Trinity Toppers

Canyon Creek Lakes and "El" Lake
Trail At a Glance
Trip Type: Round trip of 3 to 5 days
Distance: 9 miles one way to"El" Lake, 18 miles round trip
Elevation Change: 3545 feet, average 394 feet per mile
Season: Early July to mid-October
Topo Map: Mount Hilton (provisional 1982) 7.5' quadrangle

If you can take only one trip into the Trinity Alps, Canyon Creek is your best choice. It provides at least a sample of most of the sights and activities that make the Trinity Alps such a unique and marvelous place. Thompson Peak, highest of the Alps, soars in snow-tipped splendor above the deep, blue waters of Canyon Creek Lakes in the upper basin. Higher up, in a side pocket of granite, contorted little "El" Lake reflects permanent snowbanks and minarets on the north side of Sawtooth Mountain. A relatively cold microclimate contributes an almost subalpine character to the basin and its lakes despite relatively low elevations (5606 feet at Lower Canyon Creek Lake to 6529 feet at "El" Lake). Weeping spruces and foxtail pines appear here at lower altitudes than in other parts of the Alps.

Big brown, rainbow and eastern brook trout reside in the two lower lakes and are occasionally caught by expert anglers. Smaller eastern brooks succumb to almost anyone at "El" Lake. Surrounding cliffs, peaks and steep granite slopes offer opportunities for all classes of rock climbing.

On the way up the easy Canyon Creek trail you pass three notable sets of waterfalls and dozens of lesser ones. Oaks, madrones, dogwoods and big-leaf maples in the lower forests give way to white firs, red firs, Jeffrey pines and sugar pines higher up. You are apt to see deer anywhere in the canyon, but they are most prevalent in the lush forests and meadows at about the midpoint. You just might see a black bear on the trail too, although they are not as plentiful here as in other parts of the Alps. A wide variety of birds and wildflowers greet you along the trail. The lower reaches of Canyon Creek support an excellent population of native rainbow trout.

If this all sounds too idyllic to be true, it is. Canyon Creek is to the Trinity Alps as Yosemite Valley is to Yosemite National Park, and has many of the same problems. People are loving it to death. Access probably should be limited, and camping around the lakes should be eliminated. When you make this trip, which you should, just as you should see Yosemite Valley at least once, please camp below the lakes and try to keep your impact as light as possible. Because of the heavy use, you should carry a stove and purify all water. The crowds thin out after Labor Day and the fishing is better, but then you won't see the midsummer wildflower displays.

Canyon Creek and its lakes are still breathtakingly beautiful. Don't miss them, but please don't wear out your welcome.

Starting Point

Canyon Creek road turns north off Highway 299 in Junction City, 8 miles west of Weaverville and one mile east of the Canyon Creek bridge. The road is paved, but unsigned. If you are traveling east on Highway 299 from Eureka/Arcata, a short-cut road forks left 3 miles west of Junction City before you get to the Junction City BLM campground. This unsigned, paved road snakes over a ridge to intercept Canyon Creek road on the east side of the canyon 2.5 miles above Junction City.

From this intersection, narrow and sometimes steep pavement continues up the east side of the rugged canyon overlooking a number of rustic miners' shacks clinging precariously to the rocks below. You cross to the west side of the creek at Fisher Gulch 7.9 miles from Junction City, and keep to the right at a fork 1.4 miles farther on. A one-lane bridge soon takes you back to the east bank and up to an open flat where the town of Dedrick once stood. People lived and mined here into the 1930s, supporting a saloon, a general store and a post office. Little remains today to show where Dedrick was, primarily because none of its mining claims were patented and, after being abandoned during World War 11, the land reverted to the federal government.

Just beyond Dedrick townsite, you see where the 1987 fire burned on the hillside east of the road. Most of the burn area you drive through between Dedrick and the end of the road burned only on the ground and has recovered very rapidly. Within a few years it will be hard to tell where the fire burned.

Small, undeveloped and very pleasant Ripstein campground is between the road and Canyon Creek 12.3 miles from Junction City. The campground was untouched by the fire. Pavement ends less than a mile beyond the campground, and at 13.8 miles the road ends in a turn-around loop at the trailhead.

Ample parking is along the sides of the loop. A sign near a pit toilet off the northeast side of the loop points north to wide, well-used Canyon Creek trail and east to little-used Bear Creek trail. The Bear Creek trail goes over the east ridge and down the Boulder Creek that flows into Stuart Fork to a junction with the Alpine Lake trail and thence to the Stuart Fork trail.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 25 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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