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Trinity Alps Wilderness

Northern California's Most Spectacular Mountain Wilderness The 517,000-acre Trinity Alps Wilderness is the second largest designated wilderness in California and spans three national forest boundaries. Laced with trails, rivers, forests, and peaks, this is one wilderness where you can travel for weeks and never exhaust all the possible trails.

A climb on the higher peaks with a sprawling sea of forested ridges and valleys gives this wildlands a sense of vastness not possible anywhere else in northwest California, except perhaps in the Marbles. Elevations range from 1,360 feet along the Trinity River to just over 9,000 feet at Thompson Peak. The trails up Canyon and Coffee Creeks lead into the heart of the Trinity Alps, the highest and most spectacular peaks. Because of their beauty, the Trinity Alps are heavily trafficked by hikers and are best avoided by those seeking fewer encounters with other people. Most of the trails leading off Highway 3 on the eastern edge of the wilderness are more heavily used, while trailheads accessing the western part of the wilderness offer tremendous opportunities for solitude.

Photograph of Canyon Creek by the outlet of Canyon Lake in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. Photograph by George Wuerthner.

Some divide the wilderness into the Green, Red, and White Trinities. The differently colored strata represent different geological rock layers that were welded on to each other to form the diverse geology of the Klamath Mountains region.

The Green Trinities make up the western margin, a heavily timbered, low elevation area. This is the least visited region, and one where you're sure to find solitude on most trails.

In the east, rising above Trinity Lake, are the Red Trinities. Numerous excellent peaks over 8,000 feet as well as an enviable number of lake basins are found in the Red Trinities.

This is the most complex part of the Trinity Alps. The "Red" appellation comes from the red serpentine and peridotite rock. This is perhaps most evident when standing on Stonewall Pass and the red hued peaks stretch out to the north. It is important to note that there are still significant intrusions of other kinds of rock. Siligo and Gibson Peaks are the largest of these, followed by the unnamed granite "Tangle Blue" peaks and Granite Peak. Sandstone also occurs in the Echo Lake area. The Red Trinities are not only a melange of diverse rock types, it is also a grouping of subordinate mountain ranges. In particular is the divide between the Trinity River and Scott River watersheds. The area in the northeast corner is referred to as the Scott Mountains and are the headwaters of the Scott River, which flows through Scott Valley into the Klamath River. Numerous Lakes are found in the Scott Mountains, as is the seemingly out of place sagebrush. The Pacific Crest Trail traverses 17 miles of this section of the Trinity Alps.

Finally, there are the White Trinities, the best known part of the wilderness, with granite peaks, meadows, and dozens of lakes. The Whites are often compared to the Sierra Nevada, with rugged peaks such as Sawtooth Ridge, and glaciated valleys such as Canyon Creek. Small glaciers still cling to the higher peaks around the headwaters of Grizzly and Canyon Creeks.

As might be expected, with spectacular scenery and lots of lakes, this region receives the most visitation—avoid it if you prefer to have fewer encounters with other travelers. An interesting phenomenon in the Trinities is the capture of the headwaters of Coffee Creek by the South Fork of the Salmon River. Moraines in Coffee Creek blocked the stream, while headwater erosion of the South Fork breached the gap separating the two drainages.

Photograph of Carbout Mountain and Sawtooth Ridge from above Steaveale Creek in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. Copyright George Wuerthner

The area was first set aside as part of the 196,420-acre Salmon-Trinity Alps Primitive Area in 1932, with another 83,840 acres added in 1933. Even though the Trinities were one of the most spectacular areas in California, passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act did not see them become a designated wilderness as might be expected, partly due to their perceived timber values.

Not until 1984, with the passage of the California Wilderness Act, did the Trinities finally gain the status and protection they deserved. There are also two designated Wild and Scenic Rivers within the wilderness: New River and North Fork Trinity River. Three other rivers are recommended for Wild and Scenic River status, including Canyon and Virgin Creeks and the upper 11.7 miles of the North Fork Trinity.

Due to the great elevation and soil types, it's not surprising that the Trinities support a diverse flora as well. Typical species of the region include Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, red fir, white fir, black oak, canyon live oak, California madrone, bigleaf maple, California buckeye, incense cedar, and Jeffrey pine. California's northernmost stand of digger pine is found here along the South Fork of the Salmon River.

Salmon and steelhead runs occur in a number of rivers whose headwaters lie in the wilderness, including the Stuart Fork River, South Fork of the Salmon River, North Fork Trinity River, and New River. Other wildlife includes black bear, fisher, marten, pileated woodpecker, northern flying squirrel, spotted owl, band-tailed pigeon, and goshawk. The Trinity Alps are currently being considered for restoration of Roosevelt elk, a native species, and would be one of the better areas in northern California for the re-establishment of wolves.

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