My Trinity Alps Backpacking Trip — Caribou Lake, Sawtooth Ridge, Emerald Lake, Morris Meadows

by John Soares on August 26, 2010

I recently took a kick-ass backpacking trip to Caribou Lake, Sawtooth Ridge, Emerald Lake , and Morris Meadows, all top Trinity Alps trails I haven’t trod in many years. The journey traced one of the most difficult journeys in my 100 Classic Hikes in Northern California — Hike 57 to Caribou, Emerald, and Sapphire Lakes.

And it was fantastic…

Enjoy the Journey — to the Trailhead

My driving route took me from Stewart Mineral Springs west of I-5 and north of Weed along Forest Road 17 to Park’s Creek saddle, where I crossed the Trinity Divide and followed the road along the east fork Trinity River to Highway 3. If you haven’t driven paved Forest Road 17, just know that it tops out around 7000 feet and gives you wide-open vistas of the Eddys and other Trinity Divide Mountains.

The 19  miles from Highway 3 along Coffee Creek to the Big Flat Trailhead are mostly dirt, but there’s always the tumbling creek to watch, plus I was intrigued by all the trailheads I passed for other Trinity Alps destinations to explore, or in many cases re-explore, at a future date.

Big Flat to Snowslide Lake and Caribou Lake

It was late enough in the year that crossing the South Fork of the Salmon River was no problem. (Did it with my shoes on: kept my feet cool for the next hour).

A steady climb at a moderate grade brought me to Brown’s Meadow, my lunch spot, and by late afternoon the Caribou Lakes basin appeared, and then my first night’s destination: Snowslide Lake.

Snowslide Lake from the Caribou Lake Trail. A prime swimming lake! (Photo by John Soares)

Snowslide Lake from the Caribou Lake Trail. A prime swimming lake! (Photo by John Soares)

I took a dip just before sunset in the lakes surprisingly temperate waters and then set up at one of the several excellent campsites to watch the sun’s shadow rise up Caribou Mountain.

Caribou Mountain rises above Snowslide Lake. (Photo by John Soares)

Caribou Mountain rises above Snowslide Lake. (Photo by John Soares)

Steep Snowslide Lake shoreline at sunset. (Photo by John Soares)

Steep Snowslide Lake shoreline at sunset. (Photo by John Soares)

Saw a dozen or so meteors, many of them Perseids, before I fell asleep.

Caribou Lake to Sawtooth Ridge

Day 2. Tai chi, reading, and just gazing occupied me ’til early afternoon. I then headed up to Caribou Lake and contemplated the route up to the Sawtooth Ridge…

Snow covers the trail from Caribou Lake to Sawtooth Ridge and the beginning of the Suicide Ridge Trail. (Photo by John Soares)

Snow covers the trail from Caribou Lake to Sawtooth Ridge and the beginning of the Suicide Ridge Trail. (Photo by John Soares)

I headed to the far side of the lake and filled my water bottles at this pond…

Small pond above Caribou Lake, with the Sawtooth Ridge in the background. (Photo by John Soares)

Small pond above Caribou Lake, with the Sawtooth Ridge in the background. (Photo by John Soares)

The steep and faint trail promptly disappeared under a huge snowbank. I tried to follow it, but eventually just pushed my way up cross-country, doing my best to keep the trail on my left. Once I reached Sawtooth Ridge (and the boundary line between Siskiyou County and Trinity County), I turned left and found the trail.

And one of the best views anywhere…

Stunning Trinity Alps vista: Sapphire Lake and the Sawtooth Ridge from the beginning of the Suicide Ridge Trail. Mirror Lake lies unseen in the cirque above Sapphire. Emerald Lake is just downstream from Sapphire. (Photo by John Soares)

Stunning Trinity Alps vista: Sapphire Lake and the Sawtooth Ridge from the beginning of the Suicide Ridge Trail. Mirror Lake lies unseen in the cirque above Sapphire. Emerald Lake is just downstream from Sapphire. (Photo by John Soares)

Colorful metamorphic rocks are common in the Trinity Alps. These border the Deer Creek drainage that empties into Stuart's Fork of the Trinity River. (Photo by John Soares)

Colorful metamorphic rocks are common in the Trinity Alps. These border the Deer Creek drainage that empties into Stuart's Fork of the Trinity River. (Photo by John Soares)

Caribou Lake from Sawtooth Ridge -- the largest lake in the Trinity Alps. (Photo by John Soares)

