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Wildflowers at boulder chain lakes

Boulder Chain Lakes: White Clouds, Idaho

After having spent all of my backpacking trips last summer in the Sawtooth Mountains, I was eager to branch out a bit this summer and visit the White Cloud Mountains. I had read about the Boulder Chain Lakes long ago in an issue of Backpacker magazine, and was happy that they had such good things to say about my little slice of the West. Since then, Boulder Chain Lakes have been on my must-hike list.

It’s such a far drive to get to the trailhead and one night in the White Clouds would not have done it justice. Hence why it took me so long to finally make the trip out there.

My friend Christina and I decided to go together. We worked together on a guest ranch in Stanley. In the morning, she helped me with my work so I could get done faster and leave. We rushed through work and were in the car by 2 p.m.

Boulder Chain Lakes Fast Stats

  • Distance: 24 miles
  • Trail type: Out and back
  • Trailhead: Boulder Creek Trailhead (at Livingston Mill)
  • Permit: sign in and sign out at trailhead
  • Camping: most camping is at lakes and along streams
  • Time of Year: mid-June to mid-September

Boulder Chain Lakes, Idaho Trip Report

Getting to the Boulder Creek Trailhead

Getting to the trailhead was a task in itself. It was nearly a two hour drive from Stanley. We passed through Clayton, then turned off the highway. This road had a few houses and ranches along the way. After 30 miles of driving away from the highway, we turned up a single-track dirt road. It was only another five miles to the trailhead, but it was a narrow road that at times had a steep drop off.

While approaching Livingston Mill, there was an old dilapidated building with the word “Trump” painted in giant white letters on the roof. I had heard local’s stories of the land-owner near this trailhead being crazy and having threatened hikers in the past, so I made a note not to linger in this area for too long.

When we started up the trail and passed by the Trump-building, there were other ramshackle, old cabins. I speculated that maybe they were once rented-out hunting cabins that had since been abandoned. Luckily I didn’t see any sign of humans amongst the derelict structures, and I continued into the mountains.

Day 1: Boulder Creek Trailhead to Willow Lake

It was about 4:30 p.m. by the time Christina and I were actually on the trail and hiking. We had 9 miles to go to get to the lake we were planning on camping at. That didn’t leave us much to to relax or take it slow. We just put our heads down and hiked.

The trail was a gradual climb for about 6 miles. We had 2,300 feet of elevation to gain, but thankfully the incline was mellow. After just 2 miles we passed by the side trail to Big Boulder Lakes and wondered why we didn’t hike there instead. When we finally made it to the top of the pass, we were welcomed with our first views of the White Cloud Mountains.

The trail went down to Frog Lake. We didn’t see anyone there, but there were amenities for horses. Finally we reached the turn off for the Boulder Chain Lakes, and found a nice camp spot by Willow Lake. We set up base camp for both nights of our trip.

Day 2: Boulder Chain Lakes

Since we were just planning on day hiking around the Boulder Chain Lakes today without all our gear, we slept in a bit and had an easy morning. I made coffee for us, and Christina made oatmeal. A Forest Service ranger/ trail maintainer stopped by to chat with us a bit.

We packed up lunch and snacks for the day, extra layers, sunscreen, and the water filter. We left the rest of our gear in the tent and our food bags hanging in a tree.

The uphill hike was leisurely, and we stopped often to take photos. Lodgepool Lake had a particularly nice view. Upon reaching Hummock Lake, we lost the trail for a bit. Not to worry though; we found a nice spot for a snack break. We continued circumnavigating around towards Hidden Lake. Finally we reunited with the trail ahead right as we were approaching Scoop Lake.

We had plans to hike up to Windy Devil Pass just to get a nice view. A small group hiked by us, and they had just come down from the pass. We hiked around Scoop Lake and scouted a good path up. It being early summer, most of the pass above the lake was covered in snow.

Christina and I hiked up through the snow a short ways. The snow was covered in a slippery layer of ice, as if it had been melting a refreezing for the past several weeks. We weren’t breaking through the snow, just walking on top of the ice. We were wearing our trail runners, and I hadn’t brought along my YakTrax. Eventually, we decided it would be better not to risk sliding down the pass into the boulders below.

Instead we trekked over to Headwall Lake and got out the camp stove to make some backcountry rice and curry for lunch. I appreciate that Christina and I really make some delicious meals when we’re backpacking together, and lunch was no exception. After eating and soaking up the rays, we meandered our way down the trail and back to camp.

I forgot my book on this hike, and had a very boring evening in camp.

Day 3: Willow Lake back to Boulder Creek Trailhead

We got an early start because Christina had to work the evening shift. And we had to hike 9 miles out and drive for 2 hours to get her back.

I made some coffee for us to drink while we packed up our gear. We decided to skip breakfast until we got a few miles into our hike. The first few miles would be uphill, which didn’t sound enticing with a belly full of oatmeal.

We passed by Frog Lake once more. Then we had a steep hike up over the ridge line. I had forgotten how far we had come down on the way in, so it was a bit of a surprise. I began getting very hungry during the last mile up to the ridge. Finally we got to the top and stopped for a quick breakfast.

With the most difficult part behind us and a meal to fuel the rest of the hike, we zipped right through the last few miles to the car. We passed by the creepy cabins once more, and reached the parking lot. I drove us back down the dirt road and out to the highway.

We celebrated a successful hike with a trip to the Sawmill Station in Clayton where we ordered milkshakes and cheeseburgers.

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