Big Duck Lake and Little Duck Lake are two of my favorite hiking destinations in the Russian Wilderness. Trails lead to both Duck Lakes, and both offer good camping, swimming, and fishing opportunities.
This day hike or overnight backpacking trip is in two of my hiking guidebooks. It’s Hike 80 in Day Hiking: Mount Shasta, Lassen & Trinity Alps Regions, and it’s Hike 52 in 100 Classic Hikes: Northern California. I just backpacked these trails in the second week of June, 2018, camping at Little Duck Lake, and also hiking cross-country to High Lake.
Big Duck Lake/Little Duck Lake Key Data
Distance: 10.6 miles round-trip
Difficulty: moderate to strenuous
Type: Day hike or backpacking trip
Elevation gain: 2300 feet
High point: 6660 feet
Season: mid-June to October most years
Contact: Klamath National Forest, Salmon/Scott River Ranger District
Maps: USGS Eaton Peak, USFS Marble Mountain Wilderness & Russian Wilderness
Trailhead GPS coordinates: N 41 20.432 W 122 55.351
Notes: dogs allowed
Big Duck Lake/Little Duck Lake Trailhead Directions
Drive CA Highway 3 to French Creek Road, which is 30.9 miles from the junction of CA 3 and I-5 in Yreka and 8.3 miles from Callahan. Drive west on French Creek Road. At 5.4 miles the pavement ends; you’re on good dirt roads the rest of the way. At 6.9 miles turn right onto Forest Road 40N22, and then go right again at another junction onto FR 41N14 at 7.6 miles. The spacious Duck Lake Trailhead is on the left at 8.9 miles.
Hiking the Trail to Big Duck and Little Duck Lakes
This area of the Russian Wilderness is famous for its high degree of conifer diversity (seventeen species), and you’ll see most of them on this journey to two deep glacial lakes ringed by granite ridges. The trek ranks as one of the best in the region, and it also makes a good overnighter.
You’ll be on old logging roads for much of the first half of this hike. Start under the shade of Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, white fir, incense cedar, sugar pine, and black oak. As you gain elevation, you’ll encounter more and more tree species, although foxtail and whitebark pine are high on the ridges above the lakes. Pass a trailside Brewer spruce at one of the switchbacks that guide you up a ridge, and then cross the boundary into the Russian Wilderness at 1.0 mile.
Reaching the Lipstick Lake Trail Junction
At 1.3 miles the forest cover opens to reveal eastward and southward vistas of Mount Shasta, the upper Scott Valley, the Eddy Range, the Trinity Divide, and the northern Trinity Alps, and soon thereafter you can gaze northward at the nearby granitic ridges and spires of the Russian Wilderness. Endure steep climbing before going left at a junction with the Lipstick Lake Trail at 1.7 miles, and then welcome a merciful level stretch.
Eaton Lakes and Horseshoe Lakes Trail Junctions
A bit more climbing brings you to another logging road at 2.0 miles. Stay nearly level and enjoy the sight of foot-long sugar pinecones all around you. The way gently curves south and enters the Ducks Lakes basin, with enticing intermittent views of the rocky spires around Big Duck Lake. At 2.7 miles the unmarked and easy-to-miss trail to the Eaton Lakes takes off to the left, just beside a three-foot-diameter granite boulder. You stay to the right and encounter the signed trail to Horseshoe Lake about 200 feet farther on).
Big Duck Lake Trail
Turn left onto single track, which you’ll tread from here on. Climb through an open forest of western white pine, lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock, and Shasta red fir. Look closely for the trail fork to Big Duck Lake at 4.1 miles, because it’s easy to miss; there’s a sign attached to a Shasta red fir.
Head left (south) for 0.4 mile across the outlet stream of Little Duck Lake and through a maze of granite rocks to reach Big Duck Lake. The “big” appellation is appropriate: at 26 acres, this is the biggest lake in the Russian Wilderness. Serrated granite ridges rise steeply on the east and south sides, and the shallow waters near shore soon turn deep and inviting for swimmers who venture out toward the center of the 27-foot-deep lake. Backpackers will find a few sites near the east and north shores.
Little Duck Lake
To reach Little Duck Lake, retrace your steps 0.4 mile to the trail junction and head left and uphill 0.8 mile on the occasionally faint trail (look for rock cairns). At five acres and 18 feet of depth, Little Duck Lake is attractive in its own right, including views of imposing granite ridges, and it sees far fewer visitors. An important claim to fame is the presence of the rare subalpine fir near the western shore. Overnighters will find a couple of campsites at the east end, and another near the end of the trail that runs along thee north shore, and will likely have the lake to themselves. When you are ready, return the way you came.
Eaton Lakes, Horseshoe Lake, High Lake, Lipstick Lake
All of these lakes offer more hiking adventure. I plan to write separate blog posts about all four lakes, so subscribe to the blog (see sidebar) to make sure you don’t miss them.
Your Take on the Duck Lakes in Russian Wilderness
Been? Going? What did you think?