The grandeur of the Sierra without the crowds. As simply put as I can describe now having visited both dozens of times over. Granite peaks shooting to the stars, firs and pines that dominate the landscape, and one of the largest wilderness area in all of California. To tie it all together, only a fraction of the people I am certain John Muir and the wake of his One Sierra Summer created. But with the Sierra Nevada being what they are, what if there was an option with equal awe, added with space all to yourself? The space to enjoy nature without the sounds of others footsteps. Similar flora and fauna as that of the Sierra, with similar geography, geology, and granite. Trout in lakes and streams ready to take a fly. Not to mention open space HD quality, minus the headache of altitude.
The Trinity Alps, nestled just south of the state of Oregon yet still a five hour drive north of the Alps’ home state capital, this enormous piece of wilderness had to be broken up, divided, and named (Due to its geography and geology) into three colors. However despite the colors of the region, there is a crown jewel out of the entire area. A jewel that only your own two feet can take you to. With what has to be the prized possession of the deep-hearted backpacker that comes to the Trinity Alps, this area out of all reigns as the populous vote in the extremely totalitarian way. The “White,” Trinities as they are called, are the Holy Grail, Stanley Cup, Super Bowl and Heavy Weight Title of the three sections. With red and green being the latter. With Mount Thompson, settling in at 9,002 feet and her friends nearby tickling that number as well, this section screams exploration. Every trail leading into this environment starts slow within the reach of the dominating conifers, and then suddenly explodes into an up hill scramble of granite to unlock its hidden gems, the alpine lakes.
As mentioned, there is only one way to get into these gems, and that is with your own two feet. Now if you are in incredible shape and love hiking half to full marathons in a single day, there are many lakes within striking distance of a day hike for those who dare. But I wont be the only to say that a backpacking trip is paramount for the area. Watching a lake ripple as it would during a rainstorm, but on a cloudless day with trout grazing and slurping their dinner entre. There are always perks when spending the night in the wilderness. With how wonderful it really is however, the trails make you work for these diamonds in the rough.
Simply put, there isn’t one trail that leads you to a chain of lakes or connects you to a chain of lakes. If I could compare and contrast it to the John Muir Trail (trail that spans the Sierra Nevada range) and the fishing there, The JMT would be like highway one down the California coast. With natural beauty everywhere and one highway that links you from point A to point B; north to south. Where the Trinity Alps’ trail systems are more like the New York City subway network. With the alpine lakes being Grand Central Station with routes from 360 degrees around it to enter by. Of course, you can study maps and create weeklong loops with 100-mile trips. Where for the majority of anglers that come into this wilderness, the trips are more weekend warrior, there and back style backpacking. And with these lakes being what they are, I am certain your, “There and Back,” trip will have more meaning than just the hiking.
The very first incursion I did into the wilderness was to Emerald Lake. Emerald Lake is accessible via highway 3. The trailhead is off the highway about 3.5 miles or so with the last mile of it being dirt where the trailhead is. The trail is one of the longer of the area, but with the length comes a higher value for the destination. My memory of it was around 14 miles one-way to Emerald herself, but there’s an added kicker for the hike there. The trailhead is called the Stuart Fork Trail because it meanders next to the Stuart Fork River, the outlet of Emerald Lake. So needless to say, it is quite hard to get miles done on this trail not because of the sheer difficulty of the 4000 feet of uphill hiking to get there, but because of the countless fishing opportunities the entire way up. Once the sun really starts to warm up the land, you hear the hoppers going, therefore hiking gets even harder. Gorgeous, clear, and frighteningly cold for those who want to take a dip during the midday heat storm.
Once you get to the lake though, the hard work, sore calves, and sun burnt foreheads are grateful. The views are among those listed in the thesaurus next to, “Amazing.” And the trout there know that they aren’t the stars of the show. And because of that, I was unsuccessful at even getting a strike at this lake. There was another angler down at the river with no success either. It was late May and the lake a little passed Emerald, Sapphire Lake still had icebergs floating in it. So perhaps I was there a little too early, however the Stuart Fork is a well know little fishing gem down lower so fish are present if presented with the appropriate diet.
