Canyon Creek Lakes and Boulder Creek Lakes in the Trinity Alps

by John Soares on June 26, 2014

The Canyon Creek Lakes and Boulder Creek Lakes are likely the most popular destinations in the Trinity Alps, and for good reason. They have everything a backpacker wants: roaring creeks with waterfalls, verdant meadows, abundant wildflowers, deep, rock-ringed lakes, and towering granite peaks.

The smaller of the Boulder Creek Lakes.

The smaller of the Boulder Creek Lakes.

Below I share an updated version of the trek from my book 100 Classic Hikes in Northern California, third edition. I also include several photos I took when I backpacked here in June of 2014 with my partner Stephanie. Note that this was a year with abnormally low snow pack; don’t expect similar snow conditions in typical June months. In fact, in some years, all of these lakes are still covered in snow in late June.

Go here for current Trinity Alps trail conditions and trailhead access reports.

Mount Hilton and the Boulder Creek Lakes drainage in the Trinity Alps. Early morning view from our campsite.

Mount Hilton and the Boulder Creek Lakes drainage in the Trinity Alps. Early morning view from our campsite.

Canyon Creek Lakes, El Lake, and Boulder Creek Lakes
Length: 23.9 miles round-trip
Hiking time: 3 to 4 days
High point: 6,400 feet
Total elevation gain: 4,500 feet
Difficulty: strenuous
Season: mid-June to early October
Water: available from lakes and creeks (purify first)
Maps: USGS 7.5′ Mount Hilton, USFS Trinity Alps Wilderness
Information: Weaverville Ranger Station, Shasta–Trinity National Forest

Surround yourself with steep, jagged granite peaks. Sunbathe on flat, house-size granite slabs. Wander through lush meadows. Swim in deep, cool lakes. This trip offers all this and more as it takes you deep into the Trinity Alps. It’s also a very popular trek, so try to avoid weekends, especially the three- and four-day variety.

Note that campfires are forbidden not only at the Canyon Creek Lakes and the Boulder Creek Lakes, but also in the areas from 500 feet beyond the junction of the Canyon Creek Lakes Trail/Boulder Creek Lakes Trail, all the way up to both sets of lakes. Ideally you should camp around this trail junction or in one of the many campsites farther downstream or upstream, and then day hike up to the lakes.

You will also need a wilderness permit. These are available 24/7 at the Weaverville Ranger Station, Scott River Ranger Station, Big Bar Ranger Station, and the Coffee Creek Ranger Station. For more information, call 530-623-2121.

For current trail conditions, see this web page, which is updated frequently throughout the hiking season. Also see this web page for more info on hiking in the Trinity Alps.

That's me at Lower Canyon Creek Lake checking out Wedding Cake and Thompson Peak. Excellent photo by Stephanie Hoffman.

That’s me at Lower Canyon Creek Lake checking out Wedding Cake and Thompson Peak. Excellent photo by Stephanie Hoffman.

Driving Directions to the Trailhead

Take Highway 299 to Junction City, 8 miles northwest of Weaverville, and then turn east 75 yards southeast of the Junction City bridge onto Canyon Creek Road. Drive 13.2 miles on the paved road that follows Canyon Creek to the Canyon Creek trailhead.

The Trail to Canyon Creek Lakes

The trail starts level amid ferns, dogwoods, bigleaf maples, madrones, Douglas firs, and canyon live oaks. It crosses Bear Creek at 0.3 mile and then steepens. Pass a trailside madrone tree at 0.8 mile and gently climb through a forest of ponderosa pine, black oak, incense cedar, and more madrone. Take the 10-yard spur trail to the left at 2.4 miles for a commanding vista of the sprawling basin, which contains a white-water stretch of Canyon Creek far below high granite peaks. At 2.8 miles, consider the 0.2 mile side-trail option to The Sinks, a series of swirling pools in Canyon Creek. Otherwise, bear right, climb past a lichen-carpeted granite rock wall, and ascend a series of switchbacks that crosses the same tributary three times. Watch for a viewpoint on the left at 3.9 miles, where you can admire a small waterfall cascading into a round, clear pool. Look for Lower Canyon Creek Falls crashing into a deep pool a short distance downstream.

The trail climbs gently past a fern community for 0.8 mile and at 4.9 miles enters a small corn lily field in Canyon Creek Meadow. Cross several tributaries and climb through forest as you past numerous camping spots until you reach a trail fork at 6.1 miles. The left trail goes 2.4 miles to Boulder Creek Lakes (description follows).

This drainage holds a difficult cross-country route to Smith Lake, one of the Trinity Alps' most difficult lakes to reach. Sunset view from our campsite.

This drainage holds a difficult cross-country route to Smith Lake, one of the Trinity Alps’ most difficult lakes to reach. Sunset view from our campsite.

