Backpack the Stuart Fork Trail to Emerald and Sapphire Lakes
Lake Tahoe › Stuart Fork Trail (Trinity Alps Wilderness)
Added by Joshua Contois
Backpack one of the largest, most pristine watersheds in Northern California. There's excellent fishing, wildflowers in bloom in the spring and summer, and ample wildlife viewing.
The trail begins just past the Trinity Alps Resort, a private collection of cabins near Weaverville, CA. Hikers wanting an early start can spend the night at the Bridge Camp Campground, located next to the trailhead.
The path starts out wide and level, following an old road to the wilderness boundary at Cherry Flat. From here, the trail gradually ascends, paralleling the Stuart Fork as it heads northwest. The river remains below as the trail climbs the east bank, but water is readily available from multiple stream and tributary crossings along the way. Be sure to purify all water.
After ascending a moderate grade, the trail returns to river level and becomes a shaded path lined by fir, incense cedar, maples, dogwoods, sugar pine, and ponderosa pine. At 4.5 miles is Oak Flat, one of several ideal spots for an early camp spot. Just before the campsite, the trail dips down to cross Deep Creek via a footbridge. An inviting swimming hole waits on the bottom of a waterfall here, but swim at your own risk: the current is swift and the rocks downstream are treacherous.
5 miles from the trailhead is the junction for the trail to Alpine Lake. Bear right (north) to stay on Stuart Fork Trail. While walking on the gentle grade, look for signs of manmade ditches that were used to carry water from this drainage to mining operations many miles away. The trail follows the ditch in some places, and you can see the last vestiges of a once mighty flume.
The path proceeds moderately for the next several miles, climbing a few switchbacks in an out of tributaries when necessary, but generally maintaining the gentle grade Stuart Fork is known for. Just over 7 miles from the trailhead, the path crosses a steel bridge over Deer Creek, where another pristine swimming hole beckons. Deer Creek Junction is on the left at mile 8. Stay on the main trail and continue to Morris Meadow.
The meadow proper begins around mile 9. This idyllic meadow fans out in a green splendor, serving up one of the best late-summer wildflower displays in the Alps. Yarrow, Indian paintbrush, lupine, and lush grasses grow in profusion throughout the wide valley. Campsites are liberally sprinkled in the forested fringes in each direction. A little island of pine and cedar sits at the head of the meadow where the trail first enters. Water may be available in meadow streams, or at Stuart Fork proper, hidden in a dense copse of trees on the west side of the valley. Be aware of rattlesnakes and black bears, both of which are plentiful here.
A number of trails meander north through Morris Meadow to the upper end, where the main trail picks up again near an impressive double-trunked ponderosa pine. The trail winds up the drainage, passing through shady forest, brushy slopes, and lush glens of ferns and wildflowers.
As the canyon starts bending from north to west, bigger and bigger views of the granite peaks and ridges hanging over the headwaters start to open up. Alder, maple, and wildflowers of several persuasions turn parts of the trail into a green jungle during parts of summer. Portuguese Camp, about 12 miles past the trailhead, offers the last good spot to throw down a heavy pack or make camp before the lakes.
The Stuart Fork Trail now bends west and starts climbing more steeply towards the head of the canyon, plainly visible through breaks in the trees. The last mile is steep and rocky, offering little respite from the sun on a hot day. On the way up this last haul, observe the deep gorge cut in the rock by the Stuart Fork headwaters emerging from Emerald Lake. Save time to explore the pools and waterfalls before leaving. The trail gains the top of Emerald's granite dike at the lake's northeast corner, passing through a sparse stand of firs before winding over the last few boulders and arriving at the water's edge (14 miles from the trailhead).
Sitting at a mere 5,500 feet, the lake is actually the result of an earthworks dam constructed for mining purposes. Most of the mining equipment, rusted from 100 years of abandonment, is still visible along the western banks. Still, the 21-acre lake lives up to its name: cold, clear water, granite piled on granite, and the mass of Sawtooth Mountain's northern shoulder looming overhead.
To reach Sapphire Lake, follow a narrow path around Emerald's north shore on a trail marked by cairns (or boulder the south shore, for those of you feeling more adventurous). The granite-lined path switchbacks steeply up the north side of Sapphire's outlet, 600 feet above Emerald. On the way up, keep an eye out for heavy mining equipment, now sitting derelict a century after being laboriously hauled up the drainage.
The 43-acre lake is sunk into a narrow, east-west trough in the canyon, with stunning views at both ends and jumbled piles of blindingly white granite around the shoreline. Thompson Peak looms over the western edge of the cirque, where Mirror Lake is hidden in a concealed basin. Sawtooth Ridge dominates the eastern vista, where Stuart Fork drainage falls away precipitously. The visible evidence left behind by the glacier that carved out this basin in impressive enough, but just as astounding is what you can't see – Sapphire's blue water is 200 feet deep, which makes it the deepest in all the Alps.
If you brought a fishing pole with you, be sure to cast a few lines before returning the way you came.
- Sleeping bag/pad
- Bear-proof food storage
- Food for 2-5 days
- Water filter
- Study footwear
- Fishing pole (optional)
- Camera and tripod (optional)
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More
Backpacking, Camping, Fishing, Hiking, Photography
Spring, Summer, Autumn
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One of the must-see areas of the Trinity Alps
I consider this hike along with the Canyon Creek Trail to be two of the must-see trails in the Trinity Alps. What makes them great is they are well maintained compared to some trails in the Trinities which makes it much easier for less-experienced hikers. For more experienced hikers these trails are a great starting off point for some excellent off-trail hiking and scrambling that can take you to the heart of the Trinity Alps.
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