Location: Canyon Creek Lakes Trail in Trinity Alps, California
Dates: June 1-2, 2019
Distance: 16.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,969 ft.
After Charlie and I finished backpacking in Hetch Hetchy we headed back to Fresno to pick up Wyatt, Taylor, and Ian. Next, we all went out to the Tioga Sequoia brewery to celebrate Charlie’s birthday and discuss where to go next. We needed to try to escape the snowpack in the High Sierra’s and find somewhere else to go because everyone still wanted to do some backpacking, but our 5 day Mineral King permits were canceled by the NPS. We decided to head to Redding, CA and do some backpacking somewhere up in Northern California.
After some internet searching during our road trip up, and a pitstop at Pinnacles National Park, we decided to start with some backpacking to the Canyon Creek Lakes in the Trinity Alps.
The parking lot was at the end of a windy 11 mile road that heads up into the canyon. When we got to the lot at around 10AM, there were already at least 20 cars there, but still space for plenty more. We did some last-minute rearranging of our gear and food and then were ready to start the ascent!
After about a half mile we came to the first major creek crossing. The water was around knee deep, so everyone changed into sandals or went barefoot. I highly recommend bringing sandals or water shoes for this route.
We hiked for about another mile and a half and then got our first epic view of the snowcapped mountains. There is also a nice campsite here for anyone who gets a late start on the trail.
At around the half point we stopped at a nice waterfall for lunch.
About a mile from the lake we came to the next major stream crossing. This one was a lot wider and flowing well. It took us a while to figure out where to cross and where the trail continued. The trick is to head towards the left when you first arrive at the creek, and not to keep walking up the right side. When we crossed, there were lots of large fallen trees to walk on and a wooden trail marker nailed to a tree on the opposite side.
Although the entire hike is 2600 feet of elevation gain, it’s fairly evenly distributed along the entire trail. After 7 miles of hiking uphill though, we were getting tired and there were two final rocky hills to scramble up before making it to the lower lake. One of those rocky hills has an epic 360 degree view of the canyon.
We arrived at the lower lake at around 6PM and many people already had camps set up. It definitely looked like some people had been there more than one day, too. The lake is big and there’s plenty of space for people to spread out, but the problem is that the terrain is very rocky and it can be hard to find flat spots to set up a tent. The smaller your tent, the more spots you’ll be able to find. (Remember to always camp 100 feet away from water sources as per the USNF regulations.) We didn’t see many places to set up hammocks.
We walked about 3/4 of the east side of the lower lake and still couldn’t find any good tent spots. Our group was ready to call it a day but Charlie and I really wanted to push on to the upper lake to see if there were any better campsites. When I stood up from resting, my knee was in intense pain and I could barely walk. The pain came out of nowhere, I didn’t notice anything unusual while hiking. I pushed through the pain and we headed for the upper lake because we still needed to find a campsite for the night.
The upper lake is only about 50 feet higher in elevation than the lower lake but looked significantly different. We had to hike through a bit of snow to get up to it and about half of the lake was still frozen. We ended up finding a sweet spot to camp between the upper and lower lakes that could fit both our 4-man tent and 2-man tent.
After setting up camp, we explored explored the area more.
The sun was beginning to set, and the mountains were soon going to block the sunlight so Ian and I decided to jump into the lower lake while we could still dry off.
Considering the upper lake was still partially frozen I’m guessing the water temperature was near freezing and I sure felt the shock and adrenaline when I jumped in. I immediately swam out and ran all the way back up to our campsite while hyperventilating. 100% worth it!
For dinner we had some delicious Mountain House Beef Stroganoff. As we were finishing dinner, a big rain cloud formed so we hid in our tents for about 15 minutes. Once the rain passed, we emerged from our tents and were greeted by a phenomenal rainbow above the snow-capped mountains.
The scenery changed again when a lightning storm started rolling in. It rained a bit more and then the sky turned pink and purple.
The next morning my knee was still hurting pretty badly. I was somewhat worried because I knew hiking 8 miles was not a good idea but there really weren’t many alternatives. The guys offered to stay another day and see if my knee would heal a bit, but I didn’t think it would. We also didn’t have much food left so I said we should press on. I’m not gonna lie, the thought of trying to get a helicopter ride out definitely crossed my mind a few times.
It turns out we all got various injuries on this hike. Taylor got a bad rash all over his body from what we think was poison ivy and Ian got a bad rash on his hips from his backpack strap.
I ended up hobbling all the way back down to the car lagging behind the rest of my group using my trekking poles to try and keep weight off of my knee. After switching into my Chacos for the wide stream crossing, I decided to leave them on for the remainder of the hike so that I could just walk through the little streams, instead of trying to balance on rocks and roots.
Overall backpacking to the Canyon Creek Lakes is moderate in difficulty, and I would highly recommend it. I also recommend camping there for at least one night; additional nights if you want to head even further into the backcountry where there’s even more alpine lakes and waterfalls.
UPDATE: After some physical therapy, my knee is all healed up and I’m out hiking and climbing again!