Smith Lake, surely one of the most beautiful lakes in the Trinity Alps, rests on the south side of Sawtooth Mountain, just below Morris Lake. Nature writer Tim Sims shares an excerpt from his excellent book that describes how he backpacked cross-country from Alpine Lake to Smith Lake.
Smith Lake, the Trinity Alps’ Most Beautiful Lake
By Tim Sims, guest contributor
In speaking to my fellow Trinity alpinists over the years, Smith Lake is without a doubt the most popular lake that people haven’t seen. It’s at, or near, the top of everyone’s To Do list. When they’re standing in Seven Up Pass, looking over from Red Trinities into the White Trinities—or when they’ve struggled up the switchbacks of the “suicide” trail from Stuart Fork to Sawtooth Ridge and looked back across the valley at that vast, smooth expanse of granite—or even when they’ve snowshoed up the slopes of Mount Shasta and looked west to where distinctive Sawtooth Mountain (the easiest of the Trinities to identify from the east) dominates the distant horizon—in all these situations, there is a wistfulness about someday, some day, hiking in among all that granite, pitching a tent alongside that truly pristine lake, and maybe—probably—having paradise all to themselves.
The Granite, The Solitude, The Water
They’ve heard rumors of acre after acre of granite benches bordering cerulean waters, of incomparable views in every direction, of spectacular sunrises, of blessed solitude. “Someday,” they tell themselves, “that’ll be me up there.”
There’s a great line in the old movie Sideways in a conversation between wine connoisseurs. The man has just revealed that, although he lacks the wallet for a significant wine collection, he does have a bottle of X vintage (I forget the name). “Go get it!” the woman exclaims. The man remonstrates that he’s been saving it for a special occasion, and that his life has not had many of those lately. But she comes back, “The day you open a bottle of X, that’s the special occasion.”
Applied to the Trinities: don’t put off ’til Someday what you can hike today. So let me take you back to my first Someday with Smith Lake. . . .
First Visit to Smith Lake: Getting the Courage
It’s the 18th of August of 2011, and it’s my Someday. I’m about to make my first attempt.
I have recently crossed the magic 100 threshold on my life list of Trinity Alps lakes. So, in essence, I’ve been everywhere else in these mountains. Time to have a go at the big prize. Having heard all those Smith Lake rumors for years, I too want to see it with my own eyes and then say, with the legendary Queen of Sheba, after she had seen the riches of Solomon: “The half hath never yet been told!”
But why, if it’s so great, has this area remained so frequently “loved from afar”?
Getting to Smith Lake Isn’t Easy…
Because it’s hard. Damned hard. The lake chart on my topo map lists the Smith Lake trail as “12 mi, Extrem diff X-C,” with an extra warning about “experienced X-C hikers only.” The route ascends 5200 feet overall. The first nine miles are on an actual trail, but then it climbs straight up for two thousand feet through brush and over massive granite blocks, topping out at a spectacular 8000-foot divide, then descending steeply a thousand feet to the lakes. From the stories I’ve heard out on the trail, whatever your fitness level (and mine is pretty high), whichever route you take, this hike and climb will be a tester.
The Stuart Fork Trail to Alpine Lake
As with most hikers who make this attempt, my Smith Lake adventure begins on the Stuart Fork trail. Following the course of the stream toward its source in the heart of the Trinities, the Stuart Fork trail is the gateway to Alpine Lake and Smith and Morris lakes to the left, or Morris Meadows, Emerald Lake, Sapphire Lake, and Mirror Lake going straight on in.
So even on a weekday morning, there are lots of vehicles about as I unload at the trailhead in the pre-dawn. It’s one of the Trinity Alps’ most popular trails. Or maybe well populated is more to the point. Popular? Stuart Fork is, for many of us, our least favorite trail in all the Trinities. Not because we don’t like the destinations—they’re grand—but because of the design of the trail itself. I object to the means, not the ends.
The Stuart Fork Trail Goes Up and Down, Up and Down, Up and Down
Looking at the early miles of this trail, I’m reminded of a term I learned while hiking in Patagonia at the southern tip of South America. When climbers there talk about “Patagonian flat,” they mean “constant ups and downs.” In our country, hikers back East use the term PUDs to describe such a trail: Pointless Ups and Downs. That term was made for Stuart Fork. It becomes a trail to be endured more than enjoyed. In the miles before Morris Meadow, I’m forever climbing 50 feet here, then descending back to stream level, then climbing 150 feet before dropping 85, then up another hundred feet or so before losing 180 . . . and on and on.
