With nearly two decades of backcountry travel under one's belt, what does it take to for a trip to become one of their best ever? Start with an offbeat destination, full of views, flora, fauna, everything but crowds. Add in some shamefully good weather, off-trail travel to lonely ridges and forgotten lakes, and great granite for bouldering. Spice with misadventure and pleasant surprises. Top with excellent company. Bake for 8 days, serves 2.
The summer was wearing on, my backcountry trip plans being whittled away. I was getting edgy. Too much time behind the desk rots the mind. A slew of maps littered the floor as I scoured the West for great places to wander. I'd been aiming for a PCT section along west Lake Tahoe with a fellow ultralight wanderer, but last minute snags forced Chris to back out. Bummer, but no worries. Solo is what I'm used to, and we'll hook up again before long. (Grand Canyon, Chris?) But now I had a blank slate for travel plans. So many trails, so little time.
I was zeroing in on the Weminuche Wilderness of CO's San Juan Range when out of the blue fellow JMTer Foundling dropped me a note, as edgy to be on the trail as I. Withdrawals, like sunsets, are best shared. So we started floating ideas for destinations. She had scant few vacation days she could scrounge, so somewhere closer to the Bay Area would be ideal for travel. We were stuck - the High Sierras and Lake Tahoe would end up full of Labor Day Weekend crowds, and I'm also not thrilled with having to carry a bear can. That's when Foundling said, "How about the Trinity Alps?" (...Insert your favorite dramatic aria here...)
Of course! I'd been wanting to go there for years, but somehow it always managed to fall by the wayside. Like a forgotten stepchild, California's Trinity Alps Wilderness is hidden in plain sight, overshadowed by Mt. Shasta to the northeast, the old-growth coastal redwoods to the west. And like many things forgotten and overlooked, it holds unique rewards for those who would take notice.
Destination set, plans set in motion with only two weeks to spare. Permits, maps, routes, gear, the usual. Since Foundling wouldn't be able to get there until mid-week, I'd spend several days wandering the wilderness, scouting the area, noting the better spots. We'd keep it flexible, no hard plans. One final problem - me. Needed a way to slow me down a bit, or at least burn off the excess energy that plagues me in the backcountry. Easy solution - we'd swap loads and shuffle food. I'd carry about 30-35 lbs, she'd have around 10-15. Perfect! Called the ranger station in Weaverville, and a very pleasant critter mailed out our permits the next day.
Lost a day to work deadlines, but after 16 hours of driving I rolled into Weaverville, gateway to the Trinities and all around a pretty cool town. Well, other than the fact that you don't want to arrive on a Sunday! Nearly everything was closed! Even the shops "downtown". A few stores were open, but the wilderness map I needed was nowhere to be found. Even the ranger station in town was locked tight. Argh! Submitted my permits (self-serve drop box at the ranger station), and started driving to the Canyon Creek Trailhead.
Luck and fateful words, odd bedmates they are. Just outside the one-store town of Junction City I noticed a USFS fire station. Maps! Maybe? Pulled in and chatted with the friendly crew there. Maps indeed. Big, huge Trinity Wilderness maps. The kind you could roll up and kill a sewer rat with. Trails, contour lines, water features. Ooooo yeah.... (I love maps!) I started yacking with the fire critter behind the desk, soaking up tales of off-trail routes, conditions, anecdotes. They'd been a little busy this season, but given how dry it was this summer he was glad they hadn't had any big fires yet. Very lucky, he said. Yes, lucky indeed....
Miles of winding access road later, I arrived at the Canyon Creek Trailhead. I had no real plans, which was nice. I knew some basic areas I wanted to check out, but other than that I'd be creating my trip plan each morning, perhaps each hour. Not many cars at the trailhead. This was the "popular, overcrowded" trailhead I'd read about? On a weekend? I flashed back to any number of High Sierra trailheads I've been to. Nope, this wasn't even close. Signs warned of bear, but I took note of the fact that the trash cans weren't locked down. They may be around, but not like the thuggery of the Yosemite bruins.
Sunday afternoon, perfect time for a stroll. I shouldered my pack and headed up the trail. It was evident the mountains were dry by their normal standards, but for a desert rat such as myself it was darn near a waterpark. The gentle tones of Canyon Creek filled my ears as I ambled along the dusty trail through evergreens and oak. Perfect day, perfect weather. Several groups passed me on their way out, swapping info and thoughts. I think that's one of my favorite things about the backcountry. As much as I love desolate solitude when I can get it, trail chat with fellow wanderers holds a certain magic. Maybe it's what Star Trek conventioneers feel when they exchange greetings in Klingon - an odd bond between those on the edge of society. You can easily spot the ones who don't "get it". They take the city in with them, kept it festering, and leave no better, scowling in the presence of even perfect weather and stunning scenery. A few of those today, but I've never encountered their kind much more than a slow day's hike from a trailhead.
The day was quite warm by local standards, and an hour or so to the east Redding was heading into a week of temperatures in the mid-100's. Plenty of shade along the trail as I hoofed up the path on my way to the lakes. The great weather nagged at me. Am I not Stormbringer, Summoner of Unseasonal Snow? Dread scourge of all those who travel near me? (Well, skiers love me....) Perhaps at long last I was due a calm spell. Imagine that.
