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In the Trinity Alps, Climbing Granite Peak

It is the end of July, 2011, and for some reason I have decided to hike to the top of Granite Peak. Early-onset dementia, perhaps.

Click on the map to enlarge it.

Granite Peak is in the southeast corner of the Trinity Alps. It is 8,091 feet high, and there is a trail to the top. The trail is only four-and-a-half miles, but gains 4,000 feet in elevation in that distance. This is a very different matter than taking a walk around Redding’s Sacramento River Trail. It is not technical climbing, or even mountaineering, but it is serious hiking. It is steep.

It is 5:30 a.m. before I get out of the house. Later than I had hoped for, but acceptable. I travel west out of Redding on Highway 299 up Buckhorn Mountain and take the Lewiston turnoff on the other side. From Lewiston, I take Rush Creek Road to Highway 3. My mind drifts back to the time my grandfather was living in a cabin on Rush Creek Road, in the late 1950s. I recall that he dug worms so I could fish the creek. Today I drive until I hit Highway 3 and take a right toward Trinity Lake, following around the lake until I pass Stoney Ridge Road. Supposedly the road to Granite Peak is the next left.

Granite Peak Road is not marked as such, but the sign on Highway 3 says 35N28Y. It is right across the road from the Bushytail and Minersville campgrounds. As you drive up the road, you get good looks at the granite mount you are about to climb. In particular, note the Y-shaped cut in the mountain that marks the drainage of the east fork of Stony Creek. You will be crossing this, later.

No signs direct you to the trailhead. Follow the main track for about three miles. The trailhead is not marked, either, but you will know it when you reach it. It is a big turnaround at the end of the road, and the remains of the old sign are still there. In lieu of proper signage, an act of faith is required.

The trail starts out as an old firebreak/logging track. A Caterpillar tractor can more easily crawl up a steeper slope than is comfortable for a human. That is what the trail does for the first mile or so; climb straight up at a brutal angle. As I grind my way upward, I hear the call of a Pileated Woodpecker. I hear two of them calling and hammering in the trees, but I cannot catch sight of them. Then I find a wing feather. This is a very good sign for me, as the Pileated is an icon of the wilderness and of Trinity County for me.

After about a mile of this brutal grind, the Cat-track levels off and turns left, to the west. I can hear water running that direction, but I turn right to follow the trail, which turns into a normal single-track wilderness trail. It begins a series of switchbacks that does not really stop until the summit. Level sections are few and short, and the trail is still quite steep, despite the switchbacks.

For two-and-a half miles, the trail winds up through conifer forest. There is plenty of water through this section. Twice the trail crosses the cut in the mountain you can see from below. The cut itself is a steep swath of snow-brush that interrupts the conifer forest. At the first crossing, the sweet scent of wild azalea reaches me before I see the flowers themselves. I am enchanted by this place, so I stop in the shade on the other side for second breakfast.

The trail ascends relentlessly through the trees, switchback after switchback. When it crosses back through the cut, you are nearing the end of the forested part. This is your last chance for water. I have carried a half-gallon of water, not knowing what to expect. If I do this hike again, I will carry an empty container, and fill up here for the trek to the summit.

From here, the trees begin to thin. I am sweating in the sun and beginning to tire, wondering whether I have the stamina to reach the top. Just then, I look up and catch a glimpse of a hiker headed downhill toward me. This is good, as I will get word of what lies ahead. Soon I meet up with the first of eight hikers. She tells me they are from Santa Cruz County, and that I am doing well; it is not that far to the top. One of the others says it took them forty-five minutes from the rock outcropping I can see up ahead. These hikers are all young and fit, so I mentally double the time required. The last fellow in the line shakes my hand as he goes by. I am encouraged.

When I reach the outcropping, I take another rest stop. The view upward is spectacular. For the last mile, the trail switches back through boulders, decomposed granite and short brush. There is still snow blocking the trail in a couple of places, even on this south-facing slope, but it is easily passed around.

Finally, the trail changes to solid granite, and I feel I am near the top. Rounding a turn, I see concrete blocks and steel bolts looming above me like some ancient ruins. This is a puzzling sight, until I realize it is the remains of a fire lookout that once stood here. There are more remains a little further on, and the wood is scattered down the north slope of the ridge.

The actual peak is another 100 yards ahead, a pyramidal pile of granite. It appears unscalable for me, but I will see how close I can get without taking any serious chances. I drop my pack and continue on, scrambling carefully along the ridge over chair-sized granite boulders. The bottom part of the pile is easily surmounted, and then I see the path around the last outcropping. Suddenly I am there, standing at the summit of Granite Peak!

