Trinity Alps High Route Part III: Wedding Cake, Mount Hilton & Boulder Lakes

The third and final part of series of posts  on a two day fastpack of the Trinity Alps High Route covers the section from Thompson Peak to the trailhead at Canyon Creek inclduing Wedding Cake, Mount Hilton and Boulder Creek Lakes. This portion of the Trinity Alps High Route was previously covered in the Trinity Alps Traverse report from 2013 and that trip served as inspiration for the Trinity Alps High Route this year. Many additional photos can be found on the 2013 post with different lighting since this section was done in reverse. The preceding two posts were as follows:

From the summit of Thompson Peak descend the sandy southwest slopes and traverse granite benches to the short class 3 climb up a chute to the summit of Wedding Cake, which in my opinion has the best birds eye view of the Canyon Creek Lakes. After descending Wedding Cake traverse on the west side of the ridge until the crest can be easily crossed to the east side. At this point, an awesome 2+ mile “granite highway” section commences. This stretch is stunning with rugged unnamed peaks and spires towering above and sweeping views of the pristine granite slopes dropping off to the Canyon Creek Lakes below. The smooth white granite is interspersed with grassy meadow benches, krummholz and small cascading streams making for a delightful setting.

If headed for Mount Hilton, at the end of this marvelous stretch of granite slabs ascend to a high shoulder on the first of two sub-ridges that need to be crossed to access the Mount Hilton scramble. Once over this shoulder enter a smaller drainage with more talus than granite, but excellent views of the precipitous northeast buttress of Mount Hilton. After traversing through this cirque a convenient ramp can be used to pass the second sub-ridge and deposit one immediately beneath Mount Hilton (those skipping Mount Hilton could simply traverse below this sub-ridge and directly down to Boulder Creek Lakes). This ramp looks somewhat difficult from afar but in reality it’s a class 2 walk-up providing surprisingly easy passage through this barrier that would otherwise involve some tricky climbing. Once over the ridge, ascend steep alpine slopes to the foot of the final class 3 scramble portion up Mount Hilton. The summit provides an amazing vista of the surrounding mountains and an excellent overview of the Trinity Alps High Route. In particular, Sawtooth Mountain sports a particularly impressive profile across the Canyon Creek drainage. From the summit of Mount Hilton to Boulder Creek Lakes is a long and steep descent of over 3,000 feet down to the Boulder Creek Lakes. The upper part of this descent is fairly straightforward on rocks and gravel transitioning to sections of granite slabs in the middle. The lower portion of the descent requires some micro-navigating through some cliff bands and thick brush. Towards the bottom a creek bed may be used in later season to avoid most of the brush. The Boulder Creek Lakes are tucked into a granite bowl with excellent views to Little Granite Peak and Sawtooth Mountain across the canyon. Mount Hilton looms above and the granite slabs surrounding the basin create a magical setting. From Boulder Creek Lakes it’s back on trails. The initial descent to the Canyon Creek is fairly rough and rocky trail but the final few miles along the Canyon Creek Trail are relatively smooth and easy trail miles.    Topping out at just over 9,000 feet, the height of the Trinity Alps is not impressive when compared with the Sierras, but their higher latitude and proximity to the Pacific Ocean allow for significant winter snow accumulation and the existence of a few small patches of permanent ice. The largest of these patches of permanent ice is immediately below Thompson Peak and contains the requisite characteristics to be classified as a true glacier. Known as the Thompson Glacier, this glacier has undergone significant reduction in thickness and surface area as shown in this comparison of photos from the summit of Thompson Peak in 2013 and 2015 (both Labor Day weekend). The ongoing drought and a warming climate mean this glacier is in jeopardy of disappearing entirely. Glaciers were an integral part of shaping the majestic Trinity Alps that we see today with the ubiquitous ice-polished granite faces that embody these mountains, but if this glacier melts away the range would be devoid of true glaciers. thompson glacier comparison annotated

Fastpack Gear:

  • La Sportiva Ultra Raptor: built tough for off-trail travel and sticky sole for rock scrambling
  • Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20: Everything you need and nothing more!
  • Thermarest NeoAir sleeping pad
  • Mountain Hardwear Mountain Speed sleeping bag
  • Extra clothing: Windbreaker, light down jacket, light gloves, beanie (summer temperatures and a reliable weather forecast for a two day trip)
  • Food: bars, pumpkin flax granola, dried fruit and meats
  • Essentials like First-aid, sunscreen, chapstick etc.
  • Canon Powershot S110

The Trinity Alps High Route is an excellent way to see some of the best scenery in the Trinity Alps. The Trinities may not stand out in the typical metrics used to rank mountain ranges, but the uniquely rugged granitic landscape and a true wilderness experience makes this a special spot. In fact, it’s one of my favorite areas to explore. This series of posts has described one route through these mountains, but the possibilities for wandering the lovely alpine terrain in this range are literally endless. I look forward to future trips to the Trinity Alps and hopefully uncovering more gems in this wonderful corner of California.   

