The grandeur of the Sierra without the crowds. Granite peaks shooting to the stars, firs, and pines that dominate the landscape, and one of the largest wilderness areas in all of California. The space to enjoy nature without the sounds of others’ footsteps. 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 a five-hour drive from California’s state capital, this enormous piece of wilderness had to be broken up, divided, and named into three colors. Despite the colors of the region, there is a crown jewel. A jewel that your own two feet can take you to.
The “White,” Trinities as they are called, are the Holy Grail of the three sections. With red and green being the latter. 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 uphill scramble of granite to unlock its hidden gems, the alpine lakes.
There is only one way to get to these gems, and that is with your own two feet. But I won’t be the only one to say that a backpacking trip is paramount for the area. There are always perks when spending the night in the wilderness. Despite its splendid beauty, the trails make you work for these diamonds in the rough.
Simply put, there isn’t one trail that leads or connects you to a chain of lakes. Unlike highway one down the California coast, going from point A to point B, the Trinity Alps’ trail systems are more like the New York City subway network. With the alpine lakes being Grand Central Station, having routes going 360 degrees around it.
The very first incursion I did into the wilderness was one of the longer of the area. The trailhead is named after a creek, which I followed until arriving at the lake. Needless to say, it is quite hard to get miles done on this trail from the countless fishing opportunities the entire way up. Once the sun really starts to warm up the land, you hear the hoppers going, signaling the warming of the day and the difficulty of the hiking up ahead.
Once you get to the lake, the hard work, sore calves, and sunburnt foreheads are grateful. With the gasping of breath not from altitude but of sheer alpine beauty, it was difficult to set up the rod while feeding the line through the guides without peering off into the scenery. The trout know they aren’t stars of the show, and because of that, I was unsuccessful at even getting a strike. There was another angler down at the river with no success either. It was late May and the lake still had icebergs floating in it. So perhaps I was there a little too early.
Heading back to the car, the accomplishment of hiking and spending the night was achieved, however, the discouragement of not hooking into anything was in the forefront of my mind. Arriving at the car, I knew I had to return to the wilderness, and with hundreds of lakes and miles to explore, the next trip beckoned the following weekend presenting a weather window too good to pass up.
As with the previous hike and all other trails explored in the region, the trails were nothing but uphill to the lakes. Arriving after sweating through the June sun, I realized that my intended lake wasn’t a solitary one. Often is the case in many of the drainages. I’d arrive at what I thought was my intended lake all to realize that the cascading creek tumbling down the granite and into the lake I was currently at, was obviously holding an abundance of water and another lake to be explored.
Both held 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 to stimulate a strike. Both dry and subaquatic 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.
I had fish rising to small black gnats. There was success mid day with 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 missed fish from gazing at granite instead of watching my fly.
The success of the latest trip into the wilderness helped overcome the grief of the first. With the taste of an appetizer that is the Trinity Alps, I knew the full course meal was upon me and yet another weekend beckoned with a sick day called in to make it even longer.
Another long approach into the next desired lake on a blue dot filled map to give anyone with a sense of wanderlust anxiety, the late June heat of summer showed itself and early morning hiking became required. As the trails start out in the dense cover of Northern California’s forest, quickly escalating to barren granite and exposed trail in the oven of the summer sun.
Arriving after slogging through a gym workout with the heater on full blast, the backpack was slammed to the ground and the fly rod was immediately rigged for casts beneath the tower of Mount Thompson in a cirque of granite splendor. An incredible distraction trying to watch your dry fly in evening alpine glow.
Between casts I laid out my sleeping pad and took naps on the cool granite in the summer sun and even took daytime swims to cool down. With it being late June, the realization of two more solid months of exploring dominated my mind, and each weekend I promised to explore to my hearts content until fall presented itself.
July rolled into summer and with the fourth of the month being a holiday and my birthday coinciding in the same time frame, more time off from work was granted. Lakes higher in elevation began opening their doors and spectacular alpine scenery, wildflowers, accessibility, and for the fly fisher; rising trout came at any lake I chose.
The geology of the area is incredible. The Trinity Alps are very old, with the rock painting the picture. Granite, red serpentine, and peridotite, dominate the landscape and distract even the most un-educated geology angler to peer out to the stone instead of watching the brook trout strike.
Off-trail lakes also presented themselves as a challenge to the curious backpacker and angler. Unaware if it was even possible to hike to or if you are following the right drainage up while clasping to boulders and mixed vegetation. Like any other lake accessed by trails, the off-trail reward of an untouched lake was the icing on the much-deserved cake of the hard work laid forth.
Summer was beginning to close its door and August was a month of mixed emotions. Rain began to fall and the mighty steelhead rivers nearby began producing numbers of salmon. While coastal and nearby anglers began frolicking at the main tributaries to land an anadromous fish, the irony for me, was to keep casting into alpine lakes while the weather window remained. Casting into azure pools of water, likely one of many sources of water that flow down to the valleys that the salmon use as highways from the ocean into their spawning grounds.
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 about solitude. Setting up the tent after a long day’s hike and boiling up a cup of tea, resting and watching a rippled lake at sunset on a cloudless day. Hearing nothing but the sounds of your breath and the birds chirping in the wind. About a deep sleep in the heart of Northern California’s interior, with the number of humans, spotted countable on one hand.
A small rod tube strapped to the side of the pack had little to no effect on the weight of everything else carried. A tent, sleeping bag, pad, book, with all food and water are all there to make the time at this remote landscape pleasant. These are but tools to enable us to get out into 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 is 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 solitary playground both for the backpacker and for the curious angler.
Article and photos from Sean Jansen, an avid angler and writer based in Bozeman, Montana. Follow along with his adventures at @jansen_journals.