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Mountain Kingdom

Central Idaho's breathtaking Boulder and White Cloud Mountains


Looking back to the spine of the White Cloud Mountains from the pass above Garland Lakes, I saw the forested foothills underfoot crest into a wave of alabaster peaks. Clouds mottled the undulating landscape in large patches of darkness that constantly changed as the shadow-makers drifted overhead. The distant White Cloud peaks, more than 10 miles away from my perch, marked the beginning of my journey six days before.

The afternoon light waned as I stood watching the white wave of rock seemingly frozen in time. Memories of a week in the wild White Clouds filled my head. A fleeing wolverine stopped to boldly stare at me before disappearing. The trout feeding in Scoop Lake were so thick that thousands at a time broke the surface. Steep, rocky terrain tenderized my feet and made my legs burn. Clouds of mosquitoes and horseflies plagued me as I passed countless waterfalls and streams, crossed flowered meadows and slipped though old-growth forests.

As I pulled my heavy tripod and 35 mm camera out of my backpack I felt, for one of those few moments in life, a wave of true peace sweeping over me. The wind, the silence and the sheer vastness combined to leave me breathless. This was my first time in the White Clouds. It would not be my last.

Since that first 63-mile solo backcountry trek in the White Cloud Mountains, I have returned again and again to central Idaho to make these pictures. The inspiring beauty of this unique landscape draws me to photograph its most remote corners. From Castle Peak to downtown Boise, Idahoans have welcomed me into their homes and camps to share their lives.

Idaho is now one of the fastest-growing places in the United States. I can see why. It's one of the most beautiful places on Earth. But this growth will threaten Idaho's wild landscapes. At some point, even the most remote backcountry wilderness will feel the burden if it is not cared for and preserved.

However distant that breathtaking moment in the wild might seem, Idahoans have come together to discuss, debate, compromise and plan for the future of the White Cloud and Boulder mountains. These deep considerations from the halls of Congress to the kitchen tables are invigorating and point to one common calling in Idaho: stewardship of the land. This, as much as the landscape itself, fills me with hope, because everyone should feel what it's like to be humbled by wilderness.

--Eric Zamora

Castle and Merriam peaks' rocky teeth tear through a blanket of forest. From a beaver pond on the Little Boulder Creek trail, these peaks stand guard over a wilderness of verdant forests and alpine lakes punctuated by monolithic crags of rock that span two mountain ranges: the Boulder and White Cloud mountains. At 11,815 feet, Castle Peak is the tallest mountain on the block, 1,000 feet higher than its neighbor, Merriam Peak. Iconic scenes like this have put Idaho at the front of modern conservation efforts, especially in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, one of the wildest places in the U.S.

The foothills of the Boulder Mountains rise steadily along the Big Wood River valley just outside of Ketchum. Outdoor enthusiasts know Boulder Peak well. A historic mining site is nestled just below the peak in an alpine basin. Only a high-clearance vehicle can traverse the 12-mile road that reaches the mine. I camped along Silver Creek, the valley to the west of Boulder Creek. My passenger car made the initial drive up Silver Creek Road before I voluntarily gave up and steered into an inviting campsite. Still in the foothills, I hiked to a nearby ridge for a clear view of the Boulder Mountains. The late afternoon light was crisp as cloud-cast shadows drifted across the landscape.

One of the steepest hikes in the Boulder Mountains is the trail that leads up the north fork of the Big Wood River to West Pass. It is like ascending a staircase up two Empire State buildings. My heels never touched the ground as I climbed 3,000 feet in two miles, following a pearly thread of tumbling water. The higher I walked, the sparser the trees became. Waterfalls greeted me around every corner. As I approached the stream for a drink, a spectacular view emerged. The craggy peaks and lush valleys of central Idaho's mountain kingdom stretched out before me.

Awakening before dawn to a deep morning blue, I rose from a comfortable sleeping bag to climb 1,000 feet to a high saddle on the flank of O'Calkens Peak in the White Cloud Mountains. This is the headwaters of Big Boulder Creek, where 12 blue lakes are strung like pearls on crystal ribbons of cascading water. When I made it to Sheep Lake, a wolverine scurried away after spotting me. Shortly afterwards, the 11,000-foot spine of the White Cloud Mountains ignited in orange and gold light. Another 500 feet up, and past two more lakes, brought me to my destination at 10,000 feet surrounded by colossal peaks, and below, the necklace of lakes: Cirque (right), Sapphire (center) and Cove.

Magic and mystery are never lost in the White Cloud Mountains. As the volatile weather transitioned from summer to fall, I hiked for five days through rain, snow and hail. Illuminated clouds along the forest edge caught my attention. The early morning sun was just peaking over a low ridge, piercing the trees and mist.

A pond dwindled in late summer where rocks protruded through an inch of water. I had spotted this tiny body of water on the map about a half-mile from my backcountry camp deep in the Boulder Mountains. This pond was the largest of a small group, none of which were named. All but this one had dried up. The sunset came and went quickly, setting the sky ablaze for mere moments before fading into night.

High above the headwaters of the east fork of the Salmon River, the behemoth Boulder Mountains unfold. I left camp a few hours earlier to explore the surrounding terrain, guided by a topographic map and what looked like a tiny pond nearby. What I didn't expect to find were pillars of rock nestled within the recesses of crumbling slopes, testament to powerful forces of nature and time—both in the defiant rock and in the elements that whittle the landscape. I had come to photograph sunset at the pond, but another idea came to mind: scramble 300 feet up the talus slope to a lone pillar, turn around, and see if the climb was worth it. It was, and the photographs immediately followed. I arrived just in time to see the sun kiss the top of the pillar before the glory of the Boulder-White Clouds faded into night. Everything before you in this image is part of the proposed Hemingway Wilderness.