Eight-thirty on a Friday morning, and the trailhead parking lot is almost full! Canyon Creek Lakes are among the most popular destinations in the Trinity Alps, maybe the most popular. Neither friend Chris nor I have ever seen Canyon Creek Lakes, and we were hoping it would not be too packed. On 4th of July weekend? What were we thinking?
Fortunately, we have a backup plan. There is a back way into Alpine Lake that splits off the trail to Canyon Creek Lakes, just above the parking lot. It is called Bear Creek Trail, and I have the impression it is little-used. Probably fairly rough. Chris and I are both old mountain boys, so we are not daunted.
As an added incentive, the possibility exists that Stuart’s Fork is too high to cross, and we might have Alpine Lake all to ourselves. We decide to give it a go.
At first, the trail is good, climbing gently and switching back now and then. It is narrow and not heavily used, but it is nice soft dirt. After about a mile, we find a campsite with a stone fire ring, where the trail begins to climb steeply through Douglas fir and black oak forest. At this point, the trail becomes noticeably less used. We laugh. This is where the greenhorns turn back. We do not, of course.
The trail climbs, then runs gently sidehill, then it climbs, then it runs gently sidehill. So far, not bad. The trees begin to thin, and we struggle through a brush patch, with un-cleared down trees. OK, we know the trail is not maintained.
As we go, there are occasional blowdowns to struggle over, under or around. This is getting tougher, but we expected it. Then the trail breaks out of the timber and disappears into a mass of streamside vegetation, mostly alder and willow bushes. Chris is leading and he has no real trouble finding the trail, but now he has to really pay attention. We cross the little creek and stop for a water break.
From here on, things get progressively harder. The trail disappears periodically and downed trees become more frequent. We are using our mountaineering skills now. Finally the trail breaks out of the trees and heads straight up a spine of rock. Not quite climbing – we do not need to use our hands very often- but not exactly hiking, either. And it does not quit. The sun is hot now, and the trail climbs straight up, steep and rocky, without switchbacks or level stretches.
As we go, we begin to tire. We are not young men, and we have been living in town. We try to stay in shape, but these are the mountains. Our packs get heavier. They are as light as we can get them, barely over 20 pounds, but now they are dragging on us, slowing us down. Finally we are just struggling along, 30 steps and rest, 20 steps and rest. It is getting serious, now. We know there is a pass up ahead of us, but it keeps moving back away from us.
This is the part of the story where we master our despair and continue. Thirty steps and stop in the meager shade of a single stunted tree, 20 steps and pause, pouring sweat. These are not steps like you take on a street, more like climbing a ladder, with unevenly spaced rungs.
We reach a copse of trees, and Chris, who has been leading, stops to drink the last of his water. I cannot stop. I fear that if I do, I may not get going again. I am thirsty and tired, and I can hear water in the draw off to the left. I am hoping the trail will cross it. It doesn’t . I am barely moving now, and Chris catches me, passing me like one turtle passes another. We are both in survival mode, each of us moving at the pace he must.
Then I look up and I see the pass, the true, actual top of the trail, not one of the false hope vistas. I know it when I see it, and Chris has disappeared over it. As I start to break over, I see Chris eating snow! Oh, yeah, I’m gonna get me some of that!
There are bivouac sites right on the ridge, snow for water, and a great view. We are tempted to camp, but I am hoping to reach the campsite where this “trail” meets the main trail to Alpine Lake. I have camped there once, and noticed it every time I passed by on the way up. I have been to Alpine Lake three times before. It is a great campsite, level, with water, and I am almost certain this trail takes us to it.
Now the going is not too bad. It is still steep, but less rocky. Going downhill, our quads start to take the strain, holding us back. Some people say going downhill is harder than going up. I do not find it so, but it is harder than level ground. It is also more dangerous than going up. A false step can twist an ankle. We are both using our walking sticks. Chris is using the maple staff I cut for him several years ago, and I am using one of my mother’s trekking poles.
So now we are struggling downhill, but we are mostly in the trees, and the way is not so grueling as the uphill part. The trail is just as hard to follow, tho. Chris is in the lead, and I see him miss the track.
“Not that way, Chris,” I say, and he catches himself.
So now I am in the lead, and the vegetation is getting denser and greener. This is not really brush, more like jungle, and I am fully focused on staying on the trail, and forging through this mess. We find a flat spot where someone has bivouaced. It is getting on in the afternoon.
“Whaddaya think, Chris? Wanna stop here?”
“Nah. Crappy spot. Mosquito heaven.”
