50 Mile White Clouds Wilderness Loop
The White Clouds Wilderness was officially designated a Federal wilderness area in 2015 however, these mountains have been wild since the last Ice Age. With peaks stretching over 11,000′ into the atmosphere, these are some of the tallest mountains in the great state of Idaho. Famous for their pristine beauty, amazing fishing, and excellent hunting opportunities, the trail system is still relatively undefined. Most of the high elevation hiking takes place off trail and requires navigation skills using a GPS or a compass.
If you are seeking a unique backpacking trip far from the beaten path then the White Clouds Wilderness is for you. Face the remote interior of central Idaho and explore mountain passes few humans have been in before. Bears, Bighorn Sheep, Elk, and almost all big game can be found here. Fish species include Bull Trout and Cutthrout Trout. If you are looking for a mountain paradise, you have found it.
Slate Creek Hot Springs Trailhead
The trailhead is at the end of a relatively well maintained dirt road. It’s also coincidentally the parking area for Slate Creek Hot Springs. These beautiful pools allow for some prime-time soaking opportunities. Wooden boards are used to create a large pool that is regulated through a series of PVC pipes bringing both hot and cold water to create a perfect temperature blend.
There is ample parking to leave a car overnight for a few days.
Day 1, Trailhead To Big Boulder Lakes
The initial 5 miles of hiking follows a maintained forest trail to O’Calkens Lake. I hit the trail on June 21st, still early in the season for these mountains. There was a large avalanche before the lake and the trail was completely covered by debris – broken trees. If you are hiking before trail crews get in, be ready for some bushwhacking.
After reaching the lake, maintained trails stop. The White Clouds Wilderness Loop continues along the west bank of the lake and quickly climbs in elevation. Hiking is relatively easy thanks to the high elevation ecosystem which lacks vegetation but does have late season snowpack.
Salvino’s Pass – The Hardest Aspect Of The Hike
At 10,800 feet, this is the highest point of the hike, it’s also the most difficult mountain pass. It’s hard because of the lack of trail to the top. Instead, this entire mountain pass follows a Bighorn Sheep Trail which experiences little foot traffic. I recommend using crampons and an ice ax early in the season to cross this pass. Steep snowbanks make traversing this mountain extremely technical and dangerous.
If you do not have experience with high alpine snow hiking, I do not recommend this trail until the snow has melted off the pass – generally by late July.
Big Boulder Lakes To Island Lake
There are no trails in the Big Boulder Lakes basin – at least from what I experienced. I did walk on snowpack for this entire traverse but I didn’t see any signs or trail remnants. Upon reaching Island lake, there are easy to follow trails and even pack animal bridges. The trails for the next 40 miles are well established and provide excellent hiking.
Day 2, High Alpine Lakes And Mountain Passes
The first few hours of hiking actually takes place just outside the official wilderness boundary. While still incredibly remote, the trails are used by mountain bikes and the switchbacks are s-curved. It also means trail maintenance is common, which allows for some quick initial miles.
The trail takes a western turn and once again enters wilderness area, leaving behind mountain biking trails and once again entering a world where trail maintenance is a luxury not seen every mile. The four mountain passes hit on this stretch of trail are all between 9,600′-9,900′. Be forewarned, the high elevation does making breathing more laborious, take some extra time when climbing these Idaho hills.
Antz Basin is an incredible spectacle. A huge valley surrounded by 10,000′ mountains, hiking here makes a person feel like they might never see civilization again.
Day 3, The Final Stretch
After leaving Warm Springs Creek behind, the final mountain pass awaits. The trail is hard to find and not well maintained. Be prepared for some bushwhacking uphill. This mountain pass seems to stretch on forever. High altitude basin after basin unfolds as the hiking progressively goes uphill. The trail comes and goes but the lack of vegetation makes hiking easy. The natural topography of the landscape also keeps the hike going in the right direction.
Coming down the final pass toward O’Calkens Lake is a huge accomplishment. This hike is not an easy one and 50 miles in the White Clouds Wilderness is hard enough with trails, let alone the multiple passes traversed without any maintenance. From the lake, it’s only 5 miles to the hot springs, where any thru-hiker should stop and enjoy their accomplishment.
Wild West Trail Notes
Do not attempt this trail early in the season without crampons and an ice axe. There are many miles of bushwhacking and knowing how to follow your GPS and/or read a map and compass is a mandatory skill for a successful traverse. Carry bear spray and tree your food, these animals are not conditioned to seeing humans.