Caribou Lake from Sawtooth Ridge -- the largest lake in the Trinity Alps. (Photo by John Soares)

Sawtooth Ridge to Stuart Fork via the Suicide Ridge Trail

I was then faced with the 2200-foot descent of one of the steepest, nastiest paths anywhere — the Suicide Ridge Trail…

Beginning of the Suicide Ridge Trail. It's a knee-jamming 2200 feet from the Sawtooth Ridge down to Portuguese Camp and Stuart's Fork. (Photo by John Soares)

Beginning of the Suicide Ridge Trail. It's a knee-jamming 2200 feet from the Sawtooth Ridge down to Portuguese Camp and Stuart's Fork. (Photo by John Soares)

Beautiful views, but hard on the knees and very brushy at the bottom.

Reached the Stuart Fork Trail at Portuguese Camp at sunset. Went downhill toward Morris Meadows trying to find a campsite, but they were all taken. I eventually turned around, headed back upstream, and finally found a stunning campsite when it was nearly absolute dark.

Emerald Lake

Day Three. Visited Emerald Lake, a place I’ve been many times but not since the 1990s. I thought about heading to Sapphire Lake and on to Mirror Lake, but my left knee hurt a bit from the strain of the previous day and I still had many miles to hike.

Emerald Lake, crown jewel of the Trinity Alps. Sapphire Lake and Mirror Lake lie further up Stuart's Fork. (Photo by John Soares)

Emerald Lake, crown jewel of the Trinity Alps. Sapphire Lake and Mirror Lake lie further up Stuart's Fork. (Photo by John Soares)

Morris Meadows

Downhill roll to Morris Meadows — flowers, vistas, big trees…

Morris Meadows. Smith Lake lies behind that granite ridge. (Photo by John Soares)

Morris Meadows. Smith Lake lies behind that granite ridge. (Photo by John Soares)

Monster Jeffrey pine along the edge of Morris Meadows. (Photo by John Soares)

Monster Jeffrey pine along the edge of Morris Meadows. (Photo by John Soares)

Obligatory arm's-length photo of me at Morris Meadows. (Photo by John Soares)

Obligatory arm's-length photo of me at Morris Meadows. (Photo by John Soares)

Deer Creek Trail to the Tri-Forest Trail

Climbed up the Deer Creek Trail from Morris Meadows and ran into 40-50 trees across the trail, some of ‘em biggin’s. Found the Tri-Forest Trail a hundred yards or so beyond Willow Creek. (If you’re doing this, look close for the trail. It’s easy to miss.) Slept under a fir tree.

Tri-Forest Trail Back to Big Flat

The Tri-Forest Trail is nearly totally obscured for the first 150 feet. I did find it, and I managed to stay on it the whole 2-mile, 2000-foot climb to the gap near Tri-Forest Peak. I absorbed the views and chatted with three other backpackers (also from the Mount Shasta area), and then I descended back to the trailhead at Big Flat.

Highlights of the Journey

Meteors
Swimming in Snowslide Lake and Emerald Lake
Sunset at Snowslide Lake
The views of Sawtooth Peak, Caesar’s Peak, Thompson Peak, Sawtooth Ridge…
The bear that crossed the trail 40 feet in front of me, but didn’t see me
The stare-down I had with a rattlesnake on the Stuart Fork Trail in Morris Meadows (he won)
Feeling the strength of my 50-year-old legs
Eating cashews

Been here? Your thoughts?

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    { 29 comments… read them below or add one }

    Stephanie Hoffman August 26, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    John,

    You’ve inspired me to go backpacking…there ain’t nothing like it! Everything you need can be carried on your back which teaches us about the beauty of simplicity. I also loved your photos!

    Reply

    Gambolin' Man August 26, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    John,

    I really enjoyed your punchy narrative and gorgeous photos! It’s been years since I’ve hiked in the “high impact” Trinities – still that way? That one area where you found all the campsites taken sounds like it’s still congested a bit. Nice highlights, too – I was down in the Royal Gorge on my birthday weekend (past) and had an “interview” with a bear and rattlesnake myself . . .only disaster with the bear – you’ll have to read about it in my upcoming post! He snuck into our camp at the crack of dawn and absconded with my backpack stuffed with every last morsel of our food! Terrible hubris for not having hung the food! Silly me, but what happened next was quite surprising!