In the five miles before turning off for Alpine Lake, I’ve actually climbed a couple of thousand feet, though my net elevation gain is only around five hundred! Now, I get it that a lot of the hikers are just coming in a little way to do some fishing or bathing on the beautiful river. Still, wouldn’t it make more sense to have a steadily rising “express route” higher up the slopes, with occasional spur trails dropping down to the stream?
The greatest impact of the PUDs will come at the end of the hike, when I’m dragging my tired body out with promises of that long, hot shower and that hot, salty meal. The PUDs seem endless, taking both a physical and a mental toll. No doubt I’ll be willing to swear that there are more of these pointless rises going out than there were going in!
And that’s just the first five miles to Smith and Morris. Then comes the hard part!
Crossing Stuart Fork — Carefully!
At five miles in, there is a tricky stream crossing next to an established campsite. At the campsite, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, and a tagalong friend are just waking up. They too are planning on hiking to Smith and Morris. They wish me well and tell me they’ll be seeing me later. (In fact, they will never make it that far. The road to Smith and Morris is paved with good intentions.)
The trickiness of this stream crossing is driven by the water level and the speed of the current. Of course, it’s a fool’s errand to cross this stream at any time during spring run-off—which can last well into July some years. It’s tough enough now, when the water is “only” at thigh level. Last winter was big for snowfall. Parts of the Trinities got over 40 feet of snow. So the streams are all going to be full this year until well into the fall months.
A decade or so ago, in a trip to Alpine Lake, this stream crossing was a hundred or two hundred yards farther along on the trail, in a spot where the stream was wider and, therefore, lower and slower. When Christine and I crossed, someone (from the forest service?) had tied a nylon rope to trees on either shore. That was helpful. Then, upon crossing, we had to backtrack downstream a bit (to the site of the current crossing) before joining the present trail. I’m not certain what the perceived advantage is in this present crossing site. It strikes me as being less forgiving, though in this instance, I don’t “take a bath” in my crossing.
Alpine Lake Trail: Hiking Up, and Up, and Up
The trail from this point is now seriously uphill, gaining 4500 feet of elevation in the next four miles. Suck it up!
For the next half mile or so after the crossing, I make a special effort not to let my mind wander (not an easy task, for me). Don’t be distracted by wildflowers or bears or thoughts of the first peoples who lived in this area. Stay alert, Timmy, because you’re coming to a place where many, many hikers have gone wrong.
Bear Trail Junction: Pay Attention!
The trail divides in a poorly marked woody area. There’s a sign on a tree, but not in an obvious place, and it’s easy enough not even to see that there is a junction. Go left—and it’s clear from the trail use that many do—and you’ll soon ford the outlet stream from Alpine Lake, then start following a different stream and the Bear Trail up the hill. That’s the wrong way. It’s a sharp right turn at the junction that leads to Alpine Lake. (And there won’t be a stream to ford for several miles.)
Alpine Lake: A Worthy Destination, With Caveats
The climb is relentless. A hike that ended at Alpine Lake would already be a good day’s work. The long views are minimal, which probably contributes to the fatigue factor. I find, on many hikes, that once I can see the towering granite of my destination, that view can usually pull me in. I forget all about the fatigue and, therefore, feel it less. But those big views are delayed quite a while on this trail.
From the stories I’ve heard along the trail, most hikers opt to spend their first night at Alpine Lake, then hike two-and-half miles over the hill the next day. That’s my fall-back plan, though I’m hoping it won’t come to that. Alpine Lake is nice enough—14 acres, a spiky granite arête backing it up—though there are plenty of better lakes available for a lot less effort. Yes, it is a granite bowl, but trees often block the granite from view.
There is an interesting (to me) geological fact about Alpine Lake. Geologists have found evidence of glaciation beginning more than 133,000 years ago, which is over a hundred thousand years earlier than most of the other glacial evidence in these alps. (This would have been during the early years of the large-scale Tahoe glaciation in the Sierra Nevada.) That’s not to say that the early glaciers didn’t impact other areas, just that the extant evidence isn’t so clear elsewhere. (Late glaciers tend to scratch out or cover up the evidence from early glaciers.)