It had been a wretchedly long series of sleep-deprived days getting here, now it was time to chill out. A mile or two north of the waterfall I found a lovely spot near the creek. Home for the night. Not stealth camping this time, this site was well worn, fire ring and all. But the Trinity notes requested that you stick to established campsites when possible. Fine by me. I set up home, searched around for that elusive spot that blends the perfect union between butt, back and rock, and laid down. Bliss. A small buck wandered the area, digging for little bits of something that looked like mossy fungus. A lone frog proudly declared its existence amid the constant chorus of bird, wind, and water.
Slowly I roused myself from a fine nap, then something caught my eye. One of those "Where's Waldo"/"Which One Doesn't Belong With The Others" moments. Across the creek, placed carefully in a small alcove of granite, was something. Not a natural something, but not trash either. I hopped across the creek (apologizing to the frog, who went mute in protest) to get a closer look. A wax figurine of some famous Dude-With-Discus sculpture who's name I always forget, sitting in a shrine of moss, rock and shrub. Hmmm. Oddly it seemed to fit. There was something unobtrusively amusing about it. Like those garden gnomes that get kidnapped, taken around the world and photographed in front of famous landmarks, and returned to their owner with the photo album. I chose to leave it unscathed.
First night in the backcountry this month. Far too long overdue. A furry bat swooped about, I silently cheered its voracious buggy appetite. No mosquitos here, a pleasant surprise. But any time a bat leaves with a full stomach I feel I owe them a heartfelt thanks. Birds silenced, frog confident again, flowing water. I'm sure I was asleep before my head hit the shirt-pillow.
Dawn always arrives late in deep, heavily wooded canyons. Which was absolutely perfect as far I was concerned. I can't remember a lazier start to a day, at least one not preceded by daunting quantities of tequila the night before. Slow breakfast, slow packing, slow day. I am sloth, hear me snore. As I made my way up to the Canyon Creek Lakes, I soaked up the cool morning scene. Ever so slowly I could feel the stress and crud of life melting into vapor, carried away by the winds. I met several more folks coming down from the lakes. Seems there were few left up there indeed. One older couple was kind enough to tell me of a great site on the lower lake. I took note to check it out for Foundling and me.
Another hour or so and I was at the base of the lakes. Some excellent multi-pitch rock climbs soared high above the valley, and exposed granite formed pleasant water spills and slides. Definitely somewhere you could spend days, scrambling, exploring, sitting and swimming. I settled down on the southeast side of the lower lake for a snack, met two hikers who'd wandered from their basecamp. I wouldn't be spending the night at the lakes (a plan had sprung forth in my blurry thoughts), so I scouted the site the older couple had told be about (excellent spot!) and made sure the hikers knew about it. Also found a camera and binoculars there on a rock. Since I wasn't heading back down the trail, I opted to leave them. If they were still there when Foundling and I came up, I'd pack it to the trailhead and leave it at the ranger station.
The Canyon Lakes were scenic indeed. I now knew why this trail was so popular (the most crowded in the Trinities, according to all sources). Excellent destination, plenty to explore. But far too close to the trailhead for me tonight. I had other ideas. Canyon Creek Trail is in-and-out. There are no trails out of the valley and over the ridges. Looking at my map I really wanted to explore the next valley over, under the watchful gaze of the Sawtooth Ridge. But to do that I'd have to hike back to the trailhead and head up and over Bear Creek Trail (which didn't look too inviting). Even then I'd only be near the base of the canyon, far from Mirror, Sapphire and Emerald Lakes, which were screaming for a visit. Either that or... a few short miles of off-trail scrambling over the ridge to the north/northeast and what appeared to be an... er... "aggressive" descent into Mirror Lake.
After I showed the hikers the site at Lower Canyon Lake, I made sure they knew what I had planned. This was hardly a technical route, but Nature happens and I wanted to be sure that at least someone had the slightest chance of remembering that chipper fellow with the "day pack" and running shoes, and where he said he'd been headed. A little scampering, some munchies, and off I went. Luckily an unmapped but reasonably blazed trail to El Lake brought me up to the base of the ridge itself. I took some time to explore the area. El Lake was very low, almost a marsh. One or two lightly used sites, not great but passable. Maybe if I were a diehard fly fisherman.
From the fire-critter at the USFS station, I knew they'd fought a small burn up near the ridgeline of where I was headed. Maybe I could find their old route. No such luck, but the deer had been busy, and only the last half of the ridge ascent was a true "manzanita and granite chunk" scramble. The views were just as the photos on the fire-critter's desk showed. Awesome. I made it to the ridge well within my target time, and was rewarded with a vista that warmed the mind. Now all I had to do was find a way down to Mirror Lake. Oh, is that all... *cough* A few hours of interesting traverse and descent later, I made it down to Mirror Lake. NOTE - don't do this unless you're completely comfortable with such things! Loose dirt slides leading to 100+-foot drops were only part of the amusement. Know yourself, know your limits. At one point I actually found a set of footsteps coming toward me across the traverse. They disappeared at one of the debris slides. I'm assuming they turned around, but then I never saw any footprints heading back....
