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. Part I of the series including Little Granite Peak, Sawtooth Peak, Alpine and Smith Lake is here. This stretch 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 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.I started and finished my loop from the Canyon Creek Trailhead as it was the most convenient for me and enabled a complete loop without repetition. There are several other potential trailheads at which one could emabark on a similar loop. My start included the 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 I headed 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. My favorite view was 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 was the only section of the route which I had no information. I had scoped out several possible descent routes but ultimately decided the western side of the slope would provide 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 I utilized a ramp to take me down to more moderately angled slabs. I cruised 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 I found a shallow gully which turned into a dry streambed that provided 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. I used a dry streambed to avoid the brush and gain access to the granite slopes above, but later I learned that a path has been clipped through the brush avoiding the necessity to scramble in the large boulders of the streambed. I found the scramble to be fun and not very time-consuming, but I’ll probably look for the path next time! From the pass, I was given a tip not to descend directly to Smith Lake’s outlet, but instead traverse high around it’s south side to Morris Lake. This proved to be an excellent tip as the views of Sawtooth Mountain towering above picturesque Smith Lake are among my favorite of the route. 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 I used 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 peaks on my itinerary, I was most looking forward to Sawtooth Mountain. This is perhaps 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 my opinion 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. It’s 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 I spent some time enjoying the scene while eating lunch. After reversing the rock scramble moves up Sawtooth Mountain it was time for a traverse to Mirror Lake which would entail passage through Twin Pine Pass and a traverse to Kalmia Pass and the ledges above Mirror Lake. This segment of the trip, along with the continuation of the journey to Caesar Peak, Grizzly Lake and Thompson Peak will be covered in the next post.  

2014 Adventure Run Ideas

It should come as no surprise that I have many ideas for adventure runs (see 2013 post here and 2012 post here).  Listed below are several potential routes in the High Sierra, Trinity Alps and Coastal Region (mostly Big Sur/Ventana, but some Lost Coast).  Many of these ideas are rather obscure, but the Ventana Wilderness and Sierra Nevada are filled with hidden gems and I expect all of these will be aesthetic routes with outstanding scenery. Hopefully I’ll get to several of these ideas this year and several more routes that I haven’t thought about yet!  I also hope to visit the North Cascades in Washington State at some point, but since my opportunities to travel up north are limited I won’t dedicate a special ideas post to the Cascades this year.  All photos by me from adventures in 2013 and 2014.


  • Mount Kaweah and Second Kaweah: Fantastic views from the summits compensate for otherwise chossy climbing. The approach is also highly scenic through Little Five Lakes.
  • Whitney Zone Loop: Full meal deal with the Cleaver, Tunnabora, Carillon, Russell, Whitney, Muir, and maybe some of those other pinnacles between Whitney and Muir. 
  • Tyndall & Williamson: Double the fun for these two fourteeners via Shepherd’s Pass and Williamson Bowl.
  • Mount Rixford, Dragon Peak & University Peak: These all look like fun peaks to ascend. Mount Rixford, with its position west of the crest, is a particularly good viewpoint. Dragon Peak looks impressively rugged from the Rae lakes Basin. I’d also like ascend Mount Bago via its walk-up side.   
  • Comb Spur & Goat Mountain: Great early season route with huge views.
  • Cirque Crest Loop: An area I have yet to explore with some cool peaks I’d like to climb including Mount Ruskin and Observation Peak. This region also contains some of the range’s most remote basins including Dumbell Basin, Lake Basin and Amphitheater Lake.
  • Arrow Peak and Bench Lake: An adventure via Taboose Pass that has been on the list for many years, but I haven’t made it out yet to see the classic Sierra view of Arrow Peak from Bench Lake. Perhaps this trip could be combined with the Cirque Crest Loop described above.
  • Ionian Basin – Scylla & Hansen: Accessed via Sabrina Basin and Echo Col, this region is near Muir Pass and the JMT, but far away from the beaten path and features spectacular peaks and many high lakes amid one of the most rugged and strikingly desolate settings in the High Sierra.
  • The Black Divide Loop – Charybdis, Black Giant, McDuffie: A three peak loop tour of of the Ionian Basin, accessed via Bishop Pass and South Lake.
  • Bench Valley: Another western approach to the LeConte Divide, featuring a string of remote high alpine lakes off-trail.
  • Mt. Henry, Red Mountain and Hell for Sure Lake: A beautiful area with lots of easy cross country terrain.
  • Evolution Loop:  Last time I did the horseshoe loop from north to south, but I’m wondering if south to north is actually faster. The argument for south to north is that most of the steep climbing is completed earlier rather than later, which may work better for me as I’ll be able to attack the long and at times steep climb out Pate Valley to Muir Pass early in the route.  Despite it being a long uphill slog from the JMT junction to Piute Pass, it’s fairly gradual and I think most of it is runnable for me if I’m feeling good at that point in the run, whereas the climb from Pate Valley to Bishop Pass is too steep for any running late in the run. I also like the idea of running down through Evolution Basin and Valley.  Finally, the South Lake trailhead is also marginally higher by about 500 feet.  I guess I’ll have to find out if south to north is faster. 
  • Bench Canyon Loop: At the remote headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River this loop entails a section of the Sierra High Route from Thousand Island Lake to Tuolumne Meadows.
  • Northern Yosemite 50 miler: This is a fantastic loop including Peeler Lake, the Benson Lake riviera, Smedberg Lake, Matterhorn Canyon and Burro Pass.
  • Boundary Lake and Cherry Canyon: In northwest Yosemite and the Emigrant Wilderness.
  • John Muir Trail: The classic trail through the range of light. I’ve seen most of the trail over the years so it’s my hope to put it all together. 
  • Sierra High Route: Another big project. Over 195 miles, largely off trail through some of the best scenery the High Sierra has to offer.

