Ambitious day hike to a rugged and beautiful high mountain lake in the newly designated White Cloud Wilderness.
Distance: 13.0 miles round trip (including exploration at the lake)
Difficulty: difficult with ~2,700′ elevation gain over rocky trail
Best season: August and September
It had been a wonderful vacation in Idaho’s Sawtooth and White Cloud Wilderness areas. We had enjoyed two picture perfect backpacks in the Sawtooths (Hell Roaring and Imogene Lakes and Alice Lake Loop) as well as a fun ridgeline hike on the west slope of the newly designated White Cloud Wilderness.
For our final day we decided on another day hike in the White Clouds. This time we would access from the east along the East Fork of the Salmon River.
Saturday September 26 we were awake well before dawn. We checked out of our Stanley, Idaho hotel and hit the road. Our plan was to pull over for coffee and breakfast as soon as we got some daylight, but that appeared to be quite a ways off still. With temperatures in the low 30s and in the pitch black, we pulled out of town and pointed the truck east along highway 75 down the Salmon River. Given the winding road and that the area is known for wildlife, it was a slow and cautious drive.
We passed through Clayton and shortly after turned south on the East Fork of the Salmon River Road. As we followed the river and the beginnings of daylight appeared, the road became a playground for wild rabbits. We saw group after group in the road, including two teenagers who were chasing each other around in circles. Deer were off in the fields along the river.
We finally had enough daylight to stop for breakfast, but we were so close to the trailhead we decided to just finish the drive and eat at the trailhead. We turned onto the Livingston Mill Road and made the final climb to the trailhead. It is only about 5 miles up from the river, but it is quite the climb on a narrow road that can be rough in places. We pulled into the Big Boulder Creek Trailhead (elevation 7,088’) and found only half a dozen cars there. This trailhead serves a huge wilderness area, so it was guaranteed to be a quiet day on the trail.
We made some coffee with the Jetboil and had our breakfast of yogurt. It was still quite cold so we huddled in the truck while we ate. We could see brilliant fall colors all around us, especially around the old cabins at Livingston Mill.
We hit the trail at 8:20 with temperatures still in the low 40s. The sky was mostly sunny, but it did look like some clouds were moving in. The trail started out on the flat along Boulder Creek where hiking was easy and there were some fall colors. After a short distance, we paralleled the old Livingston Mill area where old rusty junk litters the fenced perimeter. Here we saw a group of 7 deer.
Shortly after passing Livingston the trail began to climb. We had some lovely views of Boulder Creek and there is a stretch with interesting rock formations across the canyon.
There is a moderately steep ascent for a while and then the trail flattens for a distance. We crossed Boulder Creek on a very good foot bridge. While along this stretch, we could hear a couple dirt bikes coming up behind us. We stepped off the trail and both riders gave us grateful waves and smiles as they road pass. We could hear them for a few minutes as they made the climb up the Boulder Chain Lakes trail and then it was quiet for the rest of the day. (The first 2.5 miles of trail is outside the wilderness boundary and is open to motorized vehicles, but in our experience usage is light.)
At 2.5 miles we reached a junction—to the left climbs up to Boulder Chain Lakes where we had backpacked the year before. Straight ahead, the trail crosses on a log footbridge and heads up to Walker and Island Lakes.
We took the trail straight ahead toward Walker and Island Lakes. From here the trail would climb and then drop a little… then it would climb some more and drop a little more. Generally we were gaining overall elevation quite quickly, but it was obvious our total elevation gain for the day would be significantly more than the 2,200’ difference between the TH and Island Lake. I estimate we easily added an extra 500’ gain total. Fall colors were nice in this zone and we got some nice views of peaks ahead.
At about ½ hour past the trail split, we came to a meadow with a beautiful camp spot along Boulder Creek.
From there the trail rolled up and down with good views of the peaks ahead and to our left as well as some sunning fall colors.
Approximately ½ hour later, we came to another trail split. It almost looked like it could have been the split to Tin Cup Lake off to the right, but the sign said it was to Big Boulder Lakes. We went ahead and took the split to the right which was correct. The left would have taken us down to Quicksand Meadows. This junction was different than what I had expected from trail guides and I later read that the mail trail had been rerouted around Quicksand to protect the fragile meadows.
