Hiking The Sawtooth Mountains & The White Cloud Loop
As summer comes to a close, we’re reminiscing on one of our favorite hiking trips... in Idaho! We spent a week in Idaho starting our trip in the Sawtooth Mountains and ended our trip in Ketchum. The highlight of the trip was getting to hike and backpack in the Sawtooth National Forest along the White Cloud Loop. We spent four days hiking through the Forest and into the White Clouds Wilderness and I only wish we had had more time to take in all the beauty and hidden gems along the way. I have picked some of my favorite spots along the loop that can done as day hikes or single overnight backpacking trips.
I’ve been backpacking for five years now and have been lucky enough to have hiked into some incredible scenery, but the trails here in Idaho blew me away. With every turn and trail there were magnificent and stunning views in every direction. The trail (during July) was littered with wildflowers alongside mountains of scree, tall peaks, stunning alpine lakes. Another highlight about hiking this area was that it was pretty much free of trash and the trail traffic that you would come to expect during the summer season. For these reasons (and so many more) you can bet that I’ll be back again for another backpacking trip, and I’ll perhaps make it a yearly tradition.
Some of my favorite places and moments along the trail are probably not what one would expect. On our first day we made our way counterclockwise around the loop, staying our first night at Chamberlain Lake. We were met with a pretty epic summer storm that evening but it was hard to tear ourselves away from the morning views that we woke up to around the lake. Chamberlain Lake is definitely a place I would return to for an overnight and I would also suggest making a weekend of it. On days two and three, we made our way into the White Clouds Wilderness where we saw people of all different ages and all different types of recreation enjoying the Wilderness. We met families, scout troops, hunters, and fishermen, all enjoying a day hike or backpacking. Seeing the camps set up around the Boulder Chain Lakes was a highlight for me. You can tell that the people who here both appreciate and treasure this place.
In addition to Chamberlain Lake and the Boulder Chain Lakes, here are some other hikes and destinations that you can hike to starting from the Fourth Of July Creek trailhead located in Stanley.
Fourth Of July Lake to Washington Lake. 6.5 miles, 1,187 feet of gain, out and back.
The hike to Washington Lake can be done as an out and back day hike, a single overnight backpacking trip or a quick stopover on your way to Chamberlain Lake. As you make your way to Washington Lake, the trail will fork at Fourth Of July Lake, where you can stop for a snack or a place to filter water. Head right at the fork and then to continue onto Washington Lake. Our trail had a few easy creek crossings, and it was lined with colorful wildflowers. As you approach the lake, you’ll leave the main trail and do a quick descend to the lakeside. When we were there Washington Lake was a clean shade of blue-green and no one was camped around it. Keep in mind that if you are setting up camp in the Sawtooth National Forest campsites should be 100 feet from the water’s edge. See more about camping in the backcountry and around water via the 7 Leave No Trace Principles.
Fourth Of July Lake To Born Lakes. 7.9 miles, 1,965 feet of gain, out and back.
From the same trailhead, Fourth Of July Creek, you can add a few more miles and gain and hike to Born Lakes. You’ll hike the same 1.5 mile spur as if you were headed to Fourth Of July Lake or Washington Lake, but instead you’ll take a left at the first junction. The Born Lakes are a popular spot along the White Clouds Loop. The Born Lakes are a chain of eleven alpine lakes. To access the Born Lakes, you will hike along Ants Basin which gives you stunning panoramic views of both the valleys below and peaks above. As we were backpacking out on a Thursday evening, many hikers were just making their way in, hoping to score a prime campsite around the Born Lakes for the weekend. It is a popular spot for day hikes, families, and fishing too. If you are backpacking and setting up camp, you can certainly explore the area sans your camping gear and pack when staying over. The Born Lakes do not have official names but are surrounded by views of Patterson Peak, Blackmon Peak, and Lonesome Lake Peak.
Four Lakes Basin, Quiet Lake, Scree Lake, Shallow Lake. 10.6 miles, 4,304 feet of gain, out and back. If you want to go the extra distance and you’re prepared to do some off trail route finding, I would suggest a night at Quiet Lake and some added exploration to Scree and Shallow Lake. This is a hike I would do as a two night backpacking trip. The views at Quiet Lake were truly spectacular. We camped here for just one night, and I wish we would have been able to stay and enjoy it for longer. We hiked into this lake from the other direction, but I would suggest hiking it from Fourth Of July Creek. You can set down camp at Quiet Lake and hike up to Scree and Shallow Lake sans pack, making the gain a little easier. Make sure to have a map or navigation device with you as you make the hike to Scree and Shallow Lake. This part of the trail is considered to be off trail and will require some navigation skills. Some of the trail is also very steep with loose sections of rock so make sure your shoes are grippy and bring your poles for support and stabilization for going up and down. This part of the hike was the most under-trafficked of all our trip. We saw no one at Scree and Shallow Lake making this part of the trip both quiet and serene. While at Quiet Lake, we met up with one other pair of backpackers, but the lake is big enough to have solitude for wherever you are setting up camp. We caught our very best sunset of the whole trip here and then backpacked out during our last morning of the trip.
Four Lakes Basin to Scoop Lake, Hummock Lake, Hourglass Lake. 13.3 miles, 5,416 feet of gain, out and back. The last two days of our hike were around the White Clouds Loop and we met a lot of people who had made their way in from a different trailhead, known as the East Fork. On day three of our trip, we hiked alongside the Little Boulder Chain Lakes to Scoop Lake, Hummock Lake, and Hourglass Lake and the views were stunning. We saw large camps of both kids and adults all with floaties, fishing poles, and hammocks in good designated campsites around each of the lakes. With the significant gain on this hike, I would consider doing this as two night backpacking trip, making it the perfect weekend trip. To access these lakes, you will be hiking through large boulder fields and scree, so be prepared for some challenging and rough hiking surfaces.
During our last day of backpacking out on this loop we had to do some intense off trail route finding and scrambling and hiking a few extra miles along Ant’s Basin to safely and successfully make it back to our vehicle at the trailhead. We spent the next two days in the Ketchum area, which I completely fell in love with. Not only does Idaho have amazing trails, but there are amazing people here too, which was evident in this small mountain town.
If you are interested in and considering doing the White Clouds Loop trail, I highly recommend that you are an advanced hiker with supreme navigation and route finding skills. As we were hiking much of these off trail sections, we passed no one. Download a GPX file, buy a map and know what the route/loop looks likes before heading in for a few days. You can read more about our experience along the White Clouds Loop via the Visit Idaho website.
Images provided by Elisabeth Brentano Photography