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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