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 High Route Part I: Little Granite & Sawtooth

This the first of a series of posts on the Trinity Alps High Route, a mostly off-trail loop through the Trinity Alps that covers many of the highlights of this spectacular region. There are numerous variations of this route for the adventurer to consider, and I am sure my itinerary on my next visit will be different, but the route I am sharing is a complete loop around the upper Canyon Creek drainage including summits of the six named peaks surrounding the drainage. Each of these summits offered its own rewards and I highly recommending including at least some of the peaks into any itinerary as the views are breathtaking. While my fastpack took two days with the single night spent at Grizzly Lake, I feel it makes more sense to split up the copious photography and my thoughts on the route into three parts: the first part from the trailhead to Little Granite Peak to Sawtooth Mountain; the second part from Sawtooth Mountain to Caesar Peak to Thompson Peak; and the third part from Thompson Peak to Mount Hilton to Boulder Lakes. The Trinity Alps are a spectacular and rugged collection of mountains and ridges tucked deep in the Klamath Mountains of Northern California. Largely overlooked for the neighboring greater ranges in the Sierra Nevada and Cascades, these mountains remain a gem where solitude and adventure can be found in a large expanse of trail-less wilderness. In fact, as the Trinity Alps are geographically between the Cascades and the Sierra, the mountains contain a magical blend of both range’s characteristics. The Trinity Alps High Route (TAHR) was conceived by Deems Burton after decades of exploration learning the intricacies of this wild terrain. His photo gallery contains many inspirational photos and ideas for cross country treks. The high route is characterized by ubiquitous white granite, serene alpine lakes, and clumps of picturesque krummholz. It is said that the ubiquitous white granite of these mountains produces an incomparable deep blue sky and I’d have to agree.The following description starts and finishes from the Canyon Creek Trailhead. For many it will be the most convenient and enable a complete loop without repetition. There are several other potential trailheads at which one could emabark on a similar loop. From Canyon Creek trailhead the start includs a climb up to the Stuart-Bear Divide which becomes quite steep near the top. At the divide, instead of taking the trail down the other side head up cross country to Little Granite Peak. With a little bit of mico-navigating, one can avoid the brush at the lower part and the rock outcroppings on the summit ridge. The final hundred vertial includes some some class 3 scrambling to reach the summit. Lttle Granite affords a great vantage to survey the TAHR as the entire Canyon Creek drainage is visible. Perhaps the most impressive view is looking toward the impressive Sawtooth Mountain, with its nearly vertical fang of gray granite rising abruptly from the more subdued white granite slopes below. I enjoyed the early morning view from the summit while contemplating my descent to Alpine Lake. The descent from Little Granite Peak to Alpine Lake is a section with no information available online. There may be alternative descent routes, but it appears the western side of the slope provides the highest likelihood of successes. The complexity is due to the fact that east and south sides of Alpine Lake are surrounded by cliffs and steep slabs while the west side is a jungle of coarse brush. Care must taken to find the most efficient route down to avoid cliffs and nasty bushwhacking. From just below the summit utilize a ramp to descend down to more moderately angled slabs. Cruise down the easy slabs for awhile staying to skiers left near the ridgecrest and descended towards the fields of brush west of Alpine Lake. At the brush find a shallow gully which turns into a dry streambed and provides a mostly brush-free descent to Alpine Lake. As mentioned previously, Alpine Lake is a beautiful spot nestled in a granitic cirque beneath Little Granite Peak and the rugged unnamed summit to the north. From Alpine Lake the next objective is to gain a pass between the Alpine Lake drainage and the Smith Lake drainage. Most of the terrain to gain this pass is efficient travel on granite slabs but the lower part is field of nearly impenetrable brush. One can use a dry streambed to avoid the brush and gain access to the granite slopes above, but a path has been clipped through the brush avoiding the necessity to scramble in the large boulders of the streambed. While the scramble is fun and not very time-consuming, it may be worthwhile to look for the clipped path through the wall of brush.  From the pass, instead of descending directly to Smith Lake’s outlet, traverse high around its south side to Morris Lake. The terrain down to the outlet is certainly negotiable, but one would miss the stellar view of Sawtooth Mountain towering above picturesque Smith Lake, which is among the favorite vistas of the route for the author. Smith Lake is known as the Queen of the Alps, and rightfully so, with it’s deep blue waters carved in a smooth bowl of white granite. This is an awesome and inspirational spot with outstanding scenery. From Morris Lake use a steep ramp to cross over the southeast ridge of Sawtooth Mountain at a notch. From the notch it was fairly easy travel on slabs and talus up to the north ridge of Sawtooth Mountain. Of the six named peaks surrounding the Canyon Creek drainage, Sawtooth Mountain is arguably the most compelling as it is the most remote and difficult mountain in the Trinity Alps with a wild character. Despite not being the tallest mountain in the Trinities (a title which belongs to Thompson Peak), a strong argument can be made that it is the centerpiece peak of the Trinity Alps, and in the opinion of the author it is. Information on the final scramble up the large summit block (the “tooth”) was scarce, but I found it to be fairly straightforward. The first few moves up the ridge are probably the most difficult but go as class 3 if you look carefully. More class 3 climbing continues up along the ridge (generally on its east side) until the climber reaches a spot on the crest of the ridge near the north summit, which is a few feet lower than the south summit. The traverse over to the south summit entails some more class 3 scrambling and micro-routefinding passing over and around a couple gendarmes but the south summit is ultimately not far away and the climber soon finds themselves sitting atop the summit rocks with a birds eye view of the Trinities.Sawtooth Mountain is an excellent vantage of all of the surrounding terrain including Mount HIlton, Thompson Peak and Caesar Peak with distant views to the Red Trinities and Mount Shasta. Immediately below are Smith Lake and Morris Lake, shimmering in their granite bowls. It’s a grand vista and worthy of spending some time to enjoy the scene. After reversing the rock scramble moves up Sawtooth Mountain one must traverse to Mirror Lake which entails passage through Twin Pine Pass and a traverse to Kalmia Pass and the ledges above Mirror Lake. This segment of the Trinity Alps High Route, along with the continuation of the journey to Caesar Peak, Grizzly Lake and Thompson Peak will be covered in the next post.  

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.