By Michael Lanza
As we approached the rocky, 10,877-foot summit of Patterson Peak, we saw them from a distance, a couple of white specks moving slowly, but standing out against the gray rock and cliffs on that overcast day in early October. It was a pair of mountain goats, scrabbling over the loose, shifting talus. We tried to get a closer look, but even as they appeared to move effortlessly, they quickly expanded the gulf between us. Within minutes, they had disappeared into the cliffs and swirling clouds. But we had gotten another taste of the wild nature of Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains.
A little while later, my 15-year-old son, Nate, and I stood on the summit of Patterson, overlooking four shining alpine lakes surrounded by brown and gray cliffs of shattered rock. Beyond that secluded little cirque loomed the nearly vertical north face of 11,815-foot Castle Peak, highest in the White Clouds. The mountain goats had melted back into the landscape; we saw no sign of them, even from our high perch, with its 360-degree view spanning many of the numerous 10,000- and 11,000-foot peaks around us. But we also did not see another person.
My son and I were backpacking (for our annual father-son adventure) a mostly off-trail route over rugged terrain to explore an area of the White Clouds recommended to me by a friend who’s a longtime backcountry ranger in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which includes Idaho’s best-known range, the Sawtooth Mountains, as well as the gorgeous and lesser-known White Clouds. This friend had told me his favorite spot in the White Clouds is Quiet Lake, which sits at over 9,200 feet right at the foot of Castle Peak’s north face—just beyond the Four Lakes Basin.
It turned out to be great advice.
After crossing the stark rockscape of the Four Lakes Basin, we descended along the creek draining those tarns, meandered through the necklace of forest ringing Quiet Lake, and found a campsite just above the lakeshore. Castle Peak validated its moniker, showing us a long, soaring wall of pinnacled buttresses. It was clear we had the lake to ourselves.
Part of the vast block of mountains and river valleys that swell the belly of central Idaho, much of which is protected as federal wilderness—Idaho ranks third among the states for wilderness acreage, behind only Alaska and California—the White Clouds harbor about 150 peaks over 10,000 feet and scores of lakes, many of them above 9,000 feet and a few over 10,000 feet. You can sit by the shore of the highest salmon-spawning waters in North America, and perhaps stumble upon some of the mountain goats, elk, bighorn sheep, black bears, and wolverine that call these mountains home.
The first time Nate and I had backpacked into the White Clouds together, camping in the Big Boulder Lakes basin two summers previously, these peaks were not fully protected. But thanks to the hard work of many people, including the committed team at the Idaho Conservation League, we were walking through one of the three newest wilderness areas in America. Click through the photo gallery below and you may agree with me that the White Clouds should be on every backpacker’s to-do list. Scroll to the bottom of this story for trip-planning information.
Do you like The Big Outside? I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by a USA Today Readers Choice poll and others. Get email updates about new stories and free gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the bottom of this story, at the top of the left sidebar, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
See all of my stories about Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains, including one about backpacking with my son into the Big Boulder Lakes, and my story about a 28-mile dayhike two friends and I took through the heart of the range.
See also my story “Boy Trip, Girl Trip: Why I Take Father-Son and Father-Daughter Adventures” and all of my stories about family adventures at The Big Outside.
The right backpack makes all of your trips easier. See my 10 favorite packs for backpacking.
If you’re spending an extended period of time in the area, consider back-to-back trips in the White Clouds and neighboring Sawtooth Mountains. Scroll down to Idaho at my All Trips By State page at The Big Outside for a menu of all stories about outdoor adventures in my home state.
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THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR fit, experienced hikers and backpackers, not beginners. Challenges include navigating off-trail, steep and loose terrain, elevations up to nearly 11,000 feet, and possible summer thunderstorms.
Make It Happen
Season Peak hiking season is mid-July through September. In early summer, you may need snow-climbing equipment and skills for the section of this hike over Patterson Peak or the pass immediately south of the summit.
The Itinerary From Fourth of July Creek Trailhead, hike Trail 109 to Fourth of July Lake, then turn north (left) and follow Trail 219 up to an unnamed pass at over 9,500 feet, overlooking Ants Basin. Turn east (right), hiking off-trail up the west ridge of Patterson Peak. Near Patterson’s summit, scramble through a notch and descend steep scree into the gentler terrain of the Four Lakes Basin. An intermittent user path crosses the basin and descends to Quiet Lake, where there are a few established campsites on the west and north sides of the lake. Alternatively, you can hike off-trail directly east from Fourth of July Lake to the first pass south of Patterson Peak to cross into Four Lakes Basin; we returned via that pass. The tradeoff is a bit less climbing and missing Patterson’s summit. Either route has a comparable amount of steepness and loose rock.
Getting There From ID 75, 15 miles south of Stanley and 16.7 miles north of Galena Summit, turn east onto Fourth of July Creek Road and continue 10 miles to the Fourth of July Creek Trailhead at the end of the road.
Permit None required.
Map Sawtooth & White Cloud Mountains, $13, Adventure Maps, (503) 385-8023, http://www.adventuremaps.net.
Contact Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA), Ketchum, ID 83340; (208) 727-5000, http://www.fs.usda.gov/sawtooth. Stanley office: (208) 774-3000.