Born Lakes (Idaho)
The White Clouds Wilderness represents a piece of American outdoor beauty that makes long uphill grinds and painful new-boots blisters worth the effort. We’ve started on the 4th of July trailhead twice now, and both times have yielded very different but equally enthralling scenery, animal encounters and “geez I’m out of shape!” revelations.
A two night backpacking trip to the Born Lakes was my introduction to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and it was definitely a learning experience. For starters, we got to 4th of July Creek trailhead about 2 hours later than expected. This left us with very little time to get up a somewhat steep incline (1000+ feet over 3 miles), and while racing the sun sounds like a fun way to end the day, there is nothing glamorous about having to sprint up a mountain with 40 pounds on your back and two dogs who suddenly feel the need to pee on everything.
We reached the top of the basin just as the sun was setting, and from our high vantage point saw not only the size of the watershed we were about to walk into, but also a small pond surrounded by trees directly below us. Besides that, the valley was mostly covered with tall grass, little shrubs and winding streams.
As we descended in the basin, twilight quickly turned to dusk before darkness engulfed the valley completely, and headlamps became necessary to reach our first campsite. On our way we heard (but didn’t see) elk on their nightly water run, and as the moon rose over the mountain range above us we set up our tents and munched on protein bars before turning in for the night.
The next morning, low hanging clouds made for a chilly start to the day, but as the sun climbed higher so did the temperature, and after a quick breakfast we set off in the opposite direction of the lakes to do some exploring.
If you have time and energy to explore the area around your campsite DO IT! In some places, even taking just 10 steps in a different direction can lead to a whole new view.
Further down into the basin we found the remains of a log cabin and the skull of an elk, not to mention an incredible view of the valley stretching out below us. I will always choose to wake up early, enjoy the morning and get a jump-start on hiking for the day, but being in the wilderness brings out my adventurous side and wandering around a huge space to discover its mysteries is a part of backpacking that should never be missed.
Once we had our fill of hopping over streams and marvelling at the valley’s expansive beauty in daylight, we returned to camp, packed up our tents, and began the slow hike up to our final campsite. The cool thing about the Born Lakes is that there are a few to choose from and every lake comes with several large, flat areas perfect for pitching a tent. Although there was a wonderful campsite at the first and largest lake, we decided to push on to the furthest lake which lies right at the foot of a steep and rocky mountainside.
Once we had found a camp site, we meandered around some of the smaller upper lakes, climbed some rocks and simply enjoyed being out in the mountain sunshine. If you have your fishing license and feel like making the trek with a pole, Born Lakes are stocked with rainbow and cutthroat trout by Idaho Fish and Game, for catch and release purposes and some nice R&R after a moderately difficult hike. We went in mid September so there weren’t many fish left, but it was nice to sit by the water and watch the clouds drift through the valley.
The not-too-cool, not-too-hot weather was perfect for hiking, but a thunderstorm rolled in later that evening and we had a pretty wet (not to mention loud!) night. Luckily we chose a campsite closer to the lake where the tree cover was sparse; the morning after the thunderstorm I walked about 50 feet down the hill from our campsite and found a tree that had fallen in the storm.
“And that’s why you don’t camp under trees.”
After a somewhat sleepless night, we were ready to head back to civilization but I have to admit, waking up to dense cloud cover and chilly rain was a quintessential White Clouds experience, and it made me appreciate my instant coffee more than I ever thought possible.
The hike to the Born Lakes is an amazing breath of fresh air, and it could easily be done in one day (from the trailhead to the 1st lake is 8 miles roundtrip), but I’m happy to take a slower pace and enjoy this wilderness over a weekend.