The Trinity Alps & a climb of Mt. Thompson

5-7 Sep 2004 - by Tim Hult (view roster page)

I'd been there once before and remembered a pair of seldom-visited sapphire lakes set in a granite bowl at the end of a beautiful trail through the deep woods full of mature pines, oaks and ferns. I also remember there was A LOT of up to get to the lakes. I remember swimming in one of these lakes from one side to the other, and that it was cold, but not too bad.

Well, things have changed. Canyon Creek trailhead on Labor Day weekend 2004 had over 100 people signed up for permits (and that was only the ones we knew about at 9 am on Saturday morning when our party of 8 picked ours up). The parking lot was full, but surprisingly, the wilderness seemed to absorb the horde quite well, and even though the best campsites at the upper and lower Canyon lakes were taken, the entire trip didn't seem to have any more traffic than a normal weekend on the popular Sunrise trail out of Tuolumne meadows. With one exception: Dogs. Apparently, this is THE place to take your dog backpacking in Northern California. If memory serves, we saw 8 (9? 10?) dogs in our three Days in this single drainage, including one enterprising pooch near the summit of Mt. Thompson (elev. 8994)

The original objective of this trip was to do a traverse of the entire range with a side trip to climb Mt. Thompson. From the map, there appears to be several possible ways to do this (Canyon Creek to Big Flat, Canyon Creek to Summerville, or even a VERY ambitious Hobo Gulch to Big Flat), but after a conversation with the backcountry ranger in Weaverville, our choices narrowed to two given the three days we had available: climb Thompson or traverse the range as it turns out, it isn't really possible to do both in a 3-day weekend - unless the group travels much faster and farther than we did on any given day cross country. Being peak baggers, we chose to bag the peak with a rather straightforward approach up Canyon Creek trail to the Canyon Creek Lakes, then up the drainage and the SE slopes of Mt Thompson. We did entertain the fantasy that on the day of the climb, we would then move camp by climbing the ridge separating the Canyon Creek drainage and Mirror lake, but with approximate 1800 ft elevation gain the need to go cross country over steep terrain, this turned out to be a wan hope, more than a workable plan. It is a thought for the next adventure however that one could cross this ridge, to Mirror Lake then down the Bear Creek trail back to the cars at the Canyon Creek Parking Lot.

The trail from the Canyon Creeks trailhead (approx 3k ft) is a very straightforward march up the hill through a beautiful open forest of mature trees offering shade for most of your climb. After an entire summer of trekking up hills from Eastern Sierra desert scrub, this was a welcome change. The trail follows Canyon Creek (what else) as it tumbles from Canyon Lakes at 6600 ft through a series of water falls, rapids and pools - some of which offer skinny dipping possibilities that some of our fellow travelers couldn't resist.

While some will prefer the secluded campsites under trees next to one of the lakes, our group (Steve Eckert, Charles Schafer, Kelly Maas, Chuck Hursch, Andy Skumanich, Tony Stegman, Mumtaz Shamsee, and your scribe Tim Hult) chose to occupy the penthouse suites on the south side rocks of upper Canyon Lake. Scenic, and barren, these were but a few of the terrific campsites available in this canyon, and I'd recommend this location to anyone who wants to simply hike in the 8 miles and camp for a weekend. There were also several terrific sites in the trees just short of the lakes that would be very pleasant as well. In hindsight we should have moved to the N. side (the inlet side) of upper Canyon Lake and camped just above the floor plain meadow to make the approach a bit easier in the morning, but our site worked well just the same.

A quick evening swim reminded me my memory was faulty on this point too. The water was still WAY too cold to stay in for any length of time, but the scenery was terrific and where in the Sierras can one be serenaded by howling dogs while swimming?

Climbing Mt. Thompson:

Despite our attempts at getting beta on the climb and approach, we found almost none, which left us with the rather unimaginative approach of marching up the streambed to a large waterfall and turning right to gain the top of this headwall. During high water this approach would not be possible and on our decent we found a use trail ascending the benches on the E. of this stream. Basically, this trail ascends from the lower right to the falls on the left via a series of indistinct ramps and short gullies between the benches. No, it will NOT be easy to find, but may be your only way of escaping bush whacking if the stream is high enough to cover the rocks.

Once above this prominent waterfall, the waking and route finding eases off considerably as we found ourselves in a lush pastureland of tall grasses, acres of wildflowers, slow moving streams, and heaps of Bear scat. The best use trail ascends this lush valley on the right hand (NE side) and once again climbs the next headwall next to the largest stream course before reaching the terminal hanging-valley just beneath Thompson peak. Our group used at least 2 paths to gain this second hanging valley, both of them on the right near the stream course, though others may be possible, we are quite sure anything on the left (nearest the Wedding Cake) will not go.

