Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Canyon Creek Lakes

Thompson Peak reflect in Upper Canyon Lake
16 miles round trip, 3200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Canyon Creek Lakes is the quintessential Trinity Alps hike, delivering views of sparkling alpine lakes, sharp and snowy granite peaks, and roaring waterfalls in an oft-overlooked corner of California. These attractions have guaranteed that the Canyon Creek Lakes hike is not overlooked though: this is one of the most popular trails in northwestern California. The pair of lakes set beneath Thompson Peak at the end of the hike are the main draw here, but visitors who come earlier in the hiking season can also admire the powerful spray of Canyon Creek Falls, which is surely one of California’s premier cascading streams outside the Sierra Nevada. Although few parts of this hike are extremely steep, the length of this hike still makes a one day journey to Canyon Creek Lakes and back quite challenging.

Canyon Creek’s long canyon resembles a sort of giant staircase, with four great steps descending from the head of the valley to its mouth. At each step, Canyon Creek tumbles over a major waterfall or cascade; the twin Canyon Creek Lakes lie atop the highest of these giant steps. This means that this hike is subdivided into stretches of fairly flat hiking punctuated by short but steep ascents up each of the steps of the staircase.

This is the most popular hike in the Trinity Alps. While a far drive from any major population center, Canyon Creek Lakes has become by far the best-known hiking destination in this corner of the state and the parking area will be overflowing on an average summer weekend. Most visitors do the Canyon Creek Lakes hike as an overnight backpacking trip due to the length of the hike; backpacking in the Trinity Alps Wilderness requires a backcountry permit, which can be obtained at the USFS ranger station in Weaverville, even after hours. On my visit on a Memorial Day weekend Sunday, I saw well over a hundred hikers along the trail over the course of a day. Luckily, there’s enough room to spread out and appreciate the many lakes and waterfalls of this hike, so even though I was rarely alone the hike never felt crowded.

This trail usually melts out by Memorial Day most years; late summers have typically been a crapshoot due to the wildfires and smoke that are common in this part of the state in August and September. 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 Canyon Creek Lakes Trailhead from Weaverville, I followed Highway 299 west across Oregon Mountain Summit for 8 miles to Junction City, turning right onto Canyon Creek Road when I came to the Junction City Store. I then followed the paved Canyon Creek Road for 13 miles up the valley to the Canyon Creek Lakes Trailhead. Canyon Creek Road is generally easy to drive, although it got a bit narrow and had a few potholes in the final miles approaching the trailhead. The trailhead parking lot was quite large considering the relatively remote location: there were designated parking spots for at least 50 cars and a pit toilet and cars were parked alongside the road for a quarter mile leading back from the parking lot. I nabbed the very last spot in the lot when I arrived around 7 AM on a Sunday.

The trail left from the far end of the parking lot loop. Starting uphill through the forest, the Canyon Creek Trail almost immediately split, coming to a junction where the Bear Creek Trail peeled off from the canyon Creek Trail. I took the left fork to stay on the Canyon Creek Trail at this junction. The trail initially began with a gradual ascent and quickly entered the Trinity Alps Wilderness, at which point the trail began to hug a steep hillside.

Entering the Trinity Alps Wilderness on the Canyon Creek Trail
At 0.4 miles, the Canyon Creek Trail descended slightly and crossed over Bear Creek. Across the creek, the trail climbed back out into Canyon Creek’s watershed and followed the side of the canyon above the creek. The trail had just the gentlest of inclines over the next two miles as it traveled through the forest. The forest along this hike was quite attractive: it was lusher than the forests of the Sierra Nevada and other area of California further south, although not quite as verdant as those of the Pacific Northwest, a reflection of the far wetter climate here compared to points south.

There were few views to speak of the in this forested stretch of the hike save occasional glimpses of the rocky ridges across the valley and the trail stayed too far above Canyon Creek to really see the creek either, making the first three miles of the hike the least interesting stretch of the hike. This began to change after the trail came to a junction with a spur trail to McKay Camp and the Sinks at 2.9 miles from the trailhead. The Sinks refer to an area where Canyon Creek flows beneath a rockslide; while this sounded interesting, I had a long day ahead of me to reach Canyon Creek Lakes so I chose to bypass this detour and continue straight along the Canyon Creek Trail.

