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September 2001

Hiking Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains

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.

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