White Clouds Circuit: Strenuous Scrambles, Solitude and Scenery

On the first full day of a circuit hike of Idaho’s White Clouds Wilderness, I launched an avalanche on Gunsight Pass-and I was nowhere near the snow.

David and I had made our way on a washed out, brushy mining road up Livingston Creek and now we scrambled up Gunsight’s steep slopes above Crater Lake. Slipping on hard icy snow as I tried to follow David, I made for the rocks, climbing up small boulders towards a flat above. Suddenly a whole slope was rolling beneath my feet. I scrambled frantically, pulling myself above the rockslide and onto safer ground. After that, the last 40-degree pitch up sliding gravel beside a snowy chimney seemed quite reasonable.

Then we stood on the pass above Gunsight Lake. Other than a fresh hatch of gnats, we had this serene basin all to ourselves, along with Tin Cup Lake over the next rise.

This day set the pace for our seven-day circuit of the White Clouds in Central Idaho; the first part scrambling over steep passes into lake basins with segments of trail or route; trail and jeep roads for the return. Cross-country offered mostly solitude-except for day hikers and three groups doing portions of our ambitious route. On trails we saw more people and moved faster.

David’s brother had warned us about Livingston Creek. Shown as trail on the Sawtooth and White Clouds Trail Map (Adventure Maps 2015), the route is rough after the first two miles. The old road to a mine above Crater Lake features drop-offs into creek crossings, downed trees, brush and gravelly floodplains. Sawtooth National Recreation Area wilderness ranger Ed Cannady said it’s an illegal road built by a miner in the 1960s which washed out in a flood in 1996; the canyon is prone to flood events. The Forest Service left road as is as the basin is thought to be a lambing area for bighorn sheep; it’s not illegal to hike but not encouraged.

David’s brother Mike and his wife found the route impassable and drove up Big Boulder Creek/ Railroad Ridge roads from East Creek Fork Salmon River Road, hiking down an old mining road to Crater Lake. Railroad Ridge was our backup plan if we couldn’t climb Gunsight.

Gunsight was the steepest of eight passes we crossed on our southbound trek through high basins of the White Clouds. We did most of this trek in reverse years ago from Patterson Peak to the head of Big Boulder Basin, where we crossed a pass to O’Calkens Lake, then looped back on jeep trail to Fourth of July Road.

On that trip-38 years younger and more agile-I crept, scared and pack-free down steep scree as David hopped past, tugging my pack with one hand and cradling his frightened Brittany spaniel under his other arm.

I had mixed feelings about a return-different loop, same scenic basins and scary passes. 

Reconnecting memories and old hikes has been a pastime since we moved back to David’s native Idaho in 2016. This trip would cover most higher lake basins of the White Clouds we had visited over past decades. Would new “wilderness” status affect use of this remote area?

After 40 years of wrangling, a 2015 Idaho wilderness bill included the 88,000-acre Hemingway-Boulder Wilderness, 91,000-acre White Cloud Wilderness, and the 117,000-acre Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness. Conservation groups had pushed for White Clouds protection since 1968, when a large molybdenum mine was proposed near 11,815-foot Castle Peak and initial road work and prospecting done. American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) planned to blast open Castle Peak and create an open pit mine 7000 feet long, 700 feet wide and 600 feet deep, with a two-mile long tailings pond in the Boulder Chain watershed and a 10-mile haul road to the East Fork Road.

The controversy led to creation of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) in 1972, encompassing the Sawtooth and White Cloud mountains. The SNR Act allowed mining on existing claims but only if it did not “substantially impair …natural, scenic, historic, pastoral and fish and wildlife values.”  It also designated the Sawtooths as wilderness, but mining industry resistance kept White Clouds as a Wilderness Study Area. Wilderness was proposed in 1983, 1986-87 and 1993-94. http://www.wildwhiteclouds.org/news_mining_castlepeak.html  

Trip highlights were steep crawls and drops over passes, lakes set like jewels within chalk white basins, smoky skies from fires in Montana and Frank Church mountains to the north and a few people sightings. On Day 3, day hikers visited our Goat Lake camp; they’d come up from Walker Lake seeking trail over the ridge between upper lake basins (I said there wasn’t one, dismissing a disappointed hiker; later I found a trail!). We saw two more on a peak above us; when we descended to Island Lake we met three guys our age from Washington sheltering under tarps from the rain. Near the lake outlet, where trail ends, we saw more camps but did not venture across wet scree to visit.

The Washingtonians were doing our loop of 1979 and had found faint trail from Boulder Chain. We had hiked this trail to Island Lake in near dark. This time we found route to the ridge but nothing down the north slope chimney to Hummock Lake. David labeled my ‘butt slide’ technique ‘end of pants,’ as emergency mending was required.

Crossing a flat between Hidden and Hummock lakes, we found trail between Scoop and Headwall lakes that climbed Windy Devil Pass, but not a remembered route along Shallow and Scree lakes. We took a gully straight down to Quiet Lake, namesake of the basin and a peaceful blue expanse below Castle Peak. Fresh-caught fish improved our freeze-dried dinner. The next morning, we met campers on the far side of lake-Oregonians who had scaled the ridge from Fourth of July Road, planning to loop down the Boulder Chain and back on trail. After a short day clambering up Four Lakes Basin and following goat route around jagged ridge tops, we dropped to a small lake just above Upper Chamberlain Lake where David declared early camp to fish. Soon a gaggle of girls in shorts and tank tops came trooping along, music blaring. They had clambered over a ridge from Washington Lake and were partway up Castle Peak when they ran out of time and started back. Rain was threatening; I worried about the light-clad ladies on the steep pass, but they moved quickly out of sight.

