Although we didn't plan it this way, my father and I met up in Weaverville, CA the day before Father's Day to take on the unexplored Trinity Alps Wilderness. After a mediocre lunch at what is probably Weaverville's only pizzeria, we made for the hills. We started out at Canyon Creek Trail Head late in the day, which leads you on an incredibly gentle and soft first several miles of trail. As the shadows lengthened we saw a bear on the other side of canyon creek.
The following day is when our trip began to get strenuous. It took us many, many hours of off-trial hiking to cross the ridgeline dividing the Big Bar and Weaverville Ranger Districts. We began that morning at about 9:00am, and made camp at Emerald Lake. The red route below traces our route to El Lake, and the orange route demonstrates the off-trail traverse that rejoined us with the established trail at the outlet of Sapphire Lake.
The cross-over from El Lake to Mirror Lake was some of the most technical backpacking I have ever done. There was zero margin for error as we walked along searching for a route to descend from the steep rock cliff that encompassed the majority of the granite bowl encompassing Mirror Lake. After some scouting, without our packs, I confirmed that we could connect with a rock strewn drainage which descended diagonally to the talus field below us.
After having successfully navigated that, and a short break at Mirror Lake (which is stunning), we saw the second bear of our trip. We then followed in its footsteps around the edge of Sapphire Lake, where we were finally able to rejoin the trail after some 8 or 9 hours of off-trail scrambling.
After having made good time on the trial, we were beginning to keep an eye out for the "unmaintained" trail which we hoped to connect with towards Alpine Lake. This trail would connect us to Bear Creek and allow us to complete our ambitious loop of the most spectacular country that The Trinity Alps Wilderness has to offer without incident.
Instead, we went off the trail about a mile early or so, and spent the next four hours looking for the trail connector to Alpine Lake. To our credit, we did not separate or panic and we did establish our location once we had risen above the tree line. Despite all of this, the terrain was incredibly exhausting. For much of the afternoon we were fighting for every step through incredibly thick brush. At one point I was stung by a bee on the ankle, and to be honest I barely noticed. When you are in survival mode, that type of discomfort is irrelevant.
Our Wilderness Area map was not nearly detailed enough to use for off-trail orienteering, nor did we have any information as to what condition the non-maintained trail was in. After four hours of searching, and actually establishing our location, I estimated that we still had a good two hours of bush-wacking to have any hope of connecting with our trail. My father agreed to pull the plug, and to descend the drainage we were in to rejoin the main trail. At this point the sun was getting lower in the sky. I knew that I had an appointment at 8:00am the next morning, and I was beginning to get concerned that I would not be able to make it. Nature doesn't care about your survival, and it certainly doesn't care about keeping your schedule.
I can honestly not remember feeling so grateful with the universe as I did when we found the main trail again. From there we had another six miles to get out to a trail head which did not have our cars. Our adventure wasn't over yet. Once at the trail head we were both extremely tired. On our second attempt to get a car camper to drive us into town we were successful. Feet throbbing from walking in wet boots, skin stinging from surface cuts we were able to let our loved ones back at home know that we were OK. They had been fifteen minutes from calling Search and Rescue.
If you go, consider stopping at The Etna Brewing Company located in Etna on Highway 3. In the age of the brew pub boom, it's refreshing to sample some quality brews from an establishment that has been around since 1872. Maybe it was that I was looking at the world through slightly fresh eyes after my recent misadventure, but I thought the beer I tasted was exceptionally good, and the Brewery in that tiny town deserved a special shout out!