Beyond the White Clouds

What the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness Means to Me

A collection of photo essays from our Facebook friends

Summer was going by way too fast. Our week long backpacking trip to Chamberlain Basin in the White Clouds wasn't going to happen this summer, but we did have time for a day-hike.

Years ago, I had ridden horse back to Champion Lakes. It was only an overnight trip, but I remembered how beautiful it was and how good those lake trout tasted. Fast forward to just six years ago, I accompanied a group of ladies on day hikes to 4th of July Lake and Washington Lakes and was reminded of what I'd been missing those years in between my last visit. Since then, I've been back with friends for more exploring and enjoying this amazing area that doesn't get as many visitors as its more famous neighbor, the Sawtooth Mountains.

[Courtesy Shari Hart]
Antz Basin going towards Born Lakes [Courtesy Shari Hart]

A brother of mine and I hadn't spent much time together since we graduated from high school over forty years ago. His career took him to places far away from where we grew up. So, what better way to visit and get reacquainted than to go spend some time in the newly declared Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness Area? He'd heard my stories hiking to 4th of July Lake, Washington Lake and over into Antz Basin, so we chose that hike in lieu of our extended backpacking trip to Chamberlain Basin. His oldest son, who has his doctorate in geology, accompanied us on our trip.

All my stories of how magnificent the White Clouds were, did not prepare either one of them for the stunning views and vista that we saw. My nephew was totally intrigued with rock formations and when asked, gave us a little insight to geological processes that might have happened during the past several million years.

Upon reaching the saddle of Antz Basin on our return trip, we paused at the sign that told of the newly established wilderness area and were grateful that the area is protected and will remain much as it is today for generations to come. Next year, Chamberlain Basin.

 [Courtesy Shari Hart]
My brother and his son at Born Lakes [Courtesy Shari Hart]

How I envy Lewis and Clark and the many great explorers of “The West” -- John Colter, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, to name a few.  How I so wish I could have seen what they saw over two hundred years ago.  Land that was virtually untouched and well preserved, thanks to the native tribes who were great stewards of the land.  With great visionaries such as Teddy Roosevelt and important naturalists such as John Muir, we have continued on a path to preserve our precious resources.  If it wasn’t for William Henry Jackson’s photographs and Thomas Moran’s paintings of Yellowstone, Ulysses S Grant may not have set aside Yellowstone as a national park.  In more modern times it was Ansel Adams who brought National Parks into our homes with his stunning photographs.  His persistence in environmental preservation and the creation of the Sierra Club set off a wave to preserve some of the best known landscapes in the West.

 [Courtesy Dan King]
The Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness [Courtesy Dan King]

Today we continue to set aside lands that will be preserved for the enjoyment of many who will follow us.  Just as there was considerable opposition to the creation of national parks, there is an opposition against the creation of “Wilderness” areas.  Personally, I am grateful for those who felt so strongly about preservation that they dedicated their entire lives to the cause.  I derive some of my greatest pleasures by visiting these special places time and time again.  With the creation of the Boulder White Clouds Wilderness we have preserved some of Idaho’s most beautiful country for years to come.

Just this past summer I was fortunate to join the crew of Outdoor Idaho in Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness as they were filming their upcoming episode of “Beyond the White Clouds.”  One of our main objectives was to summit Ryan Peak in the heart of the Wilderness.  As we stood at the saddle, well below the summit, all nine of us came up with the consensus that there was no consensus on how to get to the top.  A few chose to chase after a solitary mountain goat for a photo opportunity, and the others, well let’s just say they headed off on their own path, like the explorers of the past.  Eventually we all made it to the summit with a tale to tell.  As I stood on the summit of Ryan Peak, the second highest peak in the Boulder White Clouds Wilderness, only one hundred feet lower than the majestic Castle Peak, I gazed out over the vast Wilderness for several minutes.  It was only then that I realized that I no longer needed to be envious of the early explorers, for the view I was seeing was exactly the same view they witnessed two hundred years ago.

 [Courtesy Dan King]
The Summit of Ryan Peak [Courtesy Dan King]

The designation of the Boulder-White Clouds as Wilderness cuts deeply. It means loss because it has been taken away for what could be forever. The area, newly off limits to many user groups, was already mostly protected from development. Looking back at my own photos from 2015, listening to “old-timers” stories and seeing vintage video reminds me how lucky I was to have had the opportunity to criss-cross the area, from Bowery Guard station over Castle Divide and back under my own power in one day, on my bicycle. The ride from 4th of July through Antz Basin across the breathtaking meadows of Martin Creek to end at the bottom of Big Casino to soak for a few minutes in the Salmon.

