Trinity Alps – Alpine, Smith and Morris Lakes (07/15)

This sign along the Stuart Fork Trail has taunted me for several years.

The scramble trail shown on the map reminded me I’d prefer a partner and needed to be in great shape. After all the ascending and descending I’d done in the Sierra recently, I was as ready as I’d ever be to tackle this beast.

One of the latter sections of trail climbs 2,500′ in 2.5 miles. It took us nearly 4 hours to hike the last 3.8 miles, the same as one author mentioned in his book. Obviously more fit and agile hikers could cover this terrain in less time, likewise others may need more time. 

One author describes the trail as brutally hot through manzanita and ceanothus on rocky, brush covered tread.  I agree!

Another calls it an arduous hike with steep and rocky pitches. Again, I agree!

En route you will be distracted by views of Red Mountain and trees such as this nearly perfect conifer specimen (Brewer Spruce).

It’s exciting to finally see the canyon hiding Alpine Lake. Just around the corner, right?

Each switchback adds a decibel or two of waterfall music. In normal snow years, this waterfall would be raging.

As the trail plateaus below the lake, the meadow invites different thoughts.

The first glimpse of the lake elicits an automatic swim response, not that my brain hadn’t already been dreaming of washing away the sweat and grime of overgrown vegetation from my weary limbs.

Evening had me mesmerized by the spires surrounding Alpine Lake.

Morning light is my favorite. Alpenglow at Alpine Lake.

5:45am reflections at Alpine Lake

7am reflections at Alpine Lake

With Smith Lake only a mere 2+ miles from Alpine Lake, it’s pretty hard to ignore the pull, especially with descriptions such as “the lake and its awesome cirque have natural wonders like a queen has jewels.” The temptation however is tempered with warnings such as “strenuous route” through “dense demonic brush” using the “least offensive route . . . you should come out somewhat unscathed . . . bring plenty of bandaids” while allowing “at least a half day for the 2-mile off-trail climb.”

Yep, that’s the “demonic patch of brush” harboring the “least offensive route.”

Once through the manzanita, the way was open to views and climbing up steep granite slabs and over less desirable boulder fields.

Moving slowly and resting often gave us plenty of time to appreciate the surrounding beauty.

Being able to identify the ridges, canyons and peaks from previous trips made our slow progress more enjoyable.

Are we there yet? Nope, but that peak represents one side of the notch we’ll be passing through.

Woot Woot, we found the notch! Navigation success! However, we’re not there yet and we’ve been hiking over 3 hours at this point.

Happily it only took us about 15 more minutes to make it over those boulders and around the corner. We’re even happier to see an easy chute.

The view from the top of the notch looking back in the direction we’d ascended.

Look who’s joined the party, Mt Shasta!

On the other side, surprise! More granite slabs and boulders before we can reach that peak in the distance which holds the lakes. I feel the clock ticking . . . we were day hiking . . . we still had another mile to reach Smith Lake.

Another Oh Shit moment!

And there she is, the beautiful glacial cirque with Smith Lake most obvious and above it on a shelf to the left Morris Lake.

A grand view of the entire cirque.

The drainage to the right is an optional route ending at Morris Meadows. From our angle it looked more inviting than our route, but resources say it’s much less friendly.

I can’t reiterate enough how time-consuming and challenging it is to hike across these debris fields.

The glacial sculpting of the area was art. The lines, shapes, colors blew me away.

Sadly, with our time short, we had to make the tough call to turn around at our view point. This is coming back up to the notch from the Morris/Smith Lakes side. It took us about 3 hours to descend what had taken us 5 hours to ascend. Both ways were steep and tough on the legs. We wished we’d started earlier as it was extremely difficult to turn around so near the lakes and miss out on a swim and seeing the lakes from shoreline. We also found a better cairn course to follow on the way down which would have saved us time on the way up.

