I’ve been curious about backpacking in the Trinity Alps of Northern California for a long time but trips to the Sierra kept taking precedent. This year, with the huge layer of snow that blanketed the Sierra, I decided it was high time I checked out Trinity. While Trinity gets a lot of snow as well, the slightly lower elevation meant that we had a better chance of a snow-free trail than in Tahoe in late July. The highest point in the Trinity Alps is Thompson Peak at 9,002 feet.
While it is appealing to think that the rugged peaks of the Trinity Alps are somehow related to their neighbors to the west, Lassen and Shasta, or even the Sierra, they are in fact, part of the Klamath Mountains. This range, which encompasses 8,300 square miles, extends north all the way to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Trinity Alps is just one of several wilderness areas in the Klamath range, with cousins known as Castle Crags Wilderness and Russian Wilderness. The Trinity Alps Wilderness includes 500,000 acres of ecologically and biologically diverse terrain.
The challenge of backpacking in a new area is not having a good frame of reference to use as a starting point. My Sierra Club colleague, Andy, recommended Morris Meadow as a destination via the Stuart Fork Trail. This meadow, like others in the Trinity Alps, is located in a glaciated U-shaped valley that was dammed naturally by a jumble of rocks and sediment known as a moraine. A huge lake formed that eventually dried out, giving way to a marsh and finally the large, lush meadow it is today.
It’s a four hour drive from Sonoma to Weaverville so we chose to stay at a nearby campground the night before we started hiking. There is the Bridge Camp Campground right at the trailhead but sites are not reservable. Therefore, we reserved a site at Ackerman Campground in Lewiston, which was about 40 minutes from the trailhead. The Ackerman Campground was just OK, adequate for the purpose. The summer evening was close to being uncomfortably warm and the sites were very close to the road so noise was an issue. There was no potable water but a river formed from the outflow the dammed Trinity Lake provided ample cold water. Bathrooms had flush toilets but no running water in the sinks or spigots.
Hike to Morris Meadow
We drove from Ackerman Campground to the trailhead on twisting Highway 3 that skirted Trinity Lake. After turning left on Trinity Alps Road we passed the rustic cabins that comprise the Trinity Alps Resort.
The hike started off on a wide, level trail that was well signed and easy to follow. Since it had been 104 degrees (F) in Redding the day before I was worried about sun exposure. Most of the trail all the way to Morris Meadow was thankfully shaded by tall trees including Douglas fir, pines and incense cedar. The trail undulated up and down, sometimes angling high above the creek, other times dipping down close to it. The grade was never too severe. In several locations flat areas suitable for camping near the river beckon us to stop and linger but we pressed on. The Bear Creek Trail and a signed trail to Alpine Lake branched to the left, which also offered camping, but we continued on the Stuart Fork Trail. After the Alpine Lake junction we found a good spot to stop for lunch next to the river with a smooth granite shelf in the river that was perfect for cooling off feet and stretching out in the sun. After more climbing we reached a narrow gash in the earth, carved by the tumultuous Deer Creek. We stood on a steel truss bridge gaping at a beautiful pool that poured water over a rocky water course underneath. Right before the bridge was the only spot where we got a little confused. A trail junction left some question about how to proceed but I spotted a small sign nailed to a tree that indicated that the trail to the right was a stock bypass trail. We kept left and followed the trail as it bent right again, leading us to the bridge. Apparently the stock trail leads to a place where the creek can be forded.
After Deep Creek was a short, steep section of trail. It leveled out a bit, but overall the trail became more rugged with some clambering over fallen trees and steeper sections for about a mile. While not fully exposed, there was less shade and the temperatures were warming, adding to the fatigue level. When the trail eased up and the forest was more open I wondered if we had reached the meadow. We continued to walk until we reached a huge open meadow and there was no longer any question. This was Morris Meadow, a mile long by about a quarter mile wide, bordered on the left by the creek and on the right by a steep hillside. The creek made a bend at the south end of the meadow, creating a shallow swimming hole that we visited several times, along with other campers. There were many campsites around the meadow so it can accommodate a large number of campers.
Deer grazed in the meadow in the evening and patches of snow could be seen in the high peaks to the west. North of the meadow, the imposing Sawtooth Ridge was evident. Between the views and the swimming hole, we found the meadow to be a wonderfully pleasant place to camp.
The meadow is located 8.6 miles from the trailhead.
Day hike to Emerald and Sapphire Lakes
The next day we left our base camp at Morris Meadow and hiked five miles to Emerald Lake. We left our food locked in our bear canister at the meadow but I took my mostly empty pack with my hydration bladder, lunch, camera and camp towel. We got an early start at around 8:30 a.m. as we were concerned about the heat. The trail was more exposed than the day before but went through alternating periods of shade and sun. It was mostly pleasant hiking in the cool of the morning. After the longer hike with a full pack the day before, today’s hike felt pretty easy.
Emerald Lake is a classic beauty—a high alpine lake in a cirque carved out of granite with big walls rising up on three sides. A flat, sloping bench of rock slid into the lake on the left side, providing the perfect sunning spot. Behind that was a dam of granite blocks. The lake was formed by a natural dam, which was enhanced in the 1890s to support mining. The dam has since been breached so the lake has returned to its natural level but the remains of the dam persist.
From where the trail met Emerald Lake, I thought the path to Sapphire Lake might continue to the left, but it turned out that it goes on the right, across a shale slope. It’s worth the hike to see remnants of mining activity and another gorgeous alpine lake. Sapphire Lake is twice the size of Emerald Lake and 200 feet deep, making it the deepest lake in the Trinity Alps.
We didn’t have the time nor the inclination to hike to Mirror Lake, the third lake in the series. It involves cross-country scrambling so we saved that for another day. Beyond Mirror Lake is Thompson Peak, the aforementioned highest point in the Trinity Alps.
Morris Meadow and the two lakes, Emerald and Sapphire, offer excellent backpacking for a weekend and a perfect introduction to the beauty of Trinity Alps.
Guidebook: Trinity Alps: A Hiking and Backpacking Guide, by Mike White.
- Trailhead to Morris Meadow: 8.6 miles (one way); 17.2 round trip
- Morris Meadow to Emerald Lake: 5 miles (one way); 10 miles round trip
- Emerald Lake to Sapphire Lake: 0.4 miles (one way); 0.8 miles round trip
- Sapphire Lake to Mirror Lake: 1.3 miles (one way); 2.6 miles round trip, cross country
- Total distance from trailhead to Sapphire Lake: 14 miles (one way); 28 miles round trip
- Elevation change: 4240 feet (per guidebook)
- Starting elevation: 2703 (per CalTopo)
- Emerald Lake: 5541 feet (per CalTopo)
- Sapphire Lake: 5932 feet (per CalTopo)
- Mirror Lake: 6611 feet (per CalTopo)
- A wilderness permit from Shasta-Trinity National Forest is required but there is no quota. The permit is acquired through self-registration at the ranger station. There is a 10-person limit unless arrangements are made ahead of time for larger groups.
- See Trinity Alps Frequently Asked Questions.
- Weaverville Ranger Station: 530-623-2121; 360 Main St, Weaverville
- A California Campfire Permit is required for use of a stove. It can be obtained free of charge after viewing a short video and completing a quiz. It is valid for one year.
- Food must be protected from bears, either by hanging or use of bear canisters.