A word on Bear sign. Only once before have I seen this much Bear dung in such a small area, and that was at the height of berry season in the valley just beneath Triple Divide peak South - a trip that saw us bump into 7 Bears in one day! In this valley there seemed to be piles every 10 feet. While we saw no Bears, future travelers should be warned that Bear cans are advised, as it won't take long before these bears figure out people food is better than berries.

Though we were now at only 8000 feet, on September 5th, we encounter several small snowfields at the base of the valley, a sure sign that this bowl fills completely with snow during the winter making it nearly impossible to consider a ski traverse of the region. (The avalanche danger just has to be rather high). From here, climbing the peak is trivial: pick a chute that goes to the ridge running between The Wedding Cake, and Thompson, climb it, and cross over to the West side via any reasonable looking notch in the ridge, then either run the ridge to the top, or traverse around to the North-West slope and make your way up the peak via 2nd class slopes. It appears that the direct ridge route is the fastest (high 2nd class), but the West-facing slope is definitely easy scree-slogging 2nd class with trees anchoring the loose bits. The summit blocks are 3rd class, but accessible to most everyone with some climbing ability. A jumble of them offers sitting space for a party of 10 12 as we proved when were joined on the summit by a party of 3 and a party of 2 for lunch. This is the high point of the range by a few feet, and the views are commanding of the entire Trinity Alps range with clear views over to Mts. Shasta and Lassen. When viewed from above, the Grizzly glacier on the north of the peak and above Grizzly lake appears to be heavily crevassed, and is thus not a good approach route given the many easier alternatives.

The climb and descent consumed nearly all day, but certainly could have taken less as our party spent quite a bit of time admiring the flowers, crawling under a large natural snow cave, route finding, and simply relaxing at various points along the way, with an especially long break sitting on top savoring the view.

For those desiring to do the Trinity range traverse (Canyon Creek to Big Flat), it does appear that the col between Canyon lakes and Mirror lakes goes if taken at it's lowest point, but with approximately 1800 ft of elevation gain over uneven, unstable (i.e. scree) ground from upper Canyon lake, this will be no mean feat with full packs. Given one needs not only to climb the ridge, but also descend to the other side, to Mirror Lake, this portion of the loop hike should be undertaken only if there is sufficient time to get over the ridge and make camp at either Mirror or Sapphire lake before it gets dark (I'd leave 2 3 hours for this task as a guess).

On the return trip back to the cars, Kelly, Tony, Charles and Mumtaz made a side trip up the Boulder Creek drainage to the lakes and reported another spectacularly scenic set of lakes in a beautiful Granite setting with the remaining 50 people we hadn't seen in the Canyon Creek lakes region.

In the end, my memories didn't quite match reality: the lakes were beautiful, but crowded; the swimming was good, but VERY cold; too many dogs, and a few too many people (holiday weekend to blame?). The forest hike is wonderfully enchanting, and a real nice change of pace from the usual hot Sierra slog. Overall, the trip was a great one however for camaraderie, exercise, and a mild adventure. I think most of us plan to get back at some point to explore another part of the range, and perhaps climb Mt Hilton.

Miscellaneous:

Ice axes and crampons: my two cents is you certainly don't need them at the end of the summer, but given the snow fields we saw, I'd say they are a very good idea earlier in the year.

Bear Cans. I'd bring em. They are not required, but with all that Bear Scat around, I'm sure it's only a matter of time before the Trinty Alps brand of Smokey the Bear figures out campers mean food.

Filtration / Purification; Yes, there is lots of water, but too many people and dogs around to do anything less than engage in safe-water practices here.

Car Camping: Weaverville is set in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and there are plenty of places to pull off to crash the night before you start your adventure. Also, there is a car campground a short distance from the end of the Canyon creek road / trailhead that may speed your departure if used the night before.

The Canyon Creek Road turn off from Hwy 299 is NOT easy to spot. Look for Junction City. If you notice you're in Junction City - not a city at all but a filling station and a few other businesses - then you've missed it. It will help to watch your mileage from Weaverville.

Weaverville: Is a cute little town with a lot of turn of the last century character to it. The kind of place Hippies that made it then dropped out again go when they retire. Bookstore, first run Movie Theater, Dry goods store and well, small town character that makes you want to stay awhile. Getting there on Hwy 299 from I-5 is pretty easy, but when turning off Interstate 5, be careful to follow the signs for 299 VERY carefully. We got turned around once and ended up in a tour of downtown Redding.

Hotels: Two in Weaverville that we saw, probably a B&B or two as well. We stayed at the non-chain place across the street (S) from the lumberyard just before the center of town. Reasonably comfortable. Sorry, don't remember the name.

Ranger Station. Located on the South side of the road, after one leaves the downtown area heading West. At this writing (9/2004) there are no quotas for any trailhead. I'll bet this changes soon however. Call ahead for information from the Rangers 530-623-1768 (backcountry ranger)


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