Alpine Lake was also where chipmunks or some other rodents chewed a hole in the bottom of the food bag Christine and I had hidden from the bears, so that we had to cut the hike short when we ran out of food. And it’s the place where we woke up one morning to a rather comic spectacle. The chipmunks were throwing themselves off the low branch of a tree and landing, spread-eagle, against the side of our tent, then slowly sliding down to the ground. Christine and I tried to stay quiet while we lay there watching the show. We didn’t want to scare them away. But it was hard to suppress our titters when that silhouette of a commando chipmunk plunged into the tent fabric, then slid slowly down the side. They did this over and over. We suspected they had practiced the technique on a host of other tents over the years.
So I have good memories from Alpine. Still, I’d prefer getting directly on to the big stuff. And now that the trail has opened up, I’m getting a second wind, and I’m eager to go all the way in. It will be well worth a little more fatigue now to have that extra time in paradise.
Starting the Cross-Country Route to Smith Lake… in Thick Brush
When the trail finally does open up, I begin to see what I’m up against. Near the top of the trail, when I’m almost to Alpine Lake, I’m going to be crossing the outlet stream. I need to look for a cairn by a tributary stream right after that, because I’m going to dive into the midst of all that brush and make my way up, up, up, and over this big mountain on my right side.
So I’ve crossed the Alpine Lake outlet stream at the first cairn, and now I’m plunging into what looks like a wall of steep brush. But it’s not so bad. I find the cairns to be reasonably well placed and visible through the worst of the brushy area. And if in doubt, or if the brush gets too thick, I can always bail out and ascend in the stream bed. What would happen if it were earlier in the season and the stream was running too fast for that sort of a bail out? Well, in that case, I probably wouldn’t have been able to make the initial crossing of Stuart Fork down below, so it all works out.
There’s a house-sized boulder where I get above the worst of the brush and into the more open, granitic area. From here on up, it is easy enough to see the low spot on the ridge where I will cross over. This is not like boulder hopping through a scree field. The granite is massive on this slope, with steps of ten, twenty, or even thirty feet. So there are frequently places where I need arms as well as legs to scramble up—with my backpack throwing off my center of gravity and my sense of balance.
There are still cairns to follow up here—lots of them, going off in any number of directions. Too many people trying to be helpful. After a while, I just ignore the maze of cairns and point myself toward the low spot on the western horizon, looking for a path I find manageable, and counting on the fact that occasionally I’ll have to retrace my steps and try again elsewhere.
I find a number of good springs in among the boulders, even in August. I had earlier topped off my water bottles at the outlet stream at the start of the cairn trail. But on a sunny day, at this elevation, you really can’t get too much hydration. This icy water, sipped while resting briefly among the phlox and the penstemon and the columbine and the shooting stars surrounding the spring—this is a real treat. And for a moment—in fact, from here on in—the journey becomes as joyous as the destination.
Smith Lake, Morris Lake, Sawtooth Mountain: The First View
At long last, at around 8000 feet elevation, I top out at the divide. I’ve now climbed a full vertical mile (net, not gross) since the start of the day. But nothing behind me matters at this point. The view in front of me is STUNNING!
A white granite slope (occasionally interrupted by hemlocks and white firs) falls away over a thousand feet down to the lake basin. Smith Lake itself—and Morris Lake, too, though at this angle it is just a sliver—is colored in the deepest, purest of blues. On the far side rises jagged, impossibly steep Sawtooth Mountain, looking like the sort of precipitous mountain slope a child might draw, only this is real. Behind its ridge, in more distant, bluish hues from one valley over, Thompson Peak, Wedding Cake, and Hilton Peak stand side-by-side with snow on their shoulders above the far reaches of the Canyon Creek drainage.
I am overloaded with sensory input. The air up here is so crisp and cool. It feels and smells as though just breathing the air and drinking from these pristine springs, I could find the sustenance to live forever. And there’s this grand sense, perhaps unexplainable to the uninitiated, of being Up—capital U.
Maybe it’s partly chemical: less oxygen in the air, my brain flooded by endorphins from the exercise and adrenaline from the danger spots. Maybe it’s partly the psychology of the aloneness, the self-reliance. Perhaps my emotions are skewed somewhat by my ancestral ties to those ancient hunters looking down from their hilltop onto the savannah. Maybe it’s the purity, the untouched nature, that’s speaking to me. Whatever the precise formula, that addictive up feeling is indescribably wonderful.
