Let's talk about hiking and backpacking in California. No doubt you're familiar, at least in name, with Yosemite, Redwoods, and Kings Canyon. Mob scenes, every one of them! Lousy with cars and regulations and concrete! Claustrophobically crowded!
I made a discovery, of sorts, last fall — and almost hate to share it. But there is a whole range of mountains in California that is relatively unknown, except among local hikers and backpackers. It's massive, glorious, and filled with more crystalline lakes, rushing streams, alpine scenery, and sublime camping spots than a person could see in a lifetime. And if you avoid one or two areas around the weekends, there's almost nobody there.
It's called the Trinity Alps Wilderness, and here's how you get there from Memphis: Fly to San Francisco and rent a car, then drive north on I-5 for about six hours until you see the New Age madness around Mount Shasta. Turn left and follow a series of ever-smaller and hillier roads for an hour and a half to any one of a dozen or more trailheads.
And what is up those trails? About 525,000 acres of protected wilderness (bigger than Shelby County), 833 miles of trails, 55 lakes, and terrain from dense forests to alpine wonderlands.
My girlfriend and I hiked a five-night trip there last September, starting from a little-used campground/trailhead on the northeast side, 15 miles up a dirt road from the "town" of Coffee Creek. We arrived on a Saturday evening, and the only other car belonged to a couple on their way out of the hills.
We spent the next two days hiking in virtual solitude, our only human sightings being two women at Caribou Lake, where we camped the first night, and, this being California, one man hiking alone and wearing only his backpack, boots, and a mighty thorough tan.
That first night at Caribou was one of those "Are we really here?" moments, with deep, granite walls all around, the moon shining above, dinner on the shore, a night's sleep in total silence, and a frigid swim to wake up in the morning.
The next day we engaged in two Trinity traditions: following an unmaintained trail and getting lost. There is plenty of opportunity for off-trail travel in the Trinities, some of it leading to the most remote treasures. There are also a fair number of "scramble" trails marked as dotted lines on the map, but you'll need good maps, a compass, and the good sense to use them.
We were confident we could follow the Caribou Scramble, and we did — but in part by luck. We lost it on the way out of Caribou Basin and wound up scrambling up a steep, pine-needle-covered hillside. When we arrived at the knife-edge ridgeline at around 7,700 feet, we were relieved beyond measure that the trail down the other side was within 50 feet of us.
But what a trail! It dropped almost 3,000 feet in countless switchbacks, all of them waterless and in the sun. (Warning: Do not go up the Caribou Scramble!) There's a campsite and creek at the bottom, but after resting up, we headed to a camp at Emerald Lake, the mountain lake of your dreams.
During the next three days, we napped in the shade, swam and fished in the lake, visited even higher and even prettier Sapphire Lake, watched the sun rise from our sleeping bags, and ate as much out of our packs as we could.
Then we hiked out over two more nights, using rarely visited trails, seeing only several deer and one person who had just seen a black bear. We camped alone two more nights — once near sprawling Morris Meadow and once clinging to a granite hillside — then descended from alpine highlands through fir forests to the piney lowlands, and when we were done, the whole thing seemed like a dream.
The amazing thing about the Trinity Alps, though, is that we barely scratched the surface of what's there. And with a little effort on your part, the Trinities might make a mark on you, too.
For more information on the Trinity Alps Wilderness, call the Klamath National Forest office at 530-842-6131.