While David fished, I hiked around Upper Chamberlain-meeting an angler and an exuberant young woman, barking dog and quieter older lady who made camp across the lake from us. Next morning, I left early, dropping to the wet meadow above Lower Chamberlain, spotting the angler’s tent above the lake and large horse camp on the other side.

We passed a mellow day on Livingston Mill-Castle Divide Trail ascending the pass by Castle Peak, slowly descending and then traversing around Boulder Chain basin. On Boulder Creek we found a big outfitter camp with several canvas tents; open, clean and ready for summer. We took refuge in a tent from a rainstorm and cooked a late breakfast. The camp is owned by White Cloud Outfitters which-from horse tracks we saw-may have packed in the camp I saw on Chamberlain Lake. (Cannady said this inholding pre-dates the White Clouds Wilderness Act; SNRA officials will address it in a wilderness plan.)

We met a few people-a family looking for mountain goats on Castle Peak, the Washington guys on return loop and two motorcyclists who passed us at a creek crossing. (Non-wilderness parts of this trail are open to motorcycles). We passed a junction for the trampled trail to lower Boulder Chain and two parked motorcycles; and hiked on to green meadows around Frog Lake and ascended undulating trail with views of somber grey ridges above and hills rolling below to the East Fork. We sheltered from showers in a spruce grove by a rivulet.  

Next morning was clear and cold; rain had cleared the smoky skies. I met four backpackers just starting up Big Boulder Trail and welcomed a bridge across the roaring creek; although downstream side creeks were precarious to cross on thin wet logs. David met two outfitters with four horses packing hikers into Walker Lake. The trail looped far around Livingston Mill-a dozen miner cabins and a mill originally built in 1924 and rebuilt in 1950. The mill supported a lead-silver-zinc mine up Jim Creek below Railroad Ridge from 1882 into the 1920s and periods in the 1950s, producing about 86,700 tons of lead-zinc silver ore. It became an EPA cleanup site in 2008 with mine tailings capped and the historic buildings preserved. Mill, camp and mine are privately owned. http://archives.mtexpress.com/index2.php?ID=2005119060#.WfkEwWhSw2w

About 24 vehicles were parked at the Big Boulder trailhead; mostly pickup trucks from Boise or other Idaho counties, and several horse trailers. We took Railroad Ridge Road skirting Livingston; noting “TRUMP” painted in large block letters on roofs of two buildings. The road climbed steeply on hot south slope far above Jim Creek, thwarting plans for a shady breakfast break. On up we took an obscure fork left while main road wound up the ridge. A good choice; we heard vehicles above us while we contoured into the basin, ascended to the old mine, crossed the creek, skirted a large dormitory building and climbed up to the main road. One route switch backed down near Crater Lake; perhaps brother Mike’s route 10 years ago. 

We found a steep jeep road (with considerable downfall) down the ridge, then followed switchbacks into the canyon, ending up just a mile upstream from our first camp and completing our White Clouds circuit.  (Cannady said the roads from Railroad Ridge go to patented mining claims on private land).

Is wilderness status drawing more White Clouds visitors? Cannady said there’s anecdotal evidence more people came in 2016 (the Act was passed in late 2015); but also record numbers visited Sawtooth Lake, Fourth of July Lake, Railroad Ridge and other well-known areas last August; most likely to view the total solar eclipse.

“The (Idaho) wilderness act got a lot of publicity because it was sponsored by a Republican Senator and passed by a Republican Congress,” Cannady noted. “I call it the ‘new car effect.’ A few people will come and check it out, then the new car smell will wear off.”

From our anecdotal evidence, neighbors from the Northwest are scrambling the White Clouds’ white-walled splendor. We saw minimal use in the upper trailless basins, although trampled trails indicate more visitors to lower lakes. Non-wilderness motorcycle use is staying within bounds; the excellent Livingston-White Castle Trail has minimized environmental impact. Given growing interest in off-trail peak bagging and lake basin hopping, we think the pass routes that still show up on old maps could be cairned and managed for access to keep people (and goats/wildlife) on the same routes and avoid multiple eroded social trails.
White alpine heather among many floral displays.
Romanowski Slate Creek Ranch - our hike up Livingston Creek started on private road by this ranch.
Gunsight Lake-steep scramble up slidy scree and icy snow yielded great view of Gunsight Lake from the pass.
Smoky view of Slide, Cirque and Sapphire lakes at head of Big Boulder Lakes Basin.
Old dorm building near Livingston Mine; miners lived at high altitudes.
Boulder Creek Bridge was welcome sight.
David gazes at Castle Peak.
Cindy on cross-country route across rocky basin.
Cindy fords Livingston Creek.
Younger Cindy makes her way down scree above O’Calkens Lake Basin.
Google Earth KML
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