Trinity Alps Hike to Caribou Lakes

Trinity Alps Hike to Caribou Lakes

With so many famous hikes and excellent places to visit in California, the Trinity Alps is often overlooked. While the Yosemite and Mammoth Lake area hikes are top-notch, these trails have the potential to get crowded during the summer.

Trinity Alps, a five-hour drive north of San Francisco, brings solitude, beautiful alpine lakes, and some of the toughest hiking and scrambling in California. For these reasons and many more, the Trinity Alps hike to Caribou Lakes should be your next epic hiking trip in California!

Content and photographs provided by Yana Kogan and Timon.

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Trinity Alps Hike to Caribou Lakes

How to Get to the Trinity Alps

Trinity Alps Backpacking: Sawtooth Mountains
Looking out over Sawtooth Ridge

From Weaverville, California, head up to Coffee Creek on Rt 3 and turn left on Coffee Creek Road. This road is okay for the first five miles, but it turns into a dirt road for the next 13 miles.

Big Flat Campground will be on your right-hand side 18 miles in. The trailhead for the Old and New Caribou Trails begins here.

Backcountry Permits

You can get a free backcountry permit from the Weaverville Ranger Station on the way to the trail.

Hike Details

Day 1:  7.9 Miles, 2,526 feet gain, 4 hours 10 minutes
Day 2:  7.1 Miles, 2,536 feet gain, 3 hours 48 minutes
Difficulty: Very difficult

Trinity Alps, Hikes: Sawtooth Mountains
Sawtooth Ridge, Caribou Lakes in the background

Trail Options in the Trinity Alps

Backpacking the Trinity Alps: Caribou Basin
View coming down the switchbacks into the Caribou Basin

Old Caribou Trail – This is shorter than the New Caribou Trail, yet it is a very steep ascent directly over the mountain.

New Caribou Trail – The new trail goes around instead of over the mountain. A great option is to take the new trail to the lakes and take the old trail back to the trailhead/parking.

Caribou Scramble – Once you are in the Caribou Basin, the famous Caribou Scramble is an option for a side trip. This scramble up the Sawtooth ridge is extremely difficult and should only be attempted by advanced hikers.

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Old Caribou Trail to Caribou Lakes

Hiking Trinity Alps: Emerald Lake

From the trailhead, it is best to start on the Old Caribou Trail. After a few miles, these trails meet again. From this intersection, the Old Caribou will head directly up Caribou Mountain. Take the New Caribou trail from this point on. This trail will lead you to the Caribou Basin, with views of Sapphire Lake and Emerald Lake.

Where to Camp

Trinity Alps, California: Emerald Lake
Chillin at Emerald Lake

Emerald Lake has great campsite spots, along with the wooded side of the lake. We found a great spot with a fire pit and space for several tents. We set up closer to the trail, just on the bluff overlooking Emerald Lake.

Caribou Scramble

Trinity Alps Backpacking: Old Caribou Trail
Old Caribou Trail near the top of Caribou Mountain

The Caribou Scramble is a day hike from Emerald Lake. You can hike to the summit of the Sawtooth Ridge, which crosses the famous Caribou Scramble.

Return via Old Caribou Trail

Trinity Alps, Hikes: Overlooking
Max looking over his conquered lake.

After several switchbacks up from Emerald Lake, there is a 180-degree turn on the Old Caribou Trail and not going back around New Caribou Trail. Take this trail which ascends up to the summit of the Caribou Mountains. Some of the best views are from this trail.

From the summit, this is the most direct way back to the trailhead. The descent is very steep until you reach the juncture with the New Caribou Trail.

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That’s it – we hope you enjoy your adventure in the Trinity Alps!


About the Author:

  • Yana and Timon

    Yana & Timon met at college in Boston, Massachusetts. After graduating, they started their professional careers. They moved to San Francisco in 2010, a city they loved living in for nearly six years.

    After working and saving up money for several years, they quit their jobs and set off on an adventure of a lifetime. They started living a nomadic lifestyle in December 2015 and have not looked back since.

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