The phrase "better late than never" applied perfectly to this trip to Grizzly Lake in the Trinity Alps.
I long ago wrote off this gem as too difficult and distant. When four old friends and I finally made the trip in late June, ice still covered most of the lake, there was no moon in the starry night and the solstice was still to come.
The trek was indeed tough, but rewarding and eventful; weird, even.
As far back as the mid-1980s I had read of Grizzly Lake, situated beautifully at 7,100 feet, just below Thompson Peak, the Trinity Alps' highest point at 9,002 feet. The only route I recalled was the 17.5-mile (or up to 19, depending on your source) trail from the Hobo Gulch trailhead a two-day hike.
A conversation last winter with Chris Fauske of Sacramento sent me to my old Trinity Alps guidebook by Luther Linkhart. Near the back, many pages removed from the main Grizzly Lake description, the 7.6-mile China Gulch route is described: "This is the short way to Grizzly Lake," Linkhart wrote. "It is difficult to come up with any other reason for beginning a pack trip with the grueling, dry climb over the Salmon River divide from China Creek. Grizzly Lake, Grizzly Meadows and the high country around Thompson Peak are good reasons for torturing yourself."
Well, thanks, Mr. Fauske and Mr. Linkhart.
And so we decided well before the rain and snow finally hit in a drought year on our hike, which began in late spring, ended in early summer and seemed at several stages to take place during the winter.
After what in our trail parlance was a "honk" (a difficult hike), we reached our campsite at 6,400 feet, just below the waterfall about 100 feet of sheer drop, then perhaps 500 more bouncing down slick rock that empties Grizzly Lake. A couple members of our party of five had scrambled to the top of Thompson Peak when they made the trip about 15 years ago. No such attempt this year too much snow for our liking.
A long, strange trip
The interesting, even odd, occurrences of the trip included:
Being the first into the area that week, possibly the season. We saw no other human footprints on the trail or in the snow between us and up to the lake.
The sight of two helicopters, including a California Highway Patrol aircraft, within an hour of each other one afternoon, doing some fancy flying over Thompson Peak, the lake and the waterfall.
A person jumping the 3 1/2 feet across the top of the waterfall just as the CHP chopper swooped over, toward the valley.
The "boom!" of ice plunging over the waterfall.
The sight of one of our party members Bill Husa of Paradise intentionally jumping into the frigid lake.
Deer, starving for salt, chewed up clothing, hiking poles and pack straps while masked by the dark of night and waterfall noise.
An amazing number of satellites in the starry sky.
Meeting only 17 other people, all cordial and interesting, almost all of whom hiked the two-day Hobo Gulch route instead of duplicating our steep honk.
Experiencing heavy rain on the hike out and somehow emerging from a full-pack fall on slick rock without injury. We saw no one on the 3 1/2-hour trek to our vehicles.
Impressions on visitors
Jasmine Giroux, 31, of Kneeland, near Arcata in Humboldt County, was prepared for the Trinity Alps' offerings, whatever their nature. She arrived below the waterfall a day after us and took prevailing wisdom to heart: She did not carry her full pack up to the lake; with only her big and friendly dog, Nova, she would have been taking a dangerous chance, particularly coming back down.
But the recent Humboldt State University graduate was comfortably philosophical.
"This dramatic landscape is what I love. Having spent the last 15 miles in the forest, I get giddy the waterfall. I look forward to the rocks. It's so dramatic."
And weird sights of the wilderness?
"Hey, this is real life," said Giroux. "GPAs and credit scores we just made that up. I'm going to be working the rest of my life; it only gets more complicated."
Ben Serra of South Lake Tahoe and Heather White of Visalia were half of a foursome that did full-pack it up to the lake. But their goal was far up and over the snowy divide above the water and down into another basin.
"It's rugged out here," Serra, 36, said on his group's seventh day as the four prepared to head up and over from their lakeside campsite. "It's nice and remote, which is great."
"This is more challenging than I thought it would be," said White, 33, a less- experienced mountaineer. "But it's gorgeous. The hiking is tough, but is totally worth it."
An after-hike email from Serra confirmed more mountain magic: After downed trees forced them to alter their route, a wilderness angel drove them to their vehicle.
"It's nature in action," said George Chapman, 58, of Cottonwood, who came to the area with his daughter Brooke Moss, 32, of Fair Oaks. "What more could you ask for?"
Moss would email later about the experience she and her father endured and enjoyed. The same Friday our group hiked out, she and Chapman stayed in their tents amid heavy rain. She read Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire," and occasionally they would chat via short shouts.
Finally they emerged that evening and got a fire started.
"I know it's best to pack light, and sometimes I question bringing a book, but I sure was glad to have one that day," Moss wrote in her email.
She and her father scrambled up to the lake early the next day. They stayed only a short time because of the weather.
"We decided we'd turn back if we encountered ice and the increased possibility of slipping while climbing," Moss recounted. "We began the climb around 7 a.m. and it was cold!
"As we climbed, the fog burned off quickly and we got some good views and photos of the valley. We reached the lake in about an hour and it was freezing, windy, and snowing up there. We took our photos and then headed back down."
So much for a quick, frigid swim, à la Husa.
But, oh, what a place.
GRIZZLY LAKE, TRINITY ALPS
The alpine lake sits at the foot of Thompson Peak in the rugged Trinity Alps. It's a long drive and a strenuous hike about 220 miles northwest of Sacramento as the crow flies.
Driving to the trailheads:
The Hobo Gulch trailhead is about a 250-mile drive from Sacramento, north on Interstate 5 then west on Highway 299, past Weaverville and Junction City, then north past the townsite of Helena.
The China Gulch trailhead is approximately 330 miles from Sacramento. Take Exit 751 off I-5 just north of Weed and head northwest to Gazelle. Take Gazelle-Callahan Road (it merges into Highway 3 for the final three miles or so) for 31 miles, and turn left onto Cecilville Road (Forest Service Highway 93). About 35 miles from that turn, make a left near the East Fork campground onto Forest Road 37N07. (You'll be a mile or two short of Cecilville.) You'll soon reach pavement's end; follow the 37N07 signs about 10 more miles to the trailhead.
The hike from Hobo Gulch is 19 miles one way. This two-day hike has an overall gentle elevation change of about 4,650 feet, or 226 feet per mile.
The hike from China Gulch is 7.6 miles one way to Grizzly Lake, a mile or so shorter for the meadow below. That mile difference is often more a climb than a hike. It's a 5,340-foot climb, more than 700 feet per mile.
If the trail is wet, it's slippery. Also, nearly 40 trees were down on the China Gulch route during our hike. Pack or hang your gear away in camp, especially at night. Deer want to chew it up if there's sweat (salt) in it; bears are always hungry. The towns of Callahan and Cecilville offer few services. Make sure your gas tank is full when you leave Etna or Weed.
Grab lunch, brew, dessert after your adventure:
The burgers at the Trinity Alps Golf Course in Weaverville, www.trinityalpsgolf.com, (530) 623-6209, are great.
The Etna Brewing Co., just off Highway 3 about 30 miles south of Yreka in Etna, serves good fare and great beer; http://etnabrew.net, (530) 467-5227.
Scott Valley Drug on Etna's scenic Main Street serves delicious ice cream; www.scottvalleydrug.com; (530) 467-5335.
Shasta-Trinity National Forest ranger stations in Weaverville, (530) 623-2121, or Mount Shasta, (530) 926-4511.