Shortcut Into Grizzly Lake
Copyright © 2007
by Richard S. Platz, All
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Grizzly Lake Backpack
Trinity Alps Wilderness
August 27-30, 1994
Photos by the Author and Barbara
"Somewhere a forest fire blazed."
Mr. Popper arrived shortly after two o'clock
on Friday afternoon, and we promptly left Blue Lake. Throughout
the weekend I would contend that his tardy arrival precipitated
a crescendo of increasing anomaly, like fluttering wings of
an African butterfly might trigger a New World hurricane, culminating
in our abysmally late return home on Tuesday night. Mr. Popper,
of course, swore he had arrived much earlier, though his punctuality
was never satisfactorily resolved.
We stopped for sandwiches at a new coffee shop
in Weaverville, then drove up Highway 3 to the Scott Mountain
summit campground, where we decided to spend the night. At least
five fine campsites presented themselves, with no one around
and only one vehicle. We never saw the owner. The next morning
we awoke to loud jabbering and rock music emanating from the
parking area just off the highway at the summit. A group of
maybe twenty teens on their way home from camp had managed to
spend the night without injuring themselves or us.
After breakfast we drove to Callahan, took the
Cecilville Road west, then turned south on Caribou Road (FR
37N24) up the South Fork of the Salmon River to the China Gulch
trailhead. This was the shortcut into Grizzly Lake. The traditional,
long approach is from Hobo Gulch trailhead, following the North
Fork of the Trinity River north to Grizzly Creek, thence east
for a total one-way hike of 19 miles and more than four thousand
feet elevation gain. Our route, up and over the ridge from the
north, spanned no more than 7 miles, although our total elevation
gain would be about 3800 feet.
We began our hike, as usual, in the heat of the
day. Fire restrictions were in effect, but we did not pack a
stove. With our backpacks hoisted and strapped on, Barbara spotted
a clear fluid dripping from a detached hose beneath the van's
engine. The smell of gasoline was strong. We debated whether
it signified a proper function of the vapor recovery system
or a punctured fuel line. There did not appear much that we
could do about it without spoiling our hike, so we headed out
hoping things would be better when we returned.
logging had extended the access road all the way to the wilderness
boundary, which reduced by 400 feet the elevation gain up to
Hunter's Camp on the Salmon Divide. But carrying our packs up
the steep 1200 feet of maddening switchbacks on a hot August
afternoon quickly sapped our strength. By late summer, Hunter's
Camp offered neither hunters nor a camp, but only a parched
opening in the brittle dry fir forest thirsting for the cold
blanket of winter snows. Even the yellow jackets seemed edgy.
Hunter's Camp is a place to squat on a downed log, catch one's
breath, and watch that the carpenter ants don't crawl into your
pants. Hunter's Camp is nothing but a waterless clearing on
the backbone of the east-west ridge dividing the Salmon River
drainage from the Trinity River drainage. From there the ridge
arcs east and south, rising to the peaks surrounding Thompson,
the highest real estate in the Trinity Alps. In
theory, if one person pissed north off the ridge into China
Gulch and another south down the canyon into Grizzly Creek,
the droplets would unite in the Klamath River somewhere near
Hunter's Camp we entered deep forest and started down the more
gentle south slope past gulches carved by gathering tributaries
of Grizzly Creek. After a while we broke out of the trees above
chaparral and beheld a spectacular view southeast to Thompson
peak and a snow-pocked glacial cirque above Grizzly Lake. The
air was clear, the sky a cloudless blue, and the polished granite
curled beneath Thompson's black spire like a white stone grin.
Entering the dense chaparral, we finished descending
1400 blind, hot, steep, and breezeless feet to the Grizzly Creek
trail. By the time we reached the junction, we were already
exhausted, and Mr. Popper was suffering pain in his left knee.
Resting briefly, we considered staying at a large campsite with
great fallen logs near the junction. We could hear, but not
see, the creek gurgling enticingly in an alder thicket a hundred
feet down the slope. When we had recuperated a bit, however,
we decided to make another mile or two before evening fell.