The Canyon Creek Trail began its first climb in earnest after passing the spur to the Sinks. The trail ascended steadily at a moderate grade through the forest and made two switchbacks before it broke out onto an open granite slope for the first real views of the hike. From this vantage point slightly above the canyon, I was able to see Sawtooth Mountain, one of the Trinity Alps’ most iconic peaks, rising ahead up the valley. Granite ridges capped the forested slopes across the valley, while I was able to catch a glimpse of the thundering Canyon Creek Falls just slightly up the valley.

Trinity Alps rise above Canyon Creek

First view of Sawtooth Peak
After the granite clearing ended, the trail crossed a minor stream and then made a rightward turn. An unmarked spur path descended from this unmarked turn down to the lowest set of falls on Canyon Creek, which is also the most impressive. This unsigned detour is an absolute highlight of this hike and should not be missed. The social path led steeply downhill through forest and bushes, dropping over 200 feet in elevation until it came to an astonishing viewpoint of the two drops that together make up Canyon Creek Falls. Even when the path itself became unclear, the roar of the water kept me going the right direction.

Canyon Creek Falls was magnificent. Here, the roaring waters of Canyon Creek- which drains a watershed lined by the high, snowy peaks of the range- cascaded wildly and frothily down two drops, plunging into a rocky canyon hemmed in by forests and the high mountains of the Trinity Alps. Canyon Creek Falls is not the only waterfall on Canyon Creek- there were at least two more major waterfalls that I would see on this hike later in the day- but it is the largest and most significant waterfall in the valley. It is also known as Lower Canyon Creek Falls, to differentiate it from the Middle and Upper Canyon Creek Falls further upstream, but typically the unqualified name “Canyon Creek Falls” refers to this lowest and most impressive of the falls. To catch a full view of both drops of the falls, I explored around the rocky viewpoints above the canyon, finding superlative views from a slightly lower viewpoint below the main viewpoint at the end of the initial social path. Be careful here, though, as a fall into the creek would almost certainly be fatal.
Canyon Creek Falls (Lower Falls)

Rainbow over the lower drop of Canyon Creek Falls

The lower drop of Canyon Creek Falls
Retracing my steps up the social path to the main Canyon Creek Trail, I continued up the valley. The trail came to the side of Canyon Creek at 4 miles from the trailhead, where I was able to see a set of minor but pretty falls on the creek. 

Falls along Canyon Creek
Soon after, the canyon floor flattened out completely and the plunging creek transitioned to a placid stream, flowing leisurely by lovely old growth conifers. The next two miles of the Canyon Creek Trail were flat, a nice break from the ascent that had preceded. The trail passed to the east by the small but fairly unremarkable Canyon Creek Meadow, which had some views of the surrounding mountain walls.

Calm Canyon Creek

Canyon Creek Meadow

Beautiful old growth forest along Canyon Creek
The flat terrain ended at 5.8 miles from the trailhead. Here, as the trail was about to begin an ascent to the right, I found another unmarked spur trail that split to the left and headed towards Canyon Creek. A hundred meters through the forest along this spur trail brought me to the foot of Middle Canyon Creek Falls, another impressive and perhaps taller, albeit less powerful, cascade. The views from the base of the falls were nice, but the best views were from further up.

Unfortunately, there’s no well-defined path going up the side of the Middle Falls: if you don’t feel comfortable with rock scrambling and navigating your way back to rejoin the trail later, it is best to backtrack to the Canyon Creek Trail and to follow it uphill through a switchback ascent to the junction with the Boulder Creek Lakes Trail. However, adventurous hikers should abandon the trail briefly here and scramble up the granite boulders alongside the Middle Falls, where there are much better views of this thunderous cascade.

Middle Falls
Scrambling all the way up to the top of Middle Falls, I came to a patch of open granite slopes with views of Canyon Creek as it embarked on its drop through the falls and the snowy visage of Mount Hilton rising to the west. This was a scenic and quiet spot that is skipped over by the main trail: I took a break here to enjoy the lovely scenery.

View of Mount Hilton and the Boulder Lakes basin from above Middle Falls
There is no marked path leading from the top of Middle Falls back to the Canyon Creek Trail. The most straightforward approach- which I took- was to follow a faint path upstream along Canyon Creek until I met the Boulder Creek Lakes Trail at a point where that trail crossed Canyon Creek. Here, I turned right and followed the Boulder Creek Lakes Trail for three hundred meters back to the Canyon Creek Trail, where I rejoined the main trail at 6.3 miles from the trailhead and continued following it up the valley. The Boulder Creek Lakes Trail visits what I hear are a pair of exceptionally scenic lakes at the base of Mount Hilton; while I would certainly love to return, I didn’t have enough time for that detour on this hike.

