Thompson Peak is the crown jewel of the Trinity Alps Wilderness in Northern California. I set out from home in Medford, Oregon on Friday September 2, 2005 with the goal of climbing a few California Prominence Peaks before climbing Thompson the next day. Friday went well and I tagged Cottonwood Peak, Bonanza King, and drove to the top of Hayfork Bally.
I then drove to the trailhead for Thompson Peak and arrived at the China Gulch trailhead (elevation 4,800 ft) about 10:00PM. I quickly crawled into the back of my truck and went to sleep. Early the next morning I packed my stuff, and readied myself for a long day of hiking. I left the trailhead about 6:15AM.
The “trail” follows an old road bed for about ½ mile and then you hit the Wilderness Boundary. The roadbed ends and the real trail continued into the forest. The trail switchbacked up to a ridge line. This is the Hunters Camp at about 5,800 ft elevation. I took off my long sleeve shirt after getting warmed up and headed down the other side of the ridge towards Grizzly Creek. The trail drops 1,200 ft going down to the creek and that is where you meet the trail coming in from Hobo Gulch.
I took a left at this point and headed up the Grizzly Creek Canyon. This is a beautiful area along the creek. You can’t see the creek from the trail, but you can hear it. This is an old growth timber area that has huge Sugar Pines, Ponderosa Pines, Douglas Firs, and Red Cedar along the trail. Some of these trees are over 6 ft in diameter. I passed a couple of campsites along this portion of the trail and there were a few campers who were busy with their morning routine.
After a few miles the trail gains some elevation and works out of the old growth area and then right next to the creek. I passed a couple of nice water falls and continued up the trail. Soon, I was treated with my first glimpse of Thompson Peak. What a beautiful sight with the permanent snow and glacier seeming to “hang” below the peak and above the valley I was walking through.
I continued up the Grizzly Creek Valley and soon could see the Meadows ahead of me and a wonderful waterfall coming from the outlet of Grizzly Lake. The Meadows is at about 6,200 ft elevation and the lake is at about 7,100 ft elevation. The water fall cascades down from the lake with a clear drop of at least 250ft and then subsequent falls bringing it down to about 6,600 ft where the water disappears under a rocky basin. The creek re-emerges in Grizzly Meadows and appears to be crystal clear pure drinking water.
At this point, I deviated from the normal route and decided to take a cross country route up to the lake. This was a mistake. Stay on the trail! I saw that there is kind of a ramp heading up the right side of this basin below the waterfall. It didn’t look any more difficult than the path heading up the left side. It would have been a good choice except the talus was pretty loose. I almost got pinned by a “rock” the size of a small cow. I was only about 1/3 of the way up to the ridge line above the Grizzly Meadows when this rock slid down towards me and hit my ankle. Fortunately, I wear high leather boots and I was able to pull my foot out. After that incident, I considered turning around and heading down, but I’m pretty stubborn and continued.
At the top of this ridge, I could finally see Grizzly Lake. I was high above it on the south end. I continued up this south ridge and could see the low point in the upper ridge that leads up to Thompson Peak. I continued up this ridge line up to the base of point 8651 on the topo. I could see there was no way I was going to get on top of point 8651 and then walk the ridge line to Thompson from there, so I down climbed a steep cliff to the scree below the ridge. I crossed the talus and scree all the way over to where the climber’s route comes up from Grizzly Lake. The footing was better on the climber’s route but it still wasn’t good. There is lots of scree this last bit to the ridgeline.
Once at the ridge line that leads to Thompson Peak, the view is marvelous. I could see the south and west expanse of the Trinity Alps Wilderness. I followed the ridgeline to the south east to Thompson Peak. There are many different routes here and it is easy to lose whatever trail there is. I kept ending up high on the ridge climbing over boulders. The “trail” seemed to be about 100 ft down the ridge towards the south west. In any event I kept making progress towards the summit.
Near the summit it becomes steeper and I found myself climbing boulders on the ridge line. After 2 false summit boulders I could finally see the next one was higher and the last one on the ridge. I had to down climb about 20 ft before going back up to the summit. There is a nice scramble to get on top of the highest rock. I took lots of pictures and signed the register.
The glacier below me towards Grizzly Lake had several crevasses and a large bergschrund on the upper side. I entertained the idea of visiting this area on the way down, but decided my day was going to be long enough as it was.
I ate my lunch because it had been about 6 ½ hours since I left the trailhead. Returning to the trailhead, I vowed to stay on the trail and give my now swollen ankle a break. I returned down the ridge line from the summit the way I had come up and then found the climbers trail heading down to the lake. The top part of this trail is a lot of scree. Then I lost the trail in a talus field for a couple hundred feet before picking it up again in some more scree. It was easy to pick my way down the slope towards the lake. About half way down the trail ran out, but that was okay. It was easier walking with lots of wildflowers and grasses between the rocks.
About 300 ft above the lake I started heading to my left as I descended so that I could get down to the lake near its north shore. There were 3 guys fishing and camping near the west end of the lake and one caught a trout just as I was passing by. I noticed there were several campsites in the north shore of Grizzly Lake. I continued down and along Grizzly Lake to the outlet and falls. I took a few minutes to take some pictures of the falls and then jumped across the outlet to continue.
I followed the climber’s trail that descends on the east side of the falls to Grizzly Meadows. The trail is quite steep in spots, but is easy to follow. There are cairns about every 20 ft so it would be hard to lose the trail unless it was covered with snow.
Once down in the shade in Grizzly Meadows, I took a break, changed my socks, ate some more and rehydrated. All I had now was about a 3 hour hike back to the car. The hike out was uneventful. I met about 20 hikers along the trail, all heading up to Grizzly Lake for Labor Day. The tough part was climbing the 1,200 ft from Grizzly Creek back up to the top of the ridge at Hunters Camp.
I got back to the trailhead at about 7:00PM having hiked about 19 miles and gained 7,200ft. It was a long dayhike, but magnificent scenery.