The next campsites were supposed to be one mile
up the trail. That turned out to be a very long mile, and happiness
was finally rounding a curve into the canyon with Grizzly Creek
cascading alongside the trail. Campsites abounded. We had the
choice of a beautiful site carved in the metasedimentary bedrock
right beside the creek or a few more up along the exposed rocky
slope. Barbara found a more secluded site between Douglas furs
and a sheer rock wall. As we cooked and ate our dinner, three
groups passed through our camp hiking out.
Sunday we hiked two or three miles to Grizzly Meadow at the
foot of a storybook waterfall. Beyond the meadow, the trail
entered the jumble of granite boulders scattered at the base
of the cliff. The fall of water splattered into the boulders,
disappeared, then reemerged hundreds of feet further down as
Grizzly Creek. We set up camp in a large clearing in a stand
of mixed conifers across the creek and well away from the trail.
The site had the look and smell of a horse camp, but there were
good trees for hammocks and two level tent sites. We stayed
there for two nights. From our hammocks the fabled waterfall
appeared a bit feeble and disappointing.
The evening was warm and dry, with no hint of
rain clouds. Campfire restrictions were in effect due to the
early fire season, but since there was no wind, we decided to
scratch out a fire ring and build a very small cooking fire
anyway. We figured that the little ranger wouldn't know and
the Big Ranger wouldn't care.
That night Barbara awoke and sat up in the tent
imagining she saw the woods ablaze all around us. When she came
fully awake, she could see there was no fire, but later that
night she dreamed of an explosion. She then dreamed of her mother
recovering from surgery in Illinois.
Monday we day-hiked up to Grizzly Lake. The trail through the
boulder field at the base of the waterfall was surprisingly
good until it button-hooked left to the blind face of the cliff.
A few places with loose rocks and scree and one or two chutes
were particularly difficult to negotiate, requiring both hands
and feet, like scrambling up a crumbling ladder. I wondered
how I had ever carried a backpack up this wall on my first solo
visit years before. We scrabbled up 800 feet to a bench above
the top of the waterfall, which grew more robust as we approached.
At 7100 feet, Grizzly Lake lay sprawled between
the stark north face of 9000-foot Thompson Peak and the granitic
abyss into which the water tumbled. To cross the outlet just
above the waterfall, we had to climb down sharp-edged granite
blocks, step across the narrow stream, then scramble up over
the stone monoliths on the other side. Like lizards we slithered
on our bellies to ogle over the edge at the stream tumbling
down the sheer cliff.
we lay there, the last group of Czech campers began their long
hike out, leaving the lake entirely to us for the day. Down
the canyon to the south we could see in the distance a thick
haze blanketing the valley. Somewhere a forest fire blazed,
but we couldn't tell how close. We wondered if perhaps the van
had exploded, as portended by Barbara's dream. We would have
to wait another day to find out.
To the south remnants of the
glacier hunkered in cold pockets below Thompson Peak, victims
of the drought. Another waterfall from the snowmelt cascaded
down into the lake, giving life to a scattering of sparse trees
clinging to the fractured rocks with twisted roots. We hiked
around and checked out the empty campsites, mostly barren, exposed
flats scratched out on the granite, then
went swimming before and again after lunch. The water was not
so cold on the legs when standing knee deep, but swimming for
more than a minute was difficult. The lake bottom lies some
170 feet below the black, calm surface. On the granite edge
above the precipice, Barbara's camera caught me exposing myself
fully to nature. We waited for the sun to strike a rainbow in
the waterfall before we tore ourselves away for the precarious
hike back down to the meadow.
Tuesday we were up early and on the trail by 9:30, but it was
past noon by the time we began our steep uphill climb to Hunter's
Camp, in the heat of the sun, as usual. The trail was not so
completely exposed as we had remembered, but the heat was unbearable.
We were soaked with sweat by the time we rested at Hunter's
The last part was all downhill and in shade,
but Mr. Popper's knee was bothering him again. In a motivational
discourse, I assured him that he had better keep up on his own,
because if he did not, we would by god leave him there to die
and be eaten by weasels. We all arrived at the trailhead an
hour later. There was no sign of a forest fire. The van was
intact, started easily, and carried us safely back to civilization.
Night had fallen by the time we arrived home.
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