Backpacking the White Clouds Peaks Loop

  • Post by Adam Driscoll
  • Jul 20, 2020
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Our anniversary was the beginning of this week so we decided to take a long planned backpacking trip to the White Clouds Wilderness near Stanley, Idaho. It was an amazing couple of days and we saw some of the best views we’ve seen in Idaho.

We had planned to take this hike easy. Our honeymoon hike was a long slog so we wanted to have shorter days. I’m still recovering from shoulder surgery and this was the most hiking I had done in over a year. Originally we had set on 6 days and 5 nights but ended with one less.

We heard of people doing this hike in as little as two days but there’s no need and you should definitely enjoy the views.

We did this hike between July 16th and July 20th of 2020.

Trailhead

To reach the trailhead for the White Clouds Peaks Loop, you need to drive down Fourth of July Creek Road for about ten miles off of Highway 75. The road was freshly graded. There were some large rocks but we could easily avoid them in our Subaru. It took about 40 minutes to reach the parking lot from the road. The parking lot was almost full when we arrived there around noon.

Day 1 - Trailhead to Washington Lake

🕕 3.16 Miles and 1:16 moving time

Our first planned camp site was Washington Lake. We wanted an easy hike in since we were starting late. On our way to our campsite, we first stopped at Fourth of July Lake. This lake has a dramatic backdrop of our first set of mountains. We were already impressed. It was busy with day hikers, photographers and fishermen.

We continued onto Washington Lake. The hike is easy with minimal climbing. There are plenty of campsites at this lake. There were about four other groups camping here while we were there so don’t expect privacy this time of year.

The campsite had a fire pit, fabricated benches, flat spots for a tent and easy access to the lake. There were plenty of mosquitoes in the evening so come prepared.

Unfortunately, one of the groups near us brought their guitar, horrible singing voices and plenty of alcohol so we were serenaded until at least midnight. We work up, made breakfast and were on the trail by about 10 AM the next morning.

Day 2 - Washington Lake to Chamberlain Lake

🕕 6.03 Miles and 2:21 moving time

Our next hike took us down a steady decent through a burned area of trees. It was easy walking and we saw few hikers. The view was pretty good and we got to see a lot of the surrounding area.

After descending down about 700 ft over 2 miles you’ll start you gradual climb into the next basin. The climb wraps around the outside of the range that was the backdrop during our Washington Lake stay. Again, you’re primarily in a burned area with a good view of the surrounding mountains.

There is one steep climb just before reaching the ridge. Once you summit there is a fantastic view of Castle Peak. You will see a lot of this mountain and it is well worth it from every angle.

After descending down from the ridge, you’ll take an easy hike through the forest and past a few lakes. Eventually, you’ll come to Chamberlain Lake. It’s set dramatically at the base of Castle Peak. There are plenty of campsites. We decided to take a site on the eastern side of the lake away from the other sites. We had our own secluded beach and private tent spot.

We had some company at this campsite as well but there were much quieter. Also, since our campsite was in the woods and near the water we expected to have some mosquitoes but with some gentle wind, we didn’t find it buggy. This campsite did not have a fire pit.

We spent the afternoon reading and dipping in the lake.

Day 2 - Day Hike - Upper Chamberlain Lake

🕕 2.10 Miles and 0:55 moving time

We had talked to another group about Upper Chamberlain Lake and decided to go and check it out after dinner. It was amazingly beautiful. We climbed north on a trail that winds through the woods and along a very beautiful stream. We passed a horse camp with one of the most breathtaking views.

We then continue up the stream past several small ponds and eventually to the lake. Men from the horse camp were fishing the banks. It was a magical scene. We discussed how it had to be one of the most beautiful places we had been.

This was the first time we encountered the guides from the horse camp. We saw them a bunch of times during our hike.

A quick note that there is also a campsite near the horse camp. It’s right off the trail and looks directly at Castle Peak.