He is right, so we push on. Suddenly, the trail turns sidehill and crosses a flattish area. It is open timber and the trail actually looks like a trail. Even better, I can hear rushing water. I am almost sure we are getting close.
We round the corner, and I am certain. This is the spot I have gotten water from in the past. The creek sure is a lot higher, though! This is a heavy snow year, and the water is rushing. For a moment, we look at each other in doubt. Can we get across? Then I see the way. It is only a little bit athletic, stepping out from one rock and grabbing a branch to keep from falling back. We both make it just fine. We fill our water jugs and walk the 50 yards to camp.
And collapse. In an hour or so, we start moving around, laying out camp. Dinner is perfunctory and sleep comes easily.
In the morning I am not as tired as I expected to be. The previous day was grinding. Today I know what we are facing, about 2 1/2 miles of moderately steep trail, and a mile of really difficult scrambling, which I think of as “The Devil’s Staircase.” It is hard, but we have far less to do today than yesterday.
Chris normally out walks me on uphill trails, so I head out a little before him. He doesn’t catch me, and I start to wonder, but at the top of a set of open brushy switchbacks, I see him coming up. OK. I am moving pretty well, and I do not want to stop and stiffen up, so I keep going. He still doesn’t catch me, but I don’t worry. Finally I reach the first set of granite climbing stones, and I have started to worry a little, so I sit on a boulder and watch the back trail. It finally dawns on me that I have actually been moving uphill faster than Chris!
So I wait, and finally he comes toiling up. I remember that he is carrying 6 or 7 pounds more than I. The tougher the trail, the more the weight matters. Also, I know how close we actually are, which is a psychological advantage. I have been here before.
After a break, Chris takes the lead again, but he is slowing me down, so I pass him. The going is hard, but there is sparkling water, fresh snow-melt, running across and down the trail, which is on granite and open to the sun. We are sweating, but we can douse our heads with cool water whenever we please.
When we come to the outlet stream from the lake, I know we have less than 1/4 mile to go. Up the granite shield, through the meadow and down to the lake. There is no one at the lake. I was pretty sure there would not be, as I have seen no sign of humans on the trail. I am not the world’s greatest tracker, but I can tell a boot print from a bear track.
There are several campsites at the lake, but the best one is right at the lake. We unload our packs and rest in the shade of a big mountain hemlock. Finally, we start rustling around, getting water and making camp. And coffee.
Suddenly, I hear a whoop, like someone trying to create an echo, and I know it is not Chris, although it comes from right behind him. I look over. On a rock 30 feet away stands a young man wearing a tank top, gym shorts and running shoes.
“Hello,” I say.
“Oh,” he says, “Sorry to scare you.”
We all laugh. He asks us if we have been fishing (“Not yet.”) Then he tells us he is an ultra-marathoner from Arcata, and he has just run over the Bear Creek Trail and up to Alpine Lake, behind us. It is late morning. He plans to run down to Stuart’s Fork and up to Emerald and Sapphire Lakes, before running back over the Bear Creek Trail!
“We’re old,” I say. “Its all we could do just to get here.”
“Yeah, but you’re here,” he says. He gets it, the part about not quitting. We understand each other.
We discuss the difficulty of keeping on the trail on the way over, the difficulty of getting through the underbrush, and the brutality of the trail up the spine of rock on the other side. Yep, he really did run in one morning what took us a day and a half to hike. We tell him we suspect Stuart’s Fork is not crossable, although what is impossible for most people might be routine for him. He is in incredible physical shape; as tall as me, and muscular in an athletic, cut-to-the-bone sort of way. My wife, Darlene, would say, “Now that’s a good-looking man.”
We wish each other well, and he asks which trail is the best way out. We show him, and he takes off running. Wow.
The rest of the day is anti-climactic. We set up camp, catch and eat some brook trout, and sack out.
I wake up stiff and sore as can be, several times in the night. I stretch and think and look at the stars. It is nice to see the stars clearly, worth the ache. Then I wake and the stars are gone with the earliest pinkening shades of dawn, but I fall back to sleep, again. Next time I awaken, the sun is shining on me and Chris has water hot, so I get up for coffee and ibuprofen.
Today is Sunday. God wants us to rest on Sunday, which is going to work out just fine. We fish a little and nap and read and talk and look at the map. God is very happy with us today. It strikes me that God must love old guys better than young ones, because we are so much better at resting on the Sabbath, idling through the day in a leisurely fashion. Not like those restless, energetic young guys.
