Adventure

Exploring Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness

Celebrate public lands in Idaho’s new Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness with this comprehensive guide to backpacking Big Boulder Basin.


Idaho has long been known for its potatoes but with well over 7,000 square miles of remote, rugged wilderness, I would argue that its time for a change in reputation. The newest addition to  Idaho’s vast wilderness network is that of the Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness. Made up of three distinct wilderness regions (the Hemingway-Boulders, the White Clouds, and the Jim McClure-Jerry Peak), the greater Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness protects over 431 square miles of. The area was added on August 7, 2015 when Obama signed the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act sponsored by Idaho State Representative Mike Simpson.

Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness

First view of Big Boulder Basin.

In my 22 years of adventures into the mountains around Ketchum ID, I will admit that I have been guilty of neglecting the White Clouds and heading instead to the better known and often easier to access Sawtooth National Forest and Pioneer Mountains. This summer, to celebrate the new wilderness area I decided it was time for some White Cloud exposure, and so, with family in tow we made plans to head into the Big Boulder Basin (BBB) and a weekend in “The Clouds”.

Getting to the trailhead is pretty straightforward.

From Stanley, head north on highway 75 for about 38 miles. You’ll turn right onto East Fork Road where the East Fork of the Salmon joins the main Salmon. The road is entirely paved and you’ll stay on it for 18 miles. Shortly after crossing Big Boulder Creek there will be a Y in the road. Hang a right and head out Big Boulder Creek Road, also marked as road 667. Here the road turns to dirt, and you’ll stay on it for about 4.2 miles before turning left down to the trailhead. There’s a large sign that’ll direct you to the trailhead, so finding it shouldn’t be a problem. The Big Boulder Creek is narrow in places, but isn’t too rough and a high clearance vehicle is definitely not a necessity.

The 6.7 mile trail to Walker Lake (below the BBB and the end of the maintained trail) is incredibly well maintained, offers enough shade to keep you cool hiking if you find yourself hiking in the heat of the day and keeps things inspiring with awesome views most of the way.

Insider tip: In the first 2/3 of a mile it leads you past the abandoned Livingston Mine- providing a cool (if not somewhat eerie) look into Idaho’s mining heritage.

Fishing at Walker Lake in the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness white Sapphire Lake in the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness

Left: Fishing at Walker Lake, Right: Swimming Hole at Sapphire Lake

Wanting to keep things mellow we chose to camp at Walker, but one could definitely make the trip up to the BBB in one push. If camping at Walker, try to snag a spot at the West end of the lake (you will have to cross the inlet to get there). Awesome views, grassy tent spots, prime hammock trees and great fishing abound, plus it will put you closer to rough trail that leads up to the BBB.

Getting to BBB from Walker is technically designated “cross country” since the maintained trail ends at Walker. The upper lakes, which are just over a mile away, are visited frequently enough that a network of Cairns and trails have developed. From the end of Walker, initially stick to the East side of the inlet (if you’ve been following the trail you won’t have to cross the stream to do so), following it upstream till you run into a few Cairns and an obvious crossing point. Cross the creek, and follow a rough trail network heading West. Eventually you’ll find yourself in a large marshy basin surrounded by steep slopes of scree/boulder fields. You’re aiming for the saddle to the South. Stick to the Southern side as you climb up a ridge following a finger of trees, and you should run into a well establish trail through the scree and boulders that’ll take you directly to the saddle after a short but steep climb.

Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness

Hiking in the White Cloud Wilderness.

