Trip From Rat Trap Gap
Copyright © 2006-07
by Richard S. Platz, All
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Rat Trap Gap to North Yolla Bolly Lake
Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness
June 10-11, 2006
Photos by the Author and Barbara
"I'll wait here with the bears and the
Rat Trap Gap in not what it sounds like. No rats.
No traps. Not the hot, muggy, itching, bug-infested, claustrophobic
thicket of prickly brush, stinging nettles, and
sun stroke the name insinuates. Instead, a stately forest of
Douglas fir, sugar pine, and a spattering of red fir and incense
cedar presides over a broad, rolling open saddle that looks
like a well-maintained park. Each tree keeps its distance from
its neighbors with little or no underbrush. At 5900 feet, the
trailhead is a lovely place to camp, complete with pit toilet
and ample level spots to park a camper.
We were going to the Yolla Bollys again. Why?
Because, as usual, the high country to the north was closed
by lingering snow pack and creeks swollen with snow melt. By
telephone the rangers at Wildwood Station advised us that the
road to Rat Trap Gap was open and the trail to North Yolla Bolly
Lake was probably free of snow all the way. Probably.
No one had actually been up that way.
The better and shorter route to the trailhead,
Forest Service Road 35, was closed because a tree was down between
Stuart Gap and Rat Trap Gap. So instead, the ranger had recommended
we drop down into the Sacramento Valley on Highway 20, then
backtrack on FS Road 45, a rough, rocky, jarring 18-mile route
that climbed a wasteland of dusty, scrub-covered foothills before
entering the forest.
were compelled to rent a Dodge Grand Caravan because our full-sized
Ford van had burned up a few weeks earlier (see Burning
Van), but as it turned out, we were glad to be driving someone
else's vehicle over the rocky roads. After surmounting the grassy
knoll of Pattymocus Butte, the road entered a gradually thickening
forest. The snow-mottled twin domes of North Yolla Bolly and
Black Rock Peaks rose into view. We startled a rotund black
bear daydreaming on the road. So frantic was it to escape our
approach, its feet spit out puffs of dust and gravel as it fled.
The beast quickly disappeared down the steep mountainside.
When we arrived at the Rat Trap Gap campground,
the wasteland of drab foothills far below was clad in a gray
smog that cloaked the Sacramento Valley and obscured the Cascades
rising on the other side. To limber up, we hiked a quarter mile
further along the road that continues on to Tomhead lookout
and found a clear stream tumbling down the hillside and passing
through a culvert beneath the road. Barbara spotted a rare white-headed
woodpecker. We heard and saw olive-sided flycatchers, a resident
black-capped chickadee, and a chipping sparrow. After dinner
we climbed a rough track from the campground that rose toward
Rat Trap Ridge and offered a splendid view of Tomhead and snowy
North Yolla Bolly Peak. That night we slept on our backpacking
air mattresses in the back of the mini-van.
Saturday morning beneath patchy clouds we loaded
our backpacks and began climbing the Yolla Bolly Lake Trail.
Twice before we had camped at North Yolla Bolly Lake, most recently
in June of 2000, but had accessed it from Pettijohn Meadow at
the west end of this same trail. This time our route from the
east would ascend approximately a thousand feet and drop five
hundred in a little over three miles, a perfect warmup for our
first backpack of the season. Our trail began climbing a forested
knoll in tall mixed conifer forest in the Trinity National Forest,
then contouring along the north slope of the ridge that rose
westward toward North Yolla Bolly Peak. According to the map,
we would not enter the wilderness until we had hiked the first
No more than a half mile into the hike, after
rock-hopping across a small creek in a budding aspen grove,
Barbara spotted a fat, fresh morel mushroom in the duff along
the edge of the trail. We unstrapped our
packs to look for more on the steep forested slope. They were
hiding on both sides of the trail. We collected a total of eleven
fine specimens for dinner. (On the way out we would find a twelfth
very large morel in the same vicinity.)
route crossed three more streams, each more swollen with Spring
runnoff than the last. The first two I forded in my hiking boots
and managed to rock-hop and splash across without shipping any
water. Barbara's knee was unstable from an injury suffered during
the van fire, so she took the precaution of wading across in
her water shoes.
