The lone ranges

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am


When a trout jumps in the snow-fed lake beneath a rim of craggy peaks, the splash interrupts hours of stillness in northern California's Trinity Alps.

If you just said 'Where's that?', join the crowd, which, incidentally, would not be joining you in the Alps.

Few, even elsewhere in California, know about the 210,000-hectare government-protected wilderness area, even though its scenery has been compared to the ever-packed Yosemite National Park, in the same American state, and to the Swiss Alps - hence the name.

With so few people and so many snowcaps, even in July, during a wet year, visitors could be forgiven for imagining they were in far-more-remote Alaska. The Trinities, which lie between Mount Shasta and the Pacific Ocean, remain quiet because they're more than four hours' drive from any major city. To the time-poor weekend traveller, they might as well be in Alaska- or Switzerland, for that matter.

According to Steve Gut, an information assistant for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, an average of 9,000 people do find the Alps every year, and in them they indulge in backpacking and horseback riding, which are among the few activities allowed by its protective keeper, the United States Forest Service. By comparison, Yosemite, which lies just two or three hours from San Francisco, sees four million visitors per year.

The region all but doubled in size in 1984, following the enactment of a new wilderness law. Now the state's second-largest wilderness area, it claims 965 kilometres of marked trails, evergreen forests as low as 610 metres above sea level and Thompson Peak, at 2,744 metres its highest mountain.

After exhausting drives along interstates and mountain roads curvy enough to cause motion sickness, campers hike into the wilderness with packs looming over their heads from pine-shaded, car park trailheads at the ends of one-lane dirt roads. Some hike in just a couple of miles, others up to 25 kilometres. Almost all head towards lakes lying at between at 1,800 and 2,100 metres above sea level.

'There are several unique features of the Trinity Alps that make it extremely appealing to both day-hikers and those interested in an overnight camping experience,' says Leon Nelson, 76, backpacker and retired dentist who lives in the nearby city of Redding. 'Day hikes, going to a destination lake and returning to your car the same day, are possible to 74 pristine lakes,' Nelson says. 'Backpackers, who will be staying overnight, can take their pick of 85 alpine lakes.'

Marked trails meander along creeks to switchbacks that climb mountainsides to alpine meadows- beware mosquitoes- and onwards over rocky lips into the lakebeds, where campers past have left fire rings and flat spots suitable for tents.

The lakes are still enough to reflect mountains on all sides, deep and cold enough to support trout populations and pristine enough to offer a dip or a sip to the hot and thirsty- though filtration is recommended before drinking the water.

An easy day hike from Granite Lake, about eight kilometres from the nearest trailhead, is Seven Up Gap, which offers spectacular views over two other lakes, of a distant chain of jagged peaks and of northern California's signature mountain, 4,317-metre Mount Shasta.

Anyone standing among Seven Up's yellow, orange and purple wildflowers is unlikely to be with anyone else other than those he or she arrived with.

As wonderful as all that may sound, though, the wilderness area's biggest prize for hikers is Grizzly Lake, at the base of Thompson Peak. The meadow below the basin lip is a 25-kilometre hike in and only those in top physical shape are advised to land at the shore itself, which can only be reached by scaling the basin's outer wall; no easy task when laden with full camping gear.

Unfortunately for you, dear reader, there are no words to describe the beauty that greets the very few people who do manage to get there.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific ( flies daily from Hong Kong to San Francisco. Rent a car in the Californian city and head north to Redding. For major trailheads, drive west from Redding on Highway 299 towards Trinity Center or Weaverville. Total time: about five hours. See for Trinity Alps trailhead information.