It is early in the afternoon. There is time to enjoy the spectacular view, taking photos and beholding the vast world spread out in 360 degrees of splendor. To the south, Trinity Lake is laid out below my feet. Bully Choop, the Yolla Bollas and Shasta Bally rise above. Gazing southeast across the valley, I can make out Mount Lassen and Hatchet Mountain through the summer haze. Mount Shasta to the northeast is just visible, floating in the haze like a vision. To the north, much closer, lies a jumble of forbidding crags, connected to Granite Peak by the ridge I stand on. To the northwest, Middle Peak and Red Mountain lie closest to me. Beyond them, looming above a massive escarpment, lies the center of the Trinity Alps. At 9,002 feet elevation, Thompson Peak is the highest point in the Alps, jutting like the Matterhorn into the sky. The massif to the north is Caesar Peak, nearly equal in height.

Photographs cannot do justice to the vast grandeur of the view. Monument Peak lies to the southwest. Beyond it, I can dimly see six ridges stacked one above the other, marking southern Trinity County and the mountains of my youth. Dubakella, Hayfork Bally, South Fork, Kingsbury, Chancellula, Limedyke; they are all there, but I cannot tell one from the other at this distance.

There are only a few places to lay out a sleeping bag. I choose a flat spot amid the ruins to call camp. If I wanted to, I could make it back to the car before dark, but I do not wish to “bag” this peak. I choose to savor it, instead. I read and doze through the afternoon. As I doze, a chipmunk raids my food bag, which I have carelessly left on the ground.

I laze through the afternoon and into the evening, watching the shadows grow as the sun sets. Sunset is a leisurely process at this elevation. I watch the jays and hawks and airplanes in flight. I note the stars as they begin to appear, one by one. I wake occasionally through the night and note the progress of the constellations as they turn slowly around the North Star. Most impressive of all is the Milky Way, forgotten in the lights of cities and towns, but laid out above me like a grand map to my own insignificance.

The wind begins to blow just before daybreak. Not hard, just enough to remind me that there is not much to stop it up here. I indulge in the pleasure of lying in my sleeping bag and watching the world wake up. One by one, the peaks light up in the morning sun.

I decide to make another foray to the top, around the back side. On the way, I catch sight of a Clark’s Nutcracker, a bird I have seen elsewhere, but not in the Alps. The photograph is not good, but online sources confirm that they occur here. The view from the top is less clear than the previous day, especially to the east. There must be a fire, somewhere.

I take my time packing to leave, and linger over my meditations, trying to burn the images into my mind. On the way out, I notice two things I missed on the way up. The first is a trail sign half a mile down from the top that says “Granite Peak ½ mile” straight ahead, and “Stoney Ridge 1 mile” to the left (west.) It would make a nice round trip to start at Granite Peak trailhead, leave the packs at the sign and side-hike to the top, then come back down and follow the trail to Stonewall Pass and beyond. This is the place I told about trying to reach in my previous article, when I was turned back by snow. If you took two rigs, you could leave one at the Stoney Ridge trailhead and hike out that way.

The second thing I notice is a balanced rock visible from the trail, just after it goes back into the timber. It is possible that I missed this on the way up because I was chatting with a pretty young lady from Santa Cruz County. Getting important information concerning the topography, that is.

The trail is just as steep on the way down. I stop for second breakfast at the same spot as the day before, beguiled by the wild azaleas. Second breakfast is a meal not much observed by civilized humans, but dearly beloved of hobbits and aging hikers.

The steepness of the trail takes its toll on my legs. The last mile is the steepest part. By the time I reach the truck, my feet and knees are in open rebellion, and my hips are threatening to join them. My thighs are of no help, as they have turned into a trembling gelatinous substance. I am leaning heavily on my hiking staff, which seems to be the only thing holding the whole operation together. When I take my pack off, waves of relief roll over the various parts of my poor beat-up old body, and a sense of elation sends my spirit soaring. I have climbed Granite Peak!

Despite the steepness of the trail, Granite Peak is a relatively easy way to reach the top of one of the Trinity Alps. If you go, either day-hike or pack light. You will notice every pound. I started out with 20 pounds, but that could have been reduced to 16 if I had known about the availability of water. For an overnight trip, carry food that requires no preparation; there is no reason to mess with stoves or fires. I carried sandwiches and nuts. It was not cold at night, so I could have used a lighter sleeping bag. For extra clothing I took only my down jacket and a change of socks and was perfectly comfortable, even in the morning and evening. This will vary according to the time of year, of course. All in all, this is a great hike, heartily recommended for those who are fit and do not mind dealing with very steep grades.

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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