Trinity Alps, July 2001
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Trinity Alps, Canyon Creek Lakes

July 29 - August 1, 2001

"Screw it then. Go home and I'll fly down there tomorrow."

Thomy and I had been planning a five-day backpacking and wandering trip in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in the Washington Cascades. Thomy was calling from the airport in Medford, Oregon to tell me that his plane was running thirty minutes late. I'd been looking out the window at the cool rain all morning. The only thing Thomy likes less than cold is rain. As much as I looked forward to our time in the Alpine Lakes, I was also not inclined to spend five days in the rain. So, at the very last minute, we flipped the trip and I flew to Medford...

Thomy picked me up at the airport and we went to the bookstore to study guide books and maps. After a couple cups of coffee we decided on the Canyon Creek Lakes in the southeast corner of the Trinity Alps Wilderness. We drove to his place in Ashland, packed up, and hit the road, headed south on I-5.

Packing up in Thomy's garage.

The weather was warm, hot even, and sunny, in stark contrast to the drizzle I'd left behind in Seattle. We stopped in Mt. Shasta City to pick up a few items from the friendly folks at The 5th Season. They were even kind enough to give us some white gas from the private store supply. The 5th Season is a good shop staffed by friendly, knowledgeable employees. They told me that they expect Lake Helen to melt out for the first time in seventy years.

Mt. Shasta from the back door of The Fifth Season, in Mt. Shasta City.

Onward south we went, past Castle Crags and into Redding. There we visited a Safeway for a few more food items. West then, to Weaverville and tiny little Junction City, population 106. We turned north toward the trailhead and entered a bizarre landscape.

The area was a focal point for mining activity earlier in the century. Hummocks of mine tailings litter the landscape, an ugly legacy left by humans. Along the road an occasional home. Several look like something from the movie "Deliverance".

Finally, after 13 miles and thirty minutes, we reached the trailhead. It was just starting to get dusky. We set up the tent and went to bed.

In the morning we packed and started up the trail. It was warm, but not hot, and dusty. We made good progress along the trail, stopping once to fill our bottle from a small creek (hint: don't fill from the first place, as the trail switches back across it twice!) and several other times to eat and enjoy the views.

A cairn above Lower Canyon Creek Lake.

I was hot, tired, and dusty when we reach the upper lake. It was about 2:00 PM. We thoroughly perused the obvious camping spots, finally choosing one in the middle with good access to the lake. We dropped our packs and jumped in the water. Later we ate dinner overlooking the lake, as a lone fisherman floated around quietly and gracefully in a bellyboat.

Me cooling off in Upper Canyon Creek Lake.

In the morning we walk east around the lake, then through the meadow on the north side and up the creek, looking for access to the ridge running between Hilton and Thompson mountains.

Some bit of time was spent choosing a route. We looked through binoculars and debated the options, finally deciding to try a rib just across the creek from us. We dropped down and crossed the creek, then conducted a brief battle with thick brush. Emerging on the other side, we made easy progress toward the rib.

Our route on the "access rib".

Another angle, a wider view of a grand playground in white granite.

Thomy reveling in the brush.

With just a bit of scrambling we were able to access the board upper granite slabs above the valley. The higher we climbed, the more spectacular the scenery. For a while we walked on sublime polished granite slabs. Then we came upon a creek, lush with vegetation, running in a depression in the slabs. Though it was not the most direct route to the pass we wanted to reach, we scrambled up the creek, mesmerized by its beauty.

A creek high in the cirque, amidst the granite slabs.

Eventually we cut left onto boulders and traversed toward the col. On the map the ground we covered was supposed to be covered with "permanent snow". It wasn't. An alarming and depressing sign of the state of our environment.

We reached the col and sat for a few minutes. Then my desire to go higher overcame me and I scrambled up to the south. Thomy stopped to take a nap while I continued, hoping to reach the summit of Mt. Hilton. Sadly, the beautiful, solid granite gave way to a more crumbly, rotten variety. After twenty minutes I reached a flat sub-summit from which I could see the true summit of Hilton. Its distance from me (I'd told Thomy I'd be gone no more more than 45 minutes), more technical terrain, and bad rock led me to decide to leave its summit for another day.

Looking south along the ridge at Mt. Hilton from my high point.

Looking east at Mt. Shasta above the ridges guarding El Lake.

I rejoined Thomy and enjoyed a brief snack before we started back to our camp. We opted for a different route back, traversing around the south end of the basin, the dropping down the ridge and descending a talus and boulder field adjacent to a remarkable gothic granite wall. This left us at the west edge of our lake. We traversed near the shore, returning in just a few more minutes to our camp. It was a long day and we both swam and then ate heartily before bed.

Thomy on the smooth white granite of the upper cirque.

That night, while I slept soundly, the local deer made their usual visit and chewed the hell out of my pack towel, which must have had body oil and salt residue. They also dragged my trekking poles all over, apparently play tug-o-war over them by the salty wrist straps.

Wedding Cake Peak and Mt. Thompson in the morning mist.

The next day we headed east, up an intermittent trail, to El (or L) lake. While Thomy lounged, I hiked lazily around the lake, enjoying the spectacular setting and a few grazing deer. Trout abounded at the far end, where a large creek, sourced high on Sawtooth mountain, empties into the lake.

The west end of El Lake.

I rejoined Thomy and we decided to explore another pass just north of us. Again we carefully scoped out a route, maybe more carefully, as accessing this pass involved much more brush and trees. We managed to find a faint trail leading to a dry creek bed. We scrambled up the creek bed until it faded into steep duff. We continued up, leaving an occasional cairn to assist our return. We reached the ridge, but east of the pass proper. We sat and enjoyed views of Mirror and Sapphire lakes, and scanned Sawtooth Ridge for signs of the steep trail leading into the valley from Caribou lake.

The Mirror Lake cirque from "Kalmia Pass" (my name). Mt. Thompson in the distance (arrow).

We looked at the maps and talked about the possibility of exploring the valley below us. I suggested that we could do a through hike of the area, north to south from Caribou lake to Canyon Creek lake. And so was hatched yet another scheme. We walked down the ridge to the pass proper to see what would be involved in descending to Mirror lake. It looked possible, though it was hard to be sure. Certainly there were cliffs below us, but they were pierced by gullies, perhaps one of which would allow us passage. But finding out for sure would have to wait for another day: The afternoon was dragging on and dinner and swimming beckoned.

We returned to our camp, swam and ate. We again reclined in our Thermarest chairs as the sun went down and the moon came up. The deer made their visit as we talked. Eventually the moon set behind us and the stars appeared in droves. At some point I fell asleep in my chair.

Moonrise to the southeast.

We had a very lazy, relaxing morning. Still kind of stoned out from our late night contemplating the Universe. We lounged, ate, and swam. I guess it was about 2:00 PM by the time we got packed and headed out.

Morning reflection of the "Gothic Wall" from our camp. For perspective, the boulders at the bottom of the talus slope were car-sized.

The walk out felt long. The trail was dusty and I was filthy when we reached the parking lot. We both took an impromptu shower using large water jugs in the car. We had dinner in Weaverville and further discussed our through-hike scheme. We decided that a reconnaissance trip would be in order to make sure that we could make our way from Mirror lake to the pass above Upper Canyon Creek lake.

I returned home the next day, back to the hustle and bustle, but relaxed and rejuvenated.


This page was last edited on Thursday, January 01, 2004
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