Caribou and Snowslide Lakes
Caribou has its attraction for not only being the largest lake in the Alps, but also because of its name. Well, at least that’s why I was attracted to it. There is an access trail from Emerald Lake to get to Caribou. However, it was impassable when I attempted it in late May. But there is another trail that allows access with a shorter, 8-mile trail one-way to Caribou. Pretty much nothing but uphill to the lake, but once you arrive, you realize that she isn’t alone.
The trail doesn’t follow any rivers to the lake, though there are water opportunities from small creeks. But there are two little lakes ¾ mile before Caribou named Lower Caribou and Snowslide Lake. Both have trout in them with which I had great success. Ravenous little brook and rainbow trout no bigger than a ruler, but so fun to catch and amazing with the variety of patterns you can throw there way to stimulate a strike. Both dry and sub aquatic flies were equally as productive. An Elk Hair Caddis was my go-to fly for pretty much the entire summer. Skate it across the lake and count the seconds until a strike. However a red woolly bugger with some sparkle hackle on it had plenty of action as well.
But Caribou Lake had fish rising to small black gnats and they were going absolutely crazy over them. Had success mid day with the elk hair and buggers but the gnats and mosquito patterns take over when the sun angles toward the afternoon. Good fishing with a very distracting background that I most definitely missed fish from gazing at granite instead of watching my fly. Not that I’m complaining.
Canyon Creek Lakes
Quite possibly the most popular lakes of the region, the Canyon Creek Lakes are stunning and have the backdrop of Mount Thompson, the second highest peak in the wilderness. An incredible distraction trying to watch your dry fly with Thompson all lit up at sunrise or set, because the fishing was great. I actually ended up hooking a brown trout early in June with its silvery coat. Smacked an elk hair caddis as the wind slowly drifted it within its sights. There are two lakes both with rising fish and plenty of campsites with epic views. There are day hikes up to Thompson with views that I’m sure are worth the hike up for, however I did not participate.
It is a relatively short hike up to the lakes themselves with Canyon Creek below easily fishable in super clear water. All sorts of insects were hatching along the banks at early morning. I had no success in the creeks. Many great campsites on the way up for those that wanted to break the 8-mile hike up into a couple days and fish the creek. Many people also just day hike to the lakes with there base camp down at the creek making the hike to them more enjoyable. A gorgeous decision whichever you choose with potentially great fishing at both.
4 Lakes Loop With what could be the only, ”loop,” in the entirety of the Alps, this for me has to be the pick for the ultimate fly-packing trip in the region. As I have said one can create loops if they are so inclined, however this really is the only loop in the trinities. For either the weeklong cruiser or the weekend warrior, it is spectacular for alpine scenery, wildflowers, accessibility, and for the fly fisher; rising trout.
The loop circumnavigates itself around a pillar. And that pillar is Mount Silgo. Sitting in at 8,162 feet, this is your magnetic north, your bearing for circumnavigation. Made out of granite, red serpentine, and peridotite, the mount is quite unmistakable. But doing your homework and always carrying a map is just great common sense anyways. But either way, you meander UP (possibly the hardest trail in the Alps as well), 7-miles until you reach Deer Creek Lake. A great camping spot and base camp so you only have to day hike the 4-mile loop, bouncing and casting from one lake to another with only fly gear, snacks and water, rather than all your gear.
The four lakes loop consists of exactly what its name implies, four lakes. Deer Creek Lake, the first lake you arrive at from the trail. A relatively shallow lake in the cone beneath Silgo Peak. 270 degrees of wild flowers, alpine, and deer. The name of the lake is appropriate, as myself along with other hikers have confronted deer to be within an arms length away from your tent at night. Just an added perk for camping here other than the hundreds of trout rising all day long. A great place to be whether you decide to hike the loop or not.
Now with the loop being a loop, you have a choice to hike it either clockwise, or other. There is a slight advantage to hiking it clockwise, only for the reason of difference in altitude and terrain. If you were to hike it this way, there is a slight up hill out of Deer Creek Lake, then a slow gradual downhill passing the other three lakes then a short but steep, uphill back to Deer Creek Lake. Where on the contrary, if you go counter, there is a steep downhill and a very slow long uphill back to the ridge where you then drop down to Deer Creek Lake. However for this tale of chasing trout, I went clockwise, base camping at DCL (Deer Creek Lake).