We had still not reached the wilderness boundary
when the roar of a mighty cascade began to swell. We emerged
from the undulating forest slopes at a seam of rock that ascended
toward the east face of the abrupt greenschist massif of North
Yolla Bolly Peak. Down the canyon of water-smoothed
bedrock crashed a frightening torrent of whitewater. The trail
seemed to lead dead ahead into a blind tangle of willows surrounding
I clawed through the brush and branches to the creek's edge.
A crossing there would be chaotic and perilous. One misstep
on the slippery rock might result in a tumble into the pounding
cascade, serious injury, and maybe death. Up and down the jumble
of boulders I scrabbled, looking for the trail to emerge on
the opposite bank, but found no crossing safe enough to risk
our lives on.
Stymied, I rejoined Barbara on the rocky ledge
overlooking the creek, where we surveyed the terrain and pondered
the real possibility of having to retreat to the car like whipped
puppies. The ledge offered a fine view across a forested valley
to the next ridge north. A well-made fire ring had been built
on the horizontal rock face. The place would provide a fine
consolation campsite (N 40 12' 01", W 122 57' 24").
But on the far side of the impassible creek, high on the forbidden
sidewall of the canyon, our trail appeared to continue along
a wide contour of slickrock ledge rising northward along an
exposed flank of the mountain.
"How the hell are we supposed to get over
there?" I wanted to know.
I do not remember who saw the switchback first.
Mesmerized by the cacophony of thundering water, we had overlooked
a sharp dogleg where a path cut back beneath the outreaching
branches of a grove of moss-clad maples and, hidden by their
broad leaves, zig-zagged steeply up the rocky defile. Perhaps
that was the main trail. Leaving my backpack with Barbara,
I climbed up to investigate. A hundred feet above, the path
veered right to a flat, gravel-bottomed stream-crossing, no
more than calf-deep. On the far bank, a well-defined trail continued
onward. Upstream, surging around the corpse of a great fallen
log, an awesome waterfall thundered. Below lay the dangerously
tumbling turmoil I had been seeking to avoid.
We lugged our backpacks up the slope. Barbara
looked the crossing over, then began unlacing her boots. "I
think I can do it."
The carrying power of moving water is directly
proportional to the cube of its velocity, so even a knee-deep
stream can be powerful and treacherous. With our hip belts unclasped
so we could wriggle free of our backpacks should we be washed
over the rock lip into the pounding rapids below, with our hiking
boots dangling from our necks like pendulous buckets of ballast,
we poked and probed with our walking sticks at the migrating
gravel bottom as we inched our way through the swift, icy current.
Once safely across, we dried our toes on the shanks of our wool
socks and hung our dripping water shoes from our backpacks.
creek crossing should have marked the boundary into the wilderness.
There we left behind the gentle path meandering through forest
and meadow and began to ascend a track scratched into the bedrock
face high above the descending canyon. The trail climbed steeply
up the exposed mountainside before dipping into a high forested
valley of giant rounded boulders, pried loose long ago from
the altered mafic cliffs and spires of the glaciated north face
of North Yolla Bolly Mountain. Among these fallen metamorphic
monoliths, some as huge as small houses, the trail wound up
the alpine valley as through a modern sculpture gallery. Immediately
we came to the trunk of a massive tree fallen squarely across
the trail. The five-foot barrier lay just beyond a sign marking
the wilderness boundary, as if intentionally placed there by
the giants inhabiting this valley.
A rough track had been bushwhacked by previous
travelers around one end of the log, and along it we waded through
branches and brush until we could return to the trail on the
other side. Smaller logs had also fallen across our path, but
they were more easily crossed. Trail crews had apparently not
ventured into this corner of the wilderness for a long time.
through the trees we soon beheld our final obstacle. The head
of the valley lay buried beneath brilliant white snowdrifts.
Leaving my backpack with Barbara, I ventured across the snow
to see if I could find where the trail emerged above. The crust
had thawed and refrozen into a glaze that supported my weight.
There were no footprints to follow, but I kept watch along each
side of the drifts lest the trail concealed beneath might veer
away from the line of the valley floor. In time I arrived at
the headwall of the valley, where the trail emerged to climb
the slope angling north.
"I found the trail," I radioed Barbara,
"but I'm going to follow it on up to the lake to see if
there's any more snow we can't get around. Can't be more than
a half mile."