Go right to the more-visited Canyon Creek Lakes. Climb through a 0.6-mile stretch of open forest, followed by magnificent, misty Upper Canyon Creek Falls. The final leg to Lower Canyon Creek Lake gradually switchbacks between granite boulders and across granite slopes (follow the rock ducks) and crosses Canyon Creek, passing a few good campsites along the way, before reaching the lake itself at 7.5 miles. Be very careful crossing Canyon Creek, especially during periods of high water flow.

Lower Canyon Creek Lake in the Trinity Alps. Wedding Cake and Thompson Peak cap the far skyline.

Lower Canyon Creek Lake in the Trinity Alps. Wedding Cake and Thompson Peak cap the far skyline.

Follow rock ducks along the west side of the lake and climb a quarter-mile to an excellent view down on Upper Canyon Creek Lake and up at Sawtooth Peak jutting abruptly to the east. Continue near the shoreline and carefully cross the outlet stream to reach the eastern shore. From here you’ll have magnificent views of the meadow surrounding the higher reaches of Canyon Creek and the towering granite peaks and ridges to the north, including Thompson Peak, the highest mountain in the Trinity Alps at 9,002 feet.

Upper Canyon Creek Lake in the Trinity Alps.

Upper Canyon Creek Lake in the Trinity Alps.

Getting to El Lake

Continue northeast to El Lake from Upper Canyon Creek Lake’s north side. The moderate 1-mile-long climb requires following rock ducks and faint path segments that lead directly to the lake, which is tucked into a narrow, glacier-carved slot bordered by steep granite. Seldom-visited El Lake has a few campsites on the west side; make sure to choose one far from the water. Explore the meadows next to the north shore that encompass a circular pond.

The Trail to Boulder Creek Lakes

For the 2.4-mile climb to Boulder Creek Lakes, retrace your steps to the trail junction you negotiated at 6.1 miles. Wade Canyon Creek very carefully, and only do this side trip if you are very confident in your stream crossing skills. Go left on the other side of Canyon Creek. The trail heads southwest past a marsh and then ascends moderately through ceanothus and manzanita chaparral and a few stands of sugar pine, western white pine, ponderosa pine, and incense cedar. It eventually carves steeply through thickets and between granite boulders on the south-facing mountainside, routing you near a steep cliff. Follow the rock ducks here near the cliff for another 0.3 mile to the lakes.

Sawtooth Peak, a major Trinity Alps landmark, viewed from near the Boulder Creek Lakes.

Sawtooth Peak, a major Trinity Alps landmark, viewed from near the Boulder Creek Lakes.

Boulder Creek Lakes, nestled in a glacial bowl and surrounded by high granite peaks, feature moist meadows, red mountain heather, yarrow, dwarfed western white pines, red firs, mountain hemlocks, and the rare weeping spruce. Tiny pools and little brooks surround the small lower lake on the southeast section of the basin. Look for powerful waterfalls that pour from large Boulder Creek Lake’s outlet and topple off a granite cliff.

You’ll find a few campsites near the east shore of Boulder Creek Lake; just pick spots that are far from the shore. The shallow lakes and ponds receive a lot of sun, making long swims in the warm water very pleasant in mid- and late summer.

The Boulder Creek Lakes are surrounded by granite.

The Boulder Creek Lakes are surrounded by granite.

Your Take

Have you done this trip? What were your experiences? How does it compare with other backpacking treks in the Trinity Alps? 

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie Hoffman June 26, 2014 at 9:01 am

That was an amazing trip! How did I get so lucky to have my own tour guide? I love you :)


John Soares June 26, 2014 at 9:03 am

It was fantastic. Many more to come, I promise!


Patty Nicol Soares June 29, 2014 at 2:04 pm

What glorious country!


HappinessSavouredHot July 6, 2014 at 8:30 am

I have never been in that area, but it looks fantastic!

My nicest hikes were in Scotland, Croatia and Switzerland. And of course my natal Canada. :-)


Kevin July 9, 2014 at 10:37 am

Hi John. I love the blog, keep the posts coming! I met you last year at Seven Suns coffee in Mt. Shasta. We just got back from a 3 day trip to Grizzly Lake. We are looking for a destination for a 3 day trip in August and were thinking of Big/Little Bear Lakes. Good idea or do you have another recommendation? Thanks!


John Soares July 9, 2014 at 10:52 am

I remember you Kevin!

Big/Little Bear Lakes are great. You could camp both nights at Big Bear and then day hike to Little Bear on the second day.

Or you could do the trip I describe here!


Kevin July 14, 2014 at 10:51 pm

Thanks John, I appreciate the tips.