Mirror Lake was stunning. For hours I simply sat and looked and breathed, reveling in the mere act of being. Everything faded out (or in, depending on one's perspective), and in that moment there was not really a "me" so much as an "everything". Hard to explain. I forgot to break out the camera until the light was fading but I can honestly say that, other than the view at Mather Pass on the JMT, and perhaps Evolution Valley, sitting at Mirror Lake as evening fell struck me as the most wondrous summer backcountry sight I've seen. Completely ringed by high jagged granite ridges, and no trail leading to it. One lightly used site interrupted the pure sense of isolation, but on this night there was no doubt I was as alone as one could be back here. Another solitary bat flew about, at times within inches of my head. Way to go, little flying rodent! In the darkest hours of night, I woke up for no particular reason. The sky was offering its best. From the Andromeda Galaxy to open clusters and falling stars, the show carried on. Transfixed, I couldn't go back to sleep. Pre-dawn brought an incredible deep electric indigo to the low sky, betraying the inky black silhouette of Sawtooth Ridge.
"It is SO good to be alive...." The thought echoed silently in my mind as the towering peaks surrounding me began to glow with morning's first light.
Another lazy start to the day. I stretched out on a slab of smooth granite, warming in the new sun like a desert lizard. I had no real plan, so over breakfast I reviewed the map. Peaks, ridges, valleys, trails, rivers, lakes. Tomorrow night Foundling and I would rendezvous, so I couldn't get too far off the beaten path. Plus I had some terrain to scout for our trip. The plan was set - down the canyon toward the meadows and perhaps Oak Flat. Pack loaded and ready to roll, I walked out under clear blue skies, spinning on my heels for one last panoramic view of my personal paradise.
Following the fall of shattered granite down to the west end of Sapphire Lake was fun and simple. Hop hop, balance, hop, loose rock slip, hop. Nice way to wake up the legs. Down at the lake the terrain gave way to meadow, brush, and deeply carved streams hidden by thick grass. Tread at your own risk, lest marsh weasels unseen pounce on your ankles. The map showed a partial trail extending from the east end about 1/3 of the way westward, and I figured intrepid fisherman would never leave such a path unfinished, or at least unattempted. Working my way to the north side of the lake, several small, faint paths merged into... a single small, faint path. Hey, better than bushwhacking. Unless of course the path is more of a self-guided bushwhacking adventure. Doh! One set of footprints at least showed someone had come this way, drawn by the promise of 14" trout no doubt. The "trail" was overgrown at best, but here and there some cairns popped up, and the footpath was usually there to be found if you could move enough of the brush, grasses and debris aside. The north side of Sapphire Lake has some excellent diving spots, with the rock plunging straight and deep into the clear azure water, free of obstacles. Note to myself - try a double forward flip!
Progress was slow, and I'd stopped to check a few small sites and views along the way, but at last I made it to the east end of Sapphire Lake. Higher up on the rocks a nice view of Emerald Lake revealed itself. Two nice campsites graced the area (mostly exposed, but great scenery in every direction). A good candidate destination for when Foundling and I met up. Checking around the area revealed some remnants of an old mining operation there - old corroded sections of pipe and support spikes haphazardly heading down to Emerald. Unless they were mining trout, I can't see what was ever there of value besides the view, which while precious indeed could hardly be delivered down a pipe and sold. A leisurely snack, wallowing in the cool granite and surroundings, and I was ready to beat feet once again.
Here it was, our final night in the backcountry. It had been terribly short as good trips go, and I didn't want it to end. Foundling had headed for bed, but I wasn't ready to search for sleep. I laid out on a boulder, watching nightfall creep across the landscape. The armada of dragonflies had abandoned their patrols, allowing the bats a turn at owning the skies. Darkness fell quickly in the canyon, my boulder-bed and I fading into a curious image in the confusion of shadows. Thoughts wandered and flowed freely, taking me places I'd long since forgotten.
Ever notice how rivers never rest? That's how I felt. Life constantly in motion, sometimes slowing into a large eddy or pool for awhile, but always heading somewhere. Never really knowing why, and for some reason asking why would seem absurd anyway. It's the motion itself that counts, after all. The traveling, not the destination. Reaching the end means the journey is over, and who would ever wish for that?
Feeling weary at last, I headed for the warmth of my down bag and settled in. I woke up before long (not really ever being sure if I'd fallen asleep in the first place) and took in the view. The canyon was bathed in cold, silvery moonlight, everything crystallizing in a moment of perfect clarity. Impossible to describe, wouldn't even know where to begin. In that instant I was sure I could see every distant world tied to unnamed stars lost in the sky above. Pure, gentle euphoria, like catching a spectacular aurora borealis that arrives and departs with hardly a whisper or witness. To waste this fleeting experience with sleep would be unconscionable. So on this final backcountry night I reveled in the journey, wishing I could somehow warp time to fend off the inevitable dawn and the return to civilization it brought.