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  • Carrie Fifield

Trip Report: Trinity Alps Wilderness with Newbies

When you work for an innovative company, one of the perks is product testing! For the last year our trail data team has been working tirelessly, creating backpacking itineraries in an effort to make the backcountry more accessible. And there is no better way to validate our concept than grabbing two gal pals, Cindy Sue and Alison, who are both new to backpacking, several Adventure Meals, gear from RightOnTrek Express, one of our founder’s favorite backpacking itineraries, and literally taking it all into the field!

Our 4 day itinerary, check it out for yourself in our new 'Find a Trail' portal!

When hiking with newbies, you have to be patient. As a veteran backpacker, it's so easy to overlook those first few miles on the trail - when you have to adjust to carrying a heavy pack, learn how to read the trail, practice using your hiking poles, and mitigate the dreaded fear of getting lost in the woods. Working to help build trail confidence is a slow process that takes several days, but the rewards are magnificent.

Backpacks, boots, trekking poles, and water bottles all laid out and ready for our hike in Trinity Alps Wilderness to Emerald and Sapphire Lakes.
Just after our final gear check - we've got it all!

Our first day was a quick 3.8 mile hike from Bridge Camp trailhead to Oak Flats. Since we were hiking in on Memorial Day, there were several groups that were leaving. It was great to see people out on the trail, we counted nearly 70 individuals exiting! And I was happy and relieved that even with so many people on the trail, there was hardly any noticeable impact! Leave No Trace’s 7 Principles were observed at every campsite we hiked through, and for the first time, I didn’t have to pick up after someone else who had been there before. This made me ponder - “Is this a California thing?”

As we hiked, I would share bits of information with my two gal pals, such as how old the forest we were hiking through was and, based on the growth, the differences between a forest fire and where the rangers practiced controlled burn techniques. Being a midwesterner, the bird calls fascinated me - I wish I had brought my bird book - but was hesitant about the extra weight.

Our small trail squad lucked out each night in our campsites, we were always near a river, and the noise would lull us to sleep. After the first day, we settled into camp and discussed the next day’s itinerary- we were all excited about Morris Meadows. And from other hiker’s trail reports, the wildflowers were blooming and we were in for a real treat!

The well traveled Stuart Fork Trail in the Trinity Alps Wilderness on our way to Oak Flats Campground!
The well traveled Stuart Fork Trail on our way to Oak Flats Campground!

I think any one who has ever hiked, will tell you - day one is rough, but day two is the worst! You are sore, the pack somehow feels heavier than it did yesterday, and you’ve probably endured mosquito bites, sun burns and blisters. At this point, the concepts of distance and time became my companions’ worst enemies. “How many miles have we hiked? How many do we have to go? When is the next landmark? How long have we been hiking? When is our next break?” “I don’t know, but we have to keep going” is an answer I once heard on one of my other hikes, when a young boy asked his mom these same questions. The truth was - I did know, but I felt like this was a teachable moment. If I continued to tell them exactly where we were, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to find their own cadence, or learn how to estimate our distance traveled and location. Also, I believe that continually looking at the clock or map can start to take away from just enjoying the experience of being in the great outdoors.

We all seek nature in different ways, for some it’s solitude, the ability to think, to have a conversation with all the elements that make up the universe, connection, for strength, for physical challenges, and feats of adventure. But the beginning of day two, as expected, deeply challenged the romanticized notions of backcountry adventures. That is, until we hit the 5.3 mile mark, and the forest opened into a glorious meadow, with patches of delicate white wildflowers perfectly positioned in front of a mountain backdrop.

These are the payoffs, the reasons why we seek remote locations, why we physically have to put in the work. Because when you see Morris Meadows in real life, even the photos don’t do it justice because there is an emotion when you’re physically there that no photograph can capture. For a couple hours, the newbies are satisfied, but the realization we still have a ways to go before we can make camp for the night, allows the internal battle between time and distance to continue. New questions developed “We have been walking for a long time, are we lost?”-- So I answered with an encouraging “No, I don’t think so. We should be there soon, but we can take a break if you need one.” We had maybe another 90 mins based on the current pace.

Hiking through Morris Meadows on the way to Emerald and Sapphire Lakes in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.
The tree's parted and there we were, beautiful Morris Meadows.

Rolling into Portuguese Camp, the mood was tense - it had been a long day, it was hot, over a hundred degrees, feet were sore, packs had cut into shoulders, and we were all pretty hungry. Splitting up chores, we broke off, I was focused on making dinner. I knew just how difficult the day had been for the ladies, and I wanted them to be able to relax. When planning, I took the extra effort to carefully plan our dinners. I knew day two was going to be rough, so dinner had a few additions, like breadsticks, corn cakes, and parmesan cheese. We had a fire ring in our campsite, so I did something I rarely do on backpacking trips, I built a fire.

Day two was ending and as we discussed the following day’s itinerary; my companions were mulling over the hike up to Emerald Lake. I knew the difficult day we had just finished was creating their next enemy - self doubt. I made an effort to calculate the distances with them - they would only have to hike under 3 miles back to Morris Meadows from the lakes. Tomorrow, I reassured them as we turned in for the night, was going to be a much easier day.

We woke early the next morning and as we broke down camp, the uncertainty in the air was thick. Would they or wouldn’t they - I knew the climb up to Emerald Lake would be difficult for them, especially after we broke tree line, but they were not carrying packs, and would be able to navigate the rocks better. Morning chores were coming to an end, both ladies were discussing the pros and cons. They agreed to hike a full hour that morning and evaluate. I knew after an hour they would come to realize one of two things: how close we were to the lake or if they turned back they would have to navigate back to camp alone. They could do it, no problem, but would they want to. I guess we’d soon find out.

