Six months have passed since my wife Jamie and I hiked through the Desolation Wilderness, a federally protected wilderness area in the Eldorado Forest, near South Lake Tahoe. The previous summer, we secured our permits for two days of through-hiking in the DW during the first week of October, with an overnight, permitted stay slated for a site called Dick’s Pass. Located in the middle of a twenty-five mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail running from Echo Lake to Meeks Bay, at 9,400 feet Dick’s Pass is one of the higher peaks in the Eldorado Forest. Although regular hikers at lower altitudes throughout the Bay Area, my wife and I had not hiked or camped in the Tahoe area before. We also hadn’t done a multi-day through-hike anywhere in over ten years. Still, that summer we both had it in our heads to change that before the first Tahoe snows of 2018 fell. A quick internet search on my part came up with Desolation, and I don’t recall looking at anything past that. Truthfully, I picked the location solely because I liked the name, and my wife agreed to it simply because she didn’t have any other suggestions. So, off to the Desolation Wilderness we went!
Our plan was to reach Dick’s Pass before the sun dropped, so we’d have ample time scope out a good place to pop the tent and get the lay of the land. We hooked up with the PCT at the south end of Echo Lake and from that starting point figured we had about twelve miles of mostly uphill, fairly strenuous hiking to do in the span of nine hours or so. It seemed doable. By the time we reached the sign shown above, we’d put in about an hour on a flat, leisurely stretch of the trail that hugged the north shore of the lake most of the way. The sun was shining, it was about 55 degrees, and thus far we had the place to ourselves. Easy. But we knew enough to know we had no idea what was coming.
As soon as we passed the sign informing us we were officially entering the Desolation Wilderness, we began to climb. Echo Lake sits at about 7,400 feet and Dick’s Pass tops out at around 9,400. We knew we’d be heading uphill most of the way, but just didn’t think too much about how much or where. About an hour past the sign we found ourselves hiking through the flat, peaceful area above and it was the only setting like it during our two days. Spanning, trail-wise, a half mile at best, our time in this tranquil little place was brief, but it’s still the stretch of the PCT I’ll probably remember the most vividly.
The next five photos were taken around Lake Aloha, our first pit stop and lunch spot. I’m simply not a good enough photographer to do this transcendental location justice. Situated about five hiking miles from Echo Lake at an elevation of about 8,100 feet, it is almost indescribably beautiful. Yet at the same time it was here that I began to appreciate why someone gave this wilderness area such an odd and ominous name. There is an undeniably desolate aspect to the Aloha area, and as I would come to see, to other parts of the DW as well. The word desolation usually implies ugliness or bleakness of some sort and I would not use those words to describe the DW, yet well before we completed our hike through this stunning part of the world, I came to find the name fitting, if not inspired.
If you like lakes, this is the place for you. As we knew from just our map, lakes and such were going to be a common sight, (another reason we picked it) but we gave up even trying to remember all their names soon after passing Lake Aloha. In all shapes and sizes, it seemed there was a pond or lake around every other corner, all accessible water resources we’d regret not availing ourselves of farther down the road. The next few shots were taken over the couple hours following our break at Lake Aloha, which at this point was far behind us and well to our south.
It was an hour or so into the next morning when we’d appreciate the fortuitousness of our decision to pop the tent where we did, rather than push it to our permitted destination. Although we’d come across more than a few day-hikers before the official Desolation entry point, once past it we didn’t encounter another person for the rest of the day. Permits are required year-round within the DW, but we were a week outside the official close of the season; in effect, no one was there to care where we camped, ranger or fellow hiker alike. It was coming up on five o’clock and Jamie was feeling the day catch up with her. Putting in a few more uphill miles to reach Dick’s, over terrain that from our vantage point was a complete unknown, was just not advisable. We were now at about 8,700 feet, and I began to suspect she was feeling the first enervating effects of higher altitude hiking. The next day would support these suspicions, as her fatigue became more pronounced with our climb to the summit. I am not suggesting altitude sickness was to blame (a serious, potentially life-threatening condition which apparently can affect some people at elevations as low as 8,000 feet) but possibly just an understandable energy-drain brought on by the circumstances and lower oxygen accessibility. Whatever the reason for her uncharacteristic exhaustion, because of it and the dropping sun we decided to pop the tent where we stood. This turned out to be a good call. As we’d discover the next day, we would’ve never made it to the summit by sundown, and instead would have been forced to overnight it ostensibly on the face of a craggy, wind-battered cliff.
We awoke hungry and excruciatingly sore. The night before had been bitterly cold and windy, with a interminably long-lasting hailstorm thrown in for added excitement, all of which made for a fitful night’s sleep. In addition, during the overnight hours I had probably stepped out to pee at least a dozen times, which aside from being an incredible pain, was also something of which I should have taken note. Jamie,meanwhile, only sleeping in snatches herself, still had no need to exit the tent once during the night. Lucky. So, if not just to put all that unpleasantness behind us, we “awoke” shortly before the sun, packed up our gear, downed a few walnuts, took a few swigs from our dwindling water supply, and were back on the trail by six AM.
About an hour into the morning, things looked something like this.
Exactly seventeen minutes later, they looked like this.
