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.

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? 

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    { 10 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 :)

    Reply

    John Soares June 26, 2014 at 9:03 am

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

    Reply

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

    What glorious country!

    Reply

    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. :-)

    Reply

    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!

    Reply

    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!

    Reply

    Kevin July 14, 2014 at 10:51 pm

    Thanks John, I appreciate the tips.

    Reply

    Skylo July 15, 2014 at 5:05 am

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

    Reply

    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!

    Reply

    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!

    Reply

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