California's Trinity Alps

Secret scrambles and lakes abound in this northern California wilderness.

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Trinity Alps Wilderness


It was a scramble but well worth the effort because here’s what I discovered: a sublime alpine tarn sitting high on the shoulder of Red Rock Mountain in the Trinity Alps and surrounded by a flower-splashed meadow, smooth as a putting green and steep as a waterfall. Best of all, no trail led to this nameless puddle, so my privacy was assured as I spent an afternoon relaxing on its emerald shores.

The 785-square-mile Trinity Alps preserve is one of the largest designated wilderness areas in California. But like that little pond, the Alps surprise and delight those who stumble upon them. The range tops out at 9,000 feet in a jumble of gray granite peaks and sheer-sided cirques cupping snowmelt lakes. The mountains teem with the usual cast of forest critters, but the wildlife here is a tad wilder and more reclusive than in the Sierra; consider yourself lucky to see a bear.

More than 600 miles of trails crisscross the wilderness, leaving creative navigators with a dizzying array of routes. An outstanding five-day loop of 45 to 55 miles, depending on side trips, starts at the Big Flat trailhead and makes a roller-coaster circuit through the Deer Creek, Swift Creek, and Union Creek drainages.

And as for that pond on the flank of Red Rock Mountain? It’s on the topo map, waiting for you to stumble upon it.

Where: The Trinity Alps Wilderness is 300 miles (5 hours) north of San Francisco and 400 miles (7 hours) south of Portland. Big Flat trailhead is west of CA 3 about 10 miles north of Trinity Center. At Coffee Creek, turn left off of CA 3, and drive 21 miles west on Coffee Creek Road.

Maps:Trinity Alps Wilderness ($4.29, Weaverville Ranger Station, 530-623-2121). For route planning and general information, get a copy of The Trinity Alps, by Luther Linkhart ($15.95, Wilderness Press, 800-443-7227).

Trail Info: Weaverville Ranger Station, (530) 623-2121.

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