I set the timer, and we started the 975 ft. climb. With the weight of the packs lifted off them, we moved more naturally through our environment. They were more joyous, as vistas with glimpses of waterfalls were revealed. The excitement of chasing the sun up the mountain filled and renewed them. When the timer went off, I stopped and simply asked if they wanted to continue. After all, we were so close, and for the first time on the hike, there was actually a trail sign. Which was taken as a literal sign to keep going!

Emerald Lake and Caribou Lake trail junction on the Stuart Fork Trail in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.
The trail junction that told us we were nearing the lake, and that fire restrictions were already in effect!

There was no wind, the lake was calm, placid. The ridge south off of Caesar Peak reflected off the surface. This was the crown gem. What we worked so hard to come and see. Day three was far from over, but we had achieved the main objective- make it to Emerald Lake. They had accomplished their goal: their first high altitude lake. I asked if they would like to continue to Sapphire Lake, I admitted the climb would be much steeper, showing them the route from across the lake. They declined, but encouraged me to go. I did!

On the Stuart Fork Trail, hiking from Portuguese Camp to the Stuart Fork Valley and Emerald and Sapphire Lakes.
On the trail, just after leaving Portuguese Camp as we climbed deeper into the Stuart Fork Valley.

As I found the trail, I came across another hiker, who was frozen in place. I walked up, and asked if he was okay - he didn’t respond - just pointed using his hiking pole. Following the line of sight - I saw what stopped him - “I’m terrified of snakes.” There it was, a glorious 4-5 foot, beautiful example of the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake. Me being me - I wooted in excitement, which resulted in me scaring the snake and it slithering into the brush. We had seen little ones along the trail, but nothing as big as this lovely creature. My disappointment was quickly curbed by the man “thanking me”, he had been standing there for a few mins waiting for the snake to move.

A molted snakeskin on the Stuart Fork Trail near Sapphire and Emerald Lakes in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.
The snake who shed its skin on the way to Sapphire Lake.

Introductions were made, and we agreed to ascend to Sapphire Lake together. We arrived in just under an hour. And the climb was worth every step! We saw a cascade of waterfalls emerging from the mountain side, we counted 6 in total. After relishing in our accomplishment and majestic serenity that Sapphire offered, we parted ways - him further up the mountain to Mirror Lake, and myself back down to my trail squad.

I made it back to Emerald Lake, to find my two companions sitting in the shade of a pine, and discussing a little Garter Snake who had taken up residence on a rock on the shore. I told them about the man and rattlesnake I encountered. After a short rest, we headed back down to Portugese, to retrieve our packs and to continue on to Morris Meadows. The hike to the meadow went smoothly. We descended down, and found a nice spot in the shade to build camp. It was another scorcher, still over hundred degrees, but as luck would have it, Morris Meadows campsite was nestled into a bend in the river, and it created a rock beach that was just too irresistible. Cooling ourselves in the cold river water was such a treat. Day Three, magic was hard at work, making the memories that would preserve this trip for a lifetime.

A hiker posing in front of Emerald Lake in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.
Cindy Sue enjoying the cold, blue waters of Emerald Lake.

As we settled into camp for the night, we discussed the following day and the hike so far. The reviews were mixed. And in all honesty I was not surprised. The first 30 miles of backpacking for someone are the most challenging - it's both a physical and emotional battle. We ended the night by talking about leadership, and how it's defined. A concept that would spin around in my head for all of our last day on the trail. We would have to cover a long distance tomorrow, it would be the hottest day to date, and they were tired.

The next morning after we broke down camp, I set our hiking order, based on my observations over the last couple of days. I knew today would be difficult for several reasons, but mostly those recurring themes of distance and time. I also knew that today would be the most rewarding day, because all the skills learned over the last three days would come together, our packs were lighter, and each of them had learned the importance of adjusting their pack, and how to read the trail. We hiked in silence for hours, we were all lost in our thoughts.

In the early hours of the morning on day four, my newbies had quietly graduated to backpackers, obstacles that seemed impossible were overcome - hurdling over a downed tree, became part of their movement vs. stopping to analyze the best way over. Cautiously tip toeing through mud, became strides of confidence, and a disregard for dirty boots. And the creek crossing, that once caused so much frustration, was crossed slowly, with an earned level of self assurance and sense of personal accomplishment.

Hiker with trekking poles after crossing a creek on the Stuart Fork Trail in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.
Alison after a successful (and dry!) creek crossing on the way back to the trailhead!

When hiking for the first time just know, packs are heavy, you will be bitten by bugs, yes there is a really good chance you will get blisters, and a sun burn. You will hike for what seems like hours, and distance becomes trivial. And no matter what- your first hike will always be the hardest. But there is one thing I can promise to any newbie considering adventuring out, it’s going to be a battle of emotional endurance and physical drive, and you can do it. We all just have to put one foot in front of the other, and keep going- pace doesn’t matter, time does not matter, distance does not matter. What matters is the experience and living in the moment and taking it all in. Welcome to backpacking, ladies, I cannot wait to see what adventures lie ahead.


Carrie Fifield, is the Director of Business Development at RightOnTrek, when she is not on the trail, she can be found jamming out to music, hanging out with friends and taking in the sights and sounds of Chicago.




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