Backpacking to Caribou Basin: Part 3

You can read Part 1 of “Backpacking to Caribou Basin” here.

You can read Part 2 of “Backpacking to Caribou Basin” here.

In the morning, that damn deer has eaten our hats! Really, actually chewed Chris’ straw hat to pieces, and chewed the band apart on mine. Mine is fixable, but his is toast. He fashions a sort of burnoose out of a shirt while I crudely sew mine back together. Over breakfast we discuss the most painful possible means of killing a deer. Slow poison versus bear traps and such. I take back what I said before. We are mean people. Cruel, vicious and violent. And we wish the deer would realize it.

Our plan is to hike to the top of the Old Trail, and find Little Caribou Lake. We know the Old Trail is tough going, but its only about a mile and a half. Pretty reasonable, if you have all day to do it. On the way out along Big Caribou Lake, we stop to talk to a fisherman. We have caught nothing, in spite of trying pretty hard, and we tell him so. We chat awhile, then move on, exchanging a joke in passing with his partner in their camp. We tell him that catch-and-release is sporting, but its even more sporting when you don’t hook them at all.

Next, we meet a young couple from Chico, sitting near the lake. As usual, Chris is ahead of me, talking to them as I come up. He is telling the woman they deserve a break from the kids, and she should not feel bad about taking it, so I break in.

“Don’t tell her that, Chris.”

I turn to her. “You should feel guilty, leaving your children like that, to go have fun without them.”

She sort of grins and drops her head. “I do,” she says.

“How could you leave them with those evil people?”

“I know,” she says.

Her husband laughs. “Yeah, they’re probably swimming at the lake right now, or being forced to eat ice cream.”

I’m trying to make this young lady feel bad, but she’s laughing, now! Can’t catch any fish, and my attempts to spread gloom and sorrow are backfiring. What a failure I am! Guess I’ll go eat worms. We chat quite awhile with them, about last year’s fires and the changes in the towns. Chris’ son works in Chico, and they are familiar with his employer. There is a lot of common ground, here, even if they are terrible people for leaving their young children to spend a few precious hours together.

As we descend from Big Caribou to the lower basin, containing Snowslide and Lower Caribou Lakes, Chris says, “Jim, I think that campground on Lower Caribou is open.”


“You want to take it? We don’t have to go any farther today, if we don’t want to.”

“Yes, let’s do it, if its really open.”

So we walk down thru brush and over granite, and sure enough, it is open. The campsite is in a natural flat covered in lodge-pole pines, and the inlet from the lake above gushes down a long shallow waterfall and plunges into the lake, creating a picturesque little scene where the current flows into the lake and spreads out, sending ripples into the rest of the lake. A very pretty spot.

We are setting up camp, chatting, getting the fishing gear ready, when along comes the couple from Chico. They have the same idea as us, but they only want to stop for awhile and swim and relax before hiking out.

“Do you mind if we use that spot for a little bit?” she asks.

Of course not. Chris and I are both married and have raised children. We know what it takes. We give them some privacy over by the inlet and fish the other way along the lake. We do not catch any fish, though.

. . . . . . . . .

Today must we start back out. It is July 15. We’ll take two days to do it. No hurry. It has been a beautiful trip. Caribou Basin is as magnificent as claimed. Adventure climbing went wonderfully. Body holding up just fine. Met a lot of people; too many, really, but all quite pleasant. Learned a couple of new stars and a constellation. Got a good look at the world from on high. Saw some new country.

But no fish. We have been fishing pretty hard, trying everything we know, and we cannot catch a fish. These mountain lakes are fickle, especially the solid granite basins, like these. So, the plan today is to go find Little Caribou Lake, up off the Old Trail.

From talking with people, we know the Old Trail is open, and that we will get a good view of the highest peaks. By reputation, and by looking on the map and from the ground, the Old Trail is a lot steeper and rougher than the way we came in. But its only about a mile and a half to the lake. We do not expect any major difficulties.

Nor do we experience any, getting to the top, a pass between rocks. Its steep, alright, but nothing we haven’t done before many times, and the view from the top is extraordinary. On the one side, the way we came up, we can see Thompson Peak, and also Wedding Cake and Caesar Peak. These three are the highest points in the Trinity Alps, chunks of rock stuck up out of the earth, black rock rimmed with white snow. On the other side, to the east, we can see Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen.

This is a great place to stop for lunch. Eat the last of the smoked trout and dried papaya. Lay the map out on the ground, orient it north-south and get a good look at what’s what. We may not get this high again for awhile.

