Adventure in Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe comes in many forms
This story first appeared in 2015 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine, a product of the Sierra Sun, North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe Action. The magazine is available on newsstands throughout the greater Reno-Truckee-Tahoe region, so be sure to pick up a copy for your go-to guide to enjoying summer at America’s greatest playground.
Desolation Wilderness Facts
Size: 63,960 acres
Granted wilderness status: 1969
Major features: Lake Aloha, Pacific Crest Trail, Pyramid Peak
Regulations: Permits are required for overnight stays. They are available from the U.S. Forest Service. Campfires are prohibited. Bear canisters are recommended.
Getting there: Desolation is located southwest of Lake Tahoe, north of U.S. Highway 50. It’s accessible from all sides. The Pacific Crest Trail passes through the length of the wilderness, and its proximity to roads makes it one of the more easily accessible wildernesses in the Sierra.
For more information, visit the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit’s website: http://fs.usda.gov/ltbmu.
LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The stream wasn’t very big, but it flowed like a fire hose. I couldn’t go up and I couldn’t go down. The only way across was a 7-foot leap onto uneven granite. My pack suddenly felt a lot heavier and my boots less reliable.
I was two days into a three-day stay in Desolation Wilderness last summer. I had been wandering the southeast section when I decided what I needed to do was circumnavigate Lake Aloha. If you’ve ever seen the ragged edged body of water from above, you might guess this would be a long, confusing haul.
Desolation Wilderness sits just to the west of Lake Tahoe. The wilderness area is one of the most popular in the U.S. Filled with open granite basins and dotted with cold, clear mountain lakes, it’s a backpacker’s dream.
Half the fun is developing a route through the area that connects various points of interest. Some go for the summits, linking a combination of Pyramid, Mount Price, Jacks, Dicks and Tallac. Other hikers like to connect a series of lakes: Velma to Echo, Aloha to Azure, Gilmore to Fontanillis. The options are endless.
My goal had been developed after repeated trips to Aloha. I’d seen it nearly bone dry in the fall, brimming in the spring, frozen in the winter and perfect for swimming mid-summer. But I’d never walked around the entire thing, and I was especially curious about the western side where the Crystal Range drops steeply to the water’s edge.
Being it was June, snowmelt was still cascading off the slopes of Mount Price. Streams and waterfalls splashed their way into the lake from every direction. I’d crossed many. And I was tired of taking my boots off, freezing my feet to the bone and delaying my progress. Plus, it was getting dark. I decided to jump.
Solo backpacking should be undertaken with some measure of caution. Hazards like getting lost or breaking an ankle take on new gravity when you’re alone. But the real concern would be to be too careful. Caution will rarely take you to new places and to see new things.
“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go,” T.S. Elliott once said.
I flew through the air. The landing probably resembled a man-shaped asteroid meeting earth. I rolled into a soggy patch of moss and grass, water bottles ejecting from their outside pockets. This was not the desired objective.
I gathered my bottles, double checked my bones and continued my search for a decent place to string my hammock. The sun dropped behind the Sierra. The shadows turned the white granite blue.
Without a rocky hurdle in front of me, Desolation became Desolation again. The granite slabs seemed to open up and allow travel in any direction. I kept to the shoreline, never looking too far ahead.
Before the trip was over, I’d cross a sloping snowfield that dropped straight into the lake. I’d get lost on one of the long peninsulas. My stove failed to start. I dropped my towel in the water. And my sleeping pad failed to hold any meaningful amount of air. But I did finish the hike.
My grandma used to say, “Adventure is misery in retrospect.” By her standards, this turned out to be a fine adventure.
Dylan Silver is a Lake Tahoe-based freelance writer and photographer. Visit dylansilver.com to learn more.
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