 [Courtesy Jon Dunn]
Sunset: Our Last Ride on Castle Divide [Courtesy Jon Dunn]

The backcountry trail systems are in constant need of maintenance, the wind-blown snags are so many in number they are hard to keep up with using modern tools and motorcycles.  The hikers now have what they wanted, it is only open to them.  I do hope they can keep up with the system, but I fear they will not.  As with other Wilderness areas I’ve spent time in around Idaho, Montana and Oregon I suspect the trails become more and more overgrown.  Detours around the multitude of snags will cause damage to native vegetation, erosion will win out where it can and the Earth will reclaim the land.  The weekend prior to signing I was lucky enough to cover terrain that only the most determined riders can navigate, sometimes carrying my bicycle. I hope that one day I can ride some of this great backcountry area with my kids and that other user groups will regain access to portions of this lost gem.

 [Courtesy Jon Dunn]
Boorn Lake in the Amphitheater of Serrate Ridge and Castle Peak
[Courtesy Jon Dunn]

Idaho is full of amazing wilderness terrain, so why are the White Clouds so special? Rugged peaks, alpine lakes, and wildflower filled meadows can be found in several Idaho mountain ranges. But there’s just something about the White Clouds that takes that combination to a totally different level. To me there is no better place to go hiking, backpacking, or mountain climbing.

 [Courtesy Dave Pahlas]
Big Boulder Lakes from White Cloud Peak #9
[Courtesy Dave Pahlas]

The White Clouds are home to the densest population of alpine lakes in Idaho. No other range in the state has even close to as many lakes above 9,000’ in elevation. If you take these above-treeline lakes, surround them with rugged peaks composed of highly reflective rock, you are left with a combination that creates almost indescribable sunrises and sunsets. To me a combination like this is no accident. It is a setting that gives perspective and appreciation for the intricate design that we are just a small part of.

 [Courtesy Dave Pahlas]
Northern White Cloud Peaks from Calkins Lake
[Courtesy Dave Pahlas]

I’m an Idaho native, born and raised. And somehow, even with the Idaho backcountry as a constant presence in my life, I didn’t venture into the White Clouds for the first time until I was almost 30 years old. But ever since that first trip, I’ve been a total White Cloud addict. There’s just something about being in amongst those big pale peaks that is incredibly therapeutic for a desk jockey like me. Over the past 14 years I’ve been blessed to cover over 400 miles on foot and summit over 60 mountains in this amazingly addictive mountain range. And now thanks to the wilderness designation, I rest easy knowing the area will be preserved for future generations to discover their own White Cloud addiction.

My family and I enjoy backpacking trips into this country where we escape the everyday stresses of the city to enjoy spectacular breathtaking beauty and serenity only found in such places. When I come back to my work and family I'm rejuvenated, more appreciative and grounded in what is really important to me. Keeping up with the Joneses loses its space in my mind while I'm within these incredible places. Knowing that there are places protected from commercial development and natural resource extraction brings happiness to me. Knowing there is an additional 275,000 acres of habitat and intact ecosystem protected for future generations is important to me. To me, the Boulder-White Clouds is a sacred place and even if I was not to utilize it just knowing it exists and is a protected, wild place is important to me.

 [Courtesy Shane Davila]
Baker Lake
[Courtesy Shane Davila]
 [Courtesy Shane Davila]
Castle Lake
[Courtesy Shane Davila]

I had only been in Idaho for about 2 ½ years. I was pretty sure I had made the right decision to take a job with IDFG and live the rest of my life in Idaho.

Late October found a group of us making an elk and deer hunting trip back in to the East fork of the Salmon River. We were going to spend two or three days "back in" looking for some meat for the freezer and maybe some good antlers.

[Courtesy Doug Young]
Favorite Deer and Elk Hunting Country
[Courtesy Doug Young]

Even before we got to the camp we saw whitetails --not Iowa, corn fed whitetails, but whitetails nonetheless. A few more miles up the East fork brought Mule deer into view out in the sagebrush hills. Near the Baker place, a small herd of antelope tried to play chicken with the truck. Later that morning a small bull and cow moose walked across the creek above camp. Nearer to lunch a large black bear decided to watch us from across the East fork near Baker creek while we unpacked our food. So, what is that, five species of big game before 1:00 pm?