From the saddle, pause, take in the view, and if your calves are burning- rejoice! (it’s all downhill, or flat from here). Now comes the fun part… In the BBB there are 6+ lakes with awesome camping potential. Hook Lake is directly below you from the saddle. After a very short descent to Hook, there’s a well-established trail that’ll wind through the Basin’s larger lakes. We camped on the East side of the aptly named Sapphire Lake near the Lake’s North Shore. The site was slightly removed from the lake, off the trail, shaded by White Bark Pines with ample hammock opportunities and boasted 360° awe-inspiring views. Also close by: great swimming (for those that are aspiring polar-plungers or are very cold-water tolerant), awesome fly-fishing and lots of opportunities for further exploration. Best part: the insanely aesthetic and shockingly white limestone of David O. Lee peak towering above camp… It’s one of the few peaks over 10,000ft in the White Clouds, and a prime example of the white limestone peaks that inspired the range’s name.

If you’re looking for a little extra adventure, the summit of D.O. Lee peak is easily accessed from the BBB via the North Ridge and makes for an awesome day trip. If the summits of aesthetic peaks are your cup of tea here’s some summit beta: Cruise up to Cirque Lake (the highest of the BBB Lakes) from wherever you’ve set up camp. From here, just aim for the obvious saddle to the North of D.O. Lee. We stuck to the South side of Cirque Lake before scrambling up a short boulder field to gain a slight grassy ridge. We followed the ridge north until it melded into the hillside, and then traversed the steep scree field heading west till we reached the saddle. Once on the saddle, the trail to the summit makes itself obvious. It looks intimidating from here, but don’t worry, it is a lot mellower than it looks. The first 2/3rds of the ridge are cruiser class 2, with the last 150ft or so steepening up and entering the realm of easy 3rd class scrambling. When we were there in late July there was zero snow up high on the peak, however, earlier in the summer snow lingers up high and would definitely spice up that last stretch. Be sure to soak in the views, and be on the lookout for mountain goats while you’re up there.

Essential Gear for backpacking Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness:

ENO Hammocks 
My personal favorite lightweight hammock for all variety backcountry adventures. No better place to read, nap, hangout. Definitely beats the ground.

Water Filter- Platypus 3L Gravity Works
I hate pumping water… when traveling along or in a group of two I reach for the steripen, but when out with a larger group I’m convinced the Platypus Gravity Works is the only way to go… We brought the 3L version and (as always) were incredibly stoked on how efficient, easy and pain free it made filtering large volumes of water. Best part? No pumping!

Fishing below camp at Sapphire Lake with a Tenkara Rod in the Boulder White Cloud Wilderness.

Fishing below camp at Sapphire Lake with a Tenkara Rod. 

Tenkara Rod Co Fly Rod
While the fish weren’t large (unless you ask my dad, who claims to have been catching 2 foot long trout all weekend), we caught (and released) a lot of smaller guys and had a blast doing so. Definitely not a bad way to spend an evening.

Jetboil
From hot drinks/cereal in the morning to freeze dried meals at night the Jetboil absolutely kills it. Fast, light, efficient.

Justin’s Nut Butter
Small packets of Justin’s Honey Almond butter are my go to on any and all trips into the backcountry. Delicious on their own, or on a tortilla with a handful of granola.

Hiking up D.O. Lee with a Cotopaxi 18L Luzon in the Boulder White Cloud Wilderness. white Hiking up D.O. Lee in the Boulder White Cloud Wilderness.

Hiking up D.O. Lee with a Cotopaxi 18L Luzon.

Cotopaxi 18L Luzon
The Luzon absolutely killed it as our daypack on the trip up D.O. Lee. Held a 3L bladder, 2 shells, 2 R1s, 2 down vests and the day’s fuel comfortably and with room to spare.

Map- Customized Topo from Hillmap.com
My favorite adventure partner recently shared this amazing website/resource, and it has been a total game changer… To say that I’ve become obsessed it pretty accurate. Map your route, and it will give you mileage and vert estimates. I’ve become a huge fan of printing my routes out + bringing them along.

Insider tip: If you’re looking for an awesome treat (arguably the best way to refuel after a big trip in the backcountry) and headed south on 75 toward Ketchum, definitely stop by Smiley Creek Lodge for what will likely be the best milkshake you’ve ever had…


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