From September 7-12, 2002, I backpacked within the granite and alpine heart of Desolation Wilderness, the site of my first solo backpacking trip two years ago. After some further excursions to Henry W. Coe State Park, the Lost Coast, the Russian River, and Big Basin, it was time to return to my roots.
63,960 acres of “subalpine and alpine forest, granitic peaks, and glacially-formed valleys and lakes” cover Desolation Wilderness, which was declared a national wilderness in 1969. Portions of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Tahoe Rim Trail intersect with the wilderness, which is located next to South Lake Tahoe. According to the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, it’s the most heavily used wilderness area per acre in the United States.
Table of Contents
- Map and Route
- Photography Thoughts
- Photo Gallery
I pared down my pack to the bare essentials in anticipation of lugging around a sizeable amount of photography gear. Left behind was the bug juice, the citronella candle, the extra fuel canister, the small pot, fork, rope, and various other items. I was tempted to bivy sac it for five nights, but Rae convinced me that the comfort of the tent was worth the extra weight. With food, my pack weighed in around 35 pounds (without water). My photography gear tipped the scale around 20 pounds, which brought the final weight of my pack between 55-59 pounds. Ugh! I’m still very amazed by the accounts of these ultralight backpackers. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a base pack weight of 8.5 to 10 pounds, but it sure sounds nice!
Here’s a list of my backpacking gear:
Lightweight backpacking and serious photography mix about as well as oil and water. My equipment being heavy and power hungry, I was slightly tempted to go from digital to film for the trip. In the end, I decided that having any number of digital photos would be preferable to developing and scanning film. Battery life was my biggest concern, but the three batteries I brought lasted the entire six days. Much of my photo gear was stowed in the Domke F-3XB bag that I slung around the top of the LoweAlpine Contour IV pack.
Okay, enough about equipment. Let’s get on with the trip report!
Map and Route
Here is a map of the route that I took during my trip (click for a larger image). The last time I was in Desolation, I stayed at Gilmore Lake, Camper Flat, Lake Doris, Clyde Lake, and Susie Lake. This time around, one of my goals was to spend the evening at different locations.
Day 1: Glen Alpine to Gilmore Lake
The drive up to South Lake Tahoe took about 4 hours from the Bay Area and was thankfully uneventful. I picked up my wilderness permit from the Lake Tahoe Visitor Center near Fallen Leaf. While I hear that wilderness permits used to be free, I didn’t mind paying the $10 fee. After all, that price gives backpackers over 63,000 acres of wilderness to call home! Try that at the local Motel 6 or the Marriott!
In between the Glen Alpine Trailhead and the wilderness boundary is the Soda Spring. It was here where I filled my water bottle with the brownish-colored carbonated country water. In addition to carbonic acid, the water at the spring also includes calcium carbonate, sodium carbonate, sodium chloride and calcium sulphate. It’s certainly no competition for Perrier, but the water satisfied my thirst up to Gilmore Lake.
The 3.9 mile hike up to Gilmore has always been tiring for me. I chalk it up to three factors: (1) my pack is at its heaviest, (2) there’s a 1440 feet gain in elevation between Glen Alpine and Gilmore, and (3) the altitude. I ran into a number of people who were on day trips up to and down from Mt. Tallac, along with some hikers (i.e. Jason) on the way to Gilmore for the evening.
After reaching the lake and setting up my camp, I started the ascent up to Mt. Tallac. I turned back when the sun started to go down and I realized that I would be descending in darkness. It can be difficult to see a trail in the dark, and I didn’t fancy the idea of getting lost on my first night in the wilderness. I ate my dinner in the dying light before turning in for the night. Unlike the last time I stayed at Gilmore, there were no pack of howling coyotes to make the evening especially memorable!
Day 2: Gilmore Lake to Dick’s Peak and Fontanillis Lake
Getting accustomed to sleeping in the backcountry typically takes a few nights. My first evening was fairly restless, and I woke up numerous times throughout the night to the sound of my beating heart and the rustling of some furry creatures outside of my tent. It’s hard to get comfortable in a mummy sleeping bag in the middle of the night!
I started hiking late by my standards around 9:45 am. I initially wanted to do a dayhike up to Mt. Tallac, but I decided to make an ascent up Dick’s Peak, since it was on the way to the day’s final destination, Fontanillis Lake. A few hours after I left Gilmore, I arrived at the primitive trail to Dick’s Peak. I stashed my pack behind some trees and took only my photo gear with me up the 800 foot ascent.