Jan’s Tips:

  • I neglected to take any photos of the Stuart Fork Trinity River crossing. The river status will determine whether you want to proceed as you need to ford the river to access the continuation of the trail to Alpine Lake.
  • Many sources will indicate there is water available about .75 mile from the river crossing. It’s a steep descent to the water and in my opinion not worth the effort. Take sufficient for the 4-mile climb (possibly over 4 hours).
  • The Stuart Fork route from Oak Flat is the most recommended route to Alpine Lake, with the other option being from Canyon Creek up the Bear Creek Trail. There is also an option to Smith & Morris from Morris Meadows along the Stuart Fork or further up Canyon Creek.
  • Having a GPS track will help immensely with (1) figuring out where to cross Stuart Fork Trinity River and reconnect with the trail on the western shore, (2) following the trail across the Alpine Lake outlet, (3) finding the trail in the meadow as it meanders across a creek, and (4) selecting the most efficient route to Smith & Morris Lakes.
  • Unless you are a glutton for punishment, or there has been increased traffic, I don’t recommend following the rumor of a premiere campsite at the inlet end of Alpine Lake. There is a faint trail that appears and disappears, but we spent more time climbing through bushes and over granite boulders than following a friendly trail. We finally gave up after about 30 minutes.
  • It was a tough call deciding whether to day hike or backpack up to Smith and Morris Lakes. Getting through the overgrown shrub path would have been more challenging with a pack. Carrying the extra weight up and down the steep slopes would have strained my already tired thighs.
  • Reference my Trinity Alps Trails Link Page for maps, books, online resources, etc.
  • For travel in the Trinity Alps, I highly recommend having a GPS device. Except for the very popular, over-used trails, most other trails listed on the maps and in guidebooks are overgrown, filled with deadfall or scree, or are nearly non-existent. Some trails have been rerouted, with no updated reference on GPS.
  • Additional blog postings about related hikes I’ve taken can be found in my Hikes in the Trinity Alps Wilderness category.
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7 thoughts on “Trinity Alps – Alpine, Smith and Morris Lakes (07/15)

  1. Great Lake, one of my favorites. As for the premiere campsite, its not so great. Hard scramble to get over there. Its perched on a beautiful rock overlooking the lake, but water is tough to reach and not very convenient.

    Would love to hear where the start of Smith Lake scramble begins from Alpine. Tried to find it once and couldn’t.

    • From Alpine Lake, go back down the trail a short distance after the outflow crossing. At a turn in the trail you’ll see a very small creekbed. You hike up that creekbed. It quickly turns into a trail and cuts into the manzanita. If you download the track I linked you’ll see a waypoint for the intersection. BTW when you’re on the granite you’ll want to stay as far to the right as possible paralleling the drainage. The GPS track is pretty accurate, and on our descent we found plenty of cairns marking that route. Don’t let the cairns to the left distract you. We fell victim to that and worked harder than we needed.

      Glad to know the “premier” site isn’t so special after all. We had the place to ourselves and camped in the granite mound near the lake. We had easy access for swimming etc.

        • When you cross through the cut, there weren’t any cairns and we found on our way back, staying as high as possible when working your way across was way more efficient. Otherwise you’ll get sucked into a huge bolder field. I think walking near the perimeter of the semi circle as you work your way from the cut to the ridge above the lakes is the best course. Enjoy!

  2. Pingback: 2015 -Where did Jan Jaunt? | Jan's Jaunts and Jabberings

  3. Jan,
    I am planning a trip for late June this year for a group that has about a week to work with. I think the Trinity high country should be passable by then and would appreciate your suggestions as to where to head. We’d be interested in moving 5-10 miles/day with some days base camping and day hiking without packs. Going up Stuart’s Fork to the Caribou area seems promising because there are several areas to explore from there. Is there something better either WRT scenery, lower usage, better trail options for day hikes from a base camp?

    • My apologies for my tardy reply. As you can see now, I’ve been on an extended road trip. You won’t be disappointed with the Stuart Fork and it can accommodate more people. Your biggest obstacle will be snow and creeks. I recommend checking with the ranger station a couple weeks before your start date. Snow melt in far NorCal is going to be late this year. We are still getting new snow in late May. There have been many years I haven’t been able to access trails until after 7/4. Have a great time!

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