    Reply

    John Soares August 28, 2010 at 6:38 am

    Not sure if you’re joking about “high impact,” but the Trinity Alps probably only have 5% of the visitors the Sierra Nevada gets per trail mile.

    Looking forward to reading your next post. I love animal stories, and I’ve often taken my chances and left my food in the pack.

    Reply

    Gambolin' Man September 3, 2010 at 7:47 am

    John,

    I had read somewhere – probably back in the 90s – that certain way-popular areas of the Trinity Alps had become overrun and highly impacted. Perhaps it was just someone’s way of trying to keep it from actually becoming that way! It sure worked a spell on me and kept me from duly exploring it all these years…..

    Reply

    John Soares September 3, 2010 at 8:49 am

    A few lakes are highly impacted, but overall the Trinity Alps sees fairly few hikers.

    Reply

    Nick "Evergreen" Calzia August 26, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    Hey John,

    You don’t know me but I’m a college student who grew up in Burney, CA who is super passionate about backpacking and bought your book this summer and then subsequently found your blog which I have enjoyed following this summer. Just thought I’d let you know my friend and I took a monster of a backpacking trip through the Trinities earlier this month from July 31-Aug 3 In which we took of from Swift Creek and hiked all the way up to Summit Lake on the 4 Lakes loop via Granite Lake, 7up Pass, and Deer Lake. We enjoyed an awesome sunset and swim here for the 1st night. We got up early the next morning and and finished the loop and then headed down the canyon towards Stuart Fork intending to turn up the Tri-Forest trail but DID miss the turn off. You are correct in saying it is easy to miss. We didn’t realize we missed it until we crested the ridge and found ourselves looking down on Morris Meadows. We descended and hiked all the way up to Emerald Lake to spend our 2nd night. We took a very nice swim here too. And we both got pictures next to the exact same HUGE Jeffrey Pine that you have a picture of above along the edge of Morris Meadow. We woke up super early the next morning and headed UP Suicide Ridge which is quite the ascent. My friend and I were pretty tired by the time we crested but the view of Caribou Lake, Morris Meadows, Emerald and Sapphire Lake from the top of Sawtooth ridge is unlike anything I have ever seen. We then had a pretty technical descent down to the lake across snow that was two weeks of melting deeper than your hike so it was quite the adventure descending. After rounding Caribou Lake and heading down to Lower Caribou and Snowslide I know this is an area I would like to revisit but my friend and I still had miles to go so we refilled camelbaks at Snoslide and continued towards Big Flat. By the time we reached the Salmon River our knees were pretty shot from descending so long from the Caribou Basin over that trail that is just covered in granite. We rested for about half an hour with our feet in the river and then started up the Tri-Forest trail and made it a couple miles before we found a nice spot alongside the Salmon River where we set up camp for night 3. We were up again on our 4th day with the goal to finish back out Swift Creek. We went up the Ward Lake trail over a pass that is mild most of the way from the Salmon River but for the last 1/4 mile or so is the steepest trail I have ever seen. Easily steeper than the suicide ridge trail. We crested and headed down past Ward Lake and Horseshoe Lake and on down the Swift Creek trail all the way back to our truck. It was 60 mi in 4 days that was mostly inspired by your book and I want to thank you for writing it. My friend and I had such an awesome time and I probably wouldn’t have even known where to start in the Trinities if it wasn’t for your book and blog. Hope things are going awesome for you in Mt. Shasta.

    Nick

    Reply

    John Soares August 28, 2010 at 6:43 am

    Nick, what a great adventure story, and thanks so much for your kind words about my book.

    That often happens in the Trinity Alps — things are longer and steeper than you expect, and you wind up making adjustments and doing a hellacious hike on the last day to get back to the car.

    When I was 16 my brother Eric and I hiked from the Canyon Creek Lakes all the way to the Canyon Creek trailhead, then up the Bear Trail and down to Stuart Fork, and then all the way back to the car at Cherry Flat.

    Reply

    Roy Scribner August 29, 2010 at 9:44 am

    I really enjoyed those pictures, John! Snowslide and Sapphire Lakes look gorgeous. I love the rugged-looking terrain, surrounding them. I am really jealous that you got to see a bear. We did a week in Lassen, this July, and I was really kind of bummed at how devoid of wildlife that it seemed to be. If we hadn’t taken a spin around Manzanita Lake, we wouldn’t have even seen any deer :)

    Reply

    John Soares August 29, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Roy, both Snowslide and Sapphire Lakes are among my favorites in the Trinity Alps. And I saw a lot of deer, birds, squirrels, chipmunks, etc there.

