The Trinity Alps Traverse

Photo: Scott Kranz

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Hidden in the northwest corner of California, the Trinity Alps are far from a household name, even for avid adventurers–but don’t let that fool you. Four hours from the nearest metro or major airport and well off the busy I-5 corridor, the Trinities don’t have the acclaim that the neighboring Sierra and Cascades have collected, despite being filled with jagged peaks, scenic trails, and turquoise lakes.

Managed by the US Forest Service, the area is primarily used by locals for hiking and backpacking, but rarely considered a trail running destination–which, as far as I’m concerned, is a big oversight. The trails are well kept, with very few down trees, almost no heinous bushwacking sections, and many flowy sections. The only downside is that the trails rarely form convenient loops. So, if you plan to run the Trinities, expect a point-to-point mission.

Logistics: Without many established routes, we made up our own. There are many possibilities for 20-40 mile runs, especially if you’re willing to do some off-trail hiking to connect trails. We wanted to optimize for beauty, so we connected three lake basins that are all worth a visit – Grizzly, Mirror, and Four Lakes Loop. We planned to traverse the “white” section of the Trinity Alps, the part of the range that’s above the treeline. We started at China Gulch Trailhead on the northwest side of the wilderness and finished at Long Canyon Trailhead on the southeast corner. The total route was 31 miles and 9,000 feet of gain.

If you’re looking to duplicate our journey, I’d suggest a kit with gaiters, poles, and if it’s early season or you’re uncomfortable on snow, some microspikes. We didn’t have much trouble finding water– a 1.5L running vest was more than sufficient. We did bring packabe bowls and cool vests for the dogs, made by Ruffwear. These came in handy in the warm summer afternoon.

Shuttle: Our shuttle was about two hours, so plan accordingly. You could shorten this by picking different trailheads, but you’d have to miss some of the best parts of the run. Because there are few loop options, expect some type of shuttle for any run you do.

We packed a variety of salty and sweet treats– a couple thousand calories each for a long day of running, scrambling, and route finding– and threw in a couple of packs of beef jerky for the dogs, too.

After a few restless hours of sleep, we made coffee and drove to the starting trailhead. Take note that the road to China Gulch is quite windy, which made us a bit carsick.

The first large climb is through a large burn. On top of this ridge, you can see into the next valley and up to Grizzly Lake. Unfortunately, the trail drops way down before starting the long slog of a climb up to the lake.

After six miles, the trail breaks into the subalpine just below the lake. The final push is a scramble up to Grizzly, which looks like Mother Nature’s infinity pool. Despite surreal views, we only saw a few groups. From here, we headed off-trail, climbing the shoulder of the lake up to a col.

After following a few cairns uphill we soon found ourselves on a boulder field, greatly slowing our pace. For those without experience navigating off-trail, this route might not be the best. We spent the next four miles crossing a large snowfield, rock hopping, wading through thick brush, and downclimbing many boulders.

As you get closer to Mirror Lake you’ll find some game trails, although they are far from perfect. This section is varied and fun, and certainly repeatable for others looking for a good adventure, provided you have the right skills and are comfortable with prolonged class 4 scrambling. Take your time and you’ll be alright!

After a dip in Mirror Lake, we continued downhill to Sapphire Lake. The climbers’ trail stays close to the water outlet from Mirror and is easy to lose, so take your time. This section took longer than expected as we fought our way to a more developed trail. Finally reaching the far side of the lake, we were excited to run again. Fortunately, from here on out the trails are smooth and entirely runnable.

After five fast miles down Stuart Fork trail, you’ll start a big climb up two thousand feet to the well-known Four Lakes Loop. Once you get to the fork in the trail at the main loop, you have options to take the longer (and arguably more scenic) way around, or to hightail it home.

Andy Cochrane is a freelance writer, photographer and producer that lives out of his Tacoma with his dog Bea. They spend their time searching for trails to run, mountains to ski and the best ramen in the West.

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada