By PETE ZIMOWSKY, Idaho Statesman
STANLEY, Idaho— Distant gray peaks dotted with patches of snow loom 10,000 to 11,000 feet into the clouds as you travel the East Fork of the Salmon River on the backside of the Boulder-White Cloud mountains.
The road winds along the silvery, riffling salmon and steelhead waters of the East Fork, and a different scene awaits travelers at every bend.
The road at first takes you through sage and rimrock country. Then it climbs through cottonwood bottomlands and pastures. Soon, it goes through meadows and forested terrain, and dead-ends 28 miles later at the U.S. Forest Service’s Bowery Guard Station.
This is a road trip and car-camping adventure for those who don’t want to strap on a backpack to experience the Boulder-White Clouds. No doubt about it. There’s a bounty of scenery and recreation as you wind your way up the dusty gravel road.
A woman rides down the East Fork Road on horseback heading back to camp after a ride in the mountains.
A motorcyclist heads up the East Fork Trail looking for a hot spring he saw on a map.
Meanwhile, a group of mountain bikers heads over the trail from Fourth of July Creek Road to Chamberlain Basin to the Little Boulder Creek Trailhead for a ride of more than 20 miles across the White Clouds in a day. Whew!
A hiker wades the fast waters of the East Fork heading from Bowery Guard Station to Ibex Creek.
It doesn’t stop there. A caravan of camper vans circles the wagons in a campground along the river near Little Boulder Creek. Campers at the recreation site are getting ready to head out on a mountain bike trip.
The whole East Fork of the Salmon River drainage, off Idaho 75 between Stanley and Challis, offers an array of summer recreation, and in fall becomes a hunting paradise.
About 590,000 acres of the Boulder-White Clouds, which includes high desert, mountain meadows and streams, and alpine peaks and lakes, is being considered for designation as a national monument.
Whatever opinion you hold, if you want to get a firsthand look at the area in question without taking a backcountry trek, just drive and camp and experience it in the comfort of a camper or family tent along the river. You can also do a few short day hikes from your base camp.
The Boulder-White Clouds get a lot of use, especially from what many consider the crowded side — the mountains, roads and trailheads on the west side coming off Idaho 75 near Stanley.
But the backside of the White Clouds along the East Fork of the Salmon River is an entirely different story, although it takes more to get there.
Many trailheads are within 10 to 20 miles of Stanley, but the East Fork’s trailheads are another 50 miles away from town.
It’s a long, crazy sort of drive where you make a giant horseshoe path going north and east out of Stanley to the East Fork Road (almost to Challis) and then do almost 180 degrees and parallel the Sawtooth Valley.
Study a map and it will help orient you with your surroundings. Heck, when you reach the end of the road, you’re just over the White Clouds and Boulders from Smiley Creek on Idaho 75.
ALMOST FULL CIRCLE
Just know that if you are hiking up the East Fork Trail, you’re heading toward Galena, Easley, Silver and Boulder peaks — all about 11,000 feet — and just off the Idaho 75 and Big Wood River side of the mountain ranges.
It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that you’ve almost come full circle. Actually, you can link some trails and end up on the Wood River side.
It’s fascinating country with trails lacing both mountain ranges.
The East Fork Road means extra mileage and dust, but it could also mean a lot more solitude.
“The best thing about this side is it’s basically untouched,” said Alex Dembergh, a trail ranger for Idaho Parks and Recreation. “That’s just fantastic.”
He should know. Dembergh, of Hailey, and Will Wakley, of Pocatello, were clearing the Grand Prize Trail off the East Fork. They see a lot of miles of trail and not that many people.
To get a mountain biker’s view, just ask Dakota Dryer, of Hailey.
“What’s cool about this area is you start in total high desert and you climb to alpine country in 10 miles,” he said.
“So you get a great variety of environments out here,” he said. “It’s a great place to be.”
To reach the East Fork of the Salmon River Road, drive about 36 miles north and east from Stanley on Idaho 75.
The turnoff is on the right if you are heading north.
The East Fork Road is paved for about 15 miles. The rest of the 28-mile-long road to the Bowery Guard Station and the dead end is gravel and suitable for sedans.