No more than a mile into the morning’s hike, both of us were experiencing problems. Jamie, energy-wise, was wiped out, and I was starting to feel the effects of serious dehydration, something this severe I’d only experienced once before, decades ago while crewing a boat at sea. We were at about 9,000 feet and nearing the ridge top when the photo above was taken. It was only then that I took into account the increased physical consequences that can be suffered at high altitude. It was a potentially costly mistake, which stemmed straight from our lack of experience when it came to this specialized, riskier type of hiking. Jamie’s energy level and sluggishness did not improve until we began our descent of the ridge hours later, but it did stabilize at a point where she could mechanically move along at a slower but even pace. Meanwhile, my state seemed to worsen by the minute, with every step becoming an increasing exercise in muscle-seizing pain tolerance. And the whole time we had our brand-new water purifier, neatly packed away! Better late than never, we put it to immediate use in a trickling stream we came upon just a few hundred vertical feet below the summit. It was entirely due to our inexperience and carelessness that over the last day-and-a-half we had passed by millions of gallons of clean, pure mountain water. But chalking it up to a valuable lesson learned the painfully hard way, after a long drink of some of the best water in the world, we filled our canteens with the stuff and resumed our trek to the top.
We made it to Dick’s Pass at 9:35 AM. As I mentioned earlier, after passing the Desolation sign we had come across nearly no one. The only other parties we did encounter up to this point, all shortly before reaching the summit, were a small group of day-hikers, and soon afterward, a fully loaded solo trekker. Interestingly, all of them were obviously French, which we picked up during an exchange of hellos.
After a short break at the top to take in the view and drop our packs for a bit, we were about to reload and begin our descent on the east side of the mountain, when a large company of trail runners—maybe two dozen of them in a tight, fast-moving gaggle—suddenly materialized. Heading purposefully for the west edge of the ridge from which we had just come, we flagged down one of them passing by, and asked her if she might know how far we had to go to reach Meeks Bay, a question we already knew the answer to but in our state of semi-delirium had all but forgotten. Glancing at her running watch, she said about six miles, and then took off like a shot to rejoin her group, which was now disappearing over the west horizon. Either in the commotion our question had been misconstrued, or her watch was wildly inaccurate; as we would discover/remember later, we were over twice that distance from our final destination. Under the circumstances, however, although ignorance was nowhere near bliss, it was still a hell of a lot better than the truth, as knowing at that time we had at least another twelve miles to trudge would not have made us happier campers. So, re-energized by the encouraging, entirely false information, we initiated our descent.
Dropping over the east side of the ridge, what instantly caught our attention was the snow. As far as we could see and in every direction there were frosty dust piles of white, which made for a dreamlike setting. Below is one of more than a few shots I took while we made our way down this pleasant yet all too brief mile of so of the trail.
An hour or so later and about 2000 feet lower, we found ourselves making way through another surreal landscape, similar in feeling to Lake Aloha, yet also possessed of its own personality. With its unique, bulbous trees, perfectly placed boulders, and overall manicured appearance, the area was almost cartoonish, reminding me of the exaggerated mock-environmental assemblages one sees at theme parks. No complaints; it was a beautiful little scene, but when exiting it both of us nearly in unison remarked upon how strange it all was.
Just as the photo below was being taken, with a hiker heading up the trail we inquired again about the distance to Meeks. Also equipped with gadgetry charged with figuring things like this out, he informed us we were about nine miles away. He also told us he’d begun his hike at Meeks, so we were resigned to accept his information all but invalidated that given to us by the woman at the summit a few hours before. This new distance also reconfirmed our own calculations, (now coming back to us) that we’d figured out the old fashioned way, modern gadgetry be damned. The Luddite in me was proud. Regardless of this minor psychological setback, having returned to a more human-friendly altitude, Jamie was returning to her normal self. Unfortunately for me, my condition was not so quickly remedied, and I was still in significant discomfort with every downward step. Since beginning our descent, I had been forced to set a shamefully slow hiking pace, which explained why we had covered a measly three to four miles of easy downhill hiking in nearly as many hours. Although we were still miles from nowhere and at about 7,000 feet, with increasing frequency people began popping up seemingly out of the ground, and accordingly every one of them flew past us, with fresh legs powered by hydrated muscles. However, for the first time in over 27 hours, Jamie and I caught a hazy glimpse of Lake Tahoe in the distance, which again reinvigorated us, enough to inspire a lively conversation about all the foods and drinks we were going to squeeze into ourselves that night. Mostly though, I talked about Gatorade.
By the time we passed the pristine scene below, one so close to perfect it seemed silly, we had walked by so many bodies of water it had almost become monotonous. Between Lake Aloha and this point, which is a distance of maybe fifteen miles on the trail, my guess is we had hiked by at least a dozen lakes, ponds, or streams. This section of Eldorado Forest is unquestionably a water-lover’s dream. However, when contemplating the bigger picture and the entire Tahoe region, maybe by no means is it unique or even distinct in that regard. Or maybe it is. Who knows? Actually, I’m sure there are plenty who do.
By the time we had reached the beginning of the end to our little adventure, Jamie could clearly smell the finish line, somewhere unseen ahead. Fully recovered from her general state of debility, thanks to a downright friendly 6,500 foot elevation and a forgiving, relatively rock-free trail laid out before us, her spirits greatly improved, and mine as well, cramped, gnarled muscles aside. At this point day-hikers were happily crawling about everywhere. I had a passing thought of sailors at sea who’ve had no sight of land, who then spot their first gull in the sky, and by its presence know solid ground lies ahead.
In a place like this, I guess nothing would be more fitting than to take in one last lake scene, just before we closed the whole thing out, an uncompromising display of nature’s beauty, one probably looking much like it did a million years ago. A half an hour after this last photo was taken, we crossed a little metal foot bridge crossing a stream, and then suddenly we were walking through an asphalt parking lot and calling for an Uber on a smartphone with one bar of service available, looking to get a ride back to Echo Lake, forty minutes away by car. In two days civilization hadn’t changed a bit, and even though what I was craving more than anything in the world at that moment was a big slice of pizza and a gallon of Gatorade, I caught a part of me already wanting to be back in that tent deep in the wilderness, in the middle of nowhere, wishing the hailstorm would stop.
Photos taken October 6 and 7, 2018.