    I’ve also noticed that there’s not as much wildlife in Lassen Park as in other similar places. Not sure why.

    Reply

    Eric Soares August 29, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    John,

    As you said, what a kick-ass trip! Reminds me of when we all used to go to the Alps when we were young. Let’s do another trip before we get too old. You reading this, Marc!?

    Nancy and I backpacked in the Steens in eastern Oregon last month and had a great time by having the Indian Gorge all to ourselves. Even though I mostly kayak now, I still love being in the mountains.

    Oh yeah, the pond you photographed is “Iceberg Pond”, right? Remember it?

    Keep up the good work. Your bro, eric

    Reply

    John Soares August 29, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Eric, we definitely gotta do it soon, I agree, and I think Caribou Lake might be the ideal destination.

    This isn’t the iceberg pond we swam in way back in 1976. I can show you that on a map — it’s between Caribou Lake and Little South Fork Lake.

    Reply

    Emily Adler August 30, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Hi John,
    I came across your blog while looking for info on the Trinity Alps. I’m headed there this weekend with three of my best girl friends for an annual ladies camping trip! I have had a really hard time tracking down info on the Trinity Alps — can’t find a map even at REI in San Francisco! And there is little info on the internet. I’m interested in buying your book (wish I known about it sooner!) and will look at some bookstores tomorrow.

    In the meantime, I was wondering if you had any suggestions for a good 4 day, 3 night backpack through the Trinity Alps. We’ve never been before. What you list above sounds like a 3 day trip? We are all young & fit, but also would like plenty of time to lounge by lakes, read, hang, etc… (i.e. maybe no more than 8 mi/day, or one day with more, one day with less). I’m open to all suggestions you have! Figured I’d just go ahead and ask the expert :)

    Anyway, I’d appreciate any thoughts you have, thanks!

    Best,
    Emily Adler
    San Francisco
    emadler@gmail.com

    Reply

    John Soares August 31, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Emily, I suggest you do the first part of the trip I describe here. Get to Big Flat and hike to the Caribou Lakes basin the first day. Explore the lakes and ponds in the basin on the second day, and then head home the third day.

    I love Snowslide Lake for camping…

    Reply

    Djoolia August 31, 2010 at 9:48 am

    Hi John,

    I was wondering how the mosquitoes were in August this year?
    I’m thinking of heading out to that area and realize that the snow line and warmth often also means bug heaven.
    Also thought I would ask what the temperatures were like.

    Cheers :)

    Dj.

    Reply

    John Soares August 31, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Djoolia, there were very few mosquitoes during the trip I describe here, at least compared to past trips.

    Reply

    Dan September 1, 2010 at 5:44 am

    Thanks, John Soaresl! I’ve been completely taken by your trip and I think I can’t for next year anymore for my next hiking trip. Thank you for the inspiration.

    Reply

    Art September 1, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Oh, how I love your blog and I envy your adventure, I hope to be able to reach this place one day especially the emerald lake. :) There is something in this lake that makes me wonder in amazement…

    Reply

    Steven September 5, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Like Art, I also envy your adventure, it lures me to go backpacking myself! Which is actually good, because there’s something you get when communing with nature like that. There’s this release of whatever thoughts you may have and the settling of inner peace thereafter. Will definitely be planning my adventure now. I really need it.

    Reply

    Charlie August 5, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Hey John!
    I was planning a trip on which to take my buddy who is getting married (he’s coming down from Oregon, I’m coming up from SF), and so I had been checking out trips we could do in Trinity Alps, when I came across your Caribou Lake route. Sounded like just the thing for us and I just had a couple questions if you see this by Sept 17th. I’m trying to decide whether to start the loop counter-clockwise (work toward, and reward ourselves with the lakes) or follow your path (longer flatter last day) and just wondered if you had any recommendations or thoughts. Especially if we had a time crunch on our last day, which route would be better to get back, Caribou back to Big Flat or Morris Meadows back to Big Flat?

    Thanks so much for your time, keep trekkin’ and writing!
    Charlie

    Reply

    John Soares August 5, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Caribou to Big Flat would be easier.

    Have fun!

