This past summer, I paid a visit to the Big Boulder Lakes in the White Cloud Mountains of Idaho. Compared to the Sawtooth Mountains, it’s not a very popular or accessible area for hiking. But I had heard from Stanley locals that the Boulder Chain Lakes are a must-visit location.
My work friend Kevin was eager to do an overnight, so we piled our gear into my car and headed for the trailhead.
Big Boulder Lakes Fast Stats:
- Distance: 9-14 miles, depending on route
- Trail Type: out and back on approach trail, lakes can be done as a loop
- Trailhead: Boulder Creek Trailhead (at Livingston Mill)
- Permit: sign in and out at trailhead
- Camping: camping is available at lakes and streams
- Time of Year: mid-June to mid-September
Big Boulder Lakes, Idaho Trip Report
Getting to the Trailhead
The journey to the trailhead was the same as my report from Boulder Chain Lakes. Set the GPS for Boulder Creek Trailhead. From Stanley, you will drive past the town of Clayton and turn right off Highway 75 onto E. Fork Road. In another 30 miles, you’ll turn right onto a dirt road called Big Boulder Creek Road. It’s 5 miles up this road to the trailhead. There is a parking lot for Boulder Creek Trailhead, and you can sign in your group at the register there.
Day 1: Boulder Creek Trailhead to Island Lake
We split this hike up into two days. For the first couple miles, we followed the same path that I had taken to reach the Boulder Chain Lakes. We got to make an earlier turnoff for the Big Boulder Lakes, thus taking much less time than my previous hike in this area. We followed the trail uphill for a couple hours.
There were a few groups out on the trail, but not a lot by any means. We passed by a group of ladies from Florida who stopped to camp by a stream because one member was experiencing problems with the elevation. The trailhead had been at 7200 feet, and there had been a steady increase in elevation for the last several miles. So yeah, lowlanders would definitely be able to notice the altitude in the White Clouds.
As we were hiking our last mile, the weather turned chilly and began raining a bit. We reached Island Lake and took a look at the map. We had been wanting to continue on a bit to one of the further Big Boulder Lakes. The rain was not letting up though, and we decided it would be best to stay put for the evening.
The lake wasn’t crowded exactly; there were probably only a half dozen tents. There was not ample campsites available though. After fully investigating the North side with no luck, we hiked around to the South side of the lake and found a good spot to set up camp.
It was very windy and I had trouble getting the tarp for my hammock set up. The trees available were not ideal, and I would be sleeping on a slant. It was only for one night though.
Kevin and I cooked dinner in his two-person tent, then the sun poked out one last time before nightfall. We made our plans for the following day. We thought we would climb the peak behind us, then do a circuit of the lake before returning to the car ideally. Our plans were ambitious and depended upon everything going right, therefore we tried to not be too attached to them.
Day 2: Big Boulder Lakes and Back
We got up early the next morning, and began our hike up the peak beside Island Lake. We hiked up a steep incline and over a rocky outcrop. Once we gained some elevation, a marmot popped his head out and scurried across the rocks.
We over snow and past a tiny alpine pond. Finally, after reaching the end of a cliff, we determined that the route ahead of us was impassable. It would be much safer to head back to our campsite, and continue our day. No worries, though. We got to enjoy a beautiful view and see a marmot. It was not a waste of a morning.
Back at the campsite, we packed up our gear and began our circuit around the Big Boulder Lakes.
Big Boulder Lakes Circuit
To make it up to the next lake, we had to hike around the South side of Island Lake then up the West side. We crawled over boulders for a period of time. There was no trail in this direction, and we had to navigate ourselves.
We reached Cove Lake and walked around. It was so beautiful, and there were ample campsites with nobody there. Kevin and I lamented that we had not been able to reach this lake the night before. It would have been perfect. Nevertheless, we continued on to Sapphire Lake. It was so close to Cove Lake that you can see both lakes from the mid-point.
There was a little trail going around Sapphire Lake and up to Cirque Lake. We followed along the edge of the lakes and enjoyed the scenery. Kevin spotted a couple golden eagles while we were exploring. These lakes were tucked beneath the surrounding mountains, and would have also been beautiful campsites.
After enjoying our time at Sapphire Lake, we continued our circuit around to Slide Lake, Neck Lake, and Sheep Lake. These lakes were much smaller, but still peaceful and worth seeing.
The day was passing us by, and we still wanted to make it out to the car. We had a steep decrease in elevation to get to Walker Lake. The problem is that we couldn’t find the path. We started down a steep incline, only to find the edge of a cliff. I really didn’t think this was our safe passage down, so we went back up the way we came from.
We saw some horse hoof prints in the dirt and followed their general direction. Finally, we spotted the trail just a little further north than we had originally looked. We hiked down to Walker Lake and past all the groups of campers. We passed by the Florida ladies we had seen the day before, and they looked at us like we were crazy to be hiking all the way out today.
With the toughest part behind us, we put our butts in high gear to follow the trail out the way we came. Only five miles stood between us and getting burgers in Clayton.
Notes on Navigating
There is a designated trail for much of this hike. However, the circuit between Island Lake and Walker Lake is unmarked. Only do that section of trail if you have a map, compass, and the GPS maps on your phone and you know how to use them.