Journey to Mount Whitney, Part II: The Trinity Alps

Deer Lake, Trinity Alps Wilderness

Deer Lake, Trinity Alps Wilderness

This post is the second in a three-part series about the journey to Mount Whitney. In this post, Grace and I, having aborted our Mount Whitney attempt, discover the Trinity Alps Wilderness in Northern California.

In the previous post, Grace and I made a heartbreaking decision to abort our Mount Whitney attempt. We redirected our energy instead into a new backpacking adventure: the Four Lakes Loop in the Trinity Alps. Tuesday morning, July 10th, we picked up a london fog for Grace and a cortado for me and began the 6-hour drive north towards Redding. After spending the night at Indian Creek Lodge in Douglas City, we got up early the next morning and began what would end up being a stellar, 22-mile adventure in the Trinity Alps Wilderness!

We made it! The start of our new trip to the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

Rising out of the tree cover and into the sunshine of the Long Canyon, we discovered wildflowers in a rainbow of colors: orange tiger lily, scarlet gilia, yellow lupine, and fluffy white pasqueflower. 

We had tentatively planned to camp at Bee Tree Gap (roughly the 6.0 mile mark) but several backpackers we spoke with said that Summit Lake, another 1.5 miles beyond, was the best place to camp. Although we were a bit spent from having climbed over 3500 feet in the sunshine, we decided to go for it.

Hiking up Long Canyon. Photo credit: Grace Abbott

Summit Lake is a quiet bowl of water cupped into the palm of a cirque, like a hand holding a puddle of water. Several campsites clustered together on its northern edge, and we picked one with some shade and a path to the water. We were completely alone, and it was just after noon. A duo of young guys hiked in that afternoon, but set up camp at the opposite, southern end of the lake. Aside from seeing them swimming, we didn’t hear a peep from them the entire time.

Summit Lake, elevation 7,500 feet. 

My tent facing Summit Lake.

Incredibly, no other campers occupied the sites next to us while we camped at Summit Lake. It was like we had the entire lake to ourselves. The lake turned out to be swimmable too, with a rocky, but clear and shallow shoreline. It was bone-achingly cold, but bearable the first foot below the surface. It's hard to imagine, but this entire region is covered in snow in the wintertime and into spring. 

Shallow and rocky shoreline of Summit Lake.

That night, we rustled out of our tents at 12:00 a.m. and walked to the edge of the lake, watching thousands of stars and the Milky Way. Temperatures were in the upper 50s: balmy! I finally had the opportunity to take my hoped-for Milky Way photos, and lucked out with the positioning of the Milky Way over the lake. 

Mars shining on the left, Milky Way above the lake.

Stars and the Milky Way reflected in Summit Lake.

Two airplanes flying overhead.

We spent an hour stargazing. I pulled out my SkyView Lite app to identify stars and planets. Back at our tents, Grace slept without her rainfly on, gazing at the stars throughout the night.

The next morning, we summited Siligo Peak, elevation 8162 feet. As we climbed, we saw a bird’s eye view of Summit Lake, Deer Lake, and Luella Lake below. Wow! At the top, we spotted Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak, with a view deep into the green valley below. Beautiful! We didn't know it at the time, but it was the only time we would see Mount Shasta from the trail. 

View from Siligo Peak: Mount Shasta, elevation 14,180 feet, to the northeast, Luella Lake below, which we would later pass by on the Four Lakes Loop.

View of Summit Lake, where we camped, from atop Siligo Peak. Four Lakes Loop Trail on the left.

Deer Lake below, Gibson Peak above it. 

We descended Siligo Peak and continued clock-wise on the Four Lakes Loop. Temperatures climbed to 88 which felt brutal on the sunny, exposed route. The Four Lakes Loop circumnavigates Siligo Peak on an up-and-down route for 5.2 miles and 2000 feet cumulative elevation gain. 

Diamond Lake

Descending to the valley floor on the Four Lakes Loop, past Luella Lake.

We cranked out the last 0.3 miles, descending 200 feet from the Four Lakes Loop Trail to Summit Lake. When we got to our camp, we promptly waded in the icy cold lake and rested the rest of the afternoon. I had started a tradition of a post-hike hot chocolate the day before, which sounds counter-intuitive in the heat, but was actually pretty fantastic. So, I made it again that afternoon.

We picked up pamphlets at the ranger station about wildlife and plantlife and read them during our downtime.

Zoomed out view of our campsite and Summit Lake.

What I enjoyed most about that afternoon was how slowly the time passed. Most of the time, back at home, I’m thinking of ways I can be productive, whether it's chores or staying ahead of deadline. But the beauty of being in the wilderness is that I felt like I was “off the hook.” I didn’t have to worry about being productive about anything, except maybe the tasks around our campsite. It was a beautiful feeling to be so far from civilization and not be able to check email or social media too. 

Naptime views of Summit Lake from my tent.

#tentview below the pine trees surrounding the lake.

After our second night, we packed up camp and began the 7.5 mile hike from Summit Lake back to the Long Canyon trailhead. I had thought it might be easier going back, since we were going downhill and our packs were slightly lighter from the food we’ve eaten, but nope! It was still challenging for me because of all the hiking and elevation gain we'd hit in the past couple days. But somehow, we kept up a good pace and made it back to the car around 10:15 a.m.

Last sunrise at Summit Lake.

Hiking out and taking one last look at Deer Lake. Siligo Peak, the one we climbed to the day before, is the prominent peak on the left.

Looking back up into Long Canyon as we descended. What a trip!

Grace’s eagle eye spotted root beer floats at Mamma Llama, a diner-meets-coffee shop in Weaverville. We stepped inside, ordered root beer floats, and settled in at a table near a window. We began catching up on emails and the latest news of Mount Whitney.

Yay! Root beer floats! Cheers!

While we'd been backpacking, I'd received a call from the permit office letting me know the road to the Mount Whitney Trail had reopened on July 12th. I had seven days, up to Wednesday, July 18th, to come back and start hiking it, otherwise I'd forfeit the opportunity. 

That Friday afternoon, July 13th, I was too exhilarated after our trip to seriously consider going back to Mount Whitney in less than a week. But it did stick in the back of my mind. We had just hiked the equivalent of Mount Whitney: 22 miles and 6800 feet cumulative elevation gain. (Technically, we exceeded it, since Whitney's cumulative gain is just under 6500 feet.) Grace and I were giggling at how sore and stiff our legs were. Could I recover in five days and do the same thing all over again? Solo?

Grace and I clinked spoons and dove into the frosty root beer slush, celebrating a trip well done. It was the most delicious, cold treat I had tasted in a long time. 


Next week…Part III: Mount Whitney