tl;dr: Sometimes trails can be humbling and rafting is okay. Repeat this modified version of the Trinity Alps High Route at your own risk
Advisory: Do not repeat this route, unless you are okay with super sketchy traverses that may lead to cliffs, or death.
What: Modified Trinity Alps High Route Trip
Distance: 40ish miles of hiking, 0.25 miles of rafting
When: Saturday 9/15/2019 to Sunday 9/16/2019
Background: I’ve been hunting for an adventure buddy to do a 45-day thru-hike of the Great Himalaya trail with me in 2020. I’ve tried a variety of different approaches to find a person, including posting on all Northern California hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering Meetup groups. Over the 8 months I’ve been searching for an adventure buddy, I’ve had very few folks that are both interested and that can take 2 months off. A few weeks ago I got a message in response to one of my meetup posts, from a person that was interested. Naturally, I suggested we assess backpacking compatibility on something local before we end up stuck together for 2 months. After some talking, she suggested we do the Trinity Alps High Route. I did a quick google to grab a GPX file, but was otherwise familiar with the area, and figured it’d be intense, but mostly standard Type 1 fun, with some class 3 scrambles for adventure.
Given my difficulty in finding someone to hike the GHT with me, I opted to do a much less-risky thru-hike of the Arizona Trail for 2020 instead. These mountains will exist for my lifetime — there’s no need to rush into it!
Day 0 (Friday Night):
2:00 PM: New found adventure buddy (we’ll call her S) starts driving up from San Jose. I suggest we meetup at the Walmart parking lot in Woodland to save her 30 minutes of driving time so she won’t need to meet up with me in Sacramento.
4:45 PM: I meet S (for the first time) at Walmart, and we jump into my car and start driving. Our intent, at this point, is to do the Trinity Alps High Route in 2 days (seems ambitious but doable).
6:45 PM: It dawns on me that there may be some fire updates, and that I haven’t checked fire conditions in a few days. S, who is not driving, starts googling
6:50 PM: It becomes apparent that there is/was a fire very recently at the Canyon Creek Trailhead (our intended starting point for the trinity high route)
6:55 PM: I text my GF (Map Girl, who’s a fire ecologist), to see if she can get us more information about the fire/trail conditions
7:10 PM: We pull over to start figuring out a contingency plan because we definitely can’t do the Trinity High Route with a fire that is active at the trailhead
8:00 PM: We decide we’re going to do a modified high route, with entrance from Stuart Fork Trail via Alpine Lake Trail, and exit via Sapphire lake, which Topo suggested should be fairly easy to connect.
9:30 PM: We arrive at the trail head, hike in 1.6 miles, and bivvy for the night
Day 1 (Saturday):
7:00 AM: On trail. We begin hiking, and find a signs pointing us to the Alpine Lake Trail. The trail vanishes, and after crossing the river, we are unable to find it for a little while. Eventually, we find the trail, and continue to take it up toward Alpine Lake
10-something: We realize we’ve passed the turnoff for the Trinity High Route, but see the general ridge, and start bushwhacking
20 minutes later: We decide to return to the trail, backtrack, and reconnect to the correct turnoff, that hopefully avoids some of the impenetrable shrubs
11-something: We begin the scramble up a (fortunately) dried-up creek. This is slow going. Eventually, we surface from the vegetation, and end up on some nice granite slab. We see some cairns and tape that someone has placed to mark the way, and follow it. We eventually gain the pass between the Alpine Lake and Smith Lake drainage, and continue on toward Morris Lake.
1-something: We get to Morris Lake, stop for a quick snack, and try to figure out what set of cliffs in front of us will best lead us up the path to Sawtooth Mountain. We start climbing, it’s not too sketchy.
2-something: We find the tiny, shitty-little notch that allows you to drop over the southeast ridge that will eventually wrap around toward Sawtooth Mountain. Yay cliffs! Gorgeous views, everything is okay!
3-something: We decide we’re not going to summit Sawtooth Mountain, and instead cut directly toward the cliff-looking face that is Twin Pine Pass. We end up traversing a little too high toward the pass, and see nothing but cliff beneath us. 30 minutes of backtracking later, we eventually find the tiny notch with enough scree and a shallow enough slope to make a go of it. We go over the pass, and drop down to the other side.