No, no, let me try to describe it this way: I feel an unbearable lightness of being. No, wait, how do I describe it without including the scents and the colors from the bouquet of wildflowers growing right here on the divide? And there is so much granite (or, to be more precise, granodiorite or even monzonite), ranging in color from clean white to cool gray to the occasional weathered ecru on the slopes of Sawtooth. And the hundred-mile views! And the lakes themselves, in those sapphire blues!
Smith Lake Beats Grizzly Lake, Upper Canyon Creek Lake, Caribou Basin
Christine and I have long debated the merits of the Trinity Alps destination lakes. Which is our favorite? How can it not be Grizzly Lake, with its cataracts and waterfalls, with its aquamarine waters and the pure white granite visible underwater at great depths? On the other hand, the Caribou Basin is a delightful playground, with so many lake and stream options, and with peaks to climb on every side, and with its amazing sunsets. And let’s not forget Papoose Lake, walled in by its 2000-foot cliffs on three sides. Or Sapphire Lake? Or how about Upper Canyon Creek? Is any place more delightful?
We’re like parents, Mormon parents with lots of kids, debating which child they love the most. (Almost any parent, of course, will deny having a favorite. “We love them all.” All kids know that’s a lie.)
For Christine and me, this debate has continued 16 years, our opinions shifting first this way, then that, depending on which lake our feet are dangling in at the moment. But at this grand vision before me now, I know in an instant: the debate is over.
I have to traverse a wide snowfield to make my approach. The snowfield is dangerous, as it sits atop a boulder field. Several times my foot breaks through into the airy gap between two rocks. It takes a while. But that’s OK. I have nothing but time in this moment.
Maybe that’s the descriptor I’m looking for. In the rarified air up here, amid this sensation of floating above these paradisiacal images on every side, it feels as though there is more time. As though the universe itself has taken a deep, expanding breath. Not that time slows down, exactly, but that there is more of it, more of what we call life, within any given moment.
All this is rather vague and poetic. I’m certainly not trying to be New Age or to go all Lord Byron here. (I can’t see him hiking at these elevations; he wouldn’t have the shoes for it.) Yet this spiritual experience is why we climb. This is Thoreau’s “sucking all the marrow out of life.” There clearly are these moments in the mountains where the whole seems greater than the sum of its parts: transcendent moments, aesthetic moments, ecstatic moments.
If I were to inventory my body in this moment, I suppose my hips and shoulders would be sore from lugging a 35-pound pack nearly a dozen miles uphill—and my feet would be swelling inside my boots—and I might be a bit dehydrated. The point is, I don’t think about my body, not with what is before me. My mind is flooded (with endorphins?), and I know only joy. Joy as pure and clear and refreshing as the water in those lakes down there.
My work isn’t done. Morris Lake still lies 650 feet below me; Smith Lake is over a thousand foot descent. And I’ll relish every moment of it: running my fingers over the soft hemlock needles as I pass; stopping every fifty feet or so to make that 360-degree spin of world-class views once again; stepping gently so as not to crush either of the two heathers that carpet this slope (one blooming in deep fuchsia with white centers, the other white with scarlet centers); stopping for photos of the 50-foot waterfalls spilling into Smith from the huge granite bench between the two lakes. . . .
Want More of Tim’s Trinity Alps Adventures?
This post and the photos are from a modified version of the first part of the chapter “Smith and Morris Lakes, with Stuart Fork, Alpine Lake, and Sawtooth Peak” from Tim Sims’ book My Trinities: Playing in Northern California’s most spectacular wilderness. (I added sub-headings to help it read better as a blog post.) Tim is an excellent writer who has explored every lake, peak, stream, and meadow in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. His book is not a how-to or where-to guide; rather it is a literary and personal work that every hiker who loves the Trinity Alps should own and read. I highly recommend it!
Camping at Smith Lake and Morris Lake
Look for good campsites at Smith Lake near the outlet, where Bear Gulch drops east to meet Morris Meadows and Stuart Fork. Camping is even better at the many level areas surrounding Morris Lake.
Have you been to Smith Lake, one of the most beautiful and most secluded lakes in the Trinity Alps? How did you get there? What did you think?