"All right." She responded. "I'll
wait here with the bears and the pumas. Take your time."
The trail climbed to a ridge crest, then circled
back into a dark, north-facing canyon where it continued to
ascend toward another crest. I could hear water tumbling somewhere
across the canyon. Near
the top were more patches of snow that reached down like dying
fingers to cross the trail, but even on the steep slope I detoured
around them without much difficulty. A week ago, this route
was probably impassable without crampons. At the final crest
I found myself standing at the outlet of the lake. Water swirled
through an easy rock crossing before cascading down into the
valley. Snow lingered on the shady north face of North Yolla
Bolly Peak, which rose abruptly above the water, but the more
gentle lower slopes that embraced the lake were free of snow.
We would have no trouble finding a campsite.
We lugged our heavy backpacks up the trail that
seemed to have grown steeper. The snow portages no longer seemed
quite so easy. On the moraine above the outlet stream, where
we had seen others camping years before, we searched for a campsite,
but among the rocks and brush found nothing smooth and level
enough to suit our tastes. So we continued on the trail around
the small lake to our old campsite in a tall mixed-conifer grove
on the west shore of the lake, where someone had cut and filled
a narrow tent site into the bank between the trail and the water
(N 40 12' 17.5", W 122 58' 05").
lake was beautiful and quiet. It felt intimate, stark, and pristine,
really too small for more than one group of campers at a time.
Fortunately, we were alone, perhaps the first visitors of the
season. To the south, above a treeless pitch of snow fields
and tumbled boulders, towered a sheer bedrock rock shoulder
of North Yolla Bolly Peak. Across the reflecting water to the
southwest loomed three naked spires, cleavers of greenstone
that rose like the mother of all stone deities, perhaps conjured
here from Machu Picchu or levitated from Easter Island. Behind
us on the steep, forested, western slope of the cirque, the
trail switch-backed up through dense forest toward a bright
rocky outcropping high above, whence it would begin its long
descent through nodding Brewer spruce, fir, and pine to the
headwaters of the South Fork of the Trinity River at Pettijohn
We set up our tent and I converted the large
stone campfire ring to accommodate our small grill. Then we
explored the area, remembering some features and discovering
many more as if for the first time. Six years had passed since
we last camped there. Across the placid water snow banks reached
down to the water, so we did not consider a dip. I spread the
extra tarp over the pile of firewood we collected, just in case
the passing clouds might defy the weatherman and produce rain
overnight. As twilight fell it grew cool, so we retired into
the tent early.
Sunday morning was crisp. Wisps of mist rose
from the water. The sun was slow to rise above the walls of
the cirque. At first the weather looked good, and we lounged
around camp drinking tea and mocha and eating a leisurely breakfast.
Then clouds began drifting in from the west bearing the smell
and feel of rain. The weather radio assured us of only a "slight
chance of afternoon thunderstorms," but we knew the report
was meant for the valley dwellers far below, huddled together
like warm, dry sheep. Like magnets, the high peaks drew in rain
clouds, shredded them on razor-sharp spires, and wrung out their
moisture. And we were camped among the highest.
We decided to hike out. A single night on the
ground was short, but better than enduring a cold, wet, and
miserable second one.
The snow drifts in the valley of giant boulders
and first frightful water crossing had, with familiarity, lost
some of their menace. We carefully recrossed them both. On the
forest trail beyond the cascade, hail began to pummel us, and
the temperature plummeted. Our breath came out in white puffs.
Then came drenching rain. We stopped to help each other drape
rain ponchos over ourselves and our backpacks. Our fingers grew
numb on our trekking poles. The last two creeks we splashed
across without changing shoes. We did stop, however, to pluck
that last large morel from the duff, and even spent a few minutes
in the rain looking for more.
Trap Gap campground glistened in the chilly air. Long, vertical
threads of drizzle hung from the bruised sky like a valance,
but in the distance far below, the Sacramento Valley glowed
in full sunshine. There was no shelter there for us, so we quickly
piled our wet gear into the minivan and headed down the rough
forest road toward the light. When we had dropped below the
precipitation, we glanced back to see fog and black clouds descending
over North Yolla Bolly Peak. Somewhere up there it was probably
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