Monday, September 30, 2013

Desolation Wilderness: Sierra Nevada's hiking paradise above Lake Tahoe

By Elliott Almond

THE NAME Desolation Wilderness conjures images of an unreachable, hellish corner of Death Valley. Instead, the massive granite basin is one of the most popular backpacking locales in the northern Sierra Nevada. Rising above Lake Tahoe from the southwest and buttressed by the Crystal Range to the west, the jagged rocky terrain is a hiker’s playground.

I had wanted to visit the region for more than a decade, and finally got the chance recently when a friend invited me to join him on one of his, shall I say, “concoctions.” For the record: Tom despises well-maintained, regularly traveled footpaths. He has been known to pour over computerized topography maps trying to design routes that take him far from the sounds of humans. In the past three decades he has spent enough time in the Desolation Wilderness to talk fluently about the various peaks, valleys and glacial lakes.

For our daylong trip on this early autumn day Tom devised a point-to-point hike that kept us on trail for almost the whole time. The plan was to start at the Eagle Lake trailhead off Highway 89 above Emerald Bay and finish at Glen Alpine Falls at Fallen Leaf Lake. Adding to the logistics, we had to arrange a pick up at the end to shuttle us to our car at the starting point.

Tom had a playbook of topo maps and a GPS set to waypoints to mark every step. Remarkably, it all worked as we tramped about 13 miles through the wilderness over Dicks Pass on a brilliant, cool day.

Below represents a photo essay of our adventure in the Des Wil.

Our route took us straight up the Eagle Lake trail. It was no warmer than 30 degrees when we started but clear and calm. While we passed a handful of beautiful alpine watering holes we stayed along the ridge above almost all of them. Tom ingeniously planned the hike in a direction to ensure we were not exposed to a brutal sun while trekking up to a 9,200-foot passageway.

After the long ascent above Eagle Lake we reached a ridge that took us to the Velma Lakes to the west. Otherwise, the trail loops back down to the Bayview Campground. We caught a breather along the ridge while getting deep in the wilderness area. Instead of following the trail to the Velmas we turned south toward 9,874-foot Dicks Peak, whose north face already had the first blush of a wintry blanket of snow.

After the respite in the high granite valley we started the long, arduous ascent to Dicks Pass. The final photo looks back above two of the Velmas.

Even as we gained elevation it didn't seem possible that we could reach Dicks Peak by our designated time.

Dicks Lake

Then with some more huffing and puffing we suddenly were looking down upon Dicks Lake after crossing the turnoff to Fontanillis Lake. At this point, we were on the famous Pacific Crest Trail that intersects with the Tahoe Rim Trail. I hiked along another segment of the PCT in July at Mount Rainier National Park. (see Rainier blog entry).

Mt. Tallac

Dicks Peak

Pyramid Peak, at 9,983 feet is highest point in Desolation Wilderness

Echo Peak with Angora Peak on the same ridge to the left pops out in distance
The highlight of our day was an easy cross-country hoof to the so-called "Janine Peak", the unnamed 9,579-foot summit above Kalmia Lake. Tom's research discovered the side trip that proved to be our perfect lunch spot with 360-degree views of the wilderness, including the Maggies Peaks, Mt. Tallac, Pyramid Peak, more crystalline lakes as well as Lake Tahoe and perhaps all the way to the White Mountains.

More views from "Janine," with Jacks Peak in the foreground and Pyramid in the distance in the first photo. A closer view of Mt. Tallac, a favorite half-day hike among Tahoe locals. The short ascent to our summit seemed to be my undoing as I started feeling mild symptoms of altitude sickness despite drinking plenty of water and eating. It was nothing to spoil the adventure but I suffered from an annoying headache the rest of the trek.

Tom took an extra moment atop "Janine" to soak in the splendor.

We popped down "Janine" and rejoined the PCT at Dicks Pass. There, we had up-close views of Dicks and Fontanillis lakes. The lakes are favorite destinations for overnight backpackers though there are few designated camping sites.

We came to the cutoff for Dicks Peak but were at the halfway point of our journey at best. The scramble up the backside of the peak didn't look too extreme but we weren't going to deviate from our allotted time for the hike. We didn't want to navigate the scree in the dark as we descended to Fallen Leaf Lake. Tom and I agreed that the backside of the hike eventually was reduced to a slog. Perhaps our feelings were skewed by fatigue. But after we passed Gilmore Lake we descended into a never-ending canyon. The trailhead at Glen Alpine Falls finally appears but the parking lot does not. We had to continue picking our way through rough terrain for what seemed to be almost two more miles before we arrived at the terminus.

Here is one of the topo maps Tom created for our journey: