East Boulder Lake in the Trinity Alps - Our 2017 Summer Backpacking Trip
Once again, I was faced with the joy and challenge of planning a backpacking trip for the PD and me. And once again, I was tasked with crafting a trip that would fit into the parameters of being long enough to be an adventure, but short enough to fit in the confines of the PD's work schedule.
After looking at other areas of the map, including other states, I glanced around at the map, read some blogs and came up with the Trinity Alps. The other trips, due to the number of days required to properly enjoy them, would have to wait.
The Trinity Alps, a wilderness area in Northern California, has far fewer visitors that the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is a road less traveled and I am always eager to discover new country. We initially thought about backpacking up to Caribou Lake from the north, but then settled on backpacking up to Sapphire and Emerald Lake via the Stuart Fork.
It would be a well-traveled trail, but from my research, many hikers stop at Morris Meadows and return. We would camp further north and perhaps reach Caribou Lake from the south.
With our plane tickets bought and our bags packed, we were ready to go. Then the fires started. Northern California, as well as other spots across the country, was ablaze. Our trip looked fine until about two days before we were set to leave. Then the Helena-Fork Fire complex started and the trailhead closed.
I had to come up with a plan B.
Spending some hours scanning the area around Redding, where we would land, I searched for areas that would grant us some gorgeous scenery, but not be affected by the fire. The theme this year was to be "Getting Away from It All." Several areas were too heavily used, and others simply didn't have the scenic "wow" factor I was hoping for.
After reading some trip reports, I saw the area around East Boulder Lake. There were many lakes in the area, access to the PCT, and it wasn't that heavily used. We would head to East Boulder Lake and play it by ear.
We arrived in the afternoon, picked up our rental car, headed to the nearest sporting goods store to pick up some butane and drove north, past Lake Shasta to the town of Weed, where we stopped for lunch.
I called the ranger's office to get the most up-to-date information on the area. The area around East Boulder Lake was still open with no fires in the immediate area, but deer hunting season started tomorrow. We should make sure to wear bright colors and be respectful. I was a little worried, since opening weekend for hunting season tends to be busy.
After lunch, we then turned off onto a smaller road through some small towns and then onto a dirt road for more miles and ended up at the distant and remote East Boulder Trailhead right as the sun decided to leave us.
I had done enough research that I knew how to find our campsite in the dark. By our headlamps, we sped through the trail. Ghostly outlines of trees met us out of the dark and the occasional toad scrambled out of our way.
We heard a stream as we ascended to the edge of the large bowl that I imagined held the lake. We then had to cross a large creek on stones. I guided us around the blackened void of East Boulder Lake, occasionally, shouting "hey bear!" The PD was sure we weren't going to find the campsite when we came across it. It was the perfect site: Plenty of logs on which to sit and cook, a great water source, some nice flat areas for our tent, and a well-used fire pit with a stack of firewood nearby.
We could hear the lake in the blackness beyond, but could not see it. We settled into our routine and set up camp by the light of our headlamps and lanterns. We could smell smoke of the distant wildfires. We got a great night's sleep and woke up to the sound of mooing.
We unzipped the tent and took a look. We were very pleased with the location of the campsite. In the chilly morning air, we easily started the fire and had some coffee, smiling at our great fortune.
We had a great view of the lake and there wasn't a soul in sight. There were no signs of any bugs to harass us. Not even ants.
No hunters had come up in the night. Off to the west, some cows were grazing in a meadow. All around us were signs of the herd: dried patties, hoof prints, and the scattered sounds of cow bells.
We had a choice: pack up and head over one of the several passes in the area to camp somewhere else or stay here and use this glorious place as a base camp for several days of exploration.
We opted for the second choice. This was the best campsite we had seen in years and wanted to enjoy it for as much as possible.
After a lazy breakfast, we gathered our day hiking packs and headed up to the northern end of the canyon. We passed more sparkling lakes in the cool morning air and enjoyed the silence of the valley. We climbed up to the pass and dropped down to the PCT.
We hiked along the PCT, thinking we might run into some through-hikers. We did not. Except for the cows we saw scampering up the side of the mountain, we didn't see anyone until we were almost back in camp for the day.
We sat in the shade and had a nice lunch, enjoying the warmth of the day and the wonderful breeze. Although the brown haze in the distant air reminded us of the fires in the area, we were happy to be there.
We hiked up to the pass leading to the Middle Boulder Lake drainage. Around us were signs of ranching: Hoof prints and cow patties, eroding wood structures, as well as some old blazes in the trees that had nothing to do with the trails.
We descended into the basin, skirting the lakes and keeping high on one side. We came across some water that dampened the trail and made a great sound. On our approach, what seemed like a thousand tiny frogs jumped for safety.
We continued along the trail as it wrapped back around the mountain toward East Boulder Lake. We passed an ice can stove, which I didn't realize were up in this area, too. I thought they were confined to Los Padres National Forest, but I was mistaken.
We rounded a corner and I noticed a spring along the trail. Then something moved next to it and I realized it was a hunter in camouflage attire. A little startled, we quietly said hello, in case he was hunting, but he was just getting some water. We chatted about the local hunting politics and agreed how pretty this areas was. He would be camping along the ridge to our northwest. We let him know our itinerary, so we wouldn't cross paths and wished each other well.
We then enjoyed the shaded trail for a little while longer until we descended to the west bank of East Boulder Lake. We encountered another hunter, this time with a happy dog who immediately jumped into the icy lake. They were headed up to the ridge southeast of the lake. We let him know our plans and about the other hunter and wished each other well.
