This is my favorite hike ever. It is the Beatles of hiking, the Yankees of vistas, the god damn Micheal Jordan of “holy balls, am I in Middle-Earth?” It offers incredible solitude, an unbelievable view of 4 of Idaho’s tallest, and climbable, peaks, including two of the most photographed mountains in Idaho, Merriam and Castle Peak- and you cannot see any of them from the road. Seriously, and I don’t say seriously often, this hike is quite possibly the epitome of Idaho and USA backcountry. One photograph, taken by Earnie Day, of Merriam and Castle Peaks is what convinced congress in 1972, to stop mining plans, and eternally preserve a large swath of land in central Idaho for the world to enjoy, and add to the largest roadless area in the lower 48. You want greatness? You hike this. You find greatness, and leave all other hikes lacking.
Any number of trails in the White Clouds will leave you breathless, mostly because the environment, but also because they get vertical. Most start in sagebrush steppe, in the drainage waters of the massive heights that tower in all directions, however Castle and Merriam remain out of sight. You can park anywhere off the dirt road. There is enough space for two or three vehicles right at the trailhead.
Head up. Up. More up. The trail switchbacks a lot as you climb up the sagebrush hills. The Red Cliffs become visible to the right as you begin to see which drainage you will be going up. Sign the visitors’ log at the sign. This lets others know who is in your party, how long you plan on staying, and offer some words of wisdom.
The trail is well defined. A mile or so in, you enter the tree line and a creek becomes audible. Take breaks along the creek side and refill on agua if you must. From time to time you may see horse parties traveling up or down. Always get off the trail DOWNHILL from horses. Their natural instinct is to look uphill for attacking predators. You are not a predator… And horses can go apesh*t for what appear to be, well, unapparent reasons. Sudden movements, even colors or certain sounds will set them off. I trust a horse as much I trust squirrels won’t eat my peanut butter. Also, horse people are very… lets say, “parental” about their animals, and they won’t hesitate to give you the “what for.” I have been told before to, “make myself invisible,” by a horsewoman. I turned around, covered my eyes and replied, “like this?” Just try to avoid doing anything that will get you punched in the face by a horse’s foot.
Right, so keep on truckin’. If you think it is a lot of uphill, you are correct. It is 7 miles to the trail fork, and all of it is uphill. Then you get to the fork, and then there is more uphill. But before the fork, the trail levels out and you are in the alpine country. Soon those iconic peaks become visible, and you remember you are a small, gravity-bound misfit in a realm of giants.
At the fork, you can go right or left. Think of this trail like a balloon on a string- one long trail that heads up 7 miles, then the loop is the balloon part. We went right for two reasons: 0ne, the right “side” of the loop is mapped while the left is user created, two, camp sites are closer to the fork if you go right. Later one, we realized this was a great decision. Keep reading and find out why!
The first little lake you come to is Willow. It is ok. Fish are small. Continue past towards Hatchet Lake. This is where we camped for the first night. I fly-fished and caught several 8” trout. They eat anything that slaps the water since feeding season is about two months. The farther you travel up the lakes, the larger the fish get. Boy Scout Troops come here a lot and devastate the fish population, keeping every little guy they pull out. So the farther you travel, the less fish are maliciously harvested.
The next morning we got up early and climbed Hatchet Peak. It is the sole crag that towers above its namesake lake. The climb is fairly straightforward. Go around the left of the lake and start making your way up. It is mostly boulder hopping so carry minimal gear; water, shades, hat (for sun protection), snack, and camera… definitely a camera. Near the top you will see why the lake is named Hatchet, quite a remarkably shaped lake. From the peak you get a 360-degree look at the “balloon” section of the hike. Cardiac peak is to the north (climbable and quite easy as well), the chain lakes climb in elevation in the carved valley to the right, while the ridge that Hatchet Peak belongs to divides the hike in half. To the left are the great peaks of the Boulder White Clouds and the second half of the balloon. This half is more “wild” with jaggedness everywhere, far larger trout, and in general foreign in appearance. This peak takes a good 2-3 hours to climb. Take in the awesomeness, take some pics, and then leave because you have a big day ahead of you.
Continue onwards. You will pass by many lakes. Each of them is unique. Cardiac Peak will pass by you on the right as you climb. The terrain gets more and more incredible. Weather mangled trees hang their awkward branches above boulder filled meadows and clear pocket waters. Stop at the peninsula of Hourglass Lake for a lunch few have enjoyed. I jumped in the water here. See you later testicles. After I regained senses in my extremities I pulled a few beautiful trout out only to marvel at their existence in this rare place. After I let them go we followed the trail ever higher. The lakes continue to astound with their beauty and stillness. We climbed along a waterfall up to Scoop lake where we pitched camp.
The next day pack a day pack with lunch and water and camera. Go off trail uphill towards the peaks where sits a lake by the name of Lonesome at 10,400 ft. Climb higher to one of several peaks named “White Cloud Peaks.” The one above Lonesome Lake is 11,302 ft. Lonesome is deep, and clear. You can probably see down about 30-50 ft before the bottom drops into an eerie abyssal blue. This point gives you a great view back on how you came to be there. It was at this lake that my friends and I were “boulder rolling” and some ground came loose, my friend took a tumble, there was a lot of head blood, and we had to get the f*ck out of Dodge.
I applied a head tunicate made of torn flannel (I know! I ruined a flannel). We hauled ass down making sure head-wound Harry was still conscious. Scoop Lake sits below Windy Devil Pass, the halfway point of the balloon and entire hike. Since we were here, and much to the victim’s resentment, we decided to go the whole way. Up and over the pass we went, emptying items slowly from his bag into ours, we went down into the forest. There are fewer lakes on this side of the pass. Again, each is unique. A bit of off trail hiking is required because the trail is not maintained. Just head down hill towards the lake trails can be found on either side. You decide which lake to stay the night at. There are plenty of user maintained sites that sit on shores, with beautiful backdrops of the goliath Castle Peak ever present. As we walked beside the lakes I couldn’t help but be very upset that I could not cast out to the lunker trout I saw cruising along the shore. This half of the balloon is rarely fished.
Noisy Lake has an unforgettable campsite where stream feeds into it and the opposite shoreline is a cliff. That cliff is the foundation for the rest of Castle Peak. Quiet Lake is large and off the main trail. From this lake you can meander up the mountain and supposedly summit it, though I imagine it would take a whole day we could have had, but alas, we are cavemen, and rolling boulders fun.
Camp anywhere you’d like. We hiked out from the farthest point possible in one day. 11 hours to be exact. This should give you a good estimate of how far away the car is, but it was all downhill. We even lost the trail so much that we got ourselves into a pickle when we came to what we thought was a way down, but was just a cliff face looking down on the grassy banks Baker Lake. We crawled down a rock slide swearing at our misfortune/stupidity and almost made some more accidents. But light was fading and we are determined bros. Eventually we found the trail. It branches to where we would have stayed for our final night, Castle Lake, which is gorgeous, but we headed down hill towards the original fork. Dusk offered us light for longer than we thought, but still we ended up hiking two hours with our head lamps.
We drove straight to the hospital. Seven staples on the scalp. I thanked him for ruining the trip, and also thanked him for letting my use my Wilderness First Aid skills.
Do this hike. Don’t boulder roll. Be free in Idaho’s glory.