anticipation for the simple fact of having a solid three days of uninterrupted “boy time” together, but also because we are exploring a place neither of us has seen before.

At 11 p.m., after hiking more than five miles and almost 2,000 feet uphill, we pitch our tent on a patch of flat, bare ground, leaving the rainfly off on this clear, mild night. A short walk downhill from us, Big Boulder Creek murmurs at just the right volume to quickly lull us into a deep and uninterrupted sleep—but not before we gaze for a while up a coal-black sky liberally salted with stars, excitedly pointing out to each other the shooting stars we glimpse.

Big Boulder Lakes

The sun hitting our tent wakes us at 7:15 a.m. to a clear and mild morning with birds singing. Within two hours, we’re on the trail, soon passing a 20-foot-high cascade, and ascending steadily through pine forest. We follow the north shore of Walker Lake, a long, wind-rippled body of water below tall cliffs, to where the trail shown on my map terminates at Walker’s western end. There, we locate an unofficial, intermittent “use trail” climbing more steeply toward the Big Boulder Lakes.

The footpath emerges from forest and leads us through switchbacks up an open mountainside of broken stones and dusty dirt. Peaks rising to well over 11,000 feet scrape jagged edges against a brilliantly blue sky. At a pass, standing in impressive blasts of wind, we get our first stop-in-your-tracks view of the basin cradling the Big Boulder Lakes. Behind it rises the long ridge of unusually pale, chalk-like rock called the White Cloud Peaks, which gives its name to the larger mountain range around it. The trail guides us down to Hook Lake, a narrow, water-filled slash in the earth shaped like a fishhook, and then to bigger Cove Lake.

Below the Big Boulder Lakes, White Cloud Mountains, Idaho.
Below the Big Boulder Lakes, White Cloud Mountains, Idaho.

Nate’s a chatty trail companion, able to hold up a conversation for as many hours as we’re hiking. While mostly telling me about his friends and classes at school or his new, favorite video game, he also says, “So, what are you excited about these days, Dad? What do you want to talk about?”

At Cove Lake, we find a spot away from the water, put the tent up, and mostly laze around reading and relaxing for the rest of the afternoon. Nate’s tired after our late night and today’s hike. But we have no agenda, anyway, which is sometimes a good thing in the mountains—and a lesson it took me many years to learn. One thing my kids have taught me is this: Sometimes you should just lie back and watch the clouds drift past.

I watch my 12-year-old, on the doorstep of his teenage years, competently and confidently helping set up the tent and then firing up our stove, just as I’d watched with pride as he carried a full backpack on the rugged hike up here. When my kids were little, I believed getting them outdoors would imbue them with self-confidence and perspective that transfers benefits in many ways into other aspects of their lives. But I mostly took that on faith, based on personal experience. Now that they’re getting older, though, I see them demonstrating the things I’d hoped they would gain from these sometimes difficult, often transcendent experiences in the backcountry.

All afternoon, the wind blows 40 mph or stronger; even in the warm alpine sunshine, with the temperature around 60, we’re wearing jackets. And it’s welcome, because on this early-July weekend, in the midst of several acres of standing water, the wind provides our only respite from
dense clouds of ravenous mosquitoes that emerge every morning and evening.

That evening, with the wind still scouring the earth, we walk up onto a low spine of rock just above our campsite that gives us a 360-degree panorama of our surroundings. The Big Boulder Lakes lie scattered like a handful of seeds cast to the ground, in a basin where copses of spruce and fir trees speckle an otherwise barren landscape of rock and dirt. I’ve heard other avid backpackers talk about this area, always with superlatives and awe. Now I see why.

Nate points out potential routes to the summits within view. “We gotta plan a trip to come back here and scramble some of these peaks,” he tells me, and I agree.

Backpacking the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains

I remember my first view of the White Clouds, looking across the valley from high in the Sawtooth Mountains. It was late summer, and I saw a row of white peaks and thought, “Could that actually be snow?” It wasn’t, and realizing that left me wondering what form of black magic these mountains possessed.

The White Clouds, a cluster of rocky mountains east of the better-known Sawtooths and southeast of the tiny town of Stanley, remain off the radar of most backpackers outside Idaho. That’s unfortunate for backpackers who don’t know of the White Clouds and the good fortune of locals who revere these peaks.

The White Clouds and neighboring Boulder Mountains are prized not just for rugged alpine scenery and outstanding backpacking, fishing, and mountain biking—although that would be enough reason to protect them. Visitors to the resort towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley know the Boulders as the towering wall of stone rising alongside ID 75 north of town. The White Clouds, which sit too far from roads to be visible to car-bound travelers, harbor scores of sub-alpine lakes and some of the highest salmon-spawning waters in North America, as well as mountain goats, elk, bighorn sheep, and wolverine.

