Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Discovering the Trinity Alps

Upper Canyon Creek Lake - Thompson Peak in the distance
These days, for almost every climb or hike we take, there is a “mountain” of information available online about our destination. An important step in any climb is researching where you are headed. Personally, I like going into a climb with as much data as possible. That’s one of the reasons is one of my favorite websites for climbing in Colorado. Before we head to Colorado every year, I study over and over the pages of the mountains where we are headed. When climbing other mountains, it isn’t quite as easy. There are a few online forums that are “ok” - but just ok. And even then it’s only the popular destinations that receive the most attention. If the place I’m going to isn’t one of those, then the search for beta gets more and more arcane. There are these things people in the 20th century used to use, called books. Personally, I’ve never really gotten great data for climbing out of a book. It’s just the way my mind works now, maybe, after so many years being spoiled by finding that info online. It’s just a better format. Even books, though, fall into the above problem that only the really popular objectives are widely written about. Like old maps from the 1800’s, some mountains remain blank spaces on the map of the internet.

The Trinity Alps are one of those places that there just isn’t a whole lot of stuff written about out there. They are like some unspoken secret place - nobody talks about them, but I can just sense that those in the know just aren’t sharing in order to keep the place hidden. I’d seen the peaks - from a distance on Shasta climbs or when we take our dogs up to the summit of Mt. Eddy - but never had a chance to really explore them. So finally, this Thanksgiving Day I made a plan to get out there and see what was what. I found out a little online, and from that decided that Sawtooth Mountain, although not the highest, looked to be the most rewarding climb in the area. With a few sparse internet entries I could find on it, one of them had the quote “If you climb only one peak in the Trinity Alps, climb Sawtooth” - or something to that effect. The scanty entry on Sawtooth in Summitpost also names it as one of the finest hikes/climbs in the Alps. (Oddly, SP has decided to not maintain that page, as some sort of weird “tribute” to the original writer who has now passed away. Seems counter-productive to the goal of what a site like that is supposed to be. But oh well...)

So with barely no information whatsoever, this trip was really about gathering data, a fact-finding scouting trip if you will. I downloaded a map of the area, a pretty good (at least I thought) topo of the area, the best one I could find for free. I used Google maps to study how the area looked, at least from space. But other than these two things, I really had nothing. As the route is supposed to go, the best I could glean from the scattered sources I could find was this: Hike up past a couple of pretty waterfalls to some pretty alpine lakes. Then turn east up a “duck trail” (I had never previously heard the term duck trail, turns out its just a trail marked by cairns.) to a small lake called L Lake. Using the google maps distance feature, and using the scale on the topo, I figured this to be about a 13-14 mile round trip. To be academic about it though, I took my wife’s Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS watch. I didn’t want to think that it “took about 5 hours” or whatever to hike someplace. I wanted to know exactly how many miles it was. We all hike at different rates, so the only way to be thorough is to know the exact mileage. The Forerunner in our experience has been a very accurate indicator of that, even though it’s made for jogging or biking. Turns out, my pre-trip estimate of the miles involved was way off. But I did end up with some concrete numbers that I hope future hikers will find useful. 

A pre-dawn start got me up and onto the curvy Highway 299E out of Redding. I was glad I had perused on Google Earth the turn-off in Junction City to the Canyon Creek Rd. It’s really easy to miss. The road is paved all the way, but it goes back about 13 miles or so. At some point I passed a sign that told me that the road was not winter-maintained past that point. No big deal, I thought, because it did not seem I was in any danger of running into snow at this altitude. (The Canyon Creek trailhead is only 3,073’ by my GPS’ calculation) Well it wasn’t snow that stopped me this morning, but I certainly did stop for a pine tree leaning precipitously far over onto the road. We experienced some very high winds the week before, and this tree nearly had me driving back home without a hike. Thinking that I had just enough room to make it under in my truck, I slowly drove underneath it, wondering the whole time if it would fall the rest of the way to the road later on that day, thereby blocking my exit. That stayed on my mind the rest of the day, too.

