Elizabeth and I met Shandor and Asha in Walnut Creek and packed all our gear into my car. We were going to spend the weekend in the Trinity Alps of northern California, backpacking the renowned Four Lakes Loop through spectacular alpine scenery.
But first we had dinner together at Chipotle. Shandor is a college friend that I hadn’t seen in years and Asha is his girlfriend. I’d tried to plan a backpacking trip with Shandor before, but this was the first time our schedules matched up. Finally, we were looking forward to a fine weekend trip in beautiful surroundings.
We finished dinner and drove to Redding, getting to our motel at midnight.
We only needed to hike seven miles to our campsite on Saturday, so we didn’t bother with an early start. We ate breakfast at our motel, got our permits in Weaverville, and then drove up the dirt road to the Long Canyon trailhead, where we packed our bags and started hiking at 11:45. It was a warm, pleasant day with fair-weather clouds.
We hiked up the canyon through tall, dense trees. The forest was second-growth near the trailhead, but turned into old-growth soon enough. The trees were typical mid-elevation conifers of northern California: Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii), sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana), incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), and white fir (Abies concolor).
With increasing elevation, the forests fell away and were replaced by meadows. I was hoping to see good wildflowers on this hike, but what I saw exceeded all my expectations: the green hillsides were just splashed with violet, crimson, yellow, and white.
There were too many wildflower species for me to mention them all, but there were some that that deserve attention. Lavender naked mariposa lily (Calochortus nudus) was a new species of Calochortus for me. White rushlily (Hastingsia alba) was a species I’d seen in the Kalamath-Siskiyou forests before, but hadn’t identified. There was also plenty of violet western monkshood (Aconitum columbianum). Western pasque-flower (Anemone occidentalis), a species I’d only seen in the Colorado Rockies and Washington Cascades, grew around Bee Tree Gap.
We reached Bee Tree Gap, 4,000 feet above our starting elevation, at 3:45. We couldn’t see any of the Four Lakes yet, but we did see Siligo Peak, the mountain at the center of the Four Lakes that we were considering climbing.
The gap and its surrounding meadows were home to some of the biggest foxtail pines (Pinus balfouriana ssp. balfouriana) I’d ever seen. Many of them had trunks that were easily 6 feet in diameter.
We hiked across a wet meadow to Deer Creek Pass, where we got a good view of Siligo Peak and Deer Lake, the first of the Four Lakes we’d see.
We hiked across the bowl on the south side of Deer Lake, which, even at the end of August, still had a substantial snow field that we had to cross.
Siligo Peak was less intimidating than I’d expected, and the climb to its summit looked easy enough. We decided to go for it. We dropped our packs and followed a network of faint trails to the summit, which we attained without difficulty.
We had excellent views down at the Four Lakes, each a cobalt jewel set in green basin. Silver and ochre peaks rose in every direction.
We hiked back to our packs and then walked past Summit Lake and down to Diamond Lake. The descent was on long, nearly flat switchbacks that would have been utterly dull if not for the incredible view: Diamond Lake shimmering in the sunset, surrounded by fields of gold and crimson wildflowers and backed by the bare granite peaks of the high Trinities.
We got to the lake at 7:45, eight hours after starting. The sun was about to set, and there was a single, very nice, established campsite below a big western white pine (Pinus monticola) next to Diamond Lake. Unfortunately, it was already occupied. So we found a flat spot in the grass next to the lake and were careful to minimize our impact on the site.
A rocky knoll next to camp gave us a grand view down into heavily forested Stuart Fork Canyon and across toward the stark granite peaks at the core of the Trinity Alps. The sun had set, so we got ready for dinner.
Elizabeth and I took out our freeze-dried backpacker meals and started boiling water on my tiny alcohol stove. Meanwhile, Shandor and Asha took out fresh bread, tomatoes, and mozzarella and started making bruschetta. Then they took out a bottle of wine. I tried not to stare while I waited for my sad little meal to rehydrate. Fortunately, Shandor and Asha had brought more than enough food for themselves and shared the bruschetta and wine with Elizabeth and me.
The sky became deep blue and then black while we ate, but the high peaks of the Trinity Alps remained conspicuously visible. Even the trees in Stuart Fork Canyon were still clear, illuminated by a cold, faint light. We saw the source of this light when a nearly full moon rose over Siligo Peak. We talked and ate without our headlamps, and when we went to bed, our tents were so bright that we had trouble falling asleep.
The night was cold and silent. By sunrise, the meadows, as well as our backpacks, were covered in frost.
We knew we had a long hike and a long drive ahead of us, so we ate breakfast, packed up, and were out of camp by 8. I estimated that getting from camp to Walnut Creek would take twelve hours—this turned out to be pretty accurate.
The first thing we did was cross a meadow. The grass was frosty and the puddles were half-frozen. I was wearing only mesh-lined running shoes and thinking hard about not dunking my feet in ice-cold water. But I didn’t have to worry for long, since a few unlucky steps brought a cold, numbing ooze through my socks.
We descended toward Luella Lake on a trail whose grade was so frustratingly moderate, we felt as if we were traversing the slope without descending at all. We resorted to counting the switchbacks to amuse ourselves. In the distance was Deer Creek Pass. It was the last pass we would climb today, but we had to drop far below it, to Deer Creek Meadows, first.
We skirted Luella Lake and hiked down to Deer Creek Meadows, set in a broad, scenic bowl filled with a swampy meadow of tall, green plants—Kelley’s lilies (Lilium kelleyanum), corn lilies (Veratrum californicum), and cow parsnips (Heracleum maximum)—and rimmed by towering granite peaks.
We hiked around Deer Lake, getting a great view of Siligo Peak, and then climbed back up to Deer Creek Pass.
Once over Deer Creek Pass, we started our hike down Long Canyon. The six miles were not difficult, but the 4,000-foot descent took its toll on my muscles and knees, and I was glad to take off my pack back at the car. We got to the trailhead at 3:00, making for a seven-hour hike from Diamond Lake.
We drove to Weaverville for lunch at the La Grange Cafe, and then finished the long drive home to the Bay Area.