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 II: Mirror Lake, Caesar Peak & Thompson Peak

Part II of the three part series on the Trinity Alps High Route fastpack focuses on the section from Sawtooth Mountain to Thompson Peak. The other parts of the series:

  • Part I including Little Granite Peak, Sawtooth Peak, Alpine and Smith Lake
  • Part III including Wedding Cake, Mount Hilton and Boulder Creek lakes

The section covered in this post is probably the most remote and rugged of the entire route, particularly the section from Kalmia Pass to Mirror Pass. After downclimbing the scramble section of Sawtooth Mountain, one is treated to a walk across the peak’s massive east face, which is a gently sloping granite apron. The granite is smooth and the travel is generally easy until one reaches a ridge that separates Devils Canyon from the Stuart Fork of the Trinity River. Along this ridge is a small notch called Twin Pine Pass that enables passage to the other side. This pass is quite miraculous since virtually anywhere else above or below this pass would require some technical climbing. Accessing this pass is straightforward if you aim to gain the ridge west of the pass and then drop down into the pass from the ridge. There are a few ways to gain the ridge and most will contain a few scrambling moves.   From Twin Pine Pass, there is a section of talus hoping before one reaches another marvelous section of smooth granite slabs where efficient progress can be made.  Above these slabs is a wonderful glacially sculpted ridge and below the slabs is a tremendous view across the canyon to Mirror Lake and Caesar Peak. As one moves west across this section of pristine granite, Mirror Lake grows larger and the views keep improving. Ultimately, the easy slab walking ends and one must begin an ascent toward Kalmia Pass. It may be tempting to descend from Kalmia Pass directly into the basin between it and Mirror Lake, but this is not advisable due to dangerous cliffs and fields of unstable talus. Instead, there is a broad sloping ledge sandwiched between two cliff bands that provides a relatively efficient and safe route to Mirror Lake. From Kalmia Pass, descend northwest along alp slopes and talus to the ledge and begin traversing across with cliffs above and below. The views along this traverse are stellar and include Sapphire Lake with Sawtooth Ridge towering behind. The ledge is not flat so there is quite a bit of sidehilling and a couple washouts to cross that include steep hardpan so caution is necessary at several points of the traverse. Keep following the ledge for longer than you might assume, generally maintaining elevation and evening ascending a little as Mirror Lake comes into view immediately below and the lower cliff band reaches higher. Eventually an obvious gully comes into view with Mirror Lake directly below. This weakness in the cliffs is the ticket to reaching Mirror Lake without hazardous down climbing through cliffs. Follow the gully down and then move left onto granite slabs and benches for the last part of the descent to lovely Mirror Lake. Aptly-named Mirror Lake is tucked into a granite bowl beneath the grand cirque that forms the headwaters of the Stuart Fork of the Trinity River. This lake is a wonderful spot and extremely photogenic. Enjoy the lake since the ascent from Mirror Lake to Mirror Pass is fairly long and arduous gaining 1,400 feet in short order. The main idea is to reach a bowl beneath Mirror Pass that is ~7,800 ft. When ascending the granite slopes and shallow gullies north of Mirror Lake, one approaches what appears to be a headwall but a diagonal ramp leads left to right to a forested ridge that provides access through the headwall and to the bowl. From the bowl, ascend talus slopes to Mirror Pass which is another miraculous crossing where cliffs are present on both sides of the pass but the pass itself is basically a walk over. It seems possible to ascend Caesar Peak via its east ridge from beneath Mirror Pass but this description is for the easier class 2 ascent via the North Ridge.  To gain the north ridge traverse at 8,000 feet on granite slabs and moraine debris. A permanent snowfield once existed here but all that remains is a few chunks of ice beneath the towering cliffs of Caesar Peak’s northeast face. After ascending the glacial moraine the route reaches another pass that separates the Little South Fork Salmon River from Grizzly Creek. From this pass Caesar Peak is less than a thousand feet up. One can stick to the north ridge proper from the bottom or take pleasant granite slopes west of the ridge and use one of the many small chutes to gain the ridge higher up. Caesar Peak features a commanding view of the region including Mirror Lake, Sapphire lake and Sawtooth Mountain to the south, Thompson Peak to the west and Grizzly Lake to the north. The cirque above Grizzly Lake can easily be traversed to continue the route between Caesar Peak and Thompson Peak, but Grizzly Lake is one of the highlights of the route and worth the fairly large elevation gain and loss necessary to reach the shores of the lake. The spectacular lake situated in a rugged granitic cirque with deep blue waters and clumps of firs. One of the most amazing aspects of this lake is its outlet waterfall which tumbles over large cliffs only a few feet away from the lake. Not much water is present late in the summer but this must be a spectacular sight in early summer and worthy of an trip earlier in the season to view this waterfall in its full glory. There are several good camp spots on the north shore of Grizzly Lake with stunning views of the granite cirque including Caesar Peak and Thompson Peak. From Grizzly Lake it’s a fairly straightforward climb up slabs and talus to notch on the northwest ridge of Thompson Peak. In the upper reaches of this climb is a faint trail that provides easier passage through the scree and rocks. From the notch in the ridge, instead of traversing into the Rattlesnake Creek basin one can ascend the northwest ridge of Thompson Peak directly to the summit. Where the boulders became large and awkward, move to the south side of the ridge and continue up to the summit with a few class 3 moves along the way, including the summit block which is a collection of very large boulders and some fun bouldering moves. The 360 degree panorama from Thompson Peak is amazing, particularly down to Grizzly Lake and the Thompson Glacier. While the glacier is now only a few acres in size, there still appears to be crevasses and ice movement. Hopefully the glacier makes it through this drought, but I’m not too optimistic about its long term survival. From Thompson Peak the view south is equally impressive and includes much of the remainder of the route across the broad granite face to Mount Hilton, Sawtooth Mountain and the Canyon Creek Lakes drainage. The section from Thompson Peak to Mount Hilton to Boulder Lakes will be covered in the last segment of the Trinity Alps High Route series.

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.