At 9974 feet, the view from Dick’s Peak makes me wish I could fly. The view of the Lake Tahoe basin is truly incredible. There’s even a rock ring for those adventurous enough to spend the evening atop Dick’s. That’s something that I’ll be game to do one of these days. I bet evening sky would look absolutely amazing.
I stayed atop Dick’s Peak for an hour, chatting with Derek and some other hikers who had made their way up. Derek informed me that Agassi and Sampras were playing in the U.S. Open that day. For the next several days, I kept wondering who had won! Although I wanted Agassi to win, it was still nice to see Sampras back in the winner’s circle; he’s certainly endured his share of premature obituaries in the tennis media the past several months. I was also curious to see how my Chargers fared against the Bengals. Little did I know they were slaughtering the hapless Bengals on the gridiron!
Dick’s Pass wasn’t as difficult as I remember it being, but it’s still no cakewalk with 50-60 pounds of gear on your back. I really took advantage of my wooden hiking sticks, which helped to lessen the load on my legs and knees while climbing onward and upward.
The hike down to Dick’s Lake and Fontanillis went by pretty quickly once I left behind the switchbacks of Dick’s Pass. There are a number of great campsites at Fontanillis Lake. If you ever stay there, be sure to investigate the area around where the trail meets up with the lake.
Day 3: Fontanillis Lake to Leland Lakes
I had another evening of tossing and turning in my sleeping bag before the sun rose on Day 3 in Desolation. I was packing up and taking photographs around 8:50 am when the pack of women who were staying at Dick’s Lake the previous evening passed me by. I never saw them again, so I wonder which route they took. I definitely noticed a greater number of people in Desolation Wilderness this time around.
Originally, I wanted do take the McConnell Lake Trail from Camper Flat, located to the west of Fontanillis. Along Camper Flat, I met two hikers from New Hampshire who had been doing the loop earlier in the morning. They recommended that I stay at Leland Lakes for the evening instead of McConnell Lake. Based on their recommendation, I hiked toward Lake Schmidell instead of the 4-Q Lakes upon reaching Camper Flat. Between Schmidell and the Leland Lakes is a killer climb of 500 feet in three-quarters of a mile. Already tired from the 1200 feet of climbing from Camper Flat to Schmidell, I slowly trudged my way up between Red Peak (9307 feet) and the unnamed peak (8654 feet) to the north of Schmidell. I had a nice conversation between a father and daughter hiker combo, who were returning from a dayhike to the Leland Lakes.
I think a lake’s perceived beauty is directly proportional to how difficult it is to reach them. After cresting the top of the pass, I was greeted with a wonderful and expansive view of the Leland Lakes, along with a 400 foot, switchback-laden drop to the waterfront.
I took up some prime real-estate along the beach of Leland Lakes. My beachfront property gave me a great view of the stars in the evening, and I was able to get a nice shot of the Ursa Major (aka the Big Dipper) that night. After I had set up camp, I hiked without my gear around the entire lake. It was nice just to walk unburdened by a pack. Leland Lakes reside in a remote area in the NW section of Desolation Wilderness, so there’s few people there. I highly recommend spending a night there if you come to Desolation!
Day 4: Leland Lakes to Susie Lake
It seems like everytime I come to Desolation, there’s one day which I aptly term the “day of the pack mule.” I use that term to describe a day where I’m hiking for hours on end, mile after mile. Day 4 from the Leland Lakes to Susie Lake was my pack mule day for the trip. Originally, I was going to follow the McConnell Trail back to Camper Flat and descend down to China Flat for the evening, but I was concerned about how long that would have taken me. I ultimately decided to return back to Schmidell and to head to China Flat via the Blakely Schmidell Trail.
At the trailhead to Lake Schmidell, I ran into Andrew, Ezra, Hutch, and John, with whom I hiked down to China Flat and beyond. We made very good time, and we decided to truck it past Clyde Lake all the way to Aloha Lake. That long hike changed my schedule a bit, since I wasn’t planning on being on the other side of Mosquito Pass until the next day. That change turned out to be a very good one, since I had a great time hiking with and talking to Andrew, Ezra, Hutch, and John.
I hiked alone to Susie Lake after saying my goodbyes to Andrew and company at the corner of Lake Aloha. By the time that I reached Susie Lake, I had been hiking for nearly nine hours! I wanted to stay at the place where Bruce and I had dinner two years ago, a bluff overlooking the valley containing Grass Lake, but I couldn’t find it. I settled for a small campsite where the trail tails away from Susie Lake on the way to the Glen Alpine and Gilmore Lake.
