Castle from unnamed lake

Castle Peak is the highpoint of the White Claw… er, White Cloud Peaks of central Idaho. At 11,800 feet, it stands well above its neighbors and dominates the view east from the much more popular Sawtooths, over a thousand feet lower. I had been looking at it from some recent climbs in the Sawtooths, and decided it was worth a day to visit this new range and climb it. The normal approach is from Washington Basin to the southwest, but for some reason I decided to come in from the equally-patriotic Fourth of July Creek farther north. This would normally have added significant distance and time, but because the Wilderness boundary is only a few miles from the peak, I was able to ride my bike most of the way. The trails were chunky from stock use, and I had to hike-a-bike on several rougher sections and around deadfall (the area is a carpet of old burn scars), but I still averaged about 5.5 miles per hour on the trail, making wheels faster and far more fun than feet.

Riding through the old burn

I could have driven the ten miles of dirt to the Fourth of July Trailhead, but the road was rough and washboarded enough that it would have been slow and unpleasant with my passenger-car suspension, so I pulled out at the first wooded place to camp, just a couple miles up the road. I woke at my usual dark hour and ate breakfast while waiting for some more light. I eventually started riding by headlamp, barely warm enough in all my clothes, turning it off about twenty minutes up the nearly 2000-foot climb to the trailhead. Most of the climb was gradual, but it steepened enough to put me in my lowest gear in the final few miles. There were only four cars in the lot, a striking contrast to the hordes in the Sawtooths over the holiday weekend.

Right to the limit

I had originally planned to leave my bike here, as I was not sure about the quality or legality of the riding, but a helpful trailhead sign clearly laid out who was allowed to travel where. Not only was the trail open to bikes nearly to Castle Divide, but it was even open to motorcycles along Washington Creek. Fortunately there did not seem to be many of these, so the trail was not badly rutted and chewed up by motorized joy-riders. Still, it was rocky from stock, so I had to ride with full concentration and walk numerous sections, and often debated locking my bike and continuing on foot. However, I have learned from my bike-mountaineering that pushing one’s bike pays off if there is at least a moderate amount of rideable terrain. Five miles per hour is agonizingly slow on a bike, but purposefully fast on foot, and ten to fifteen is faster than I can manage without wheels on a trail.

Back over recent burn

The trail climbs past Fourth of July Lake, then crosses a divide to Washington Lake and descends into Washington Creek. At a fork, the left branch contours high toward the Castle Divide trail, and is signed “no motor vehicles.” I nearly left my bike here, but decided to continue, and was rewarded with some good riding on relatively smooth trail. I did, however, have to carry my bike through a combination burn scar and slide path, and over many other downed logs. At the turnoff to the divide, a sign helpfully informed me that the trail was closed to bikes a mile ahead. While there is not enough maintenance on the extensive White Cloud trails to clear deadfall in a timely manner, the trails are still well-cared-for: I saw semi-recent maintenance, and the Wilderness boundary sign had been replaced since the 2018 fire.

Castle from base

I locked my bike to itself and leaned it against the Wilderness sign, then hiked the pass leading to Chamberlain Basin. This area was a fairly recent burn, and while the standing blackened trees were unattractive, the snowy and unburnt peaks to the south provided a fine backdrop. The fire had apparently stopped at the ridge, so the basin was unspoiled. Castle looked intimidating across the way, and the true summit did not look like the highest point, but with a map and track, the standard route was clear: a partly snow-filled gully trending slightly right. Avoiding a lingering cornice, I took what was probably the old trail, dropping steeply to the forest and passing a fine turquoise lake on my way to the valley floor. I passed an occupied campsite at the lake, then crossed the outflow before leaving the developed trails to head for the base of the gully.

Good scrambling

Thankfully there is a faint use trail leading up the initial rubble, because it is obnoxiously steep and loose. I followed bits of trail to where the standard gully splits from the broad western bowl that I would have chosen as the ascent route. From there, I traversed right across miserably loose rock, then started up the left side of the gully, skirting the still-hard snow (I had not bothered with crampons or an ice axe). As this became increasingly difficult, I found myself naturally trending left onto the gullies and ridges leading directly to the summit. This turned out to be a happy accident, as they were solid, pleasant granite, with choose-your-own-adventure climbing ranging from third to low fifth class. I picked my way up what felt comfortable and enjoyable, and eventually found myself on the serrated east-west summit ridge one tower west of the true summit. I traversed over to find the register, well-protected in a salsa bottle nested in a red can. The entries were a mix of locals and prominence junkies, about what I would expect on such a summit.

Standard route garbage chute

Rather than retracing my route, I decided to try out the standard gully on the descent. The first part was snow-free, exposing me to the loose and very much not-granite rock that comprises the peak’s east end. Lower down, I stayed well up on the east side of the gully, picking my way carefully down loose class 2-3 terrain until I could cross to join my ascent route at the bottom. From there, it was straightforward hiking back to my bike. I noticed fresh tracks on top of mine, and assumed (correctly) that the people I saw camped at the lake must be hiking out. I ran into them a few miles farther on, and they seemed friendly and not at all peeved at me for being on a bike. They were from Boise, out for a two-night fishing trip, and clearly smart enough to avoid the madness of the neighboring Sawtooths near a holiday weekend. I passed one more group on the trail, on a technical stretch which I happily managed to clean, and returned to the trailhead with some hike-a-bike and no crashes. From there it was a blast back to the car, where I ate and washed my bike before bidding farewell to Idaho’s mountains. I wish the state had fewer sidearms and “Ammon Bundy for Governor” signs, because it has a lot to offer in terms of wilderness.

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