"There are some sheep!" Phil said.
"There's a good billy on that steep face below the summit on Sheep Mountain!" Todd said.
"Is that a herd of elk on the edge of that finger of timber?!" I asked.
"Yep." said Todd. "And that bigger bull will go about 380; he is huge!"

As we pulled into camp next to the East fork of the Salmon River, a rarely seen resident padded across the lane and into our headlights. My second such sighting. A very unhurried and very large cat was lit up by the hi-beams and was gone.

The night we returned home, I called my Dad back in Iowa. I had only been away from the Cyclone State for less than three years.

"How was your trip?" my Dad asked.
"Dad, I saw NINE species of big game in one day!”
"Is that a lot?" he asked.
“Dad, I am never coming back.”

[Courtesy Doug Young]
Another Favorite Area for Deer and Elk Hunting
[Courtesy Doug Young]

The summer of 2016 my friend Keith and I went for an expedition right in the heart of the White Cloud Peaks. We left the car on the highest road in Idaho, a dead-end fork at the top that heads south atop a ridge as high as 10,432 ft.

There were no trails, no sign on how to get to these beautiful, amazing White Cloud Peaks, but with one of the greatest Sun Valley Mountain Guides, Keith Anspach, I was in good hands.

Milky Way above the White Clouds Peaks [Courtesy Flaviu Grumazescu]
Milky Way above the White Clouds Peaks.
[Courtesy Flaviu Grumazescu]

We hiked and climbed like mountain goats to get to the camp; after two hours hiking and carrying our heavy backpacks, around evening we found a great spot we could call home for three days. We were surrounded by three amazing alpine lakes, Tin Cup Lake, Dike Lake, and Gunsight Lake.

Our first night at camp, as soon as Keith and I got at camp 9,335 feet, Keith asked me, “hey Flav do you snore?” “Yes, have you ever heard a chainsaw that scratched a chalk board? That’s me.”

Then Keith decided to set his tent up 25 feet from mine so he wouldn't have to hear my snoring. After we were done setting up our tents, Keith cooked us some elk steaks. It was one of the best elk steaks that I have ever had! Soon after dinner we went straight to sleep so we could get up at 4am and start hiking one of the White Cloud Peaks, just to get the best shot of sunrise!

Around Midnight I woke up and went out from my tent; I was amazed at the spectacular view of the Milky Way. I photographed the sky, which was very dark and covered with beautiful stars.

Sunrise White Clouds Peaks. [Courtesy Flaviu Grumazescu]
Sunrise White Clouds Peaks.
[Courtesy Flaviu Grumazescu]

Next day we woke up and we left our camp at 4:00 am to begin climbing one of the White Cloud Peaks at 11,255 ft. It was not easy, but it was worth it. We reached the peak around 5:45am! Keith told me that I would witness the most amazing view and sunrise I ever photographed so far. Here is how it looks: an amazing view and a sunrise from 11,255ft above sea level.

The one on the right side is Tin Cup Lake where our base camp was; on the left side, close to the Chinese Wall, is Dike Lake; further on the left side is Gunsight Lake, close to Gunsight Peak.

The White Clouds Wilderness… what an amazing place on earth!

After a short hike along a stream, past the crowds and along the well-used trail, the landscape abruptly opened into one of the most incredible scenes I had experienced: The Boulder-White Clouds. As a more remote area of Idaho, it supplied us with the less visited mountains, lakes, and streams we had been searching for. Although somewhat controversial throughout its establishment, I immediately felt an intense sense of gratitude overtake me - I was privileged to experience a fraction of what was protected for future generations.

Scattered old, gnarled trees-part of the beauty in high elevation hikes. [Courtesy Margaret Harings]
Scattered old, gnarled trees-part of the beauty
in high elevation hikes. [Courtesy Margaret Harings]

Storm clouds circled us throughout the day, threatening cold rain. [Courtesy Margaret Harings]
Storm clouds circled us throughout the day,
threatening cold rain. [Courtesy Margaret Harings]

The creation of the Boulder-White cloud wilderness has little impact on how I have experienced the area in the last 25 years, however, it will have a profound impact on how my children and my children’s children will interact with nature.

Preserving portions of Idaho’s great landscape is a lasting investment in the way future generations can appreciate our earth and what true nature has to offer our peace of mind as humans.