When I finally set up my campsite, I nearly collapsed, as I was soooo tired from all the hiking. I don’t know what the mileage was for the day, but it was very, very long. I eagerly scarfed down my ramen for the evening before going to sleep. It was the best sleep that I had all week.
Day 5: Backcountry dayhiking to Jabu Lake
On Tuesday morning, I woke up early to continue my search for that valleyfront property Bruce and I were before. I found it within minutes of jumping on the trail back towards Susie and Heather Lakes. On the Lake Heather side of Susie Lake’s stream crossing, you’ll see a row of rocks to your right. If you follow the trail beyond them, you’ll descend to a bluff that offers a fantastic view of the valley overlooking Grass Lake. Forget the lakefront, the valleyfront is the best place to stay at Susie Lake! I raced back to my campsite, where it took me ten minutes to take down my tent and pack up my backpack. Ten more minutes later, I was back at the bluff setting up my camp for the day.
For the day, I did a day hike from Susie Lake to Lake Jabu, which was recommended by those two hikers from New Hampshire I met on Sunday. I decided, however, to take the backcountry route to Jabu from Susie Lake. Instead of following the Pacific Crest Trail to the PCT-Aloha Trailhead, I took the rugged valley route overlooking Grass Lake. It was a tough and technical hike to Jabu this way, taking me 4.5 hours to reach the top of Jabu Lake. I didn’t make it to the top of the Cracked Crag (8782 feet), but I can’t see how the view could have been much better from atop Jabu.
It took me less than two hours to return to my campsite at Susie Lake via the known trails from Jabu Lake. In the evening, I gorged on what remaining food I had left in my food bag and took a number of night photographs.
The only drawback that I can think of from the day was not having enough water. On these long hikes, you really need to stay well hydrated.
Day 6: Susie Lake to Glen Alpine
My last night of restless sleep had me waking up around 5:00 am on Thursday morning. The sun had not yet broken through the horizon, and the Orion Constellation was to the East of my tent. I took my final night photos before getting up for the day. I had a filling breakfast before packing up and heading towards the Glen Alpine Trail. I ran into Bob on the switchbacks towards Grass Lake, and the two of us continued our descent while talking about junipers and Bob’s life history.
Eventually, I made it back to my car at the Glen Alpine Trailhead. Six days in the wilderness completed! Overall, I found my time in Desolation to be both intense and invigorating. There’s something about being in the wilderness which refreshes both the mind and the body.
Your Safeway Club Card is useless in the wilderness, and there’s no corner market to hit late in the evening. All the food that you’re going to eat on the trip has got to go in your pack. Since I’ve been on a number of trips over the past two years, I knew exactly how much food to bring. It’s a good idea to bring an extra day’s worth of food on a trip, as you never know when bad weather will cause you to be off schedule. For water, I used my PUR Hiker microfilter, which worked great to rid my drinking and cooking water of giardia, cryptosporidium and other unsavory bacteria.
Here’s what I ate over the course of six days:
- Day 1: Clif Bar and Bananas (Lunch), Alpine Aire Beef Stroganoff (Dinner)
- Day 2: Ramen (Breakfast), Clif Bar (Lunch), Ramen (Dinner)
- Day 3: Clif Bar and Lipton Chicken Noodles (Breakfast), Clif Bar (Lunch), Mountain High Potatoes and Beef (Dinner)
- Day 4: Clif Bar (Breakfast), Clif Bar (Lunch), Ramen (Dinner)
- Day 5: Clif Bar (Breakfast), Clif Bar (Lunch), Mountain High Noodles and Chicken (Dinner)
- Day 6: Ramen (Breakfast), Clif Bar (Lunch)
I was rarely hungry except during the time before dinner. The Clif Bars satisfied my cravings during the day while hiking and anything that I scarfed down during dinner filled me up while tasting great. I found that freeze-dried foods to be a little on the expensive side for what they provide. I think I would have been fine eating just ramen and the Lipton noodle dishes the entire trip.
Bears are present in Desolation Wilderness, but they tend to stay in the lower areas around Echo Lake, since that’s where more humans and food are located. For this trip, I brought along an Ursack, a bear-resistant bag made from aramid fibers, the same fabric used to make bulletproof vests. In the evenings, I tied the food-laden Ursack to a tree and was confident that no bears or rodents would be having a scrumptious dinner on my behalf.