From the split we went through a stretch in the woods without views and a few small stream crossings over nice little footbridges. Then we really started climbing. And climbing. The trail was quite steep in places. We had some nice views including small waterfalls and mountain peaks, but man was it a tough climb. We commented we sure were glad we weren’t carrying heavy packs.
We eventually came to a trail split with a sign stating Walker Lake was 1 mile to the right or Island Lake 1 mile to the left. From here it was just under a mile of steep climbing before we topped out at beautiful Island Lake (elevation 9,306′) at approximately 6.5 miles from the trailhead.
First we hopped across the outlet stream and explored the rocky southern shore of the lake. Then we crossed back over and explored the northern shore. Here we started seeing lots of medium sized cutthroat trout just off shore. I could read Jason’s mind—he wished he had brought his fly rod.
I started working my way back to the outlet and soon realized that dark storm clouds were gathering over the peaks at the western end of the lake. It looked like a pretty good storm could be moving in despite the forecast to the contrary. I hollered across the lake at Jason and pointed to the sky. He nodded, it was time to leave.
As we departed Island Lake, the sky was looking more ominous by the minute. We descended along the steep trail as quickly as we could. The hike back easily could have taken an hour longer if I had stopped for photos, but I didn’t. We hoofed it as fast as we could. The wind had picked up and we could hear thunder rumbling behind us. In front of us the skies were blue, but every time I looked behind us the ominous skies were keeping pace with us. We felt better once we were well below tree line, but conditions were still threatening enough that we kept up the quick pace.
By 3:00 we had made our way back down to Boulder Creek and the trail split to the Boulder Chain Lakes. The worst of the weather seemed to have passed and we were back in the sun. We decided to take a nice break here. We were tired after the fast, steep, and rocky descent. The only two hikers we would pass all day were doing the same. Two hunters, probably in their 30s, in full camo, with large rifles and heavy looking backpacks were there when we arrived. We learned that they had been camped at Frog Lake for a week of wolf hunting. One of the men was interested about the trail to Island Lake. He asked if it looked like good fishing and if the trail was better than the trail to Boulder Chain Lakes. We told him about the fish we saw, but also how much steeper and rougher the trail was than the one into Boulder Chain Lakes (which we had backpacked the year before). That news seemed to deter him. It seems he had major knee surgery the year before and the descent he had just made was more than he had wanted.
The hunters took off ahead of us and we enjoyed the rest of our break before finishing the last 2.5 miles of the hike in renewed sun. As we dropped down the last bit of trail, we were treated to a little 2016 Presidential politicking—Idaho style…
Temperatures were in the upper 60s when we arrived back at the truck at 4:00. We had hiked 13 miles with roughly 2,700’ elevation gain, much of it over rocky and steep sections of trail at elevations between 7,000-9,000’ elevation—our most ambitious day hike to date. Thanks to a week of backpacking at high elevations it had gone well and we really lucked out with the weather. Best of all, the day’s mileage put us at 100 miles hiked for the month of September, another first.
As strenuous as the hike was, as sketchy as the weather looked for a few minutes, and despite saying “we’re sure glad we aren’t carrying full packs” all the way up, we immediately started talking about returning and backpacking in some day. Jason wants to fish Island Lake with all its cutthroat and I’d like to see all the other lakes in the area. I guess we aren’t quite ready to scratch this trail off the bucket list.
Our Sawtooth Vacation had come to an end. The following day we’d make the drive back home to SE Washington and the day after that I’d start my new job. It had been a fun and adventurous week full of many wonderful trail memories.
Directions to Big Boulder Creek Trailhead: From Stanley, Idaho, drive east 36.5 miles on Idaho 75 along the Salmon River. Turn south (right) on the East Fork of the Salmon River Road. Follow this 14.6 miles on pavement and another 2.9 miles on good gravel road before turning right onto Livingston Mill Road. This road is single lane and is quite steep for the first couple of miles. Follow it 4.2 miles to the sign for Big Boulder Trailhead. Turn left and drive 0.2 miles to the large parking area. Pit toilet is available.