We are one of few countries in the world with the resources and interest to preserve land and find ways to use the land without degrading it.

Swimm Lake, Idaho [Courtesy Steve Kurka]
Swimm Lake July 25, 2015 - It appears few to no visits to the lake since
the valley fire in 2005, wild as can be. [Courtesy Steve Kurka]

From the first time I unintentionally cliff climbed down into Tin-cup lake from Livingston mill in the early 1990’s to week long backpacking trips into the big boulder lakes and boulder lakes, to a recent visit to Swimm lake, the area holds not only memories, but a desire to continue to return to experience what this small, mostly untouched, area of our world has to offer.

The natural wild areas we preserve, teaches future generations the visible importance of conservation - but only if we take them there to experience it.

Westslope cutthroat [Courtesy Steve Kurka]
Westslope cutthroat, Sheep Lake August 1994.
[Courtesy Steve Kurka]

On Sunday August 9, 2015 a group of ten of us entered the White Clouds Wilderness Area just above Chamberlin Basin with Castle Peak in the background. It had been a Wilderness Area for only two days. On Friday August 7th, President Obama signed into law the bill creating the three new wilderness areas in central Idaho. This was my second extended trip into the heart of the White Clouds. However, this trip took on a very distinctive and emotional importance for me knowing how this special place is now forever protected for generations to come.

White Clouds Wilderness - Chamberlin Basin and Castle Peak.[Courtesy Nils Ribi]
White Clouds Wilderness - Chamberlin Basin and Castle Peak.
[Courtesy Nils Ribi]

I spent the next seven days photographing a great group of Idaho Conservation League volunteers as we covered nearly 65 miles on foot in the area removing downed trees from the trails with a crosscut saw, fixing water bars, improving the tread, cleaning fire rings and enjoying a true wilderness experience. These efforts to keep public trails open and in excellent shape are organized by the Idaho Trails Association. The trip was capped one evening at the base of Castle Peak when we were joined for dinner and a bottle of celebratory champagne by one of the real heroes who worked tirelessly for nearly 30 years to make the Boulders and White Clouds Wilderness Bill happen, ICL’s Executive Director, Rick Johnson. Rick flew back from Washington D.C. after witnessing the signing ceremony in the Oval Office with President Obama and then hiked all the way in just to be with us just four days later! I still get a tear in my eye when I think about how great it is that everything has come full circle.

Castle Peak reflects at sunset. [Courtesy Nils Ribi]
Castle Peak reflects at sunset.
[Courtesy Nils Ribi]

You have to work for it! That pretty much sums up the White Clouds, Boulders wilderness areas. Be ready for elevation gains, but the rewards are outstanding.

My first back country experience was backpacking into the White Clouds in 1981. In three days we saw three other people. The White Clouds get more use now, but few other places provide the solitude along with breathtaking scenery that can be found there. Oh, and the fishing is great, too!

[Courtesy Rick Gerrard]

[Courtesy Rick Gerrard]

If you really want to leave people behind, the Hemingway/Boulders are for you. I was fortunate enough to spend four days there this summer and we saw only three other people, at the saddle between West Pass Creek and the North Fork of the Big Wood River.

The Boulders really represent “wilderness”. It isn’t easy finding your way around, but there are surprises to be found everywhere. Did you know that lupine is fragrant? I didn’t, and it’s my favorite wildflower. A massive field of lupine helped us on our climb to the summit of Ryan Peak (11,714’). When we started working our way up the scree through the lupine, I sensed a wonderful perfume. It took me a few minutes to realize it couldn’t be anything other than the lupine. Because the flowers were so dense and our faces were right in the lupine because of the steepness of the slope we were climbing, the fragrance filled our noses. A sublimely subtle smell!

[Courtesy Rick Gerrard]

[Courtesy Rick Gerrard]

Did I mention Ryan Peak? Well, the hike to the summit was serious work, but the reward was one of the most remarkable views to be found anywhere. From that narrow, rocky perch we could see nearly every mountain range in south central Idaho. Wow!

Yes, you have to work for it. But, whether it’s the White Clouds, Big Horn Crags or the Sawtooth Mountains, time spent in the wilderness is always rejuvenating and provides memories that enrich my life and enhance my wellbeing. Get out there and collect some memories of your own!