Out of DCL and up to the ridge, the view is nothing short of breathtaking. A gorgeous view down into the crystal clear lake you just came from, still witnessing trout rises from above. Then to the other side, a view of Thompson and glimmers through the trees of another lake. That lake is Summit Lake. It is just a short side trail off the loop and is the largest lake of the four. Fish were rising to mosquito patterns from what I gathered while I was getting my bug spray out. A very short hike to Summit from DCL if you opted to day hike.
As the trail meanders down hill slowly, the next lake is Diamond Lake. Appropriately named again, this small lake offered small fish rising to Elk Hair Caddis’s around lunch-time (when I got there). The days in the peak of the summer, the optimal time to visit the region, can reach upwards of the triple digit realm, even at 7,000 feet. And with only one tree on the lakes shore, shade was a difficult task. Casting however was not. But with Diamond being the only lake in the loop that has views of Thompson and her friends, this lake wouldn’t be a bad choice to camp at what so ever.
Luella Lake takes the cake for me though. Small but conducive, in more ways than just fishing. You hike downward from Diamond and are wondering where Luella Lake is. But that is simply why this lake is so great. Hidden, almost right in front of your nose only because the water is different from that of the other three. Bottom contours that evoke with the color of this lake make it just a splendid choice for the day or camp. Slightly larger than Diamond but shallower, I was spot fishing on this lake with an arsenal ranging from flying ants to hoppers, with success from both. Large boulders are around the lake making it a great platform to spot fish from. A lot of trees surrounding the lake, making the cast challenging, but the fishing much more enjoyable when you do link up. Leaving the lake is the hardest part for those that chose to camp at DCL. It is stunning, plus you now have a very steep uphill to camp. Stock up on water.
The most grand; the Holy Grail to the region. But with it being so, it makes you work to get there. Starting off with your choices of trail versus drive time to the trail. One is an 18-mile trail with easy access from a major highway, while the other is a very short 6-mile trail with over a 4-hour drive from any direction on a beautiful but sketchy, “Road.” Whichever you choose, the reward is well worth it. The lake is after an immense scramble of granite boulders after being engulfed underneath a canopy of firs. But the scramble is hardly a chore despite its difficulty solely for the splendor of the outflow of Grizzly Lake; cascading downward for about 500 feet. Every switchback and boulder climbed offers a different view of the waterfall until reaching the lake.
The lake itself has the power of jaw drop material from the views on the way up. But, once at its shores, gazing out at the color palette at bay from where your feet are to where your eyes peer upward, the word grandeur simply isn’t enough to explain what you’re witnessing. The views of Mount Thompson are the best of the area, and to have a lake nestled within such extreme granite shapes and sizes are just prerequisites for a beauty overload. If there could be a lake within a king’s crown, Grizzly would take the podium. Oh, and did I say that I personally think the best fishing in the entire wilderness lies within its waters and outflow?
Caddis, ant, copper john, wooly bugger, midge, and hopper patterns with deep, cold, and clear water; Grizzly Lake is the ultimate for one stop shopping alpine style fishing. All patterns listed above worked well as I’m sure anything of your own repertoire. Whatever I decided to cast out, ultimately ended up getting hit whether it was the first or tenth cast. The outflow has a similar story, ten fish within minutes. Trophies are in there for those that spend the time and fish for them appropriately, but again a trophy barely breaks the ruler stick. But once you arrive however, you realize the trophy has nothing to do with the fishing or the trout.
With what could be said for each lake I visited or the lakes I have yet to hike, the ultimate goal was never about fishing. It was only the icing on the cake. A small rod tube strapped to the side of your pack has little to no effect from the weight of everything else you carried there. Your tent, sleeping bag, pad, book, and small flask of whiskey included with all your food and water are all there to make the time at this remote harsh landscape pleasant. These are only just tools to enable us to get out into these wild places and stay longer than just a simple hike out. And that right there has to be the coolest thing about backpacking, with the Trinity Alps and its lakes being in the crosshairs. The trails are splendid and in great shape, the weather from late spring to early fall is rarely moist, and the population of humans are of the small town variety. Whether it’s your first backcountry trip or you’re a seasoned veteran, this wilderness is nothing short of a playground for all.