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Trinity Alps: Hiking to Rush Creek Lakes

Click story links to see photography by James Montgomery.

The dead of winter is a great time to organize one’s notes and photographs, and rummage through memories of last year’s adventures. This is the tale of a solo trip to a seldom-visited string of lakes in the Trinity Alps.

On a bright June morning, I arose early and ate a big breakfast. I threw my pack and walking stick in the old Willys and drove from my home in Redding to the Rush Creek Lakes trailhead, near Trinity Lake.

The trailhead is off Highway 3, on the other side of Lewiston. Kenney Camp Road is an unmarked dirt road that dives off to the left on a sharp right-hand turn. It is about a mile north of Rush Creek Camp Road. You may miss it and have to go back, as I did. You will know you are on the right track if you pass a green gate a hundred yards down the lane and see a sign that affirms you are on the right track. Follow the winding dirt road about two miles. The trailhead is well marked.

On this trip I did not hike from the trailhead. Instead, I drove about half a mile further to an old logging road that goes up the hill to the left, where I parked the Jeep and started out. While exploring the area the previous fall, I discovered that you can cut off about half a mile of trail if you hike up this logging road to the spot where the trail to the lakes meets the road. It is clearly marked. Take the uphill direction.

Starting out, my pack weighed 35 pounds, including eight pounds of water. A gallon is more than I like to carry, but there is no water on this trail until you get almost to the end. Thirty-five pounds seemed light when I was a young man, but these days it feels like plenty, especially for a difficult hike such as this. The trail guides say this is a tough hike. They tell the truth.

The first part of the trail is a steady climb through timber of about two miles. The trail is good and the grade is not horribly steep. For Trinity County, that is. Finally you will come out into a brush patch and sidehill to the first waypoint, a ridge overlooking Trinity Lake and Lewiston. When you reach this spot — you will not miss it — take your pack off and walk out the ridge a ways. The view is truly impressive.

Traveling on, the trail descends into timber and runs level for a couple of miles. This stretch is very easy, and you can glimpse the granite peaks you are headed for. Enjoy it while you can, because when the trail leaves the timber it climbs straight up the ridge for a mile or more. This is brutal hiking, through rocks and brush under full sun. Drink water and pay close attention, because the track is very hard to follow. I had to backtrack several times after wandering into brushy dead ends.

As you grind your way up the ridge you can see the cut in the mountain that holds the lakes that are your goal, but you still have a lot of hiking to get there.

Finally (finally!) the trail tops out on a dry knob and descends through worse brush for about half a mile. You will reach timber again, and a little stretch of nice trail going gently downhill. Shortly you will come to a timbered wet draw where the trail turns straight downhill.

Trust the trail here. I did not. I thought to myself, “This can’t be right. Why in the hell would the trail climb all the way up to the top of that knob, just to drop straight back down?”

It does. I did not believe it, so I discovered that it is only about a quarter of a mile to the top of the ridge, where imposing granite faces turned me back downhill.

This section of trail runs down about a quarter of a mile, then turns sidehill to the right into a sort of willow swamp. There is good water here, and lots of bear sign. Drink up and scout around for the trail on the other side of the swamp. You will know when you find it, because it is in good condition and takes you a short way up and over a little knob, where it abruptly dead-ends into a scrub oak thicket.

In truth, the trail does not dead-end, exactly. It is still there, covered with thick brush, and you can actually follow it if you pay close attention as you laboriously fight your way across a steep sidehill, through the head-high oaks. At this point you may think, “This is wonderful! I love a challenge! Life without struggle is mediocrity.”

Or you may think, as I did, “What an idiot I am! I am going to die out on this God-forsaken hillside, and it’s my own damn fault! All the sources warned me about this.” Did I heed the warnings? Oh, no, not I!

Take heart. It is really only a couple of hundred yards through this horrendous brush patch, and that granite bowl up ahead really does contain Lower Rush Creek Lake. You are almost there.

After you finally fight through the scrub oaks, the way up is clear and easy. A few cairns have been placed, and you can find your way along the broken semblances of trails that crisscross their way up the granite slope. Stay away from the cliffs and the wet granite faces, and make your way a quarter of a mile or so up and over the escarpment, and you will be looking at Lower Rush Creek Lake.

It is not a very big lake, but it truly is an alpine beauty, crystal clear and ringed by a magnificent granite bowl. It is filled with small brook trout, and you may eat a few of them for dinner if you have energy left to fish for them. You have earned it.