The Boulder-White Cloud wilderness holds a special place in my achievement archives. Six years ago due to physical and mental obstacles, the thought of a hike into any area was never an option. As the saying "Those at the top of the mountain didn't fall there" goes, I climbed and climbed with my son, husband and dog up Fourth of July Creek trailhead…destination Born Lakes to camp. I got to experience the best cut-throat fishing in my life, saw pikas for the first time, spent hours enjoying my family who never expected to see me alive again after my obstacle and being able to live this outdoor experience I had always loved but had been unable to do for a time. It was a perfect hike on well-maintained trails that were well marked and other hikers were courteous and kind, because, they too, had their own stories of accomplishment! I will continue to climb farther and higher time and time again in this "one-of-a-kind" wilderness area and be able to share it with my grandchildren soon.

White Clouds Wilderness - Chamberlin Basin and Castle Peak.[Courtesy Nancy Chocker]

[Courtesy Nancy Chocker]
[Courtesy Nancy Chocker]

[Courtesy Nancy Chocker]

Maybe it’s just the way it’s played out in my own life, but the difference for me between the Sawtooths and the Boulder-White Clouds is the difference between my teenage years and adulthood. I was all through the Sawtooth wildness as a kid in the 1960’s. The trails were fairly well developed and even the geology -- a product of snow and ice creating those jagged saw teeth – made some sense. I cut my own teeth on the Sawtooths.

Standing on a ridge in front of Castle Peak. [Courtesy Bruce Reichert]
Standing on a ridge in front of Castle Peak.
[Courtesy PeterMorrill]

The White Clouds… well, they were much less obvious; they required a certain maturing on my part to begin to care about them. And that geology… my God, what is that all about?!

It’s one of the reasons I so appreciate the men and women who fought to keep Castle Peak inviolate back in the 1960’s. You can’t even see Castle Peak from any major road in the state. How did they even know to protect it from an open pit molybdenum mine at its base? How did they get others to care about something you can’t even see without great difficulty? But I do know just enough Idaho history to appreciate that the battle to “save” Castle Peak resulted in some really nice things ultimately happening to this state I call home.

Over the years I have been fortunate to journey to the White Clouds and the Boulders with a group of friends and colleagues carrying HD video cameras and fancy DSLR cameras, to document what makes this landscape so special. Through their eyes, and through a handful of personal trips, I have come to appreciate even more what central Idaho has to offer.

But I’m still trying to get my head around that geology!

Castle Peak and Merriam Peak during fire season. [Courtesy Bruce Reichert]
Castle Peak and Merriam Peak during fire season.
[Courtesy Bruce Reichert]

Climbing down from my viewpoint on Castle Divide, I felt a new appreciation for Castle Peak and the White Cloud mountains' importance to Idaho. Magnificent terrain, beautiful lakes, and superb mountain beauty. This place has it all for those willing to challenge themselves against its rugged land.

But, there was one more thing I needed to track down. Moving off the trail, my friend and I hiked across the alpine landscape, to a wildflower-covered meadow at the base of the fabled Castle Peak. Today, this spot stands as a reminder, a testament to what might have been.

White Clouds Wilderness - Chamberlin Basin and Castle Peak.[Courtesy By Peter Morrill]
Meadow and Castle Peak
[Courtesy By Peter Morrill]

A half century ago, this was ground-zero for Idaho’s greatest environmental battle: whether to allow the Arizona-based mining company, ASARCO, to build an open-pit mine on a valid claim at the base of Castle Peak. This epic showdown tested the soul of a state that had been settled by miners one hundred years earlier.

The mine didn’t happen, in part because of the hard work of impassioned volunteers like Ernie Day and Jan Boles, backed by skilled political leaders like Senator Frank Church and Representative Orval Hansen. The controversy also spurred the creation of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA), helped galvanize public support for protecting more of our state’s special places, and propelled Cecil Andrus into the governor’s office.

[Courtesy By Peter Morrill]

[Courtesy By Peter Morrill]

As we walked around the meadow, we found remnants of those turbulent times. Over-grown sections of a mining camp service road bulldozed-up twelve miles from the East Fork of the Salmon River valley floor. A discarded 50 gallon oil drum. A capped drilling hole. Down the hill, an exploratory mine shaft and a nearby stream tinged with what looked like mining waste.

I wondered why these things had not been cleaned-up. Whatever the answer, Castle Peak, this meadow, and its abandoned mining scheme stand as reminders three generations later of what could have happened, and what we would have lost.