Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness, 2021

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 East Fork Salmon River.

A 2016 trip fostered this one. As part of a long trek through central Idaho wilderness, we had followed an old unmaintained trail across shale (heavily used by goats) from pass above 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 for what appeared to be a shortcut trail heading up a canyon to West Pass, which we needed to cross into the White Clouds.

But we were tired of sketchy routes, so we stayed on trail to a trailhead, hiked road back up the North Fork, and followed trail over West Pass. Yet we kept wondering about shortcut to West Pass.

We tried again to find the shortcut 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; 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 earlier summer backpacking trip and swelled if she tried to hike. Grounded, she agreed to shuttle David for one-way solo hike.

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One-way route planned for Boulders

David used maps and Google Earth to find a winding route to cross five passes in Boulders including West Pass “shortcut.” 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 of a too-difficult pass 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 just outside wilderness. First day on trail and route previously hiked passed uneventfully, aside from 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 shortcut to West Pass. He followed GPS track to switchbacks Cindy thought 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.) Trail down led to another elk wallow; just beyond this, David met the West Pass Trail.

Elk And Goat Routes to “Trailless” Pass

After 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) toward 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 sideslope scramble on steep scree connected to a goat route to the pass, marked by a natural stone “window”.

However, his planned “ridge run” to the pass above Boulder City (which we had hiked before) had a 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, in 2021 there was 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 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 Bikes

David spent the afternoon moving swiftly on well-maintained Grand Prize Gulch Trail along wilderness boundary, cleared with chainsaw because it was outside wilderness (where trail maintenance is not limited by the Forest Service’s strict interpretation of Wilderness Act prohibition on mechanized equipment).

He 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, hunters with high-tech bows riding motorcycles passed his camp near the junction. He saw two more hunters the next morning, walking quietly.

On 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 as bike trails in snow-off seasons.

He coordinated with Cindy via satellite phone for an agreed-to ETA but 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.

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.

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