Day 3 - Chamberlain Lake to Baker Lake

🕕 6.92 Miles and 2:46 moving time

We started around the same time after breakfast and started making our way towards our next destination. Baker Laker is situated past Castle Lake and south of the Boulder Chain Lakes. We considered skipping Baker and moving onto Boulder Chain Lakes after hearing that Baker was very buggy. I’m so glad we didn’t.

The ascent was easier and less taxing than we thought it would be and the views from the top of the climb were amazing. We ran into our horse camp guide buddies as they were making their way Castle Lake to drop off their clients for some fishing.

The descent down from the ridge was steep at times and you lose a lot of elevation. You have a fantastic view for the first half.

Baker Lake is situated a half of a mile off of main trail. You have to do some river hopping and a little bit of climbing but the campsite was perfect.

We encountered mining trash and old buildings that we later found out were part of a mining operation right by the lake. Right before picking our campsite we found an old bridge that we decided we needed to see where it went.

The campsite wasn’t as buggy as advertised and had a large fire pit and benches. We had some horse, hiker and fishermen traffic but it wasn’t busy at all. We saw our horse camp guides again.

Day 3 - Day Hike - Baker Lake to Castle Lake

🕕 3.68 Miles and 1:48 moving time

We didn’t really know that we were headed to Castle Lake when we left but we did end up there. The old bridge led to an old, and very steep road, that led pretty much back up the mountain we just walked down. I am very suborn and had determined that I wanted to go to Castle Lake since it was clear that’s where the road was headed.

Sarah continued to follow me and after enough climbing we made a turn and found an old house. It sits perched above the land below and looks over Castle Peak and the surrounding area. It’s still in pretty good shape and, according to a local, is housing for the mining operation that used to work up there. We did find the mine as well.

After scrambling up some very steep and sandy slopes, we ran into a group of horses tided to some trees. To our right, we could see a scree field with an obvious trail that climbed to Castle Lake (I’m running Gaia on my phone so can see kinda where we are headed).

Sarah convinced me to climb the trail. I stopped once or twice to second guess what I was doing but we made it successfully up to Castle Lake. It was another fantastically beautiful place. There was a family fishing along the shore and we talked to a local that told us about the mining operation and about other lakes that were his favorite. He said this was the busiest he had ever seen the area.

We walked around the lake and Sarah went for a swim. It was hard to leave but we were out of water and had to walk the 2 mile, 1,200 descent back to our camp ground.

We made dinner and I sat on the old bridge and watched the sun go down. It was perfect.

Day 4 - Baker Lake to Boulder Chain Lakes

🕕 5.52 Miles and 2:24 moving time

Our next day would bring us around another range into the Boulder Chain Lakes basin. This basin has a series of lakes that run the length of the region. The beginning of the hike takes you down from Baker Lake to a dirt bike trail that heads north to the next trail for the lakes. You will actually leave the wilderness area. We encountered a few dirt bikes and some mountain bikers on this trail.

After climbing the trail, you encounter the wilderness area again and enter the basin. There is a lake right away. Each of these lakes was very beautiful and surrounded by mountains. There are plenty of campsites along the way and you could stay at any one.

We decided that we wanted to climb to the upper lakes so that we would have less climbing to do in the morning as the next day we would be going over the pass and down the Devil’s Staircase.

The climb was difficult and I was tired from lack of sleep the night before so it felt like to took awhile to get to the top shelf that holds the upper lakes. Once you reach the upper lakes, you are presented with an amazing view.

We made our way past the first couple of lakes and found a campsite that was near Hummock Lake. We had a panoramic view of the entire range from the site and near the water. It was absolutely amazing.

Getting near the water is tricky because there is very, very fragile plants growing everywhere around this campsite. It’s like walking on a sponge when you step in the wrong spot so you have to skip from rock to rock to avoid damaging everything.

Our campsite had a very large fire pit and plenty of space for 5 tents. We setup shop and I took a nap while Sarah read.

