Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness, 2017

Lake 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.

After thrashing up washed out mining road on Livingston Creek, we now climbed steep slopes above Crater Lake. Slipping on hard icy snow behind David, I made for the rocks, clambering up small boulders towards a flat above. Then the slope was rolling beneath my feet. I scrambled frantically, pulling myself above the rockslide onto safer ground. After that, the final 40-degree crawl up gravel alongside icy chimney seemed quite reasonable. 

The descent to Gunsight Lake was nicer. Other than a fresh hatch of gnats, we had this serene basin all to ourselves, along with Tin Cup Lake over the next rise.

Our seven-day circuit of the White Clouds in Central Idaho was half scrambling steep passes into upper lake basins with some trail/ route segments; and return on good trail and jeep road. The route offered solitude—except for day hikers and two groups doing parts of our ambitious route. On trails we saw more people and moved faster.

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Shown as trail on the Sawtooth and White Clouds Trail Map (Adventure Maps 2015), Livingston Creek is an unmaintained road with downed trees, brush and gravelly floodplains. Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) wilderness ranger Ed Cannady said it was illegally built by a miner in the 1960s and washed out in 1996. It’s not illegal to hike the road but not encouraged as basin is thought to be a lambing area for bighorn sheep.

Gunsight was the steepest of eight passes we crossed on our southbound trek. In 1981 we did much of it in reverse from Fourth of July Creek / Patterson Peak to the head of Big Boulder Basin, crossed pass to O’Calkens Lake, and looped back to Born Lakes. I recall creeping down steep scree to O’Calkens while David bounded past, tugging my backpack with one hand and cradling his aging Brittany spaniel under his other arm (turned out to be her last hike.)

I had mixed feelings about a repeat.

We’d often hiked the White Clouds, David’s favorite mountains since his first visit there as a southern farm boy. But one thing was new in 2017.

The 2015 Idaho Wilderness bill included the Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds, ending a 40-year battle to protect them. This began in 1968, when a molybdenum mine was proposed in  11,815-foot Castle Peak. American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) would blast open the peak and create an open pit mine 7000 feet long, 700 feet wide and 600 feet deep; a two-mile tailings pond for mine waste with a 400-foot dam in Little Boulder Creek and a 10-mile haul road to the East Fork Road.

The project was stopped by the SNRA Act of 1972 which allowed mining but not if it might “substantially impair …natural, scenic, historic, pastoral and fish and wildlife values.” It also prevented new road construction. Although ASARCO had air-transported some prospecting equipment near Baker Lake (where roads and bridge still evident), the Forest Service had delayed road permitting. The SNRA encompassed both Sawtooths and White Clouds but only made Sawtooths wilderness while White Clouds remained Wilderness Study Area due to mining industry resistance. Wilderness was proposed to Congress in 1983, 1986-87 and 1993-94.

Differences we observed from earlier visits were more people on established trails and degraded routes. The stark white ridges and jewel lakes were the same. In the upper reaches of Big Boulder and Boulder Chain basins, we met only day hikers (camped at lower lakes) and two trios of backpackers—one from Washington and the other from Oregon— doing portions of our trailless route. We found some routes to passes or along ridges; not as good as I recalled. Our 3.5-day trailless adventure ended at small lake above Upper Chamberlain Lake and noise from a gaggle of girls in shorts and tanks tops, music blaring, returning from unsuccessful attempt to climb Castle Peak. They ran out of time and turned back; to clamber back over a ridge to camp at Washington Lake. Rain was threatening; hope they made it back ok.

On evening hike around lakes I met an angler and then a cheery young woman striding up trailed by her tired mom and barking dog—latter made camp across the lake from us. Next morning I spotted angler’s tent just above Lower Chamberlain, with a large horse camp on the other side. We spent mellow day on Livingston Mill-Castle Divide Trail ascending by Castle Peak, then slowly descending and traversing below the Boulder Chain basins. On Little Boulder Creek we found a big outfitter camp with several canvas tents; open, clean and ready for summer. We took refuge from noon rain in a tent and cooked a late breakfast. The camp is owned by White Cloud Outfitters; perhaps they packed in the group I saw on Chamberlain Lake. (This permanent camp pre-dates White Clouds Wilderness. Management plan for area simply notes five permitted outfitters and two outfitter camps in the White Clouds. No changes to status quo proposed but plan outlines possible cap on outfitter days; evaluating future use/areas/days against needs and capacity; and temporary outfitter and guide use pools if needed.)

We saw a family spotting for mountain goats on Castle Peak, backpackers we met at Quiet Lake on return loop and two motorcycles that passed us at a creek crossing at wilderness boundary. (Non-wilderness trail portions are open to motorcycles). After junction for trampled trail to Boulder Chain Lakes and two parked motorcycles; we passed green meadows around Frog Lake, ascended undulating trail with views of somber grey ridges above and hills rolling below to the East Fork, and made camp sheltered from showers in a spruce grove by a rivulet.

Next morning was clear and cold; rain had cleared smoky skies. Four backpackers were heading up Big Boulder Trail; I welcomed the bridge across the roaring creek. 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 circled far around Livingston Mill—a dozen miner cabins and a mill originally built in 1924 and rebuilt in 1950—which staffed a lead-silver-zinc mine up Jim Creek below Railroad Ridge from 1882 to periods in the 1920s and 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.

About 24 vehicles at Big Boulder trailhead; pickup trucks mostly from Idaho and horse trailers. Railroad Ridge Road skirted Livingston and two buildings with “TRUMP” painted in large block letters on roofs. A hot steep climb far above  Jim Creek thwarted my dreams of a shady breakfast break. We took obscure fork left while main road wound up the ridge, hearing vehicles above while we contoured into the basin and 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. A steep jeep road with downed trees, not on the map, went down a ridge and switchbacked into Livingston canyon, just a mile upstream from our first camp, completing our White Clouds circuit. (Cannady said the roads 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 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.” We saw a few Northwest neighbors scrambling the White Clouds’ white-walled splendor but fairly minimal use in the upper trailless basins with more local 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.  

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