Friday, May 13, 2022

Granite Peak (Trinity Alps)

The snowcapped peaks at the heart of the Trinity Alps
8.5 miles round trip, 4600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, trail is easy to lose in spots
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, no fee required

On the edge of Northern California’s Trinity Alps, Granite Peak is a rare find: a trail-accessible summit doable by day hike that offers views deep into that wild and rugged mountain range. There’s a price to pay for such a handsome reward: the trail to its summit is brutal and relentless. 4600 feet of elevation gain is no joke, but the views of Trinity Lake, Mount Shasta, and the Trinity Alps are well worth the effort for those in appropriate shape and with decent navigational skills. Those who succeed in reaching the summit are likely to enjoy the stellar views with little to no company, as few hikers make the long drive here and even fewer make it to the top.

I hiked Granite Peak on Memorial Day weekend during a low snow year. This trail is usually accessible by Memorial Day most years as snow melts earlier on Granite Peak’s south facing aspects. The Trinity Alps are a long drive from most of California’s large population centers, with Redding being the closest city and Weaverville being the closest town. To reach the Granite Peak Trailhead from Weaverville, I followed Highway 3 north from town for 17 miles to the unmarked Granite Peak Road turnoff. The turnoff came on the left side of the road, 3.2 miles after Highway 3 crosses a bridge over an arm of Trinity Lake, and it was directly across Highway 3 from a signed right turnoff for Bushytail Campground. I took the left turn onto gravel Granite Peak Road and followed the decent gravel road uphill for just under three miles to the trailhead. Multiple unmarked gravel roads branched off from the main Granite Peak Road, so I stuck to the road following the top of the ridge each time until coming to a saddle at 2.5 miles down the road; at this junction, I took the left fork and followed a slightly bumpier gravel road for a final third of a mile to a mid-sized gravel parking area with room for over 20 cars. As Granite Peak sees few hikers, I can’t imagine that this lot ever fills up- there were just two other hikers who parked here on the day of my visit during Memorial Day weekend.

I followed the trail out of the far end of the parking area and immediately began a steep and direct ascent up a forested ridge of Granite Peak. The grade was punishing and unrelenting as the trail climbed 1200 feet in the first 1.2 miles. While there were no views to speak of in this conifer forest, occasional spring wildflowers, including patches of white irises, provided some interest on the ascent. At 1.2 miles, the trail swung left and crossed a small stream; in late May, the stream was lined with copious blooming dogwoods.

White irises
Dogwoods blooming in the forest
Shortly after crossing the stream, the trail turned uphill again and recommitted to the intense climb. On this stretch of the ascent, tight switchbacks helped deal with the even steeper slope of the mountain. At 2.5 miles, after another 1200 feet of ascent, the trail crossed through an avalanche chute and continued its switchback ascent.

The trail reentered the avalanche chute at 2.8 miles. Here, the trail disappeared into the thick vegetation and I momentarily lost the trail. A few ribbons on bushes appeared to mark some path, but the brush was so thick around the markers that it was difficult to find any actual sort of trail here. I pushed my way through the brush, knowing that the trail would exit to the right side of the chute, and eventually found the trail as it exited the chute and reentered the forest. The relentless uphill grind continued, until all my efforts finally began to bear fruit when the trail broke out into an open slope at 3.3 miles, now 3600 feet above the trailhead. 

Open upper slopes of Granite Peak
As the trail gained the top of a rocky ridge here, I had my first views of the peak’s surroundings. Trinity Lake- one of three massive hydroelectric and water storage projects in the North State- lay below, its water levels unfortunately low after an extremely dry winter. Shasta Bally rose to the southeast and Lassen Peak’s snowy plug dome summit was visible across the northernmost reaches of the Sacramento Valley. Monument Peak, an outlying peak of the Trinity Alps, rose to the south, with some remaining snow on its upper reaches. Beyond Monument Peak, layer upon layer of the California Coast Ranges faded to the horizon. Most notable among these peaks were the North and South Yolla Bolly, with South Yolla Bolly being the highest point of the Coast Ranges south of the Trinity Alps. The summit of Granite Peak itself also came into view for the first time during the hike, giving me a clear look at my destination. The views were enjoyable, but I was unfortunately stung by a bee during my break here.

Shasta Bally and Trinity Lake

Looking up to the summit of Granite Peak
Leaving the viewpoint, the trail continued the nonstop ascent through the rapidly thinning forest. By the time I reached a junction with a faint connector trail from Stonewall Pass at 3.8 miles, the trees had bowed out and I was ascending a final, exposed open slope to the summit. The open and rocky slopes here were punctuated with patches of blooming wildflowers, most notably phlox, which thrives in sunny and exposed environments like this.

Views of Mount Shasta and Mount Eddy to the northeast now joined the panorama that I had seen earlier: Mount Shasta’s 14140-foot stratovolcano cone stood majestically but I was shocked by the paucity of its spring snow coat. Snow was quite patchy on the mountain at the end of May, with clear regions of rock visible along the Avalanche Gulch climbing route. In years past, Memorial Day weekend was typically peak climbing season for the snow route up Avalanche Gulch, but that was obviously out of the question this year. Mount Eddy was a lower but steadfast companion to its more spectacular neighbor: at 9037 feet, the rounded summit of Mount Eddy is the highest point in the Klamath Mountains and has the distinction of being the highest summit west of I-5 along the entire West Coast.

Monument Peak from the high slopes of Granite Peak

Mount Shasta and Mount Eddy
While it’s possible to reach the summit of Granite Peak by taking a gentler hike to Stonewall Pass and then taking the connector trail over to the Granite Peak Trail just below the summit, most hikers I’ve discussed this route with note that the connector can be quite faint. However, as the trailhead to Stonewall Pass starts at a higher elevation, that option is less strenuous than the borderline extreme approach on the Granite Peak Trail.

The switchbacks ended when the trail finally reached the summit ridge; I scrambled along the rocky ridgeline to reach the true summit at 8094 feet, over 4500 feet above the trailhead.

Summit ridge of Granite Peak
The panorama atop Granite Peak was astonishing. The heart of this view was what I could see of the Trinity Alps to the north and west. The Trinity Alps are divided into the Red Trinities and White Trinities, based on the underlying geology and color of the mountains; while Granite Peak lay at the edge of the Red Trinities and offered excellent views down to colorful Stonewall Pass and nearby Red Mountain and Gibson Mountain, the jagged granite peaks of the White Trinities in the distance were the true highlight of this view. Sawtooth Mountain’s rugged profile, Thompson Peak’s sharp pinnacle and Mount Hilton’s snow-covered form were among the most notable sights of the rugged and snowy range, arguably California’s second most spectacular mountain range after the Sierra Nevada. In other directions, the view encompassed much of what I had seen on the way up: Mount Shasta, Lassen Peak, Trinity Lake, and the Yolla Bollys.

The White Trinities: Hilton, Thompson, and Sawtooth Peaks

Trinity Lake

View north to Middle and Gibson Peaks

Looking south to the Yolla Bollys and the California Coast Range
The descent back to the trailhead was just about as difficult as the hike up: the steepness of the grade made slipping a constant concern and by the time I made it back to the car my knees were shot.

The hike up Granite Peak collects a physical toll but rewarded me with some truly jaw-dropping views. I saw only a handful of other hikers over the entire day, with the only group that I saw being three locals who reached the summit via the connector from Stonewall Pass. I can’t recommend this hike to everyone, but mountain masochists will certainly find much to enjoy here.

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