Tree trying to block the road. I crept past on the right side.
I continued on up the road, which was increasingly strewn with more and more pine needles and branches. I proceeded slowly, not really knowing what was up ahead. Around a turn I went, and again I was forced to brake. A large boulder, which must have tumbled from the right side of the road, appeared to block my path. Getting out and inspecting, I thought maybe I had enough room to go around it on the left. I better not be wrong though - there was a steep, steep drop off to the far left. I could hear the rushing creek far below, and again wondered if I should keep going. Thinking maybe I could move the rock a little out of the way, I tried to roll it over. It barely budged - it was sooo heavy. I did manage to scoot it (maybe?) 6”. I’m not sure if it was necessary for me to pass with my truck, but it did make me feel a little better. I got in and slowly drove past it, not wanting to hit it with my tire - as surely something that heavy would not give an inch, and I didn’t want to begin my hike changing a flat.

Rock in the middle of the road trying to ruin my day! I crept past on the left.
At the trailhead
At last I arrived at the trailhead, the only vehicle there was mine. Still dark outside, I got my stuff together and clipped on my headlight. I could tell it would be light soon - it was 6:50am, but the tree cover was certainly keeping things hard to see. I have to admit, it was a bit spooky. This area is notorious for bear activity, and I couldn’t help but think about that and the fact that I was alone out here - not another human within miles. It’s tough to keep thoughts like “have you ever felt like something was watching you” out of your head. Certainly hiking in thick forest in the dark is not my favorite past-time.

The trail itself starts out very good for the first 3 miles or so. Steadily it gains altitude, but with a nice loamy soil its easy to make time. I did those first 3 in just a little over an hour, a fairly good pace for myself with a pack. (My pack probably weighed 25 pounds or so. I had some crampons and my ice axe, you know, just in case - plus lunch and some extra layers.) It was still mostly in the trees, leaving just a few windows through to see the morning sun shining on the hills above me every now and then. I was still in the trees mostly at this point.

Getting a look here and there at some of the peaks through the trees
As the trail broke east up the side of the canyon and away from the creek, it got a lot more rocky and rough. The only good part was finally to get out of such dense tree cover, although for the most part I still couldn’t see too far ahead of me. If there was a crouching mountain lion or something around the corner, I would have been hard pressed to react. I did go over in my mind, exactly how long I thought it would take me to get my pack off and get my ice axe out. It was either that or my pocket-knife, and I figured the axe would make the more intimidating thing to swing around should I encounter something wild. Still, it wasn’t exactly a feeling of security. It wasn’t until 3.3 miles into the hike, that I saw my supposed destination - Sawtooth Mountain - rise out above the tree cover.

The trail got a lot more rough
That's Sawtooth Mountain up there

Finally at 3.7 miles I reached the Lower Canyon Creek Falls. These were pretty nice, I couldn’t help think that it would be a healthy hike just to reach here, and that this might be a nice destination for a dayhike. But of course I had more to discover up ahead, so I kept going after taking a few photos. There were some more vantage points, but I felt my pace slipping away, as the rougher trail had slowed, and continued to slow me down more and more as the day progressed.

Lower Canyon Creek Falls
Shortly after leaving the lower falls, the trail evened out it’s uphill ascent for the most part, and the loamy soil returned. Unfortunately, so did the dense tree cover. I bypassed the trail that went off to the side to another falls I could see through the trees, as now my time/pace was starting to lag behind where I thought I wanted to be by that time. Several times I felt myself walking through an area of high weeds or a thicket of bushes and thought to myself “if I was bear, this would be a good place to hang out” but luckily I still saw nothing. Every once in a while I would let out an audible “WHOOP” sound - just to make sure whatever might be ahead would hear me coming. I also had my wife’s bear bell, which she had recommended I take, attached to one of my trekking poles. So every step I took it would ring a little. Sometimes, I’d slam that pole into the ground just a little harder than normal, and get a little louder ring out of it…

At last I started to break out of the constant forest. It was a mixed bag - finally I could see what lay ahead, but that scenery although beautiful was not exceptionally easy-looking for hiking. I passed up a sign that said something about no campfires above this point, so that the natural vegetation around the lake could be maintained. Since now I was nearing the six-mile mark, I was happy to think that maybe now I was very, very close to the Lower Lake. I was starting to get a little weary and lunch was starting to sound better and better.

