We got to the Hay Meadow trailhead early on Sunday morning. The trailhead is at 6,400 feet elevation in the Lassen National Forest, and to get there you need to drive about 12 miles of dirt road from Chester, CA; the last 2 miles are pretty rough but once again Mom's truck was up to the job!
On a summer weekend, all California wilderness sites are busy, and the trailhead contained:
- Two families car-camping together with a 40-foot trailer
- A group of 4 riders, 4 horses, and 6 dogs, heading out for their Sunday morning constitutional
- A group of 4 day-hikers from Arizona
It took us a little while to get organized, and by then everyone else was already on the trail.
The southern portion of the Caribou Wilderness is a rolling plateau, thickly forested with lodgepole pine, red fir, and manzanita. Our trail led along a small stream, dried up by late August, through meadows, along ridges, past lovely little lakes nestled in the hollows. Although this land was heavily logged no more than 50 years ago, it has recovered well and it was as pristine and peaceful a wilderness as you could imagine.
After a pleasant day's hike, we set up camp near Posey Lake, a gorgeous lake at almost exactly 7,000 feet high. Great campsites are plentiful near these lakes, and we found one with beautiful views of the lake. The skies were clear and we enjoyed warm campfires under the stars.
On our second day, we explored several of the neighboring lakes, including Long Lake, the largest lake in this area of the wilderness. After wandering along Long Lake's oddly shaped shoreline, we returned to camp for a rousing match of camp horseshoes.
The next day, we set out for a nearby peak. In these heavily forested areas, the summits are easy to find on the topo map, but hard to locate on foot; we made a few false starts before we locked in our destination, only to find when we got there that it was an enormous fractured mass of volcanic scree: sharp, unstable, and nearly impossible to climb. We ascended as far as we could up the shoulder and managed to get a few hundred feet above the valley floor; our reward was marvelous views to the west into the higher peaks of Lassen National Park.
Descending from the rock-pile after lunch, we made our way up the canyon on its far side in search of several un-named lakes that were marked on the map. We soon found that we had found Bear Canyon, as the trees scarred by bears scratching for food, the scat on the valley floor, and several other un-mistakable signs left us convinced that a bear had chosen this remote wilderness valley as its home.
Although the canyon was once heavily logged, and was, more recently, burned by a forest fire, the wilderness is quite healthy here, and there were tens of thousands of saplings rising from the valley floor among the burned tree trunks. Secure in the daylight hours, but sticking close together nonetheless, we made our way up through the canyon, visited the lakes, and returned back to camp for a swim and a hearty dinner.
A few closing notes and observations:
- The Red Cinder topo map is the correct one. Surprisingly, Amazon doesn't (yet?) seem to sell topo maps, but MapSport's service was great.
- The best restaurant in Chester is the Red Onion Grill, next door to the bowling alley. It's rather pricey, but that was the best burger I've had in many months (Roger thought so too).
- The Google SkyMap software is beautiful and really makes star-gazing fun (if you're not surrounded by lodgepole pines). However, it isn't able to find your location when you're in the wilderness, so be prepared to enter your latitude and longitude manually. I also found that the compass/accelerometer seemed to have trouble tracking my movements as I moved the phone around above my head; perhaps with practice I'd learn to control it better.
- Roger's SteriPen worked well. Although the pre-filtering process was slow and tedious, the pen itself takes only 90 seconds or so to sterilize a one quart bottle of water. Not only is it vastly less effort than working the old manual pumps, the pen also claims to eliminate a much broader set of threats; for example, it states that it kills Hepatitis C Virus in the water. Hopefully that isn't yet a major thread in hiking the Sierra Nevada mountains, but it's good to know.
- The camp deer were incredibly unafraid of us. We had one and sometimes a pair of deer browsing contentedly just 25 feet from camp, and when I left the campfire for bed one night I was astonished when my flashlight illuminated a deer just 10 feet behind where I was sitting.
- Lots of swifts and swallows during the evening insect feeding, but sadly no bats. Not sure what that means.
- The prettiest lake, we agreed, was the middle of the Hidden Lakes, which is rock-rimmed and striking. But Posey Lake was secluded and offered great campsites, and was also warm enough for long comfortable swims.
- Chuck Norris is said to maintain a vacation retreat in Chester. We didn't meet him at the supermarket, though.
If you've never been backpacking in the Caribou Wilderness, it has much to recommend it; if you go, let me know what you think!