Desolation Wilderness is a small wilderness area located on the western shore of Lake Tahoe. While the wilderness area itself is only 12 square miles, once inside, surrounded by exposed granite peaks tipped with snow on all sides, it seems much vaster.
Despite being a high-traffic park only four hours from San Francisco, with a little care and preparation it is possible to distance oneself from the madding crowd. Desolation offers a variety of trailheads from which to begin. It is not, however, until you've had a chance to hike past the day hikers and into the interior that you can truly appreciate this park. Heading in from Wright's Lake Outpost on the southwest side of the wilderness area, one immediately comes upon the Willow Flats area. This valley is moonlike in appearance. Cleared of all soil by glaciation, the trail is on bare rock, marked only by stones lining it on either side. This was our first glimpse into Desolation's wonders.
Having gotten a late start on this, the first day of our journey, we decided to set camp here before coming to the reputedly more crowded Maud Lake area. We were on our way to Rockbound Pass, an imposing 8,500-foot pass leading into Desolation's depths. We spent the evening enjoying a full moon brighten the valley to such a degree that, without headlamps, we were able to explore for hours. In addition to a beautiful moon and a memorable performance of the Perseid meteor showers, we were treated to our last respite from the infamous Sierra mosquito population.
The following day posed quite a challenge. While only expecting to travel eight to ten miles, we were starting with three miles of uphill climbing, which was only made more daunting by the ever-present vision of Rockbound Pass off in the distance. Despite a dry 80 degrees we began to find more and more snow stashed in pockets along the trail. A brief harbinger of what we would encounter later in the day. At Maud Lake we decided to go bushwacking—actually, we got lost. Fortunately, hiking in the High Sierra is as easy as point and go. So, after about 1/4 mile of bushwacking we somehow met the trail again.
When we reached the top of the Pass we were giddy. Perhaps with the excitement of having reached the first benchmark of our trip, perhaps due to the lack of oxygen, and perhaps because in front of us lay the interior, which was still covered with a considerable layer of the white stuff. We had no choice, of course, but to grab our sleeping pads from our packs and use them as sleds to speed our descent towards the glacial lakes below.
We hiked past Lake Doris, and Lake Lois (both aqua with snow melt and fairly well encamped for the night) on through the snow-blanketed pine forests to Lake Shmiddel. The trail was largely downhill, so we glissaded wherever possible. On the way we passed some day hikers who spoke highly of the trout to be found in Lake Shmiddel. Upon making camp, both Andreas and I took baths in Deet and Citronella in what proved to be a nonsensical attempt to protect ourselves from the only local fauna we encountered.
After fashioning a handle for my reel from a spare tent stake (necessity is the mother of invention and poor planning is the mother of necessity) I set off to acquire dinner. Andreas, in anticipation of my lack of success, began preparing an alternate meal. Upon my unsuccessful return from the lake, we sat down to a sumptuous feast of tortellini and the last of our fresh veggies to be followed by deep chocolate brownies and a night of deep sleep.
For our hike out we chose a poorly marked cattle drive trail through another pass. Once again, we were unable to follow the trail through the fields of snow. But, with a little help from a topo map and compass we rejoined the trail just as it crested the pass. In a beautiful alpine meadow surrounded by white peaks, soaring hawks, wildflowers and the deepest blue sky, we stopped to rest and marvel at the surroundings.
Our last significant effort would be to, with topo and compass in hand, bushwack about three miles back to our first camp at Willow Flats. We trudged blindly on with ill-deserved confidence that we were headed in the right direction. After negotiating boggy meadows and talus fields galore, we met back up with our tracks from the second day about 1/4 mile from our first campsite.
We spent the night outside sleeping in the open on the bare rock watching the stars until our eyes shut beyond our control.
Hiking out the next day was both saddening and satisfying. We had ventured into Desolation and found rugged beauty infused with oblique tranquility.
To have such a wilderness area at our disposal is an awesome gift as well as a tremendous responsibility. Wilderness areas set aside by the Wilderness Preservation Act of 1968 are there to be cherished and explored, unfettered by the commercial encroachment rampant in all of our National Parks. Please take the time to explore them, for it is only with a communal understanding of their joys that we can hope to continue to preserve such spaces for our children and their children.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication