Trail Report: The Trinity Alps

Hiking the heart of California's second-largest wilderness area

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I took my first backpacking trip six years ago. It drew me into the granite heart of California’s Trinity Alps, to the rugged bowl that holds Papoose Lake. I carried many expectations on the 14-mile hike from Hobo Gulch, but what I discovered at the trail’s end was altogether unexpected.

After more than a mile of difficult scrambling at dusk, the lake came into view. I froze. The sheer granite wall that rose like a palisade above the lake’s surface seemed projected from the haze of a half-recalled dream. Déjà vu washed over me in waves as I approached the lake, uncertain whether I’d arrived by somnambulism or design.

The experience of arriving in a familiar place to which I’d never been inspired a mixture of elation, awe, and fear. I’ve since returned to the Trinity Alps a half dozen times in pursuit of those feelings. Over the Labor Day weekend this year, I hiked into the Canyon Creek area. Like all of my annual trips to new corners of the wilderness’s alpine meadows, craggy peaks and heavenly lakes, this most recent trip felt a bit like going home.

A photo taken six years ago of Papoose Lake. Upon arriving, I felt I’d already been there in a dream. Photo: Sam Edmondson

The Trinity Alps are prized for their ecological value. They contain a remarkable diversity of conifers, hosting trees common to the Sierra Nevada as well as the Cascade and Pacific Coast ranges further north. The wilderness’s diverse forests and alpine country also provide habitat for black bears, mountain lions, the threatened northern spotted owl and other species, many of them quite shy.

Flowers, on the other hand, can’t elude detection so easily. Over the weekend, I had the good fortune of hiking through a meadow ablaze with panther lilies, which are native to the coastal mountain ranges of California and southern Oregon.

Panther lilies, also called leopard lilies, have a vibrant color and mottled pedals. We stumbled upon these in a meadow west of El Lake. Photo: Sam Edmondson

The large forests in which the Trinity Alps are nestled—the Shasta-Trinity, Klamath and Six Rivers national forests—are also prized for their timber. These areas comprise the southern tip of the Pacific Northwest’s famed old-growth forests, which extend all the way to southeast Alaska. But major portions of the old-growth stands in these ancient forests have been consumed by the chainsaw, endangering vital habitat for salmon, spotted owls and other critters.

Earthjustice first entered the fight to protect these old-growth forests and species that depend on them in the late 1980s, when attorneys petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking Endangered Species Act protections for the northern spotted owl. The government declined, and a back-and-forth legal battle colored by the often graceless collision between politics and science has unfolded ever since. (Note: The northern spotted owl did make it on the list of threatened and endangered species in June of 1990, thanks to an Earthjustice lawsuit.) After more than two decades, the effort to conserve these great natural resources has as many branches as the wooden giants it aims to protect.

Most recently, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must revise a highly controversial recovery plan and designation of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl that was issued by the Bush administration in 2008. Earthjustice and other conservation groups challenged the flawed recovery plan, which aimed to rollback protections for the owl despite clear science showing the population has been declining by 4 percent a year since 1995, due in large part to the logging of old-growth trees. USFWS is now on a court-ordered schedule to rectify its faulty approach.

Logging has exacted a heavy price. Only 15 to 20 percent of the original old-growth forests that spotted owls depend on remain in the Pacific Northwest. That price is on display when driving through Weaverville, CA, a Gold Rush town just south of Trinity’s border. Massive piles of logs, soaked by a constant spray of water to prevent splitting and warping, are visible from CA-299/CA-3 before the road splits east and west, providing access to Trinity’s numerous trailheads. After passing the logpile, we drove west to Junction City and then headed north towards Canyon Creek.

The Canyon Creek Lakes are the most visited in the Trinity Alps, which isn’t surprising: they’re beautiful and the 8-mile hike to reach them is easy.

The Canyon Creek Lakes from above. The hike in snakes through the valley in the distance. Photo: Sam Edmondson

To escape the Labor Day crowds and give ourselves a little challenge, we hiked off trail above Upper Canyon Creek Lake in the direction of El Lake, so named for its alphabetic shape.

The sun saturates cliff walls at the back of El Lake. Photo: Sam Edmondson

But El Lake, despite its plentiful charm, was just a pit stop en route to our real destination: the tiny Kalmia Lake, which rests high on the ridge opposite two of Trinity’s most iconic peaks, Wedding Cake and Mt. Thompson, which at 9,002 feet is the highest peak in the Alps (some say Mt. Thompson crests at 8,994 feet, but that doesn’t take away its claim to fame).

Festively named Wedding Cake is on the left, and Mt. Thompson, the highest peak in the Trinity Alps, is on the right. Quite a marriage. Photo: Sam Edmondson

Kalmia Lake. Beyond the ridgeline to the west of Kalmia Lake, seen here in the distance, lies Papoose Lake. In this part of the Alps, you are always just one pass crossing away from another beautiful lake, or set of lakes. Photo: Sam Edmondson

The eastern ridge above Kalmia Lake offers a stunning view of the Stuart Fork valley, which contains a precious triumvirate: Emerald, Sapphire and Mirror Lakes. I backpacked to these gems two years ago, so it was a treat to see them from above.

Mirror, Sapphire, and Emerald Lakes stretch out from left to right. This is one of the prettiest panoramas I’ve seen in the Trinity Alps. Photo: Sam Edmondson

The Trinity Alps are apparently a fan of E.T., too. Here stands the extraterrestrial, immortalized in granite. Photo (and poor Photoshopping): Sam Edmondson

Rather than backtrack, we completed a loop by descending to the upper reaches of Canyon Creek via a steep drainage, sections of which had me questioning our collective judgment.

The following day, we hiked to the Boulder Creek and Forbidden lakes, which provide good camping and great views of Mt. Hilton and Sawtooth Mountain. Shockingly, the largest of the Boulder Creek Lakes also offered great swimming. Trinity’s lakes are cold. When jumping into them, I usually start swimming to shore before I’ve even hit the water. This one turned out to be highly swimmable.

The Boulder Creek Lakes, a collective of six separate bodies of water. The largest provided great swimming and diving. Photo: Sam Edmondson

The Forbidden Lakes. Sawtooth Mountain is visible in the background. Photo: Sam Edmondson

On all of my trips to Trinity, I can’t help but recall the feelings when I first saw Papoose Lake and its glacial cirque. While writing this trail report, I learned that "papoose" is an Algonquian word that comes from the Narragansett people of Rhode Island, meaning an "American Indian baby or child."

That name seems fitting. I arrived at Papoose Lake a tyro walking in the woods. But every trip I’ve taken since has taught me more about the tremendous value of wild lands and the need to preserve them for future generations. I also feel that I’ve learned more about myself with each additional mile of trail hiked. At the end of all of those miles, I hope to find some deeper understanding of the beautiful planet we’re lucky to call home and my place in it. John Muir said, "The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness." I might add to his great words in this way: "So, too, is the clearest way into ourselves."

Sam Edmondson was a campaign manager on air toxics issues from 2010 until 2012. He helped organize the first 50 States United for Healthy Air event. His desire to work at an environmental organization came from the belief that if we don't do something to change our unsustainable ways, we are in big trouble.