Trinity Alps Traverse

The Trinity Alps are a spectacular subrange within the Klamath Mountain Range in northwestern California. At the core of the Trinity Alps is section of high, white granite peaks known as the White Trinities. These mountains are impressively rugged and due tot their geographical location, they contain elements of the Cascade mountains to the north (lush vegetation) and the High Sierra to the south (pristine granite).  Topping out at just over 9,000 feet, the height of the Trinity Alps is not impressive when compared with the Sierras, but their higher latitude and proximity to the Pacific Ocean allow for significant winter snow accumulation and the existence of a few small glaciers. The largest of these cirque glaciers is immediately below Thompson Peak and due to the dry winter was virtually all bare ice with many active crevasses. I climbed Thompson Peak early in the season in 2009 finding substantial snow above Canyon Creek Lakes. On that trip I admired the long serrated ridge between Thompson Peak and Mount Hilton. Four years later I decided it was time to return to do this amazing traverse and climb the three named summits on the ridge – Mount Hilton, the Wedding Cake, and Thompson Peak. Strava route here. Complete photo album here.

I started out the day by ascending the Canyon Creek Trail which has some nice runnable sections. Once I ascended into a flat meadow area it seemed as if there was a tent at every corner (along with illegal fires). Labor Day weekend is a busy time for the Canyon Creek drainage, easily the most heavily used area in the Trinity Alps. Fortunately, once I left Boulder Creek Lakes I would see nobody until the summit of Thompson Peak. Solitude can be found in the Trinities even on the busiest weekends, but don’t expect to have Canyon Creek Lakes to yourself!  The ascent to Boulder Creek Lakes from the junction with the Canyon Creek Lakes Trail is on fairly rugged, steep trail but it’s less than 2 miles to the lakes from the junction. Boulder Creek Lakes are tiny but they are situated in a beautiful granite basin with Sawtooth Peak as a backdrop. From Boulder Creek Lakes it’s over 3,000 feet up to the summit of Mount Hilton. Surveying the slopes, my primary objective was to avoid thick brush which seemed pervasive on the lower part. My routefinding was pretty effective as I was able to pick my way through steep slabs instead of brush. Eventually, the terrain opens up with alp meadows and easy talus climbing toward Mount Hilton’s class three summit block. Once on the summit of Mount Hilton, I was greeted to a lovely view of the surrounding area, including the traverse to Thompson Peak, Sawtooth Peak across Canyon Creek and Mount Shasta in the distance. Descending from Mount Hilton, there was one uncertain section to cross a cliffy barrier into the next drainage. I found a loose ramp that was perched over cliffs that worked but looking back a route further down the ridge might have been an easier and faster way through this barrier.   

Once past the barrier, I worked my way up to another shoulder and then an awesome “granite highway” section ensued for 2+ miles. This section is stunning with rugged unnamed peaks and spires towering above on ridge crest and sweeping views of the pristine granite slopes to Canyon Creek Lakes below. The smooth white granite is interspersed with grassy meadow benches and small cascading streams, a delightful setting. I traversed over the ridge crest at a saddle south of the Wedding Cake and used a class 3 chute on the northwest side of the Wedding Cake to climb this rock formation, which has more amazing views. After the Wedding Cake I descended a little lower and found easy traversing on granite benches to Thompson Peak and then picked a route further to the west that I knew would be on more solid rock and faster than the sandy slopes on the south side of Thompson. In fact, it took only a little over a half an hour to reach Thompson Peak from the Wedding Cake. The views from this last summit of the day, and highest point in the Trinity Alps, were marvelous. I enjoyed the scene with a group who had ascended via a camp at Canyon Creek Lakes. The descent from Thompson Peak to Canyon Creek Lakes was spectacular with inspiring views the entire way, especially looking back up towards the traverse I had just completed. While Canyon Creek Lakes are popular, they are a beautiful spot with granite slabs coming down the lake shore and excellent views of the Wedding Cake and Thompson Peak up the Canyon. After Lower Canyon Creek Lake I jogged most of the way back to the trailhead. Next time I’m in the Trinities I hope to possibly include Caesar Peak in the traverse or climb Sawtooth Peak across the Canyon. Either way, I will definitely be returning since the Trinity Alps Traverse was an amazing route!  Strava route here.