I did not have fish for dinner the first night. It took me all day Friday to hike the eight miles to the lake. When I finally made it, I threw camp together and collapsed.

On the second day I rested. With the passing years, I have become wiser and more able to relax and enjoy the scenery around me. I spent the day reading and loafing. That evening I wandered down to the lake and caught five brook trout for dinner. They were ridiculously easy to catch on a fly and a bubble, and were delicious roasted over an open fire. It is my opinion that the brook trout is the tastiest of all trout, even if it is technically a char, not a trout. It is a beautiful fish, as well.

The following morning I rose with the sun and ate a hearty breakfast of oatmeal in preparation for the day’s adventure. To see the other two lakes was the day’s objective. In my bag I carried salami and cheese and a collapsible fishing rod. With stout walking stick in hand, I set out.

A sturdy staff is a great asset for a hiker, especially an older one traveling cross-country. Going uphill it provides a push from the arms to assist the legs. Going downhill it eases the impact on the feet, knees and hips. Traveling across boulders and broken terrain it provides balance and stability. I prefer a thick staff about my own height, somewhat longer than is commonly carried. This is primarily because I often find myself carrying a pack on steep ground away from trails, where a longer staff can reach farther to prevent slipping and falling.

From Lower Rush Creek Lake it is relatively easy to get to Middle Rush Creek Lake. There are two routes, both along the south side of the creek. The first way is to follow the shelf above the creek until it dips down to a little waterfall. Cross the creek and clamber up the other side, and you are there. That is the way I went up in the morning. The second way is to take the upper shelf, under the rock face. This is the way I came back in the afternoon. Neither is particularly difficult.

Middle Rush Creek Lake is a classic high mountain lake. It is considerably bigger than the lower lake, perhaps four times the size. It is fed by a waterfall that rushes down the steep southern wall. Circling the south and west sides is a sheer granite cliff, about a hundred feet high. On the east side a lush meadow slopes up to granite walls. In June the meadow is lavish with greenery, and dotted with yellow flowers. If you are old and decrepit, you may want to stop and bask in the sun for a while, as I did.

The route to Upper Rush Creek Lake is a bit tricky. On the southeast side a very steep chute filled with small granite boulders runs through trees beside the cliff face. At first glance it appeared that it might be too hazardous to risk. On closer inspection, though, it became clear that there is a way. The chute is steep, but the rocks are mostly pretty stable. Warning- test each rock before you step on it! Near the top of the chute, a wide rocky ledge runs above the sheer drop to the lake. Skirt along the ledge over the lake until you see the way to climb over the lip. This not as scary as it sounds. The ledge is 20 feet wide.

Once you get above the granite faces, make your way along the left-hand side through the low alpine brush and pines for about a quarter of a mile, and you will come to Upper Rush Creek Lake. It is truly spectacular. Ringed by towering granite walls on three sides and eroded granite on the other, it is breathtaking. Photographs cannot do it justice. In June it was still half-way iced over, with snow filling the shaded places.

The upper lake is definitely the most spectacular. It also appears to be the most frequently visited, as a trail runs along one side of the lake. I found three fire rings. The greater popularity of this lake is partly because of its beauty and partly because there is a way to come down to it from Monument Peak.

I fished the lake for a short time with a bubble and a fly and caught two trout, a brookie and a rainbow. I released them both and started back for camp.

After rock hopping back down to the middle lake, I stopped to catch some fish for supper. The trout here are slightly bigger than in the lower lake. One brookie was nine inches long, the biggest of the trip. This is not trophy fishing.

On the fourth and final morning, I woke up with a big grin on my face. This happens to me after three or four days alone in the wild. The world suddenly smiles at me, and I regain the childish joy of waking to a new day. Even so, this was the day I must return to civilization. After a big breakfast, I hit the trail just at daybreak.

The hike out is much easier than the hike in. Your pack is lighter, the oak and willow brush seems easier to maneuver through when you are fresh, and the hike to the top of the ridge is just enough to get your blood moving. From there the going is easy all the way to the trailhead, swinging along steadily downhill.

You might stop in Lewiston, as I did, for a cup of coffee to ease the transition back into civilization. When you get home, you will be carrying a few less pounds around your middle, and a few more photographs and memories.

James Montgomery calls himself a broken-down logger/garbageman who went back to school and got a law degree. His work is in senior services.  His interests include hiking, fishing, computers, kayaking, hunting and writing.

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