In the 1860s about 30,000 men and only 1,000 women lived in the Idaho Territory, a sprawling, mountainous area whose indistinct borders included present-day Idaho and Montana, and most of Wyoming. In the White Cloud Peaks, this frontier past feels like yesterday.

Most historical sources dating to the 1970s note that Washington Basin, Washington Creek, Washington Peak, and Blackman Peak are all named after a black miner who pioneered the area circa 1875. Sleuthing by Jim Ridenour, a retired geologist, reveals that mining claims reference “Washington Basin” in the early 1880s. George Z. Blackmon filed his first claim there in 1894. We can give him credit for working with a mule and a pick axe before roads existed to bring in heavier equipment, but not credit for landmark names that include “Washington.” The peak named “Blackman” is a misspelling of Blackmon—and nothing is named after the “Z” of his middle initial. A tourist named John Thatcher visited Washington Basin in 1897 and later wrote an article titled “The Black Man of Blackmon Peak,” which was published in 1930 in Scribner’s Magazine. Anyone who has ever visited Washington Basin will be amazed to learn that Blackmon wintered in his cabin there.

Lynna takes a break above Tin Cup Lake in the White Cloud Peaks. The Peaks lie within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). Image ©Leland Howard Photography.

John Thatcher wrote:

He was a negro who had been educated by a white family in Iowa and had come out with the rush of prospectors in the early eighties, located his quartz lodes and had worked them ever since. He was accustomed to pack in his supplies in the last of August and remain for the winter snowed up until the opening of spring enabled him to pack out a few tons of ore to buy another season’s provisions. I remember inquiring:

“What do you do if you break a leg?”

And, after some thought on his part, received the answer:

“Well, we mostly don’t break our legs.”

    On topographical maps, most peaks in the White Clouds are identified only by their elevation (often over 10,000 feet) or a number preceded by "WCP" for White Cloud Peak. In the Sawtooths, the neighboring range that shares the Salmon River with the White Clouds, every peak, nook and cranny has a name. Yet the White Clouds are as impressive as the Sawtooths. The difference may be due in part to access issues. All of the White Clouds lie within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA), but it takes a more intrepid adventurer to find the roads that lead into the range and to explore a region that has fewer signs and mileposts.

    To begin our September photographic tour of the White Clouds, we took a dirt road south along the East Fork of the Salmon River. This road used to be closed, but an easement around private property was purchased and my brother and I were pleased to discover a whole world of wilderness that begged to be explored.

    We parked where the road ended and climbed an unnamed peak with a good view of Tin Cup, Gunsight and Crater Lakes; the Sawtooths to the West; and other peaks marching away seemingly endlessly to the east and south, including Castle Peak. Castle Peak is the highest peak in the White Clouds (11,815). It's serrated crown is several hundred feet higher than any of its neighbors. Deep gouges in its sides stood out in sharp relief as the sun approached the horizon.

    Most hikers would have been long gone from the peak we were on when the grandest part of the show began. The sun dipped below the craggy horizon of the Sawtooths, back lighting them with liquid gold. Simultaneously, the moon rose and mixed its blue light with the rose on the snow fields near us.

    Our goal the next day was to approach the White Clouds from the west, looking for alternate routes into the heart of the range. Pole Creek road leaves Highway 75 near Sawtooth City. It crosses streams uncounted times, but is negotiable for a few miles by 2WD and then roughens to a normal 4WD road. The road goes over an 8,000 plus summit then heads back down into Washington Basin.

    In spite of the wind, we climbed Washington Peak (10,527 feet). The south side of Castle Peak glowed an unearthly red in the lowering sun. Goat trails striped the ridges. A four-foot wide goat highway crossed the last ridge next to a vertical drop into yet another lake. Clumps of goat hair clung to the sharp rocks.

Contact for Info: Sawtooth National Recreation Area 208-726-8291

Maps available in Stanley and Ketchum

When to Visit: Most roads into the White Clouds close in the Winter. High passes may not be clear of snow until mid-June. Summer and early autumn are good times to visit. Some areas are open to cross-country skiing or snowmobiling in the winter. Expect cold temperatures at night no matter what the season.

—© Lynna Howard