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Caribou Wilderness

Backcountry Travelogues author badge for Phil Akers,

djacent to the eastern border of Lassen Volcanic National Park is a remote volcanic plateau on the eastern slopes of what was once Mt. Tehama. Cinder cones, crater peaks, old-growth forest, and azure lakes make up this 20,625 acre area, designated in 1964 as the Caribou Wilderness.

With an average elevation of 6,900 feet, the primary attractions of the Caribou Wilderness is backpacking, trail riding, climbing peaks and cinder cones, swimming, hunting, and fishing. There are 23 named lakes here -- easy walking distance of each other -- and many more unnamed small lakes, ponds, and tarns. Most of the trails are gentle, rolling…an excellent choice for beginners or introducing kids to wilderness travel.

Welcome to the Caribou Wilderness sign among the wilderness, photo by Phill Akers
Welcome to the Caribou Wilderness. Backpack into the heart of the area, set up a base camp, and explore it all for a few days.
Sandhill Crane in the green marsh, photo by Pill Akers
Caribou is home to a wide variety of birds, including birds of prey, waterfowl, and large wetland birds like this Sandhill Crane.
Susan river, photo by Pil Akers
Due to the high density of lakes in the region, it is easy to find solitude and good fishing. Nothing beats having a gorgeous mountain lake all to yourself.

The headwaters of the Susan River originate in the Caribou where continuous, high quality water percolates up through the porous volcanic aquifer year around. At 8,370 feet, Red Cinder is the highest point in the Caribou and the largest lakes are Triangle, Turnaround, and Long.

Shallow depression pond in the Caribou, photo by Phil Akers
The mosquitoes in the Caribou are legendary. Large volumes of water trapped in the numerous shallow depressions make prefect hatcheries.
Trail signs in the Caribou, photo by Phil Akers
The trails within the Caribou are sporting new signage. The routes are well marked and easy to follow.

Caribou clings to the southernmost part of the Cascade Range, next to a three-way juncture of major geologic provinces; the Cascade, Modoc Plateau, and the Sierra Nevada. Despite such close proximity to known geothermal resources in Lassen NP, experts do not believe geothermal potential within the Caribou region exist. To be certain would require drilling.

conical hills of cinder, photo by Phil Akers
It may look easy but climbing conical hills of cinder is laboring due to lousy footing in the loose pyroclastic fragments. For every two steps up you slide one back down.

Glacier carving and depressions formed the many splendid lakes. In normal snow years, these lakes may not thaw until well into June. Lakes deep enough to prevent winter kill hold brook and rainbow trout. I fished the southern portion of the wilderness and found some lakes a bit challenging due to shallow shorelines and the excessive amount of deadfall in the water. It is easy to get snagged! Generally, the deeper water and better fishing is on the shoreline opposite the trail, which often passes by the shallower side of lakes. If you are not catching fish at one lake just move on to another, the next lake is never far away, keep hunting an you will find them.

Dead fallen trees along Susan Lake shorelline, photo by Phil Akers
Dead and fallen trees fringe many of the lake’s shorelines.
Brook trout hanging from hook, photo by Phil Akers
The fishing is good for rainbow and brooke trout like this one kept for dinner. A fourteen-inch fish is a common catch in some lakes…hard fighting, coldwater trout. Larger lakes within the Caribou receive plants.

Permits: A wilderness permit is not needed but a valid campfire permit is required for use of fire or stoves, this includes trailhead camping, nearby roadless areas, and closed campgrounds open to dispersed camping rules. Hay Meadows trailhead didn’t have a trailhead registry, some folks are filling out their information on personal paper and placing in the box.

Dogs. Pooch is allowed and expected to be either on a leash or under voice control. Realize some Caribou trails cross over into Lassen NP where pooch is not allowed.

Trailheads. Located near popular Silver Lake, the Caribou trailhead provides access from the east and is the most used trailhead. Many day hikers from Silver Bowl and Rocky Knoll campgrounds explore the trails, lakes, and peaks, making this trailhead the most popular and traveled. In Westwood, turn on A-21 from Highway 36. Follow A-21 fourteen miles to a gravel road to the left marked Silver Lake. Proceed about six miles to the Caribou trailhead north of Silver Lake.

The Cone Lake trailhead is on the northern edge of the Caribou and there is an undeveloped campground and pit toilet. It is best accessed by following Highway 44 to Forest Road 10 -- the turnoff is just south of the Bogard Rest Area -- and follow this to Cone Lake Road and the trailhead. The route is well signed.

Hay Meadows trailhead provides a southern approach into Caribou. This is the trailhead I selected but wouldn’t recommend it unless fishing is your priority. There are too many deadfalls on the trails out of Hay Meadows, and taking stock is certainly out of the question. The southern portion of the wilderness has a history of tree mortality due to bark beetle -- all of the deadfall is constant proof. Incessantly working under, over, or around the extreme amount of deadfall dulls an otherwise wonderful hike. At the trailhead is some dispersed campsites, a pit toilet, and even a small corral. No signs of stock travel were present on the southern trails I traveled and again, don’t take a horse out of Hay Meadow until the trails are cleared. To reach the trailhead, turn north from Highway 36 on an unmarked road five miles east of Chester. Although the road isn’t marked, a snowmobile park sign is at the turnoff and road A-13 is directly across Highway 36. Once you turn on the unmarked road it immediately ends at a “T” intersection…turn left, then turn right in less than a mile. Follow this paved road called the “10 Road”, ignoring all gravel road turnoffs, until you see a sign directing you to turn left for Caribou Wilderness trailhead…which is Hay Meadow.

Bacon wrapped trout on a camp fire, photo by Phil Akers
After backpacking out of the wilderness, one last night at the trailhead campground, then home.

The Caribou Wilderness may not have the large scale grandeur of other wilderness areas, but what it brings to the table is easy access, good hunting and fishing, non-strenuous hiking (except for the deadfall areas), and solitude. I hope you can visit the Caribou for yourself. For those who cannot backpack or hike, limited to car camping but still long for solitude, check out the free campground at Echo Lake. Only another couple of miles down “The 10” from the trailhead, Echo is a very remote, primitive campground with a pit toilet, fire rings, and picnic tables. It is highly unlikely you’ll encounter another party while camping there. The lake is stunning and the fishing is good. Plan well, be safe, hurry up before the skeeters get serious, and experience the Caribou Wilderness.

Phil “Flip” Akers is a diverse angler and outdoor adventurer. For over 20 years he has backpacked, packed llamas and fly-fished the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, venturing into the farthest reaches of our wilderness areas pursuing quality trout and solitude. He enjoys sharing his experiences including tips, techniques, outdoor cooking recipes, and storytelling. He is certified in wilderness first response and rescue including swiftwater rescue, technical rope and technical animal rescue.

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