Skylo July 15, 2014 at 5:05 am

Really amazing scenery I think I am putting this on my next hiking destination.Cheers


Matt July 15, 2014 at 9:27 pm

I haven’t been yet but we’re planning a trip out toward the end of the summer. This was an excellent read and gave us a lot of great ideas on how to spend a lot of our California time. Thanks!


George W August 29, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Those are great photos and beautiful scenery. Thanks for sharing them. Canyon Creek Lake looks absolutely stunning!


Abe November 2, 2014 at 11:47 am

I love you photos I’ve never hiked northern California but I’ve driven through it.


john April 7, 2015 at 3:58 pm

hi john. i’m planning a trip to the alps at the end of april this year via the canyon creek you have the conditions or if anybody has been up there yet? any information would be greatly appreciated.campfires,fishing,snowpack.thank you very much.john


John Soares April 8, 2015 at 11:32 am

All depends on snow between now and when you go. Call the Weaverville Ranger District for updated info.


Allison June 9, 2015 at 9:40 pm

Are there plenty of places to camp along here? Im trying to decide if I can do this in 2 1/2 days, starting in the early afternoon on day one. Looks great!


John Soares June 10, 2015 at 5:35 am

Allison, there are plenty of places to camp, but you need to get a good 3-4 miles up the trail before they appear. And 2 and a half days is enough time to explore the basin if you’re a strong hiker.

I like to camp near the junction with the Boulder Lakes trail and then day hike to the lakes. Both basins get a lot of impact, especially the Canyon Creek lakes, so I prefer to camp away from them.


Danielle July 10, 2015 at 3:29 pm

My husband and I are thinking of doing this hike. We would start the hike on a Sunday afternoon and need to leave the parking lot by Wednesday afternoon.
Is this doable for this trail?
Thank you


John Soares July 10, 2015 at 4:21 pm

Certainly, as long as you are in reasonably good shape. Have fun!


John July 16, 2015 at 1:45 pm

Hi John – about 5 of us are planning a 7 day trip up to the Canyon Creek Lakes area. We had a general question about the water supply up there. We remember from years past some nice creeks, watering pools, and a waterfall in that area. I can’t imagine the lake is dry – but thought the creek might be dried up. Just wondering if you have any information along these lines. I called the Trinity Alps ranger station, but couldn’t get anyone “live”. Pretty sure fire pits won’t be allowed. Any ideas, insight, or suggestions? Thanks!


John Soares July 16, 2015 at 2:43 pm

There will still be plenty of water in Canyon Creek and in all the lakes. They never go dry.

Fires are not allowed above a certain elevation, so it’s best to plan on no fires at all. Camping at the Canyon Creek lakes themselves is strongly discouraged. I usually camp in the vicinity of the Boulder Lakes Trail/Canyon Creek Trail junction and then do day hikes from there. You can go beyond to Ell Lake if you wish.

Have fun!


Michael Spencer July 26, 2015 at 5:55 pm

Hey John,
This was a great read. A couple friends and I are planning on doing 3 days up there about the same as you describe. We’re going to drive up from the Ukiah area after work Monday and start our hike Tuesday morning, set up camp near the Junction, and just do some day hikes that day and the next, before hiking out the 3rd day. I’ve heard nothing but good things, so we’re pretty excited. Is there usually a lot of traffic on weekdays?


John Soares July 27, 2015 at 5:49 am

Weekdays are far better than weekends, but you’ll still see quite a few people. Have fun!


Angela Jane Howard August 12, 2015 at 7:35 am

I did part of this hike this summer with me and my dog, Little Bear, this summer. I took photos, and movies for my own photo Journalism stories. I did trail work 20 years ago, I checked in with the Ranger, Pack mule team lead, and the work crew I got to visit. Great place to see nature and note bugs in their own environment. I hiked in Monday from the Trail Head, and Out Thursday. 5 1/2 miles in was 3 1/2 hour hike, and back was 3 hours with packs on. ( due to less photo taking time) And on the drive out, I got to meet you in person. Angela Jane


John Soares August 12, 2015 at 10:13 am

Sounds like you enjoyed yourself, and I really enjoyed meeting you.


Tracy Crutchfield September 10, 2015 at 1:59 pm

Just got back from this hike up to the top! Loved it! This was my second trip up and I am looking forward to my next grueling hike up, its so worth it! We camped just below the second waterfall. Hiked up to the top the next night, so breath taking. I am so way out of shape I really had a hard time but made it up and out safely. My sister has been up there about 8 times. She is in way better shape than me. She was my inspiration. Looking forward to my next trip up there its so hard to leave.


John Soares September 13, 2015 at 6:38 am

Tracy, I’m glad you made it all the way. This is one of my favorite hikes in all of northern California.


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