Note: Ursack is not approved for use in places such as Yosemite or Sequoia National Park. You’ll have to bring a Garcia Bear Canister or other approved food storage device if you’re planning to go there.
Like the previous time I visited Desolation Wilderness, I met people of all ages, sizes, and backgrounds during my stay. Many of them helped to make the trip much more interesting and memorable.
Clearly struggling under the weight of my heavy pack, I was passed on the way to Gilmore Lake by Jason. He was doing an overnight at Gilmore with a MountainSmith hip pack with about 20lbs of gear. I was certainly envious of his speed as I slowly made my way up switchback after switchback to Gilmore. We both stayed at Gilmore Lake for the evening. The next morning, he ascended Mt. Tallac while I slept and packed up my camp in preparations for my journey to Dick’s Peak and Fontanillis.
Atop Dick’s Peak was Derek, a former Bay Area resident now living in Reno. Below is a picture of Derek calling his wife at 9974 feet! Derek informed me that line of sight might be beneficial for getting good cell phone reception. Maybe that’s why my phone didn’t work the last time I was in Desolation!
David was taking a photo break at the trailhead to Dick’s Pass when I hiked into him. From New York, David was heading down the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail on the way to Yosemite, 150 miles away! He said that he resupplied every 7 days or so. He recounted a funny story about these ultralight backpackers who suffered in the evenings swatting away bugs while he slept peacefully in his bug-free tent. Hmmm… maybe there is a drawback to ultralight backpacking, no?
Andrew, Ezra, Hutch, and John
At the trailhead to Lake Schmidell following my night at Leland Lakes, I started hiking with Andrew, his son Ezra, and Ezra’s friends, Hutch and John down to Lake Aloha. I found out that Ezra and Hutch worked on the production of Red Dragon and HBO’s The Wire. Cool!
On such a long hike down from Schmidell to Lake Aloha, it was good to have been able to hike with and talk to somebody. I enjoyed my time speaking with the four of them until we split off at the trailhead near Aloha.
I bumped into Bob as he was hiking to Lake Aloha in search of a rare form of Juniper plant that grew in isolated areas of Desolation Wilderness. I found out that Bob’s 79 years old and retired living near Marshall Station in Fresno. He was a pilot in WWII, flying a few missions in an A20 in the Pacific Theater.
While hiking back from Jabu Lake, I ran into Lucky, his two sons, and his daughter-in-law at Heather Lake. They were looking for a campsite to stay for the evening and asked me some questions about the sites along Heather and Susie Lake. Turns out Lucky is a fellow Mountain View resident and his son and daughter-in-law were from San Diego!
A tripod is an indispensable item for any backpacking trip. Yes, they can be heavy, believe me, they are worth it! My Gitzo G1128 and Acratech Ultimate Ballhead combination weighed in at roughly 3.5 pounds (2.5 pounds for the tripod, 1 pound for the head).
The TC-80N3 Timer Remote Controller for my camera was another essential piece of equipment. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to take many of the pictures that are in the photo gallery. Most cameras have a timer mode of 10 seconds or less, which is not enough time to position youself in a scene during a self-portrait. The TC-80N3 allowed me to set the camera to take pictures after a specified delay or during an interval (i.e. every 5 seconds).
The stars were out in full force in the evenings, and I took the opportunity to capture some wonderful nighttime long-exposure photos. The Canon EOS-1D isn’t the best camera for long exposure photography — the Canon EOS-D60 is much better — but the results were still quite acceptable.
I have a number of panorama shots that I’m in the process of stitching and converting into QuickTime VR format. I have shots from atop Dick’s Peak, Lake Jabu, and the Leland Lakes which are especially cool. Stay tuned for the rest of them. In the meantime, here’s a shot of Andrew, Ezra, Hutch, and John overlooking Lake Aloha (click on the image below to see a larger version).
I took about 700 photos during my latest trip to Desolation Wilderness. I’ve posted a choice sampling of around 90 in the photo gallery below. Enjoy!
2 thoughts on “Return to Desolation”
Nice write up, I enjoyed the story of your experience. Looking forward to Jabu lake this year in the fall.
Fifty-nine pounds! I am sure if you were to do this backpacking trip again, you would be doing it with less than a third that weight. That must have been a tremendous workout. I’m kind of blown away at how little food you were eating each day and still was not hungry!
Would love to see how your photos turned out but they are no longer here. Wondering how well 2017 phone camera quality compares to what 20 pounds of high-end 2002 camera gear could do.