Inspired to Revisit Iconic Boulders
David wanted to do a fall backpack. But his first choice of Sawtooths was rejected because of a fire. Hemingway-Boulders traverse—an interest for several years—was selected as plan B.
In 1988 we did an overnight backpacking trip to Amber Lake with our 10-year-old nephews. Twice since we’ve passed through on longer trips—once over a pass behind Boulder City and down trail into Salmon River drainage; and once on trail over West Pass which also descends to the East Fork Salmon River.
A 2016 trip fostered this one. As part of a long trek through central Idaho wilderness, we had followed a good goat route from Trail Creek into Boulder Mountains down East Fork of North Fork Big Wood River that disappeared in an old burn. On down, trail improved. We noticed an old blazed tree (to return from photo, click on text outside photo) for what appeared to be a “short cut” trail heading up a canyon to West Pass, which we needed to cross into the White Clouds. Cindy also found a campsite nearby.
But we were tired of sketchy routes, so we stayed on trail to a trailhead, hiked road back up the North Fork, and trail over West Pass. But we kept wondering about the “short cut” to West Pass.
We tried again to find the “short cut” during hot summer 2021 on an afternoon day hike up East Fork-North Fork Trail. Recent trail work had rerouted the trail away from the blazed tree so we missed it; but found an old cairn and followed a steep elk route until we ran out of time and turned around.
But finding that route intrigued David to connect our 2016 goat route and the “elk pass” for a one-way trek across the Boulder Mountains. Cindy’s arthritic left knee failed her on an August backpacking trip and swelled if she tried to hike. Grounded, she agreed to shuttle David for a solo hike.
The soaring Boulder Mountains are visible from famous Sun Valley/Ketchum area, and thousands of motorists cross their Galena Summit to Sawtooth Valley on State Highway 75. They include 12 summits that rise above 11,000 feet elevation.
The Hemingway-Boulder Wilderness (Boulders), designated in 2015, excludes corridor and some basins facing Highway 75 because of sporadic private landholdings accessible from the highway. This leaves some old mineworks and their roads popular for Universal Terrain Vehicles (UTVs) and winter snowmobilers.
Very few visit the Boulders which have few trails and no connecting trails or loop routes. Forest Service managers prefer “trailless wilderness” for this rugged area (as other nearby wilderness is managed for trail users).
Boulder City, largest of the private landholdings, is a ghost town at 10,000 feet which once boasted 700 year-round residents.
Three of our previous backpack trips passed through the Boulders in 1988, 1993, and 2016. Objective of the 2021 trip was to traverse entire range by connecting the few trails.
The route of this trip could be easily developed into a good trail. Since the main purpose of wilderness is for visitor enjoyment, the Forest Service should offer better access to this iconic wilderness.
Visit statistics: 6 days, 46 miles at 1.8 mph with 575 feet per mile of average elevation change.
Go to map below for more information on trailheads, daily routes, mileages, elevation changes, and photos. (Click on white box in upper right corner to expand map and show legend with NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS.)
One-way route planned for BouldersDavid planned a one-way winding route to cross five passes in the Boulders including the West Pass “short cut.” He was not sure the trip was doable. Only the last pass, from Gladiator Creek on the wilderness boundary, had a well-maintained trail.
For safety, communication, and coordination, David got a satellite-text phone. (This way he could bail out if a pass were too difficult and arrange pickup from one of several options hiking out to Highway 75).
Cindy dropped David off at West Fork Summit Creek trailhead (just beyond Trail Creek Summit on Trail Creek Road from Ketchum) with plans to pick him up six days later at Galena Lodge in the Boulders. The first day on trail and route previously hiked passed uneventfully, if very cold camping near the high pass.
On Day2, David met a couple with a dog—only hikers of the trip until last day who came up the maintained trail to just below the “short cut” to West Pass. He followed GPS track to switchbacks Cindy had found to be easy but was confused by elk routes going every direction. It was slow going in steep terrain, so he leveled a tent site on the steep slope with rotten wood above a big Douglas-fir, rather than hike until dark to find a possible flat area at the head of the canyon.
Next morning, a “maze of elk routes” higher in the basin led to an elk wallow and a 9,000-foot pass just across from West Pass. (Sudden appearance of human footprints indicated weekend elk hunters from West Pass Trail, perhaps the reason for the blaze and route.) Trail down led to another elk wallow; just beyond this, he met the West Pass Trail.
Elk and Goats Assist “Trailless” PassAfter trail down to North Fork Big Wood River and up the West Fork, David left trail on a GPS route (this one from Google Earth image study) towards Window Lake, where he hoped to find a route over two passes; the second above Boulder City. To his pleasant surprise, elk had kept open an old trail almost to Window Lake. (It was also interesting that the “trail builder” and/or elk picked the least steep most reasonable route that David had selected from Google Earth imagery.) From there, a brief scramble connected to goat route to the pass which was marked by a natural stone “window” (to return from photo, click on text outside photo).
Then he hit an unworkable pass. His planned “ridge run” to the pass above Boulder City (which we have hiked before) had rugged volcanic fin along last section that looked too rough for hiking with a backpack.
Instead, David scrambled down scree into Boulder Basin, knowing he could catch a route hiked before from the old mining town up to a pass. Although we had backpacked across this ridge to the White Clouds in 1993, now there was only minimal trail into South Fork of the East Fork of the Salmon River. He descended into the basin and camped at the first level spot with trees. Just after sunset, wolf howls echoed through the basin.
Minimal to no trail continued the next morning until David met two horses tied to trees, whose unseen riders were no doubt stalking elk with bows. Below the horses, trail improved considerably. At the confluence of the South and West Forks of the East Fork of the Salmon River, he missed his turnoff for Grand Prize Gulch Trail and took the more heavily used spur trail to the Pioneer Outfitters camp; probably source of the horsemen.
A packer was leaving camp with two horses carrying bagged elk halves followed by the hunter on a horse. David waded the East Fork and stopped to dry gear (from heavy condensation the previous night) on a sunny riverbank.
Motorcycles and Mountain BikesHe spent the afternoon moving swiftly on the well-maintained Grand Prize Gulch Trail along the wilderness boundary, cleared with chainsaw because it was outside wilderness (where trail maintenance is no limited by the Forest Service’s strict interpretation of Wilderness Act prohibition on mechanized equipment).
David saw no one all afternoon on this trail despite signs of heavy motorcycle use. He filtered water at the river a couple miles before a junction with the dry Gladiator Trail, his route for the last day out of the Boulders. In the evening, his camp near the junction was passed by hunters with high-tech bows riding motorcycles. He saw two more hunters the next morning, walking quietly.
On the last morning of the trek, David hiked steep little-used trail to pass near Gladiator Peak; then dropped down to Galena Lodge as weekend mountain bike groups were piling onto a network of cross-country ski trails that double for bike use in snow-off seasons.
He coordinated with Cindy via satellite phone for an agreed to ETA but he got to Galena ahead of her as she was slowed by tourist traffic on Highway 75. He was waiting on the deck at Galena lodge, editing GPS data, when she arrived.
The Boulder-Hemingway Wilderness could be a great backpacking area with a few more connecting trails. Elk and mountain goats have already provided a good head start.
(Click upper right box above map to “view larger map” to see legend including NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up)