We talk about trees and plants. It shames me that I do not know the principal alpine brush species, and I vow to bring Alice Jones’ book, “Flowers and Trees of the Trinity Alps,” next time. Alice was a friend and hiking partner of my mother’s, and a very nice lady. Mom’s knowledge of the local plants was extensive, but Alice’s was encyclopedic.
On the trees, we do better. Trees around the lake are mostly red fir, weeping spruce and mountain hemlock. We know pretty much all the trees we have seen this trip. Chris and I logged together in the old days, but he went to scaling timber while I continued on the high-lead, so he has the edge in species identification.
When the sun leaves the sky, the water glasses over and the brook trout come up to feed, dimpling the water in their multitude.
The moon is almost 3/4 full, and Mars is high in the southern sky. We sit quietly, reviewing our knowledge of basic astronomy; rotation, revolution, orbital inclination, planar relationships. Sleep comes easily, despite the brightness of the moon.
Today’s big adventure is to explore the lake. We intend to make our way around the north side, over snow-patches and boulders, and see what the other end looks like. Is there a good campsite? Is the fishing better? We will see.
We take daypacks, with fishing rods and cooking gear. We will eat brook trout before we come back. Fishing for pan-size brookies is easy. We are the first to fish the lake this year.
Over the rocks and through the brush, we work our way along the shore. There is a sort of fisherman’s trail along the edge of the lake, but there are good-sized snowfields in the way. The first is easy; we have been over it already. The second one is steeper, and we are unsure of the firmness of the snow, and its solidity underneath. I lead off, kicking footsteps in the frozen snow as I go. It is good and solid, and we do fine.
The next snowfield is the biggest, but it is melted away from the granite overhang at the top, so we pass above it, between the rock face and the snow.
There is a big stretch of brush and broken-up granite to work our way over before the next one. By now, we have the feel of things, and we pass over the next snowpatch, over a rock wall that extends down into the lake, and over and down the next snowfield.
I have been telling Chris I expect to find a campsite at the far end of the lake, but we are not finding it. There is level ground, but no campsite. We hop over the inlet stream that runs down from the snowpack above, and up onto the huge flat rock which extends into and above the far western end of the lake, and there it is. A beautiful campsite, right on the rock, 20 feet above the lake and looking right down into deep clear water. There is a 12-foot wide section of granular decomposed granite for a bedding site, and a nice little rock fireplace.
We stop for coffee, then clamber down to places we can fish from. I quickly catch half a dozen trout and climb back up to the campsite, where I start the fish cooking. Chris keeps fishing, until I call him up to eat.
While Chris is climbing up, I hear voices drift up from the far end of the lake. I can see, barely, that there is someone at our camp. This is OK, because our camp is right at the main access point to the lake. However, I am interested to see what they are doing, so I pull out my monocular and focus on them.
I see two young women, taking off their clothes to go skinny-dipping! I watch them wade into the water, take a quick dip and wade out. These are nice-looking young women, not skinny girls, but strong-looking and buxom, with hips, standing in thigh-deep water. A lovely sight.
Chris does not believe me- or maybe he does- so I hand him the monocular. We spend a few minutes watching them as we eat trout. I check on them periodically, as they get dressed and sun-bathe on a large flat rock for awhile, then finally leave.
Speaking of beautiful creatures, we have been watching an osprey work the lake off and on ever since we got here. It is a noticeably small osprey, but a good fisherman. We have seen him catch several fish, and miss a few times, too. An interesting pattern catches our attention. When the osprey tries to perch on the south side of the lake, which has most of the trees, a pair of Stellar’s jays harass it, scolding and dive-bombing. Several times we watch them drive the osprey off its perch, until it finally gives up and flies to perch on the other side.
Chris and I clean up after ourselves and work our way back to camp, stopping to fish a little on the way. By a stretch of willows, I catch and release several good-sized trout, bigger than we have been catching. It may be that the willows harbor more insect life than the rest of the shoreline. I do not keep any, because we have enough fish for the evening meal.
The trip back to camp is easier. We have scoped out the easiest route, and are in tune with the quality of the snow. I walk out to the other campsites, by the meadow, to see if the two ladies are still there. I would like to know whether, and how, they managed to cross Stuart’s Fork to get here, but they are gone.
Soon after I get back, Chris says, “We’ve got a couple of day-hikers, here.”
He points them out, a couple of tall young men, off by the closest snowfield. I wave at them and they come over to talk. They tell us they managed to cross Stuart’s Fork up by Deer Creek and climbed up through the brush, trying to get to Smith Lake. They have apparently come in below Smith Lake, and swung sidehill until they got to Alpine Lake. Quite a detour! They are in shorts, and are really tired of fighting the brush. One of them is limping slightly. They are very glad to hear that there is a trail down to Stuart’s Fork from here. We hope they can make it safely across.
