Nestled at the base of stunning granite cliffs, Trail Gulch Lake is a jewel of northern California’s Trinity Alps yet remains rather sparsely visited. This is all the more surprising since the short and relatively easy hike to the serene lake is easily accessible from the Carter Meadows area, situated just off paved Route 93 between Cecilville and Callahan. Some will climb to Trail Gulch Lake as part of a more difficult, nine-mile loop that combines Trail Gulch with its westerly cousin Long Gulch. But for those seeking a more modest walk, the out-and-back to Trail Gulch Lake is a worthy trip on its own. (Note: On many maps—including Google—Long Gulch Lake and Trail Gulch Lake are incorrectly switched; Trail Gulch is the easternmost of the two.)
To reach the trailhead in Klamath National Forest, follow Route 93 (Cecilville Road) southwest from Callahan, California, cresting Carter Meadows Summit at about mile 12. (Note: A number of excellent hikes begin from the trailhead at the summit, including a strenuous jaunt to South Fork Lakes.) About a half-mile beyond the summit, take the next left, following a wide gravel track toward Carter Meadows Campground. Instead of pulling into the campground, however, stay left on Forest Road 39N08, which wraps around Carter Meadows to the northern flank of the Trinity Alps. (Note: Technically this area is situated at the confluence of three ranges—the Trinity Alps, Scott Mountains, and Salmon Mountains.) Follow the dusty road for 1.5 miles to the Trail Gulch Trailhead, on the left. There is a large information board and orientation map at the trailhead.
The Trail Gulch Trail begins as a wide and easy stroll, climbing gently through a stand of Douglas firs. The old road-bed keeps its distance from Trail Gulch Creek off to the left, but the lovely stream occasionally comes into view. At ½ mile, there is a small open patch, but the trail quickly reenters the dense forest. Minutes later, the hike enters the Trinity Alps Wilderness, more than 500,000 acres of pure mountain bliss, the “hipster” of California wilderness, the Sierra Nevada with far fewer crowds.
After ¾ mile under a dense canopy of conifers, the trail abruptly enters an open and beautiful meadow, marred only by the boggy mud after recent rains or snowmelt. After passing a marshy area on the right, hikers will catch views of the craggy mountaintops to the west and east, the highest being an unnamed peak ahead that reaches 7,794 feet.
From here the trail traverses the sunny meadow and crosses Trail Gulch Creek, which, though not too challenging to traverse, can be above ankle deep during the spring snowmelt. Beyond the creek, the Trail Gulch Trail continues its southward tread, climbing more sharply through a red-fir forest. While not yet visible, a tributary creek can eventually be heard off to the left, while the main Trail Gulch Creek also remains temporarily shrouded from view. At about 1.25 miles, the trail crosses the tributary stream and then climbs a rocky traverse with window views to the south, down the valley toward the Salmon Mountains and Russian Wilderness area.
At this point, listen for the roar of Trail Gulch Creek and divert off to the right across an open meadow for a short detour to the hike’s best cascades, which, at least in spring, are thundering down the willow-choked hillside. Southward views to the Russian Wilderness from this spot are also excellent.
Returning to the trail, the single-track path continues to climb, switchbacking up a stony hillside. At 1.6 miles, the ascent eases and a marked track bears off to the right. This is the 4/10-mile spur trail to Trail Gulch Lake. (Note: The route to the high pass between Trail Gulch and Long Gulch continues off to the left.) Head right on this spur, which climbs mildly before leveling off, passing a tangle of creekside willows on the right.
At 1.8 miles, the trail crosses Trail Gulch Creek again—this time the stream is narrower and thus easier to avoid wet feet. From here it is a short and easy trek to the northern banks of Trail Gulch Lake.
The splendid, 14-acre lake is nestled in a glacial cirque at the base of near-vertical granite cliffs. Late into spring and early summer, snowbanks dot the southern flanks of the lake. On the near side, there are a couple nice potential campsites, while a smattering of logs and rocks offer a place to dip your feet in the chilly waters.
From here, adventurous hikers can hike back to the junction and bear right to continue on to Long Gulch Lake, but more casual day hikers should return the way they came, returning to the meadow and initial Douglas-fir forest before ending back at the trailhead. The round-trip out-and-back hike clocks in at just under four miles round-trip, enough to occupy a morning or afternoon in this beautiful corner of northern California.