    Reply

    David Sheridan August 16, 2011 at 10:48 am

    John,

    Just wanted to say thanks. Last year you gave me good advice about a trip I took in the canyon creek lakes area. It was an amazing trip. My wife and I got engaged above canyon creek lakes and had an amazing trip! The stars at night were incredible and the MilkyWay lit up the sky!

    This year we are going back to the Alps and want to explore the Caribou Basin and potentially beyond. I have 2 questions:

    1) Do you know much about the “old” trail to caribou Lake? I have heard that this trail splits from the main trail and heads more directly over the northwest ridge of caibou mountain. Is this trail easy to locate and do you think that is manageable to follow? We are thinking about taking the main trail one way and returning via the old trail (or vice versa.)

    2) We are considering getting an pre-dawn start from Big Caribou Lake and crossing over Sawtooth Ridge to Emerald Lake for a big daytrip, returning the same afternoon. Your description of the trail from sawtooth ridge down to stuart fork is the “suicide ridge” trail. Is this trail that dangerous? or, is it just the pounding on the knees and the 2200ft elevation loss that made you call it “suicide” ridge trail? Any other thoughts on making that daytrip?

    Thanks for your input John. I love your Blog and have decided I must purchase your book! Do you have a preferred retailer that you would like to sell your books through? If not, I will just use Amazon.com for convenience.

    Reply

    John Soares August 17, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    David, I suggest that you skip the old trail. I haven’t done it in 20 or more years, and I don’t think it’s maintained anymore. That said, if you are a strong hiker and you have topo maps, you could go for it. I saw the fork above Snowslide Lake last year, but I didn’t see the other fork on the Big Flat side.

    The Suicide Ridge Trail isn’t dangerous; it’s just very steep and overgrown at the bottom. However, this year — 2011 — the entire ridge above Caribou Lake is covered with snow, so you’ll have no trail to the ridge, plus steep and slippery terrain.

    And Amazon.com is fine. 100 Classic Hikes is usually available at Barnes and Noble, REI stores, and many outdoor stores.

    Reply

    grouseridgehiker August 29, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Nothing wrong with hiking naked or skinny dipping in the mountains. Come visit the part of the Yuba River just north of Nevada City on a hot weekend after a day of hiking. The water is clear and refreshing. I am in my 50′s and hike and swim with women and men younger than me. There is nothing unpleasant about the way my body looks. This isnin responds to skinny dipping with 12 ladies………nothing but negative reply’s……..too bad

    Reply

    John Soares August 30, 2011 at 7:03 am

    I think you meant to leave this comment on my skinny-dipping post…

    Reply

    David Sheridan September 6, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    John,

    My wife and I had a great long weekend in the Alps. Caribou Lakes with a long daytrip to Emerald Lake and back to Caribou in one day.

    Thanks for the advice and information!

    David

    Here are some pictures form the hike:
    http://www.kodakgallery.com/gallery/sharing/shareRedirectSwitchBoard.jsp?token=923439104606%3A489287947&sourceId=533754321803&cm_mmc=Share-_-Personal-_-Email-_-Sharer-_-Top

    Reply

    John Soares September 6, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Glad you had a great time David, and your pics brought back the memories…

    Reply

    Noah March 7, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    John,

    Thanks for the info. I am planning this identical hike over July 4-8th, 2012 and when I did a search I landed on your blog. Thanks for blazing the trail for me. I was wondering if there any any resources you would recommend for getting exact mileage of the trails and good places to camp. Thanks

    Reply

    John Soares March 20, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Hello Noah. I don’t have exact mileages for most of the hike. There are campsites at Brown’s Meadow, Snowslide Lake, and Caribou Lake. You’ll also find campsites in Morris Meadows and scattered along the trail up to Emerald Lake, and near Emerald Lake.

    There’s a campsite near the intersection of the Deer Creek Trail and the Tri Forest Trail. Once you’re on the other side of the gap and on your way to Big Flat I think you’d find a few places to camp in the level area at the lower parts of the valley.

    Have fun!

    Reply

    Sprague June 18, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    We just had the good fortune to follow in your footsteps and hike this fantastic route. There was a good amount of snow on much of the trail as of Snowslide Lake, heading uphill to the top of the ridge. Caribou Lake is iced over and Snowslide Lake has ice floating on it. A walking stick provided much needed additional support when traversing steep, snowy slopes. Thank you for your wonderful description of this route and thank you for the inspiring photos.

    Reply

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