However, it turned out to be something of a false summit - or a false lake in this case. There was no lake, at least not yet. I rounded a corner and then - another waterfall. I lost count of how many waterfalls I saw on this hike. They were all real nice and everything, but I just didn’t come here to see waterfalls. The trail got a little more harder to follow. Soon I was following trail bits from cairn to cairn as the path went quickly higher.

Slabs below Lower Canyon Creek Lake
Then, finally, I saw the lake nestled a little below me. Not really sure of how the trail went from here, I just went to the mouth of the lake to capture a photo of where I was right now. Lower Canyon Creek Lake was peaceful and serene, with not a ripple disturbing it’s crystal clear waters.

Lower Canyon Creek Lake

I didn’t quite know where to go from here. By this point, there were cairns all over the place. Unsure if this was the right way, it looked to me that heading up the west side of the lake would be the path of least resistance. As I got a little more than halfway across the lake, I began to doubt that assessment. I was roughly headed for a patch of tall trees,  but I could tell that the shoreline cliffed out at that point. Somehow, once I got to those trees, I would have to search for higher ground, hopefully via a path or at least some cairns. (On the descent I would discover the line I should have taken) I entered the trees and it seemed to hold a few signs that people had been there before - signs of trails.

The patch of trees on the west side shore of the lower lake. I should have headed farther uphill.

It didn’t last though. Halfway up out of the trees and before the cliffs, I ran into a dead-end. Faced with the choice of going right - towards the cliffs, or left into a jumbled mess of thorny bushes and willows, I elected to go left toward more safer for sure ground. In full on bushwhack mode, I found in short order a little gully that led up to what looked to be pretty easily climbed rock. With just one short move, I was up on top of the cliff band. What was there to greet me on top? Why more cairns of course. Although I had gone way off track, blindly I had ended up back on the trail. 

From here I could see the upper lake, and the outline of a trail that went along it’s shores. I noted on the Forerunner that I was now at 7.55 miles - so when they say the upper lake is 7 miles, they were definitely rounding down. Comfortably back on a somewhat established trail, I followed it down the one of the most absolutely picturesque lakes I’ve ever seen. I knew from here that to get to the trail to L Lake, I would have to get across the whatever creek was draining out of the upper lake. I approached it high, and it was quite a cliff down. Heading north back towards the lake, I found a little easier going, although it was steep and required care not to slip on the smooth rock down towards the mouth. Crossing the mouth wasn’t hard - but I could see where in other times of the year, times with more waterflow, it might be more challenging, or at least more wet. But I made it to the other side and started trying to figure out where the “duck trail”,  as it had been described, up to L lake might be.

Looking to the south at both the Upper and Lower Canyon Creek Lakes
Looking up toward the way to L Lake
Beautiful peaks towering over Upper Lake

Pretty quickly I was back in bushwhack mode. It’s not that there weren’t any cairns, indeed the problem was that there were cairns all over the place. I wasn’t sure if I should stay low, near the east side lake shore, or start heading east, up the incline towards the cirque where I knew L Lake must lay. I ended up taking a hybrid of the two, and this ended up being the more correct decision, as soon I found some pretty good cairns to follow. The way from Upper Canyon Creek Lake to L Lake is abruptly much steeper than any previous sections of the trail though. The hunt for the cairns gets more and more dicey the higher you go to. It’s slabby, bouldery and rough. My feet were killing me, and I would find out later this hike was going to cost me at least one toenail, and definitely the majority of that battery seems to me came on this particular section. Each rise I overcame I would hope to see a leveling out on the terrain, and seemingly each rise I was disappointed to see only more mountain going up.

Looking back at the rough "duck trail" up to L Lake
Looking up the way to L Lake. Sawtooth Mountain summit is on the right.

