The Desolation Wilderness has been a favorite spot among backpackers since it was founded in 1969. It’s all for a great number of reasons — it is seemingly untouched; photos don’t do justice to how beautiful the area really is; backpackers you would meet (if you see them at all, as there’s not a lot) are friendly; its plentiful wildlife; the cold refreshing waters you bathe in after hours of endless hikes; the night sky… this list could go on and on.
We went there for a three-day backpacking trip this August, all four of us, Desolation Wilderness virgins, and boy we were amazed!
What to Bring: Backpacking Essentials, warm clothes, your backpacking permit
Tip: As a beginner backpacker, I felt that this hike was a lot easier than hiking uphill to the Upper Canyon Creek Lake in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. We hiked past Susie and Heather Lakes, uphill to Aloha Lake where we camped the first night. Heading back, we decided to do the loop towards Glen Alpine Trailhead via the Tamarack Trail. I thought it was really crazy steep downhill; knees could get extremely wobbly, and if you fear heights and narrow trails, this is not the way to go. Along the way though, we met a dad with his two girls, and, two women way past their sixties. I say if they can do it (and if I was able to do it), you probably can too!
So what is there to enjoy at the Desolation Wilderness (as if it’s not already obvious)? Here are our picks:
1. Surrounding Yourself with Nature
It was all a nature feast. There’s just so much to discover and rediscover when you surround yourself with nature. You get to see surrealistic places like this island at the Heather Lake, and, if you’re lucky, you even get to see the sun cast its first rays on it first thing in the morning when you camp near the area like we did (we camped over at the top of the nearest mountain you can see). Also, when I say nature, it’s not just these snow-capped mountains, the pines, and the magnificent granite rock formations, it’s also seeing marmots, deer, several species of birds (I was with birders!) including a red-tailed hawk!
2. Chasing Meteors
The photo above shows the view from a big boulder where we laid on as we traced constellations and counted meteors while watching the glorious night sky. Lucky for us, the spot is very near the site where we camped during our second night at the wilderness over at Lake of the Woods. We were way up in the mountains, [but probably a few hundred ft elevation less than when we were at Lake Aloha (that was an elevation gain of 2000 ft from Glen Alpine)] that we were able to enjoy an unobstructed view of the Milky Way, made more special because we were there the week of the Perseid Meteor shower. You can have a great time staring at pseudo planets aka satellites, or even talk about the what if’s — what if a UFO comes and abducts you on the spot — right in the middle of nowhere.
3. Appreciating People
This may be ironic but I feel that when you’re used to being in a city like San Francisco (or Manila) where there’s just too many people, most of whom you ignore, backpacking to a place like this where you are surrounded by about less than seven people at any given time makes you appreciate people even more. When you’re at the wilderness, you have more time to introspect and strengthen your relationship with others — in my case, my husband and our friends. For a couple of nights, it was just us — we cooked meals together, shared stories, learned from each other. And it’s not just about other people, you will learn a lot about yourself too, as I did. You would learn more about your character, how strong you are and could be (mentally and physically), and your connection to the rest of the earth — this, unless your lifelong goal is to be an hermit, of course.
4. Swimming in Cold Waters
I am honestly not a fan of swimming in cold waters but after hours and hours of trekking, dipping in lakes so cold suddenly wasn’t as bad of an idea. There’s a campsite near this tiny falls (in photo) by Desolation Lake. My husband and I discovered the area while exploring after having set up camp at Lake of the Woods, and well, I had to do it — despite the cold, I jumped in (and then out after about three minutes, haha!). Larry is so much braver as among us, he’s the only one who would readily jump in most of the cold lakes we had seen. Brrrrr.
5. Conquering Yourself
The Desolation Wilderness is an adventure where you can conquer yourself. Along with its beauty comes obstacles a beginner backpacker might find intimidating — boulders, heights, cold spells, extreme heat, hunger and thirst — but as my husband would say, “You don’t have to go fast, you just have to keep walking.” Every time I find myself thinking “I’m so tired”, or “This is too steep”, I would remind myself to just keep walking, and realize, after a while, that I have conquered whatever mental obstacle I had which made me feel physically limited compared with seasoned backpackers. I specifically remember our trip downhill, after already about more than five hours of hiking from the mountains back to the trailhead, my knees had become wobbly and we had to traverse this extremely steep and narrow trail, I was so tired and then we saw an old lady looking way past her sixties, hiking uphill alone. We talked for a bit, wished each other a happy hike, but in my mind, I had an image of a strong woman imprinted, and how inspiring for me she truly is.
How to get to the Desolation Wilderness: From Sacramento, drive east on U.S. 50 to South Lake Tahoe. From South Lake Tahoe, take California Route 89 North to Fallen Leaf Road. Then just take Fallen Leaf Road to the end (Glen Alpine Trailhead).
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