A brief stretch of flatter hiking through the forest followed before the trail arrived at the next major step in the valley. The trail climbed out into the open as it ascended alongside Upper Canyon Creek Falls. Excellent views of this lovely cascade down the granite were now paired with views of the high peaks surrounding the valley, which included Sawtooth Mountain to the east and Mount Hilton to the west.

Upper Falls
Above the Upper Falls, the trail flattened out yet again, traveling through patchy forest and occasional clearings with nice mountain views. Plentiful wildflowers- including dogwoods in the forest and shooting stars in the clearings- made this an especially beautiful stretch of the trail during my hike. At 7.2 miles from the trailhead, the Canyon Creek Trail crossed Canyon Creek itself. In late May, with the creek at nearly full flow, this was quite challenging: I was able to walk along a few logs to cross the creek without getting wet, but without fortuitously placed logs I would have had to undertake a soaking, thigh-deep ford of the stream. Hiking poles were critical in helping me cross Canyon Creek without taking a dunk. Later season visitors may find this crossing much easier, but an easier crossing here also means less impressive waterfalls along the hike up.

Shooting stars blooming in the meadows

Fording Canyon Creek

Dogwoods blooming along Canyon Creek
Across Canyon Creek, the trail continued up the valley through the forest until arriving at the base of the fourth and final step of the valley at 7.4 miles from the trailhead. Here, Canyon Creek had another impressive cascade- this one unnamed- that marked its first steps down the valley from its headwaters in the lakes above. The trail headed across open granite and began a steep final ascent to Lower Canyon Creek Lake. Superlative views down the valley with the snowy peaks of the Trinity Alps unfurled.

Cascade on Canyon Creek below Lower Canyon Creek Lake

Trinity Alps view from approach to Lower Canyon Creek Lake
Finally, 7.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail flattened out and arrived at Lower Canyon Creek Lake, a beautiful, watery blue gem nestled beneath the sharp pinnacle of Thompson Peak. At 9002 feet, Thompson Peak is the tallest summit of the Trinity Alps and lies at the heart of the range. Snow adorned the granite bench beneath the summit pyramid and usually sticks around until late summer most years (the only glacier of the Trinity Alps lies on the opposite side of Thompson Peak). The lake was delightfully cold on the extremely hot day of my hike; despite its great distance from the trailhead, there were numerous hikers here enjoying the water, although most were backpackers rather than day hikers.

Thompson Peak rising over Lower Canyon Creek Lake
A social trail followed the west shore of the lake, providing multiple access points to the lakeshore for hikers to relax and enjoy the view. This trail was idyllic and I enjoyed exploring it for a short stretch; however, to reach Upper Canyon Creek Lake, I instead followed a poorly marked trail that led up the granite benches on the west side above the lakeshore. This trail followed the spine of the granite ridge for a brief stretch before heading to the right off of the ridge and traversing through a landscape of rocks and sparse trees above the lower lake. After reaching the far end of the lower lake, the trail made a brief turn into a gully before climbing back out onto an open granite slope that overlooked the upper lake.

The upper lake was a granite-bound bowl situated directly beneath the jagged, snowy crest of the Trinity Alps. A great buttress of stone rose directly across this lake, leading up towards the snow-covered shoulders of the Trinity Alps' greatest peaks. The view of the lake was superb; I was able to see some different angles on this view by taking the trail that followed the granite divide between the upper and lower lakes. The upper lake was far quieter than the lower lake, with far fewer hikers making it up this far.

Crest of the Trinity Alps above Upper Canyon Creek Lake
The low granite ridge near the outlet of Upper Canyon Creek Lake also provided a stunning view downhill of Lower Canyon Creek Lake and the snowy, forested peaks that rose further down the valley. In fact, the view from here is perhaps one of the most iconic of the Canyon Creek Lakes and the Trinity Alps; I enjoyed this astounding landscape and had my lunch before starting the lengthy return to the trailhead.

Lower Canyon Creek Lake
This was a highly enjoyable hike. Although extremely popular, the scenic highlights of this pair of lakes and the waterfall-filled valley leading up to this location in the heart of the Trinity Alps are too spectacular to skip over. A single day was barely enough to enjoy everything this trail had to offer; while I would recommend visiting Canyon Creek Lakes whether on a day hike or backpack, this certainly would have been a great place to stay overnight to explore more.

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