Thursday, August 10, 2017

Backpacking 2017: Trinity Alps, South Fork of the Salmon River

Some backpacking trips go exactly as planned.

Others do not.

This one did not go as planned, but in the end it was wonderful, in that "well, nobody was seriously hurt, after all!" way that mis-adventures sometimes happily are.

To get to the headwaters of the South Fork of the Salmon River, you need to be prepared to do a bit of driving:

  1. Make your way from wherever you may be to the quirky little town of Weaverville
  2. Head north from Weaverville, where you might decide to spend the night at the lovely little Bonanza King Resort if you wish
  3. The next morning, drive up the 20+ mile dirt road to the very end, where you'll find Big Flat Trailhead. This road will take you 75 minutes to drive. Honest.

From the Big Flat Trailhead, ready your pack, and don't forget to make sure you secure your car carefully so that it's completely boring to any California Black Bear who might wander through the campground (this is not uncommon, since the habitat of the California Black Bear is nearly a 100% overlap with the areas of California where there are campgrounds).

Once you're safely out of your car and ready, the rest is easy: walk south.

The canyon which forms the watershed which holds the headwaters of the South Fork of the Salmon River is a spectacularly beautiful mountain canyon. From the trailhead to the end of the canyon is a gentle, peaceful, 6-mile hike which starts at about 5,000 feet of elevation and climbs slowly and steadily to around 5,800 feet near the south end of the canyon.

Most hikers who enter the Trinity Alps Wilderness from this trailhead area actually headed out of the canyon, to one of a variety of destinations: southwest to the Caribou or Sapphire Lakes, south to Deer Creek, south-southeast to Ward and Horseshoe Lakes, or southeast to Bullard's Basin and the mining ghost town of Dorleska.

Instead, we decided to stay in the Salmon River headwaters canyon itself.

Well, I should be a bit more honest.

Originally, we were contemplating going to Ward Lake. But, after more study and reading, I realized that this particular destination was going to be beyond our capabilities for a one day hike:

Total Length (round-trip): 12 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,549’ to the saddle, then -460’ down to the lake
Difficulty: Moderate-to-Strenuous
or, more colorfully:
High above the densely forested moraine, just beginning to emerge against the cloudless blue, rose a massive fortress, a sheer vertical wall of gray rock, toward which our trail zig-zagged.

Uhm, yeah.

That wasn't going to work.

So instead we decided not to take the Kidd Creek trail to Ward Lake, and proceeded south, remaining in the main canyon of the South Fork of the Salmon.

Which is beautiful and delightful, and we made quite good time, until at about 3:00 PM we found ourselves at the far south end of the canyon, confronted by canyon walls on all three sides (east, south, west).

I had (sort of) a plan for this, for I had spotted on the map that the true headwaters of the Salmon River was found at Salmon Lake, a mere three quarters of a mile from where we stood.

And a mere 1,300 vertical feet above our 5,800 foot elevation at the time.

There is no trail to Salmon Lake, but we were standing on the shore of the Salmon River, looking up its course as it descended the narrow and steep canyon above us, and it seemed, tantalizingly, close.

So, with our minds probably clouded from the fatigue of the first 5.5 miles that we'd already hiked, we decided to try to go off-trail and bush-whack our way up the river canyon to the lake.

I estimate that we made it about one tenth of the way to the lake over the next 30 minutes, climbing slowly and stubbornly through dense manzanita fields that clung to scree slopes of sharp fractured shale that shifted unexpectedly and continuously underneath our feet.

And then the lightning clapped, and the thunder boomed, and the rain began.

And, at last, we came to our senses.

After we realized that our plan was hopeless, and we re-grouped back at the trail, we were soaked from the rain and a bit dispirited, even more so when we realized that the mid-slope ridgeline we were on held no decent campsites of any sort.

Worse, several of us had fallen during the bushwhacking on the wet shale, and so twisted ankles and bloodied shins were widespread.

As we sat, resting and recovering, watching a pair of trees on the opposite side of the canyon smouldering from lightning strikes, we cast our eyes below us, and realized that the canyon floor below us was beautiful, had a reliable source of water, and was almost certain to contain some spots where we could make camp.

So back down we headed, retracing our steps about a half mile down the trail until we were back to the canyon floor, then hiking another half mile or so south until we indeed found a spectacularly beautiful location to stay: not too far from water, but not too close either, with just enough trees for shelter, but just few enough to give us glorious views of the canyon ridges above.

Completely exhausted from more than 9 miles of walking with full packs, we just managed to set up camp and prepare dinner before it was fully dark and the stars were out.

Yet the next few days passed blissfully: each day dawned with blue skies and mile weather and we found many nearby areas for lovely day hikes, including an enjoyable long walk up the trail to the pass on the border of Trinity and Siskiyou counties, where we unexpectedly found a beautiful high mountain meadow, with hawks soaring and calling overhead and chipmunks and rabbits and quail busily occupying themselves amongst the meadow grasses.

Quite reliably, it thundered and lightninged and rained every afternoon, and once even delivered a dramatic 15-minute hailstorm, but after surviving our disastrous first day's hike, it all seemed like icing on an unexpectedly tasty celebration cake.

So if you ever find yourself wanting to go backpacking in the headwaters canyon of the South Fork of the Salmon River in the Trinity Alps wilderness, let me offer these simple suggestions:

  • Yes, Ward Lake is a long haul, and that ridgeline ascent is as miserable as you fear.
  • But Salmon Lake is even harder. You'd need to be a mountain goat to get there.
  • And, if you spot a lake on the map, even if it looks "close" to the trail, but when you go and search the Internet and you can't find EVEN A SINGLE PICTURE of anyone who's actually made it to the lake's shore, stop and recognize what that means: You Ain't Gonna Get to Salmon Lake
  • So just be happy exploring the beautiful Salmon River canyon instead.

That's what I have to say about that. Enjoy the pictures!

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