Later, we check the map. Deer Creek is not on this side of Stuart’s Fork. It must have been Bear Creek they came up.
Shadows lengthen, and the wind dies earlier tonight. The lake glasses over, and the trout feed into the twilight.
Time to leave, but we will go by easy stages. The plan today is to hike down to the campsite we stayed at the first night, where the Bear Creek Trail hits the Alpine Lake Trail. Only about 3.5 miles downhill, so we do not hurry breaking camp, taking our time with breakfast and committing the view to memory; a great granite cirque, with Little Granite Peak rising above the rest of the rimrock. We catch some fish to cook at the next camp.
The hike is uneventful, taken at a leisurely pace. We take a nap. This is old-guy backpacking at its finest.
After lunch, we decide to go see what Stuart’s Fork looks like. We leave the packs. Its about a mile, on good dirt trail, something we have not seen much of. Stuart’s Fork is rushing, not safely passable at the crossing. We hope the two day-hikers made it across, and we wonder how the heck those two ladies got across.
A 50ish couple is camped on the other side, and they wave to us. The man comes down to the water side and hollers, “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” I yell.
“Are you stuck over there?”
I laugh. “No, we are camped above.”
“OK,” he yells. He seems relieved. The river is a real barrier this year.
On the way back to camp, I develop a hot spot on my left big toe, a blister forming. I can’t really slow down much, as we are losing the daylight, but in camp I take a look at it. A small blood blister has formed, but does not look too bad. I have been carrying around a piece of moleskin in my first aid kit for years. Tomorrow I will finally get to see if it works.
Before turning in, we get ready for the next day. We are only planning to go to the top of the ridge, but we want to get an early start. The map calls the Alpine Lake Trail a “scramble” – but the Bear Creek Trail is a whole lot tougher! We will be going uphill through that overgrown mess, and we would like to do it before it gets too hot.
Up before dawn, coffee and a quick bite, and we are off. We cross the creek and head uphill. The path is easier to follow. We have been over it once, and our ultra-marathoner has been over it twice. Branches are moved, grass is trodden, and bushes disturbed. The way is steep and we lose the trail in the rocks once or twice, but we have all day to do this, and we are past the open parts and into the timber before the heat of the day.
The moleskin does its job. I can feel the blister, but I take it easy, walking carefully, and it does not seem to get worse. When I take my shoes and socks off, the moleskin clings to the toe. Good stuff.
By noon, we reach our stopping spot, a couple of hundred yards down from the ridge. We lay up, eating lunch and following the shade as the sun moves. In the late afternoon, we get back on the trail. When we reach the ridge-top, we look at the bivouac sites and do not like them. Dusty.
“Wanta keep going?” I ask. “We have plenty of daylight.”
“If we do, we’re committed to making it down to the trees, you know.”
“Yep. Plenty of light. And there’s a big moon later, if we need it.”
So we keep going, down the rocky spine that kicked our asses on the way in. Still pretty rough, but our packs are lighter, and we are going downhill. We get into the trees, and look at one campsite, but reject it. We just don’t like the feel of it. A little farther down there is a place someone has cleared out a spot to sleep. It is under the trees, but not under dead branches, and it is in dirt, not rock. We like it.
Last day, with easy hiking. Well, fairly easy. Lots of downed trees to negotiate, but most of the trail is actually trail, not rocky clambering. Chris leaves me far behind, still going slow nursing my blister, but he waits at the water-crossing. Then we are off and down, and at the trailhead in no time. The parking lot is not nearly so full. We talk to a young lady, who wants to know if it has been cold at night. No, not at all, you won’t freeze to death with lightweight sleeping gear. Then she tells us she is from San Diego. Maybe she will freeze to death. Nah. She is properly dressed for the mountains and seems experienced.
Driving always seems a little odd, after a week on the trail. Not that it is difficult, just a little strange to be moving so fast. In Junction City we stop for a cold drink. In Weaverville we get breakfast. Ham and potatoes. Eggs. Well, civilization does have a few good points.
When I first started hiking the Trinity Alps, in 1965, you could walk all day on the popular trails, and maybe see one or two other groups, often horse-packers. As the world fills up, it is harder and harder to find solitude. We have been remarkably fortunate to have had one of the more popular lakes mostly to ourselves for three days, and incredibly lucky to have been the first ones there, this year.
But we still have not seen Canyon Creek Lakes. Over ham and eggs, we make a pact to see them, even if we do have to share the trail.
Photos by Chris Ingersoll.