Tired, hungry, and more than a little mentally defeated by the extra miles than I had thought on the trail, I spied a high point up ahead and decided that would be my turnaround point and lunch spot. All I really wanted at this point was to get a good vantage point of the cirque that ends with Sawtooth pointing up on the southernmost side, and snap at least a picture of that before I enjoyed my sandwich. Finally I got to where I wanted to eat. My GPS read 8.63 miles. Through the trees up ahead, I could see the clear waters of L Lake. To make it there, I would have to descend a little, and walk I guess another ¼ of a mile or so. That wasn’t going to happen. I knew I had a 15 mile hike in me today, and if I turned around right here it would be over a 17 mile hike. I wasn’t about to make this an 18 mile hike either. Not today, not at this time of year (November) when I would be cutting it so close to getting back to the trailhead before dark as it was. This was a fine stopping point. This was at an elevation of 6,509’. Sawtooth Mountain still towers an additional 2300’+ from here. With the mileage involved, the roughness of the trail and the altitude from trailhead, Sawtooth Mountain would be a very, very difficult dayhike even during the long hours of summertime. This is most definitely a climb better done as part of at least a two-day trip.

Sawtooth from my lunch spot

I took some photos and headed back down after lunch. As I neared the lake, I once again kind of lost the trail, as on the way up I had only been following one of multiple possible cairned routes. I ended up in a thicket of bushes, sticking me in the side and trying to knock my hat off. Only this time, I could see the lakeshore ahead of me, and knew if I just keep heading toward that, I could eventually work my way around back to the mouth and the trail out. I crossed the mouth and back across between the upper and lower lake. This time, I stayed on the cairned path. The correct way, is high above the west side of the lower lake. No bushwacking involved, just keeping an eye out for cairns and the best possible route down. It did get a little cliffy on some of those slabs, but I did manage to make it down somewhat on trails that did look to have been trodden on before.

Now my order of business was to get back to the trailhead before dark. After leaving the lower lake, the rest of the way the trail is much easier to follow. I knew I was going faster, as I was losing altitude, but not so sure if I would be the sunset. In these late November days, there is only about 10 hours of daylight, so sunset was slightly before 5. At my current pace, I figured I would have to put on my headlamp for a few minutes and arrive back at my truck around 5:30. Not ideal, I really felt like I didn’t want to be out here after dark. I still had that funny “somebody/something is watching me” feeling.

A look at my GPS track at my high point

That feeling was still with me as I descended back down into the thick forest. Suddenly, I thought I heard a distinct “bark” and stopped fast. Before I could think “Did I really just hear that?” or “Was that what I thought it sounded like?” It barked again. Canine. Definitely a canine. But I was still pretty sure I was alone. I had seen some footprints here and there, some human some dog, but they looked at least a week old. My thoughts, admittedly in hindsight clouded because of the general spookiness of the trail, immediately concluded it couldn’t be a dog, that it must be a coyote - (or maybe OR7? nah, he wouldn’t be down this far south… I hoped) and doubled and re-doubled my pace. No, I was basically trail-running now.

Eventually I got to a point where I felt sort of safe again. I figured if I was being tracked by coyotes, I wasn’t in any danger unless I stopped - so I just didn’t stop. Then it occurred to me - I got here pretty early. It’s quite possible someone got here later than me, and hiked up behind me. They could have been somewhere off the trail and I just missed them on my way down. About an hour after hearing the bark, I came across another hiker, a young bearded guy with a pack heading up. After a minute of some chit-chat, we went on our ways. Pretty sure now that my second theory - that it wasn’t a coyote but another hiker-  was the correct one, I now slowed my pace a little. Even if it was a coyote, the coyotes would now attack and eat this hiker and not me. The good part about the coyote scare is that now I was on pace to get back to the trailhead just a little before dark. I would later look at my GPS record - one mile on the way down I had covered in just six minutes! I bet I know which mile that was.

The complete route of my hike

I never had to turn my headlamp back on, as I reached my truck just before the light faded. A check of the GPS showed I hiked 17.3 miles total in 9:55 - a good day out in the woods to be sure. My conclusion is that if you want to see some waterfalls or a some pristine alpine lakes, this is a good trail for a dayhike. If you’re looking to actually climb something, you’re going to need to overnight it. Some pages on the internet I read called the Sawtooth Mountain climb “a long day” - well, maybe it is for trail runners or people who like to brag needlessly about their exploits in the hills, but for regular folks it doesn’t hold up. The Trinity Alps are, however, an area of striking beauty, and I’m very much looking forward to getting back up there next summer for further exploration (and a LOT more climbing!).

That was quite a day out!