We settled back to camp and waited for dinner time. We lounged by the lake, listening to the gentle lapping on its shores and let the afternoon breeze wash over us. No one else was camping at the lake. It felt like it was all ours.
Once the sun started to go down, the chilly air returned, so we got our campfire started and prepared for dinner. As we have done so many times, we enjoyed each other's conversation while watching the lake slowly turn silver in the fading light and spotting the occasional meteoroid streak across the sky.
The next day, we decided to head up and over to adjacent Little Mill Creek valley. We hiked around the north edge of the lake, revisiting part of the trail that we had hiked at night on the way in, but this time crossing East Boulder Creek over the dam, rather than on creek boulders.
We hiked up some switchbacks and up through some pine trees before we got to the pass and looked down at a gorgeous valley. Once again there was another pond and in the distance, we could see some mine tailings from a long-abandoned mine and Little Mill Creek Lake.
We continued downward, exploring some mine remains and stopped for a snack on some boulders. Before long, we were snoozing in the warm sun. I could get used to this.
We explored more of the minings areas, heading up to the trees to see where an old camp was. It was fun to hike off-trail and explore. We were tempted to visit Little Mill Creek Lake, but the thought of reclaiming a lot of elevation on the way back up to the pass was enough to prevent us from dropping so far.
The weather started to look a little threatening. So we started to head back up. Once again, we didn't see another person on the trail. We had the entire valley to ourselves.
By the time we got back to camp, the clouds were mostly gone and we were treated with another perfect afternoon. The sun was warm with a gentle cool breeze. Someone was fishing on one side of the lake, but then we didn't see them again.
Once again, we settled into our routine, not needing to hurry and not bothered by the pressures of the outside world. The only marker of the passing time was the sun crawling slowly through the sky. We enjoyed our time by the fire as the lake turned silver.
The next morning, we headed back south, up to East Boulder Lake and over the pass to the PCT. We were aiming to head down what we dubbed the Marshy Lake Drainage. On the map were two lakes, Big Marshy Lake and Little Marshy Lake. We would head down the valley until we found a pretty spot to have our lunch.
Once we passed the PCT, we dropped and dropped. We passed a large bunch of carnivorous plants. I had never seen these before in the wild.
We encountered a wonderful creek in the middle of a meadow and decided to follow it off-trail to see where it went. We could hear cascades in the distance so we headed for that.
We found some great potential campsites next to gurgling cascades and made mental notes if we would ever be in the area. Once we got to a flat area, we encountered a lot of cattle trails leading to a large salt lick in the trees.
We continued down the trail. Consulting my map, I knew that Big Marshy Lake should be around there somewhere. Seeing a cairn leading off to the right, I knew we had found it. We climbed a short rise and were presented with an amazing site.
A wide, crystal clear lake, not marshy at all, lay before us. We stopped in the shaded campsites next to the lake to drop our gear. We had our lunch and went to enjoy the banks of the lake.
The PD settled in and almost immediately fell asleep. I headed a little along the edge of the lake. Once again, there appeared to be countless frogs running from my footsteps. I took off my shoes and socks and dipped my feet into the lake. I probably don't have to tell you how good that felt. I leaned back, my body in the sun, my toes in the lake and promptly joined the PD in slumber land.
We stayed there for a while, simply enjoying the space. We both lead pretty busy lives, so it was a time of meditation and focused existence. Time slows down when we don't have constant notifications and plans.
We got up and decided to explore the trail around the lake. Although a large rock slide had buried a portion the trail at some point, we were able to make it around the lake and could see how deep it was. We even found an old rope swing, apparently long in disuse.
We would see a way far down to Little Marshy Lake, but decided against it.
Reluctantly, we gathered our things and started to head back up to the pass.
We made it back up in no time, and mdke our way back to East Boulder Lake. As we crossed the inlet stream of the lake, we saw the largest frog we had seen yet.
We settled into our campsite. Enjoying some wine with dinner and staying up just a little later than usual, stretching out our final night at East Boulder Lake in the Trinity Alps backcountry.
We woke up and packed up, our movements automatic. We've done this before. We were excited to hike out, seeing the trail for the first time in the daylight.
In the blue sky hung clouds, promising rain. We could have stayed one more night in the backcountry. However, there was a pretty decent chance of bad weather in the forecast. We've had our share of rain over the years. We decided to give ourselves plenty of time to enjoy the trail on the way back and have a nice dinner in Redding, exploring the city a little bit before our flight out the next day.
The trail was gorgeous and we were surprised at how much elevation we had gained in the dark, four days ago. We waved goodbye to the cow herd that had kept us company with their mooing and the bells ringing.
The trail flattened out and we knew we were almost back to the car. We walked among the trees, enjoying the final smell of the wilderness before we had to dip back into the rigors of modern life.
There's always a sort of relief to find your car at the trailhead. We congratulated ourselves on another successful backcountry outing, changed into a fresh set of clothes, headed back on the dirt route out of the forest.
As usual, the trip ended with a nice meal and some nicer beer. We ended up at Woody's Brewing Company in Redding and enjoying a flight of beer each and some hearty food. We slept just fine in our hotel.
Before heading home, we wanted to see a little bit of Redding, so we went downtown for some lunch and visited the Sundial Bridge over the Sacramento River.
As usual, every adventure has to come to a close. We both have families back home. As usual, the landscapes we experienced were etched into our minds, and we added more shared stories to our outdoor collection.
The weight of our heavy lives was lightened by the scent of the pines, the murmuring of the lake, the warmth of a campfire, and the silence of a wilderness rarely visited.
For a time, anyway. We're planning our next trip already.