Revisit 2019: Obscure paths luring crowds to White Clouds
First the confused couple wandering by our lakeside camp midway up Little Boulder Chain in the White Cloud Wilderness. They were doing the “White Cloud Loop” but weren’t sure they were on the trail. (They were). He thought he might get a map next time.
Next the trail runner couple with chubby dog on 30-mile loop (according to their GPS watches) via slippery Devil’s Staircase route up a chimney near Patterson Peak then on trail down Little Boulder, up a pass near iconic Castle Peak and by Chamberlain and Washington lakes back to Fourth of July Lake terminus). In one day.
(BTW the Staircase route is a “social trail”, which according to Wikipedia is a path aided by erosion from human or animal traffic…often shortest route to destination…where constructed trails are circuitous or nonexistent.)
Next a group of guys on “the loop” who had camped in our favorite (and previously rarely visited) trailless Quiet Lake basin.
But the last straw was being passed by a family of four with dog bouncing down the zig-zag Devil’s Staircase social trail on scree to Born Lakes. They said they came from Bighorn Basin. (From this we surmised they had looped from Fourth of July Lake linking two of our recent routes—one just a couple days before from Bighorn Basin via slippery goat path to pass below David O. Lee Peak and the second over passes between Big and Little Boulder basins we crossed in 2017—then over Windy Devil to overtake us.)
The White Clouds are no longer a local secret.
They became wilderness in 2015—and now are found. “Google” the name and count posts.
David, who grew up on a farm near Jerome, two hours south of Idaho mountains, fished and backpacked in the White Clouds as a teen. In 1975 he hiked with his dog (I was invited but declined) across White Clouds and looped back through Sawtooths. A brother dropped him off at Slate Creek and he hiked to O’Calkens Lake, up Bighorn Basin and over a pass. He recalls following trail all the way. He dropped down Big Boulder Basin, passed Castle Peak and Champion Lakes down to Sawtooth Valley. He saw no one until he hitched a ride on road to Hell Roaring Trailhead into popular Sawtooth Wilderness.
Since then we’ve hiked White Clouds many times—some trips mentioned in my 2017 post (below) which also discussed a 40-year battle to make them wilderness—finally won in 2015.
Ironically, wilderness designation means more people are finding the White Clouds.
Our 2019 trip repeated part of David’s 1975 trek. We hiked to O’Calkens Lake on old legacy trail obliterated in spots by two avalanches after dry winter was followed by unprecedented February heavy snow falling all at once and creating extremely unstable conditions. The trail David followed above O’Calkens and Bighorn Basin was no more—we clambered up goat routes over a pass north of David O. Lee Peak. That night we joined a group of friends camped at Walker Lake at lower end of Big Boulder basin. After a day of hiking back into upper lakes, we continued our loop out of the basin, across on Livingston Mine-Castle Divide Trail (Livingston trail) , up Little Boulder Chain, over Windy Devil Pass, down Warm Springs Creek Trail and up Iron Basin back to O’Calkens.
About 20 people were camped mid-week at Walker; we only saw one camp in lakes above Walker though many peak baggers, anglers and day hikers (three social trails leave Walker Lake for different points of high lakes basin). Hiking down from Walker Friday morning we met about 40 people headed up. Between Big and Little Boulder basins on Livingston trail outside wilderness, we encountered a few backpackers, several mountain bikers and (as we approached Frog Lake and on into Little Boulder Chain Lakes) saw over 50 people (including scout group at Hatchet Lake) either hiking or installed at camps on lower lakes, many huddled around fires as light rain had moved in. We went midway up basin to Lodgepole Lake where we camped in solitude until the first “White Clouds Loopers” next morning.
After the family on “Devil’s Staircase” and weekend campers on Born Lakes, we saw no one from Antz Basin junction on down Warm Springs Creek—a former bike trail closed by wilderness designation. We hiked through an apparently heavily used hunting camp, then two avalanches which will be tough for fall stock to cross—unless Forest Service (FS) or hunters cut out the mess with a cross-cut saw, which FS requires in wilderness. Down canyon we hit edge of 2005 Valley Road Fire which burned Champion Lakes and northwest end of White Clouds. If there was trail sign to O’Calkens Lake, it burned; we wandered up the basin to find steep trail switch-backing up. Few signs of other hikers (except maybe family and dog from Devil’s Staircase); upper reaches of the trail were non-existent on flat areas (where wildlife—primary trail maintainers in remote areas—tend to spread out).
Near top the basin broadened—one end headed west towards a tarn below Watson Peak while our route turned east to the pass above O’Calkens Lake. About 20 bighorn sheep (including several full curl rams) ambled west, walking on a 45-degree scree slope like sidewalk. Leaving them we crossed rolling hills then descended old trail back to the lake where we skirted yet another avalanche. I wonder if anyone will cut out this wonderful old trail.
The crowds found the Sawtooth Wilderness long ago and its system of gentle switch-backing trails built in the 1960s when the FS had recreation budgets. Even those trails are being reduced to dust by stock and hiking overuse in many areas. In the White Clouds, crowds are pushing “social trails” further around every high lake and over the ridges.
David’s memory and old maps indicate there used to be more of a trail system over the ridges. In such a steep, rough scree area, these trails fade away unless wildlife continually use. To manage increased off-trail use, a few well-signed, lightly maintained routes could offset trend towards spaghetti-network social trails, reduce erosion and improve safety (e.g. we stopped for about 15 minutes on Devil’s Staircase until family that passed us reached bottom; we did not want to injure someone below with inevitable rolling rocks). But In today’s era of few trail crews, volunteers with light hand saws and a “wilderness protection” management ethic that tends to close (instead of improve) trails and campsites in poor condition, we doubt this will happen.
Lake Circuit 2017: 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.
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. Recently retired 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.
(Click box in upper right-hand corner of map to enlarge map and see legend; click down arrow at left of description to see full narrative & map NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS)