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A hiker looks out over Granite Lake in the Trinity Alps. Photo by Lee Juillerat

Tempting Trinity Alps

Natural beauty makes far Northern California's Trinity Alps Wilderness a wonderland of treats.

During a backpacking trip that included Granite Lake and Bear Basin, my friend Steve Underwood and I hiked along Swift Creek, an aptly named rambling waterway that churns noisily through a narrow gorge. We passed plentiful patches of Darlingtonia Californica, a carnivorous wildflower that, like the one in the "Little Shop of Horrors," is a meat eater.

Beautiful, too, are towering stands of red incense cedars.

Natural beauty dominates, but other fascinations along the Swift Creek, Granite Lake and Parker Creek trails in the Trinity Alps Wilderness are human-created.

Take the old license plates hammered into trunks of trees that rise high above the Swift Creek Trail, which served as markers for winter travelers. Surprising, too, are stout steel and concrete bridges built across Swift, Granite and other creeks. For historians, there's Foster's Cabin, a lingering remnant of a time when miners packed into the region's high country seeking gold, and lush, grassy meadows served as summer range for grazing cattle.

Steve and I had discussed several possible backpacking options in the Trinity Alps, finally settling on a route that features Foster's Cabin, Swift Creek, the Bear Basin and Granite Lake. Most people do the backpack as a 17-mile loop hike. For reasons I'll explain only after a beer or two, we managed to add to the distance in creating our special loop-de-loop during our three-day backpack.

Foster's Cabin was our primary destination. Located five miles from the Swift Creek Trailhead, the unlocked, visitor-accessible log cabin and nearby barn were built by the Foster family. According to Forest Service information sheets, it's believed the first of three cabins was constructed in the mid to late 1800s and used by people hauling supplies to the gold fields on nearby Coffee Creek. It's thought that one of those early pioneers, William Foster, decided to use lush Parker and nearby Mumford meadows as summer range for cattle.

Records indicate the still-standing Foster's Cabin was built in 1946, a year after a nearby, nearly ready-to-tumble barn, as a cooperative effort. The Fosters used it during grazing seasons, while snow survey teams from the state of California used it during winter months. The cabin was abandoned in the 1960s after the Fosters discontinued their cattle operation. When the Trinity Alps became a wilderness in 1984, the cabin's ownership transferred to the Forest Service. Extensive restoration work was later done over three summer seasons.

According to the Forest Service history, harsh winters and "years of abuse by uncaring visitors left their mark on the old structure, and by the spring in 1989 the only thing to call it home on a steady basis was a family of packrats." Since then, volunteers have done annual maintenance with the hope that "Foster's Cabin will survive another 40 years to intrigue and delight the wilderness user."

Intriguing and delightful, too, are the easy-to-miss license plates that occasionally poke out from the trailside trees. Most are California plates from the 1940s. As the trees have grown taller and wider, the plates have risen higher and seemingly been gobbled by hungry pines and cedars.

Gobblers, too, are the Darlingtonia Californica, also known as the California pitcher plant, cobra plant or cobra lily. Found in select areas of Northern California and Oregon, the plant's stalks resemble cobra heads ready to strike. And strike they do, enticing insects and other prey with scent, color and nectar into their slippery, inescapable pitchers.

Human-handiwork helps makes the region accessible. Impressive concrete and steel-truss bridges provide ways to cross fast-flowing, rampaging creeks that would otherwise be impassible during the spring and early summer thaws. But nature's force is evidenced by the remnants of a bridge that crossed Parker Creek until a 1986 landslide. The remains are a tumble of concrete, rebar and debris.

We followed trails into the Bear Basin and, eventually, Granite Lake, walking through forests of Douglas and white firs, incense cedar, sugar pines and, near grassy meadows and the lake, willows, alders, vine maples and lily ponds. Granite Lake, unusually, is difficult to access because of thick stands of shrubs. During our night there, we viewed a showy, lipstick-red sunset from a perch above the lake. Granite Lake is among the region's most heavily visited lakes, but on our late summer weekday outing we saw only a smattering of hikers and hunters.

It was our first visit into that region of the sprawling Trinity Alps. With the lessons learned and the newly gained knowledge of temptations up the trails, it won't be our last.

— Lee Juillerat has been writing about outdoor adventures in Southern Oregon and elsewhere for more than 30 years. He is also a regular contributor to the outdoor-travel website High On Adventure at www.highonadventure.com. He can be contacted at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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