NOTE: Although this campsite was amazingly beautiful, the mosquitoes were horrible. Be prepared.

Day 4 - Day Hike - Upper Lakes

🕕 1.56 Miles and 0:48 moving time

Knowing that we had to climb over the pass and down the other side we kinda wanted to take a peek at what we were dealing with. We also wanted to check out the upper lakes in the area. We walked further down the trail and up the slope we’d be climbing the next day.

This spot had a very good view down onto the valley below and the surrounding mountains.

I went and checked out the ascent to the Windy Devil and Sarah took a swim in the lake. We eventually made our way over to Hidden Lake to check it out and find fire wood.

Day 5 - Boulder Chain Lakes to Trailhead

🕕 7.56 Miles and 3:23 moving time

We didn’t actually plan to head out on Day 5. We planned to stay at the Bourne Lakes that are over the Devil’s Staircase pass. I was already feeling pretty ready for a beer but after making our way down the staircase, I decided I was ready to head to Smiley Creek Lodge.

The climb up to the upper lakes and even the Windy Devil were relatively uneventful. There was snow on the ascent to Windy Devil so you have to be careful at what time of year you do this. It was mid-July and we still had to post hole a little bit.

On top of the Windy Devil, you have a good view of the valleys around you and also another view of Castle Peak. It was early in the day so the light wasn’t great but it was awesome to see the giant again.

We pretty much immediately lost the trail on top of the Windy Devil but saw the ascent to the Devil’s Staircase across the the way. We rock hopped our way over. As we approached the ascent, we saw another hiker and she seemed in good spirits and the ascent seemed really tame.

We had heard of other people turning around when attempting the staircase but we figured they were just scared of heights. We were pretty wrong.

Once ascending the pass, we spent some time taking pictures. There was a very gentle trail so we figured the backside would be just the same. It was an amazing view. You could see the Sawtooth Range as well as a bunch of the White Clouds.

Devil’s Staircase

After our photo-op, we started to make our decent. From the top it looks like a switch back trail down a steep scree and boulder field. What we found was that it was more of a loose sand and boulder field where you effectively had to slide on your butt or hold on to nearby rocks to avoid sliding too far at once.

The height and steepness didn’t make it easier to stomach going down. It is aptly named the Devil’s Staircase.

We went one at a time as to not drop rocks on the other and very slowly made our way down the staircase. If you decide to attempt this, you need to take it easy. We started out by following the slide paths of other hikers but they weren’t always the greatest. We found it easier to hug the walls so that when you lost you footing (inevitable), at least you were holding onto something. Eventually, you won’t have the rock wall to hold on to any more so you will need to carefully zig zag down the boulder field.

I decided to follow other hikers paths through the finer sand and slide with each step. Sarah decided to try the large boulders but they weren’t stable so she found it to be more difficult to do safely.

We made it down with only a few cuts and our packs damaged a bit but no major injuries. We’re not going to do this part again. We’d love to figure out how to make this loop but in a safer way.

When you get to the bottom, it’s amazing to think that anyone considers going up it. It looks like there is no trail. I marked our route in red. Sarah can be seen at the end of the line.

Here’s a view from further away.

My pack and my knee got banged up a little bit and I decided I was ready to call it. We had about 5 miles after the staircase to the trailhead. Instead of camping in Bourne Lakes, we were going to head home.

The Bourne Lakes are filled with campsites and we saw a couple occupied ones. The lakes were buggy. We continued on to climb up our last ascent of the trip.

I found the climb difficult due to low moral and a beat down body but it really isn’t that bad. You’ll have a great view of the Devil’s Staircase and surrounding mountains when you get to the top.

You finally descend down to Fourth of July Lake and make your way back to the trailhead. We took a dip in the river, changed, made stop at Smiley Creek Lodge for a milkshake and picked up some Wiseguys Pizza on the way home.