Looking down on Emerald and Sapphire Lakes and the craggy heart of the Trinity Alps.
One of the things I appreciate about living in Mount Shasta is the great and diverse expanses of mountains that seem to stretch out in all directions. Mount Shasta itself is massive and beyond it to the east are the Cascades, an unpopulated, seemingly unending array of mountains, valleys and ridges that extend eastward toward Nevada. Yet, as beautiful and fascinating as this area is, it is to the west that my thoughts most often turn. Immediately west of Mount Shasta is the criminally underrated Trinity Divide. Rugged and scenic, the Divide is a fantastic mountain backyard for those living at the foot of Mount Shasta. But it is further west, on the others side of these mountains, that the real jewel of the North State’s mountain ranges is found. Just west of the Trinity Divide are the sublime Trinity Alps.
The Trinity Alps are one of the largest subranges of the Klamath Mountains, a range that extends from the North Yolla Bollies, west of Red Bluff, all the way into Oregon, terminating north of Grants Pass. Though there are many spectacular corners of the Klamaths, it is the Trinity Alps that ultimately claims the crown as the grandest slice of alpine scenery. Here vast stretches of granite peaks, towering peaks, tall waterfalls, deep canyons unusual geology all combine to create a stunning mountain paradise.
Highway 299 is deep within the fog covered Trinity River Canyon.
To say these mountains are vast is an understatement. Nowhere else in the North State is there a wild land that covers so a great a territory as the Trinity Alps. The formal wilderness boundary encompasses 525,627 acres. It is the second largest wilderness administered by the US Forest Service in California (surpassed only by the gargantuan John Muir Wilderness. The Trinities are often erroneously cited as the second largest wilderness in California, but this is not the case, as several wilderness areas administered by the National Park Service surpass it, including Yosemite, Sequoia-Kings Canyon and Death Valley.) The actual size of the Trinities is somewhat larger and can be defined as being the area that lies in the center of a circle of paved roads that surround. Highway 3 marks the eastern boundary, Highway 299 dileneates the south, Highway 96 hems in the western side and the Cecilville-Callahan Road marks the northern extent.
The Trinity Alps lie at the center of a ring of remote highways and roads.
The scale and scope of this awesome cluster of mountains offers people in the Mount Shasta area the best of both worlds. To our east we have the great, icy heights of Mount Shasta to explore and enjoy. Yet to the west, we are blessed with a staggering mountain fastness, vast and wild beckoning us to venture into it and explore.
To put the wildness of this region into perspective, I like to make the point that, heading slightly southwest from Mount Shasta, there are only two paved roads between the area at the foot of the mountain and the coastal areas that surround Highway 101. The two roads, Highway 3 and Highway 96 are crossed at the eastern and western sides of the Trinities. The area in between them is wild, roadless and rugged. There are a few dirt roads permeating the Trinity Divide and the narrow strip of the Coast Range, but paved roads, the great mark of civilization, is an endangered species. Two paved roads between Mount Shasta and the coast, a distance of nearly 100 miles. There are few places in California, let alone elsewhere in the West, were such a great distance can be traveled and a paucity of paved roads will be found (or not found, as it may be).
I find these facts comforting. The knowledge that a great, untrammeled, spectacular wilderness lying “just over the mountain” from the Mount Shasta area means that there always possibility. It means there are adventures close at hand that may take unknown courses and create memories unexpected. It means there is a frontier just around the corner, where the future can be made and life can be simplified. Americans have always been a people of the frontier. It is in our national DNA. For over a century, it was manifest by pioneers moving out beyond the confines of civilization, to exist within the wilderness. When the west was won, the frontier was reduced but our geography ensured that there were pockets of land left to be explored. Some of these are vast, others small, but all hold value in remaining wild.
We now venture beyond the frontier, into the wild lands for a host of reasons, but all can be distilled down, I think, into the idea that there is something greater than we are and we have a need to find our place within that. Even if we do not enter the Trinity Alps or any other wilderness, their presence alone is important. It means the frontier is still there and the wilderness is still wild. Edward Abbey noted that “wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit”. While he and I are in complete opposition metaphysically, there is agreement that there is essential value in the natural world, that the primal landscape is necessary for people, as it gives a glimpse, even if opaque, of Eden and our home. To me, that is what the Trinity Alps offer. The fact that, our backyard is a vast, beautiful paradise uncorrupted and waiting to be explored is something for which to give thanks. Let us be grateful for the Trinity Alps.
A few vistas of the Trinities that, I hope, give some sense of the scale of this mountain range (click to enlarge):