Brother J stepped up to the plate and planned the backpacking trip for August 2010: a weekend in the Caribou Wilderness just east of Lassen and north of the town of Chester. It’s somewhat difficult to find good information about the Caribou Wilderness on the internet, so he used Backpacking California, edited by Paul Backhurst, to formulate a plan of attack.
Jeff selected this trip specifically with his lovely girlfriend, Dena, in mind. Dena prefers indoor plumbing and even more importantly heat, but gamely joined the group for the trip. Dena’s cousin Simon joined us as well. After the obligatory “we’re all still happy and nobody is tired and cranky” group photo at the Caribou Lake Trailhead, we set off down the trail. We didn’t bring the mutt on this trip, but dogs are allowed on leash in the Caribou Wilderness.
The route had only a small amount of climbing and passed a number of picturesque ponds and lakes. In just 5 short and relatively flat miles, we made it to our destination – Triangle Lake. After some searching around for the best spot, we set up camp on the west shore at the base of a jumbled rock hill. Our only neighbors were across the lake, and we had the solitude we were hoping to find. Lea had energy to spare and clambered to the top of the hill to catch the sunset.
On Day 2, we woke up ready to explore the neighborhood. Our topo map showed a nice 6-mile hike along a trail west from Triangle Lake towards Lassen National Park, then south towards Red Cinder Cone, followed by a cross-country scramble back to camp if we felt up for it.
The weather was perfect as we headed out, encountering yet more small and charming lakes along the way. Overall, the landscape was quite flat, and after we made the turn south towards Red Cinder Cone, the lakes disappeared and the trail became quite sandy. Not too surprising for a volcanic landscape.
The group was game for a cross country trek back to camp, so we struck out from the base of Red Cinder Cone, topo maps in hand. After a couple of miles of thrashing across uneven and somewhat brushy terrain – and a few map checks – we tiredly regained Triangle Lake and made our way back to camp and a well-deserved fire and dinner. The fire was another bonus on this trip, as campfires are allowed with a permit anywhere in Lassen National Forest (outside of developed campgrounds). Our more frequent destinations in the eastern Sierras are usually too high for campfires.
Revived by our meal, Simon decided to break out the gear for some early evening fishing. We enjoyed watching the action, but nothing much was biting.
The still evening air turned Triangle Lake into a near-perfect mirror, reflecting the low hill across the lake. We eventually retreated to the fire and shared a wandering conversation before crawling into our tents.
On Day 3, everyone decided to venture out on their own. Before we did, however, Simon had another groovy bonus for us: fresh bacon! Theorizing that it would take much longer than three days for bacon and eggs to go south, he had brought plenty of both. Being the generous sort, he shared a bit with the rest of us. Needless to say, Simon now has a permanent invitation to all of our backpacking trips.
After capping our breakfast with freshly sizzled pork flesh, the fisher folk among us went in search of better lakes, while we set out on another day hike. This time we headed south on a loop that the topo map indicated passed numerous lakes. We weren’t disappointed, passing Eleanor, Jewel, Gem, North Divide, Black and Turnaround Lakes, as well as many small unnamed ponds and lakelets.
The trip involved some route-finding, as the trail from Jewel to Gem Lake shown on the topo map was faint to nonexistent. The landscape was fairly open and we found Gem Lake easily. We noticed a stiff wind forming waves on the lake and the first shreds of cloud blowing across the western sky.
Mountain weather really can change in a heartbeat, but the day continued sunny and warm and we soon regained a well-defined trail in a small ravine below Gem Lake and turned west towards Black Lake. We lingered over a lunch of salami, cheese and crackers before heading north, passing North Divide Lake on our way back to camp.
Everyone returned safely from the day’s adventures by dinner time, and we made a rousing fire for our last night in the woods.
A spectacular full moon rose over the hill across the lake, peeking through an increasing layer of clouds. If you have never seen a full moon rise over a landscape otherwise free of artificial light, well, you should. It sounds corny, but it really does feel like you can reach out and touch it. There is also a much greater sense of activity all around you on a full moon night, which can be both energizing and a bit creepy. In any case, with our bellies full we gradually wound down and went to bed, leaving the night to the critters.
A few hours later, a couple of us woke to the unmistakable smell of a forest fire. We quickly checked the campfire, but it was out cold. We looked for a glow on the horizon and listened for anything out of the ordinary, but could only sense a faint smell carried on a light breeze from the south. It was unsettling, but we knew we could retreat to Triangle Lake if push came to shove. With that thought, we went back to bed and slept uneasily til a gray dawn broke.
The morning of Day 4 was overcast and downright cold. The wildfire smell from the night before was gone, and it soon started sprinkling.
As motivation goes, an icy mountain rain is pretty good. We picked up the pace and hoofed it towards the trailhead.
By the time we made it back to the car, it was pouring and, even with all of our foul weather gear on, we were shivering, wet and ready to go home. We dropped in our gear, loaded up and headed to Chester for what is always the best part of a back woods trip – the post-excursion grubdown. Unfortunately, the poorly marked Forest Service roads can be a little like a giant corn maze and one of our cars ended up far east of Chester on Highway 44. Keeping a good map or gazetteer in the car is recommended, as cell coverage doesn’t exist in this neck of the woods. After some casting about and a few pit stops, we all eventually regrouped and warmed up with lunch in Chester before hitting the road for the 3-hour drive back home.