The White Clouds have places so achingly beautiful that people who know them utter their names in the way Nepalis and Tibetans speak the names of holy mountains: Chamberlain Basin below massive, 11,815-foot Castle Peak (highest in the White Clouds and strikingly prominent from surrounding mountain ranges); Ants Basin below the stark, bleached White Cloud Peaks; the string of gorgeous Boulder Chain Lakes; and the high basin of the Big Boulder Lakes.

Sadly, an effort to protect the Boulder-White Clouds with federal wilderness designation has stalled for more than a decade in a Congress so dysfunctional that, these days, the word “Congress” rarely appears in a news story without the adjective “dysfunctional.” Lately, conservationists and others have shifted their focus to persuading President Barack Obama to designate almost 600,000 acres in the area as a national monument. Wilderness designation could still follow, overlaying more protections atop national monument status, should our Congress someday drop its “dysfunctional” label.

Anyone opposing the preservation of these mountains should just take a hike in them.

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Cove Lake, Sapphire Lake, Cirque Lake

While Nate sleeps in on our third day, I wander the vicinity of our campsite with my camera as dawn light creeps across the pale mountains and the broken clouds overhead. Walking along the foaming outlet creek bursting out of Cove Lake, I notice motion on the periphery of my vision, but at first ignore it as imagined—until I see it a second and third time. Several fish, each maybe six inches long, leap from the roaring whitewater while swimming upstream against the current, driven by some ancient impulse to reach Cove Lake.

On our last morning, the sky looks brown with smoke from distant wildfires, the sun a red orb burning through that thin layer. We hike 30 minutes over to Sapphire Lake and leave our packs on a low ridge above it to walk across mostly bare, open terrain to Cirque Lake, near 10,000 feet, sitting up hard against the rockpile of 11,342-foot David O. Lee Peak.

In strong gusts that seem like they could carry my 75-pound kid away, Nate and I explore the shore of Cirque Lake. Then we retrace our steps to our packs and start the long, downhill hike back to our car—in daylight this time.

As we’re walking together, Nate and I talk about our father-son trips, coming up with ideas for future adventures. I point out that we just have six more years before he’s grown and off to college, and there are a lot of big trips I still want to do together, including a major one when he graduates from high school.

Nate responds: “Oh, we won’t stop then! We’ll keep doing these trips because after I’m grown up and out of college, I’ll still want to do this.” And he promises to carry most of our gear weight when we’re both older.

So my master plan has ancillary benefits, too.

Note: See my story “Boy Trip, Girl Trip: Why I Take Father-Son and Father-Daughter Adventures,” and my very popular story “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids,” as well as my “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors,” and “My Top 10 Family Adventures.” See also my story “Going After Goals: Backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.”

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THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR reasonably fit backpackers who can navigate cross-country by map and compass or GPS when necessary, and follow somewhat obscure trails.

Make It Happen

Season The White Cloud Mountains in central Idaho’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area are often sufficiently free of snow for hiking by late June or early July and remain so until snow starts accumulating in late October or November.

The Itinerary From Big Boulder Creek Trailhead, follow trails 47, 680, and 601 a total of about seven miles to Walker Lake, where there are plenty of nice campsites, and then continue around the right (north) side of the lake. Trail 601 terminates at the far end of Walker Lake. Look for a use trail leading north up an open, rocky slope; the trail is intermittent, at times a clear path and sometimes marked by cairns. It eventually swings left (west) onto the steep ridge only a few hundred meters distant.

That use trail becomes better defined as it climbs switchbacks up an open mountainside to a pass above Hook Lake, a small, fishhook-shaped tarn. From there, you have a view of several of the Big Boulder Lakes, including Cove Lake about a quarter-mile south of the pass. Unofficial trails lead to several of the lakes, but all are reached by fairly straightforward, cross-country hiking, and there are scrambling routes to the nearby summits. Return the same way to the trailhead.

Getting There The Big Boulder Creek Trailhead is a 4.5-hour drive northeast of Boise. From Stanley, follow ID 75 north for about 45 minutes; a few miles beyond Clayton, turn south onto East Fork Salmon River Road. It’s paved for about 16 miles, then becomes a good gravel road, passable for cars. Two miles past the end of the pavement (18 miles from ID 75), at a T-intersection, turn right onto Big Boulder Creek Road, which is narrow and slow but also passable for cars (at 15-20 mph). About four miles up you’ll reach a parking lot at Big Boulder Creek Trailhead.

Permit No permit is required.

Map Sawtooth and White Cloud Mountains, $12.99, Adventure Maps, (503) 385-8023, adventuremaps.net.

Contact Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Ketchum, ID 83340; (208) 727-5000, fs.usda.gov/sawtooth. The Idaho Trails Association helps maintain the trails, idahotrailsassociation.org.


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