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.
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.
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.
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.