Geographically located between the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades, it makes sense that the Trinity Alps look and feel like a mixture of the two mountain ranges, yet the sum of the parts creates something distinctly unique. The Trinities are a granite playground with glacier sculpted canyons, rugged spires, gushing waterfalls, clear lakes and wildflower meadows. The diversity of conifers is among the most in the world (36 by one count) with several species at the limit of their respective ranges resulting in species from the north and south coexisting, and including several that are endemic to the region like the Northern Foxtail Pine and Brewer’s Weeping Spruce. While the Trinities are a “pocket” range that are only a tiny fraction of the size of the vast Sierra Nevada to the southeast, there are so many hidden gems in these mountains that keep me coming back to explore more. Papoose Lake is one such gem. Surrounded by a nearly perfect circular amphitheater of cliffs, snowfields and waterfalls, it’s a spectacular sight and a place that I had wanted to visit for some time. The remote lake is trail accessible by around 12 miles each way from the Hobo Gulch Trailhead and up Rattlesnake Creek (apparently aptly named due to the healthy rattlesnake population along the creek). The long drive to the trailhead and many miles of lower elevation trail contribute to the fact that Papoose Lake is not visited very much, especially when compared to the ultra popular Canyon Creek Lakes or the Four Lakes Loop. You can likely find solitude (or close to it) at this lake and I was the only person there on a Sunday. However, instead of taking the trail to Papoose Lake, I decided to combine it with a visit to the Canyon Creek Lakes and climb up and over the rugged ridge that separates the Canyon Creek drainage from Papoose Lake via Gray Rock Pass. While Papoose Lake itself was magnificent, the route to reach Papoose Lake was even more scenic and included excellent views of the heart of the Trinity Alps and stellar “aerial” vistas of both the Canyon Creek Lakes and Papoose Lake that were likely the highlights of the day. Photo album here.
For the scenic off-trail route to Papoose Lake, take the popular trail from the Canyon Creek Trailhead to the beautiful Canyon Creek Lakes. Backpackers and hikers at Canyon Creek Lakes are likely the last people you’ll see for awhile. Follow cairns up and around Lower Canyon Creek Lake to Upper Canyon Creek Lake. At the Upper Lake, instead of traversing around the upper lake, a convenient talus gully provides a shortcut up to the ridge above. Traverse the west shoreline of the upper lake and as you approach the vertical cliff that descends right into the lake a steep talus gully presents itself. Ascend this mostly stable talus gully. Toward the top of the gully the talus transitions to steep dirt between firs. Virtually all of the brush can be avoided. From the top of the gully one is treated to a magnificent view of Canyon Creek Lakes below, particularly if one descends slightly on the granite arm that plunges precipitously down to the upper lake. This area contains a stellar grove of Brewer’s Weeping Spruce (Picea breweriana), which is endemic to the Klamath Mountains of northwest California and southwest Oregon. The common name is fitting as this large coniferous tree has drooping twigs from each branch that form curtains of needled foliage. While one of the rarer conifers with its small natural range, the weeping spruce is highly prized as an ornamental in gardens. However, nothing can beat seeing these trees in their rugged mountainous habitat and this bench above Canyon Creek lakes is one of the finest stands that I have seen with weeping spruces of all shapes and sizes. Moving up the granite arm, a steeper step has some scrambling on granite slabs before the terrain eases. Continue ascending up the arm and then veer to the right when spires block progress on the crest of the ridge. Here the Brewer’s spruce transitions to mountain hemlock and ultimately to wide open granite slabs. This beautiful granitescape enables relatively easy off-trail travel and one can make an ascending traverse around the cirque aiming for Gray Rock Pass. The rugged ridgeline is serrated and contains numerous spires and unnamed peaks, but Gray Rock Pass provides a relatively easy and safe passage over the crest. The pass was named as such due to an identifiable strip of gray rock that passes right through the col. Unlike the solid white granite that surrounds the col, the gray rock is incredibly brittle (annotated photo of pass location coming soon). If snow covered, the final slope up to the Gray Rock Pass becomes steep so traction device and ice axe may be required in early season.
Gray Rock Pass has an amazing view of the surrounding terrain including Sawtooth Mountain, Little Granite Peak, Caesar Peak and Mount Shasta. From the pass to Papoose Lake is a nearly 1500 ft descent and attention is required to avoid brush and cliffs. First, descend down a gravel and talus gully to friendly slabs. From the slabs the main idea is to trend skiers right and aim for the outlet of Papoose Lake. At about 7600 ft cross over from slabs into a strip of trees and descend through these trees before trending right once more to make the final descent down boulders and slabs to the outlet of the lake. Numerous flat granite benches provide many camping options, but there’s sparse wood here so please don’t make fires. Ascend above the lake along the ridge for an excellent vista of the Papoose Lake amphitheater and marvel at the impressive cirque of cliffs and spires that surround the lake. If visiting in early season, hanging snowfields fill the upper cirque and feed waterfalls that bounce off the cliffs into the lower cirque. It’s a beautiful spot! Photo album here.