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South Fork Lakes

Trinity Alps Wilderness

July 3rd, 2017

5.7 miles
1440 vertical feet
Total Time: 4:52

Starting elevation
6223 feet
Max elevation
6759 feet

Rating: 7/10

Directions: From Weaverville, drive north on Highway 3, veering left at the junction. Turn left onto FH 93 toward Cecilville. After 12 miles on FH 93, turn left into the parking lot (Carter Meadows Summit). You'll see a small PCT sign just before the lot, which is up on a little hill. If you end up going downhill on a straightaway (passing Carter Meadows), you've gone too far.   View Driving Map

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GPX File

Finding the parking lot for this hike was a bit of a challenge since it was completely unsigned. Well, there was a small sign indicating that a PCT trailhead was coming up, but that was it. Eventually I figured out that the tiny lot (space for maybe 3-4 cars) was the right one. It's right at a bend of the highway. The lot was full, but there was ample space to park by the side of the road just a short walk from the lot (one other car had already done so).

After prepping, we walked up to the parking lot where we found a trailhead sign (Carter Summit Trailhead). From there, we walked down the trail and immediately came to an intersection. Straight ahead (uphill) is a trail to Hidden Lake. To the left and right is the PCT. We took the left fork, heading downhill on the PCT through the forest.

We encountered two backpackers coming toward us before we crossed a stream. Some views opened up, but much of the route here is still in forest as it starts to climb. After a little over a mile, we reached a subtle intersection. An unsigned trail headed off to the right. The book I had said that there would be a 4-way intersection, with a trail leading off to the left. Eventually I figured out that the trail to the left was now overgrown (we could see faint remnants of it under the grasses). So even though it was unsigned, I was fairly certain the trail to the right was the right one, and we took it.

Creek crossing

The trail now starts climbing more steeply through forest and ferns. Soon the trail breaks out of the forest into a beautiful meadow. At this point the trail disappeared in the meadow. Using the GPS and just looking at the terrain, we were able to figure out where the trail eventually ended up, and we eventually picked it up again. Just veer to the right and you'll find it. We crossed a stream (probably more than one, I can't remember anymore).

Into the meadow


Looking back at the meadow

The trail starts to climb fairly steeply again, and some parts of the trail here were muddy with water running downhill over the trail. On the nice side, it wasn't nearly as hot today, with some cloud cover and some cool breezes.

We reached a saddle, and then the trail descends slightly before flattening out upon reaching the lower South Fork Lake. We saw snow patches in the area, including one right near the shore. It's a pretty little lake pretty much surrounded by trees. We had lunch and skipped rocks and had the the lake all to ourselves.

Lower South Fork Lake

Lower South Fork Lake

The rest of my family waited here while I walked up to the upper lake. It took me all of 5 minutes to reach it. This second lake is slightly bigger, and perhaps prettier as well since it is backed by a mountain, a stream of snow leading down it to the water's edge. There's a camping area a little to the right of the outlet stream (which leads to the lower lake). However, there's not much shade near the actual shore, and I was glad we'd stopped at the first lake for lunch.

Upper South Fork Lake

Upper South Fork Lake

Upper South Fork Lake

Looking back at Upper South Fork Lake

I returned to the first lake, and then we started the return trip back the way we had come. We reached the intersection and turned left to rejoin the PCT. As we were descending on the PCT, we ran into a pair of backpackers, one of whom said they were trying to get 11 more miles in today. I looked at my watch and it read 4:57pm, but they looked like they'd packed light so maybe they could do it. We saw two more hikers shortly after that, one of whom looked like he was lugging a big bag, maybe a crash pad (for climbing), I'm not sure. I think that made the sum total of other people we saw on the trail 6.

Lower South Fork Lake

Reflections in Lower South Fork Lake

Descending back to the meadow

Descending back to the meadow

Back to the meadow

We skipped the parking lot on the way back, taking the PCT all the way to the highway (right where our car was parked). The PCT continues north on the opposite side of the highway. Before this trip I hadn't even known the PCT came this far west. Apparently it does a sharp left and crosses I-5 at Castle Crags State Park. Maybe someday we'll explore more of the PCT in this area. Castle Crags is another place on my list of places to visit in California.

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