August 21, 2020.
10.3 mi. | 2350′ ele. gain | 5:30 hr.
I’d read several articles and blogs describing the White Clouds Loop and it’s numerous variations. There is no way to loop around this wild mountain range on established trails; any way you looked at it, the route would be an adventure. The only thing I knew I had to change about the general loop was to add in a summit of Castle Peak. There was no way I’d hike all the way around the damn thing and not climb it. So, I decided on a counter-clockwise loop that put us in position to climb on day two. That would leave the easy trail hiking for the beginning and the potentially more challenging off-trail part for the end. But, I thought, we’d be oriented to this new place and warmed up by then.
At the Fourth of July Trailhead, we signed in to the quaint hiking log and then started up the trail. The skies were gloomy, as wildfire smoke was blowing in from as far away as Southern California. We just couldn’t avoid smoke on this trip.
The short hike in to Fourth of July Lake gave us time to acclimate to the weight on our backs. My partner carried the tent and the camp kitchen; I carried 4 days of food in a bear canister. Since we both like to eat real food on the trail, it was a heavy load. But I’d been preparing all summer for this. My body does not naturally like to carry weight for distance; I much prefer light and long dayhikes over heavy and short overnights. However, this loop would not be enjoyable (or possible!) for me in a day, so I took on the challenge to try something a little different.
From there, the trail descended past Washington Lake to the edge of a long- north-south mountain ridge and then climbed back up the other side. I’d read about a scramble passage up and over the ridge, but decided we’d stick to a longer hike on trail to have a saner day 1. Along the trail, we spotted numerous colorful wildflowers, which made the journey that much more interesting. I recognized some familiar favorites like buckwheat, cats-ear and paintbrush, but several other flowers were new to me. We paused occasionally to ooh and aah over the colors and stunning landscape. We had the whole day to get the camp and we were in no rush.
The toughest stretch of the day lay straight ahead, as we had to climb up and over a pass to get into the Chamberlain Basin. The burned forest offered little protection from the heat of the sun. I let my partner scurry ahead as I slowly plodded one foot in front of the other, lungs starved from oxygen due to the altitude and smoke. I sang some songs in my head and used some mental trickery to help me get up to the top of the pass. Along the way I made friends with a little ground squirrel, who sat and posed for me. I kept reminding myself that it was all downhill from the pass.
When we reached 9800 feet, we stopped to look down into the gorgeous lake basin. Castle Peak stood like a beastly white monument on the other side. I’d seen so many pictures of this mountain during my research, but it was something else to see the real thing in front of my eyes. Truly a majestic peak, Castle Mountain dominates the landscape with its sharp angles, changing textures and contrasting color palette. Breathlessly, I tried to soak it all in. And I knew I’d picked a great place to explore for the next few days.
We ambled down the switchbacks that led to several lakes. The first one we passed had no name, but it looked like a great catcher-of-people. We held out as we walked by one more magnet lake that was sure to attract the weekend backpacker crowd, because we were in search of some solitude. Fortunately there were many other options for camping that would take us away from the small crowds that would sure to gather in this delightful alpine basin.
The lakes and creeks provided more than adequate camping opportunities; there were many disturbed sites. We chose a large, flat site on a small plateau that met our needs. After a brief dip in the lake, we set up camp and proceeded to unpack all the gear we’d need for the night. Then, there was just one more thing; huckleberries. Those things weren’t going to pick themselves! We wandered back down the trail with small containers and then found the fullest patch we could. We plopped our butts right in the middle of the patch and started pulling the teeniest, tiniest berries off the delicate plants. Huckleberries come in a variety of sizes, and the only ones we found growing out there were the miniscule ones. It was a lot of work, but worth the effort. What else did we have to do, anyways?
Before the trip we divided up cooking responsibilities; that night, LeeAnn was tasked with making dinner. I wandered around looking for wildflowers and views while she cooked.
We feasted on yummy taco bowls topped with crunchy corn chips. Come on, why doesn’t everyone eat like this on backpacking trips!? Most people seem to do the freeze-dried meal thing, while others apparently still cook over wood fires in the backcountry. I was dismayed to find a massive fire pit at our campsite…with crumpled up aluminum foil inside. Garbage. Why do people insist on building big fires and then not picking up after themselves? Foil does not burn completely, it is trash left in the wilderness. I fished the foil out of the ashes and packed it out when we left the next morning. I am torn between wondering whether better education or better cultivation of a stewardship mindset is what will solve this problem. It’s hard to believe that the people who left their garbage behind just didn’t know that was not the right thing to do. It seems like they just didn’t care.
As the sun set, we snapped a few more photos and then disappeared into the tent. I prepared for a cold night, but was pleasantly surprised to find that I hardly needed to zip up my sleeping bag to find a comfortable temperature. I tossed and turned all night, anticipating the big climb in the morning.