Hike to the Caribou Lakes, Shasta-Trinity Alps
California › Caribou Lakes Trailhead at the Big Flat Campground
Added by Wendy Zhao
For the Weekend Warriors (i.e., those with limited time), this is a challenging yet extremely rewarding 16-mile day hike to natural "infinity pools" nestled beneath snow-capped mountain peaks. If you have more time, this can also be made into an overnight.
Hike through the most majestic and unforgettable mountain ranges, alpine terrains, glacier lakes outside of the Sierra Nevada in Northern California. Yes, it's a long drive there and a lengthy hike, but if you have any doubts about whether this is worth the effort, just go! I struggled with the same doubts about the trip, but could not be more thankful that I got to do this hike.
This is a traditionally a backpacking trip where hikers can spend the night at the Caribou Lake basins (e.g., "infinity pools"). However, for those short on time, this can be done in 7-9 hours as a day hike.
The trailhead starts at the Big Flat campground in the Shasta-Trinity Wilderness. Please note that the last portion of the drive to the trailhead is on unpaved road so higher vehicle clearance would be helpful (I drove a Honda Civic without any issues, although the last 10-15 miles on unpaved road took 45 minutes to drive).
Once at the parking lot, the trail (at ~5,000 feet elevation) will be marked with a sign to Caribou Lakes. From the start, the path descends down to a river, which must be crossed on foot. Once you cross the river, the trail splits into the "Old Caribou Trail" and the "New Caribou Trail." The New Trail is slightly longer than the Old (9 miles vs 7 miles), but has a much friendlier grade/incline and is the recommended route based on several guides online and my personal experience.
Following the New Caribou Lakes Trail, follow the switchbacks up the side of Caribou Mountains under the forest shades. Soon enough, the tree lines will begin to clear and views of various mountain peaks will become visible. Follow the New Trail through a meadow and than continue on as the path carves into the side of the granite mountain cliffs. Starting from here, the alpine terrain and views become quite incredible, with mountain ranges stretching far out into the distance. Before going on the hike, I recommend reading the detailed route description from summitpost.org here. I always like to take screenshots of the route descriptions to bring along with me. It helps with staying on the right path and staying motivated.
The downside of any day hike is that you are often racing against clock and trying to make it back by sundown. I got to the trailhead at noon after a 5-hour drive and came back to my car at around 7pm. To save time, I recommend that you hold off on the "scenery/photography stops" before getting to the lakes. The scenes are beautiful along the entire route but the apex is really the lakes. Of course, personal preferences vary so make sure you do what works for you, keeping in mind that you need to optimize for time on a day hike. If you have a day to spare, I strongly recommend doing this as a backpacking trip.
- Hiking shoes
- Hiking poles (optional)
- 2-3 layers of clothing, depending on Season (e.g., wind breaker)
- Hiking day pack
- Snacks (e.g., granola bars, trail mix)
- Emergency first aid kit
- Head lamp (in case of a late return)
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Backpacking, Camping, Hiking
Spring, Summer, Autumn
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Great backpacking destination
Caribou Lakes basin is an amazing place to spend a summer weekend. You have your choice of three lakes (Snowslide, Lower Caribou, and Caribou), all of which are spectacular and great for swimming and fishing. There are a ton of pre-established tent sites around all three lakes and relatively close to the water. Even on July 4th weekend, when there were a ton of backpackers out, the size of the lakes allowed everyone to spread out so that it wasn't crowded at all. Also, unless there are fire restrictions in effect, campfires are allowed in the basin and many sites have fire rings. If you have a day of basecamping at the lakes, follow the trail up to Sawtooth Divide for an unreal view of the Trinity Alps and the Klamath Mountains (note - the trail is partially snow covered through mid-July, so scrambling on steep terrain may be involved to get up there). For a shorter excursion, head up beyond Caribou Lake to explore the creek that feeds into the lake from snow melting off the divide.
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