Trinity Alps:

  • Sawtooth Mountain & Smith Lake: Easily the most rugged peak in the Trinity Alps and ironically it’s also arguably the most rugged mountain north of Sawtooth Ridge in the High Sierra (Yosemite/Hoover Wilderness). This route will include the remote Smith Lake nestled in a granite basin underneath Sawtooth Mountain, which is accessed via Alpine Lake, another fitting spot for an afternoon swim.
  • Caesar Peak via Stuart Fork: A trip up the Stuart Fork Trinity River to Emerald, Sapphire and Mirror Lakes finishing with a climb of Caesar Peak.
  • Caribou Mountain and Sawtooth Ridge: Beautiful views overlooking the Caribou Lakes basin, Stuart Fork Canyon and the Trinity Alps.


  • Lost Coast: I have done the entire Lost Coast from the Mattole River to Usal Beach twice over two days each. The idea is to do the entire 53 mile stretch of the coast in one single day push.
  • King Crest 50: A 50 mile route in the King Range portion of the Lost Coast, including the entire King Crest, the Cooskie Creek route to Gorda 2, and a spectacular section of the Lost Coast beach walk [completed March 23rd, blog post coming soon].
  • Pico-Cabezo Route: A point-to-point tour of the peaks from Bottcher’s Gap to Pfieffer Big Sur State Park, incluidng Pico Blanco, South Fork Little Sur River, East Molera Ridge, Post Summit, Cabezo Prieto and Mount Manuel. 
  • Ventana Loop: Finding some inspiration in my La Ventana Loop report, Sachin and Toshi put up an awesome variation by descending into the rugged cirque between Kandlbinder and Ventana Double Cone and then ascending the rugged west ridge of Ventana Double Cone via what appears to be an instant classic scramble route.This is an awesome region with a lot left for me to explore.
  • Mocho Falls along the South Fork Big Sur River: A trail run to Sykes Hot Springs and then a creekwalk along the Big Sur River and then the South Fork Big Sur River to an enigmatic waterfall that is apparently 80 feet tall on the main stem of the south fork, but has seen few visitors and no photographs that I can find.
  • South Big Sur Coast Adventures: I have done several trips in the Silver Peak Wilderness recently, including the South Coast Adventure point-to-point and the Silver Peak Wilderness Loop, but it’s got some of the best scenery along the entire Big Sur coast so I look forward to returning for more exploration.
  • Arroyo Seco River Gorge: For a hot day in the summer I would like to see the entire Arroyo Seco Canyon from top to bottom in a ~25 mile loop, 13 miles on old road and the balance walking in and swimming the Arroyo Seco.

Caribou Lakes, Trinity Alps

The Caribou Lakes area is one of the finest regions of the Trinity Alps with fantastic scenery and beautiful alpine lakes. The trailhead is at the end of a long and slow gravel road that is quite rocky in spots; passable in low-clearance sedans but caution must be exercised. The extra effort required to reach the trailhead makes the Caribou Lakes area less popular than Canyon Creek Lakes, but in my opinion the trail-accessible terrain is more scenic. However, on Labor Day Monday there were many backpackers departing the lakes as we were arriving so this region is not undiscovered. Lucky for us, everybody was leaving so we had the entire basin to ourselves by the time we arrived. There are two trails that access Caribou Lakes: the Old Caribou Trail and the New Caribou Trail. In general, the New Caribou Trail is significantly longer but contains a very gradual grade largely traversing the mountainside. In contrast, the Old Caribou Trail is more direct, but steeper and contains more elevation gain reaching a high point that is only a few hundred feet short of Caribou Mountain’s summit. Overall, both trails are worthwhile and make for an excellent figure-8 loop to visit the basin. On the way in we took the New Caribou Trail and on the way out the Old Caribou Trail.

Caribou Lakes and Snowslide Lake are situated in a spectacular granite bowl underneath Caribou Mountain. All of the lakes look very inviting for a swim on a warm day (a cool breeze kept us out of the water on this day). Upper Caribou Lake is the largest lake in the Trinity Alps and is particularly scenic with an amphitheater of white granite surrounding its eastern shore. From Upper Caribou Lake we continued up a less-used path to a small notch along Sawtooth Ridge. From here, we continued along the ridge crest west to a rock outcropping that we scrambled. This point features a stupendous view into the heart of the rugged Trinity Alps including Sawtooth Peak, Caesar Peak, Thompson Peak and the Stuart Fork Canyon.  We could see Emerald Lake, Sapphire Lake and Mirror Lake on one side of the ridge and the Caribou Lakes on the other. A magical panorama!  On the way back we enjoyed an extremely pleasant walk through the Caribou Lakes basin and then took the steep climb of the Old Caribou Trail to Point 8,118 ft.  This point features a magnificent view of the Trinity Alps and Caribou Lakes basin.  The Caribou Lakes area far exceeding my expectations and is a real gem.  Strava GPS route here.

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.