Finally, we decide to go find Little Caribou Lake. The trail down is much like the trail up, forested and steep, in nice soft soil. Soon, we get a glimpse of the lake thru the trees, off to the north. Its not far, but we cannot go straight to it. Sheer rock faces. We will find a way around, a little lower.

We do not find a way. The granite breaks off in faces and big chunks, too dangerous to try. A little lower, maybe. Nope. Same thing. We lose the trail in snow a couple of times, and have to spread out to find it. There is more snow on this side of the mountain, and in places the trail is not obvious.

As we go, we realize we are below the level of the lake, so we swing over and follow the ridge down, looking for a way to get over onto the granite, but we just cannot find a way, so we find a spot to rest in the shade of a big boulder and think about things. We can see where we want to go; the cut in the rock that holds the lake, and the granite shield below it, broken up with watered patches of trees and bushes. We can see the new trail where it runs below us and crosses the old burn we passed thru on the way up. At this point, it would still be worth it to climb up to the lake, but we cannot see a way, short of going down to the new trail and climbing back up over the granite. We decide that would be just too hard, at this point in the day. Reluctantly, we make the decision to skip Little Caribou.

It is not too far to the point where the two trails meet, where we stopped for coffee on the way in. We rest again, and discuss the situation. We decide we will take the Old Trail down, instead of the way we came up. It is steeper and more rugged, but we can see from the map there is water, and we will get a different look at the country.

After we fill our jugs at the first spring, we find a semi-level place to make coffee. As we drink, the two fishermen we talked to at Big Caribou pass by. The first guy caught three trout out of the lake on lures, but that is all. Well, that’s three more than we caught!

A little below this, the trail swings to the north and levels out a bit. It is narrow and cuts thru scree, mostly. Its an old-school trail, the way they used to build them, sidehilling along steep ground, with trees and brush, more like the Siskiyous than the Alps. In a mile or so we come down onto the alluvial flat of the river. I’ve been trailing way behind Chris, as usual, but I know he will be looking for a campsite to spend our last night in. I come around a turn, and there it is, a nice big flat camp in trees, on dirt, just above the river, with Chris sitting on a log. Ahhhhhh. One thing about granite; it is hard. Soft places are rare. This should be a much more comfortable spot than we have had, so far.

It is, too. Water, coffee, dinner, a campfire. Nice soft ground. Such are the luxuries of the low places.

. . . . . . . . .

Morning, waking with the first light filtering thru forest. We do not hurry. We are only a couple of hundred yards from the trailhead, as the crow flies. We can just hear people in the campground, across the river. Leisurely breakfast, pack up for the last time. The packs are very light, as we have eaten most of our food. This time, Chris has gotten it just right. He has nothing left in his food sack but a single serving of oatmeal. I’ve got a little more than that, but not much. My pack weighs about 15 pounds. I guess I can probably handle it for another quarter-mile or so.

We do not pick up the packs, tho. We take a little walk along the upriver trail, check it out. Its a lovely morning for a stroll. Its a lovely trail for a stroll, too, running gently level along the alluvial banks above the river thru mixed forest; conifers, black oak, cottonwood and alder. Soft soil underfoot. There are nice campspots, too. This trail eventually runs up to Ward and Horseshoe Lakes, which are on my bucket list. I may be back to hike this, again. I like easy trails.

The river is small here, but it runs in wide gravel beds, indicative of much greater flows during the spring snow-melt. At times this trail will not be accessible. Keep that in mind.

Finally, we go back for the packs and leave. Back to the car. Back out Coffee Creek Road to Highway 3. At the very head of Trinity Lake, traffic is stopped. We talk with the sign person, an older guy. Talk about the old days, the logging and hunting, make fun of the State of California, talk about the weather and the snow levels this year. We are there awhile, but finally we get thru. We get an ice-cream at Trinity Center. Civilization does have its perks.

Then we are back in Lewiston. I am home, but Chris still has to drive down to Redding. He needs to get back to his duties and responsibilities, but he has time for a cup of coffee, and a chat with Darlene before leaving.

“What’s our next adventure, Jim?”

“Not sure, yet. Maybe Ward and Horseshoe. I’ve heard about them since I was a kid, from the old horse packers. I’d like to see them.”

“Let me know.”

I will. I will definitely let him know. We aren’t done, yet.

James Montgomery

James Montgomery calls himself a broken-down logger/garbageman who went back to school, got a law degree, and worked as a nonprofit administrator, before retiring. His interests include hiking, fishing, computers, kayaking, hunting and writing. He is now serving as president of the board of directors of Empire Recovery Center.

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