Hiking Idaho's White Cloud Mountains

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

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.

Expedition Planner: White Cloud Mountains, ID

DRIVE TIME: The White Cloud Peaks are in central Idaho, about 2 1/2 hours (140 miles) east of Boise.

THE WAY: From Boise, take ID 21 east to the town of Stanley. Then take ID 75 south for about 15 miles to Fourth of July Creek Road (Forest Service Road 209) and go east for 5 miles to the signed trailhead for Champion Lakes.

TRAILS: The 8-mile Champion Creek Trail is the best way to reach the lakes (don't be tempted by the apparent shortcut via Pole Creek). The Champion Creek Trail connects with the Washington Creek Trail. Add 5 miles to the hike by continuing over the shoulder of Washington Peak and into Washington Basin.

DAYHIKE: For a 3 1/2-mile hike to Fourth of July Lake, continue on Fourth of July Creek Road about 5 miles to the trailhead. Other dayhikes include Boulder Chain Lakes and Castle Peak.

ELEVATION: The Champion Lakes trailhead lies at 8,250 feet and Washington Peak tops out at 10,519 feet.

CAN'T MISS: The view of Castle Peak from most high ridges and peaks in the area.

CROWD CONTROL: This area is a proposed wilderness and closed to mechanized vehicles. Go in early fall for the best chance of complete solitude and good weather. Avoid Champion Lakes in the summer, when it's a popular destination for Boy Scout troops.

GUIDES:Idaho: A Climbing Guide: Climbs, Scrambles, and Hikes,

by Tom Lopez (The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453; www.backpacker.com/bookstore; $35), has good information on nontechnical ascents of peaks in the White Clouds. USGS 7.5-minute topo maps Washington Peak and Horton Peak (888-ASK-USGS; http://ask.usgs.gov; $4 each).

WALK SOFTLY: On the high ridges and peaks in the White Clouds, the rock can be fragile.

CONTACT: Sawtooth National Recreation Area, (208) 727-5000; www.northrim.net/sawtoothnf/index1.htm.