Caribou Lakes Backpacking ⛰️

With over 600 miles of trails, chiseled granite peaks, countless pristine alpine lakes, and over 500,000 acres of wilderness area, the Trinity Alps are the apex of mountain adventures in Northern California.

This week’s OATVenture took us deep into the Trinities to the Caribou Lakes zone. Unfortunately, there are no caribou, but salt-starved sock-eating deer provide plenty of ungulate entertainment. The Caribou Lakes zone consists of 3 alpine lakes nestled around 7,000’ above sea level; Upper Caribou, Lower Lower, and Snowslide Lake. 

Like most great things in life, Caribou Lakes are not easily accessible. Starting with a 3-hour drive from Ashland, Oregon on rural 2 lane highways and rugged forest service roads gets you to the Big Flat Campground Trailhead near Coffee Creek, CA. 

The River Complex Fire in 2021 that burned 185,000 acres left a significant impact on the small community of Coffee Creek and most of the northern Trinity Alps. The 9-mile hike with 3,000’ of elevation gain from Big Flat Campground began by crossing the South Fork of the Salmon River in an remarkably unburned patch of forest. Steep, sweaty switchbacks quickly revealed the damage from the fire. In the hot July sun of Northern California, we slogged up the slowly meandering trail walking alongside the ghosts of torched fir trees. Burn zones always have an eerie feeling to them. Similar to that of a cemetery, the balance of feeling haunted by once living beings is balanced by honoring the meaningful lives they lived, and recognizing that their essence will return with new life. Despite our legs covered in ash, we soaked in the sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and river valleys dominated by a snow capped Mount Shasta 50 miles to the northeast.

After a truly epic winter that delivered a well above-average snowpack in Northern California, the Trinity Alps were still buried in snow by July standards. As we made the final traverse to Caribou Lake Basin, we were stunned by how much snow was still to be found. The aptly named “Snowslide Lake” was about 70% still covered by snow and more than strong enough to stand on. The steep terrain above avalanches frequently into the lake leaving a substantial depth of snow that may very well last until next winter. We were determined to camp at Upper Caribou to revel in the beauty of being tucked under the 8,000’ craggy ridges that guard the lake. We found a wonderful campsite on the North side of the lake that dropped off very quickly. Upper Caribou still had significant snow, making for a very icy plunge. I am no novice when it comes to cold water, cold plunging religiously throughout the year, but this water was COLD! Certainly a refreshing dip on a hot summer day.

I always look forward to sleeping in the backcountry. The beautiful night sky, my comfy sleep system, and of course, the pristine silence that every being enjoys. Shortly after falling asleep, I was abruptly awakened by a galloping sound just outside the tent. I shined my headlamp to see two deer staring directly my way. All our food was hanging in a tree so I didn’t worry too much. All night long, the deer returned again and again. Licking rocks, our trekking poles, and backpacks. We had been warned about the salt hungry deer, and they were not wrong! Those deer will do anything to get a taste. The following night, we left not even a shoe out for the deer, and speculated that they spent the evening harassing new campers at the surrounding lakes.

The next morning we set an objective to scramble up to the ridge, and circumnavigate the West side of Caribou lake. We buttoned up camp and set out for Caribou Pass. The standard trail that takes you up and over the ridge to the Stuart Fork Basin was completely buried in snow. Given that we were only equipped with running shoes and the consequence of a fall would be high, we decided to stick the grippy granite. The approach to the ridge was beautiful as we crossed several small snow melt streams and enjoyed the increasingly dramatic views of the entire Caribou Lakes Basin. 

Cresting the ridge after an 800’ climb we were in awe of the 360 degree view of the Trinity Alps Wilderness. Sapphire and Emerald Lakes were contrasted by Ceasar, Thompson, and Sawtooth Peaks. After scrambling on some exposed terrain, we began to make our way up to the unnamed high point on our circumnav. We alternated between both sides of the ridge, traveling on rock, manzanita and massive snow drifts at times. The views of the alpine lakes and the sounds of rushing water made us eager to get back to camp and swim as it was significantly hotter today. We stopped for a nice break at 7,800’ before finishing our traverse of the ridge. Looking at the meadow near Moraine Lake to the West, I spotted a very large cinnamon colored Black Bear happily rummaging through the summer foliage. Ah, what a life to be a bear!

After a delicious backcountry curry dinner, we scrambled up to another high point for tea and some dark chocolate. A truly mesmerizing sunset displayed brilliant yellows and oranges contrasted by the hazy purple and blue mountains.

The Trinity Alps are indeed a spectacular destination for any eager backpacker willing to put in the work. July 17th sparked the Flat Fire in Southwest Oregon sending smoke all over the State of Jefferson. It may prove to be a short backpacking season for the Trinities with the snow finally melting out and wildfire danger increasing. But if the winds are in your favor, you are in for a wonderful treat!

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