4-something: we realize we just need to pass over a boulder field, and then along some nice granite slab, which will take us to the final traverse toward Mirror Lake. Too easy!
5-something: We do not like the looks of the traverse to Mirror Lake. It looks very cliffy, and very shitty with far too much scree and loose gravel on a very, very steep slope.
6-something: From Leor Pantilat’s blog “Ultimately, the easy slab walking ends and one must begin an ascent toward Kalmia Pass. It may be tempting to descend from Kalmia Pass directly into the basin between it and Mirror Lake, but this is not advisable due to dangerous cliffs and fields of unstable talus.” Turns out that even on the “good traverse,” the unstable talus is mostly unstable scree and gravel, and is pretty miserable. We stay fairly high, and traverse along this steep, cliffy face. Trees stopped me from sliding toward the cliff a few times. At this point I’m fairly mentally exhausted, and begin making poor decisions (see: trees mentioned above).
7-something: We eventually get far enough along the scree that we think we can head toward Mirror lake. We start going down, are concerned we maybe are about the get cliffed out, but manage to follow a not-too-steep gully all the way down.
8-something: We pull into camp just as it’s getting dark. I cold soak some Ramen and spoon it into my mouth from my bivvy. OMG. Sleep.
Day 2 (Sunday):
While the previous day was challenging, expectations were high that it would be a fairly chill day down to Sapphire lake. At the far end of Sapphire Lake a real trail would take over, removing us from the fairly sketch and exhausting traverses we’d been doing.
7:00 AM: We’re on the hunt for the nice shallow path to bring us toward Sapphire Lake
7:15: We find it, and start heading down8:00: We hit the “permanent snow” and follow it toward Sapphire Lake
8:30: We decide that the left side of Sapphire Lake looks a little too cliffy, but think the right side might go
9-something: We see some cairns on the right bank (south side), and start following them. They stop existing almost as quickly as they appeared. We decide we’re going to travel low, next to the shoreline, as it looks like a pretty good talus field goes all the way along the lake
10:00: The talus field ends at smooth face entering the water. We look up, and are uncertain how high we might need to climb to not be cliffed out, and to allow a safe descent back down to the other side of the smooth face.
10:15: We decide that it’s time to see how well a Neoair Xlite works as a raft.
10:30: I place a variety of my items into bags, and remove some of my clothing (I keep my shoes, socks, and shorts on). I inflate my neoair, and jump onto it in the water. Laying on my stomach, I doggy paddle around the smooth rock face, and head to the far end of Sapphire Lake, where I meetup with the talus field and the former(?) dam.
10:45: I’m pretty cold from the alpine water. My backpack has stayed amazingly dry. I eat some food, put on my dry clothes. S catches up shortly. She filters some water, and like that we’re back to real trail.
11:20: We head down the Sapphire Lake trail back to Stuart Fork Trail, and take that back to the car. The smoke, at this point, is starting to get pretty bad. At some point the sun is bright red.
3:45 PM: We make it back to the car.
Odds and Ends
Overall, this was a pretty spectacular trip, and much better than anything I was expecting. At this point in my hiking career, it’s genuinely rare that I run across a trip that makes me feel humbled. This was a truly humbling route.
It turns out that we could have avoided lake floatation by going a little bit higher (or at least somebody else’s GPX file on the internet says this) on the south bank of Sapphire Lake. With that said, I’m quite happy with how my Neoair Xlite Torso Length performed as a flotation device. 10/10 stars — may seek out such activities in the future! This was a truly memorable backcountry experience, and one that I had not had the [mis]fortune of needing to do before.
While I’m bummed about the fire locking off a good chunk of the Trinity Alps High Route from us, I think it would be an absolutely amazing route to do. I’d recommend 3+ days for the normal high route. It is very technically difficult, and should not be attempted by those without substantial route finding and cross country travel experience. I strongly advise a GPS device for both staying on route, and for communicating with the outside world. Given the remoteness, isolation, and technical terrain of the High Route, a GPS communicator + adventure buddy should probably be a requirement, as injuries would likely require helicopter evacuation.