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Backpacker Magazine – September 2001

Hiking Idaho's White Cloud Mountains

Head to the White Cloud Mountains for a crowd-free taste of Idaho high country.

by: Amanda Breen

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Some mountain ranges let you know what to expect by their name alone. Consider the Granite Mountains of Arizona, for instance. The White Cloud Peaks follow suit, with their row of massive white limestone peaks that touch the clouds in the Idaho sky.

Despite their impressive size, these peaks keep a relatively low profile. The White Clouds' more glamorous neighbor, the Sawtooth Range, takes the lion's share of central Idaho hikers. Meanwhile, lonely White Cloud hikers enjoy a 20-mile-long spine of precipitous ridges and summits, snowmelt lakes, lush alpine meadows, and enough drop-dead views to make you feel like your head is in the clouds.

My favorite corner of the White Cloud Peaks is a little family of three blue-green lakes collectively called the Champion Lakes. Tucked under the west face of 10,519-foot Washington Peak, the lakes area gets even less human traffic than the rest of the range. Nonhuman traffic includes the occasional mountain goat or black bear.

There are two ways to reach Champion Lakes, and on my first trip, I chose the wrong one. Instead of taking the wooded, creekside trail that follows Champion Creek for 8 pleasant miles, I was lured by a shortcut out of Pole Creek. Like many shortcuts, this one wasn't. (Forest Service officials now plan to abolish the steep, scree-covered trail I followed.)

Once I reached the secluded cirque, however, all memories of the not-so-short shortcut faded. After setting up camp at the uppermost of the Champion Lakes, my companions and I ascended to the shoulder of Washington Peak. From there, we could descend into Washington Basin to visit abandoned mines, pick our way along a knife-edge ridge to the summit of Washington Peak, or spend a relaxing afternoon just marveling at 11,815-foot Castle Peak, the most prominent and striking summit in the range. Just remember that thunderstorms frequent these peaks, so be sure to keep an eye on the clouds.


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Lynne Stone
Oct 04, 2009

I'd say that any time is a good time to visit Champion Lakes. You might run into Boy Scouts, you might run into the outfitter that has a camp and sometimes a lot of horses or mules there. But, there are plenty of places to get away from people. Going in the fall means the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting really cold, and you miss out on all the wildflowers.

Backpacker Mag - you might contact me about writing of places to go in the White Clouds. See our website: http://wildwhiteclouds.org

Thanks - Lynne K. Stone, Director, Boulder-White Clouds Council.

Lynne Stone
Oct 04, 2009

The USFS has not removed the shorter, steep trail into Champion Lakes basin from Pole Creek road. It's still the preferred route, because the trail up Champion Creek drainage is a long slog for hikers. The 2005 Valley Road fire burned much of the Champion Creek canyon.

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