An Epic Backpacking Adventure in Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness

Welcome to your 64,000-acre playground crisscrossed by hiking trails, running water and a generous number of alpine lakes just west of Lake Tahoe

I once knew a guy who answered to the name “Tiny.” The fact that his boots were size 16 is a great reminder that descriptive names should not necessarily be taken literally. So it goes for NorCal’s Desolation Wilderness just west of Lake Tahoe.

According the the Merriam-Webster dictionary, desolation is, “extreme sadness caused by loss or loneliness.” -Loss or loneliness? The only thing you might lose in this extreme, otherworldly landscape may be a few unwanted pounds. Loneliness is out of the question as well since the Desolation consistently ranks among the most visited wilderness areas in the United States. After visiting this stunning wilderness for a week with my two sons this last July, the only desolation I experienced came when I realized I had to return to the real world.Unknown Object

The Desolation is a 64,000-acre playground crisscrossed by hiking trails, running water and a generous number of alpine lakes of all sizes bursting with wild brook trout. Some of the lakes also contain rainbows or brown trout, and even a few golden trout, our California state fish. All the fish in the Desolation are wild since the stocking of hatchery fish was halted a few years ago to benefit the endangered yellow-legged frog. Most of the lakes contain too many brook trout, so you’re actually doing the habitat a favor if a few of these end up in your frying pan. Your chances of catching fish on most days are slight until the last half-hour of daylight. Then it seems like every fish in the lake comes to the surface to feed.

Access is easy even if the hiking isn’t necessarily. There are trail heads on all four sides of the Desolation so picking the best access might take some research depending on where you’d like to go. Once you’ve hiked up onto the plateau (which runs between 6,500 and almost 10,000 feet elevation), the landscape is vast as trails weave between dense ancient forests and huge expanses of granite sheets. Numerous trails cross smooth, granite expanses, but if you’re worried about losing the trail, fear not. People have been kind enough to build trail borders out of loose rocks to mark the trail. The famous Pacific Crest Trail winds for a good 17-miles through the Desolation connecting to various other shorter paths.

Our plan was for a 100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, but in retrospect, that might have killed me. At the last minute we decided on less hiking and more fishing, so the Desolation was the perfect choice. Unlike a few other wilderness areas I’ve visited, the Desolation is well established with wonderful trails and signs pointing the way you want to go. There is also a fairyland quality about the Desolation hard to capture in words. Despite the fact that you see other hikers and campers with some regularity, there is no litter, no graffiti, no unwanted noise, no cell phone service or wifi, yet life miraculously goes on and you manage to stay just as “connected.” Instead of the Internet information pipeline, news travels fast through the wilderness via other campers and a quaint, old-fashioned activity called “talking.”

“Some kid caught a mess of brook trout last night on Aloha Lake,” offered a passing hiker who noticed the fly rods strapped to our packs. “There was a black bear sighting on the far side of Lower Velma Lake, so be careful,” smiled another. Every group we met seemed happy to stop for a moment and chat as everyone caught a breather from the almost constant hiking. It struck me how trail chatter between campers and hikers seemed a lot like Facebook, but without the crazy cat videos or any mention of politics. Everyone knew what was going on in the Desolation without the benefit of wifi or cellphone reception.

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Of course, folks in the wilderness are hardly luddites. They are just as dependent on equipment as they are in the real world, but equipment of a much less technological nature.

Having the right gear in the wilderness can make the difference between a great, comfortable trip versus misery.

The most important thing needed in the wilderness is a good pair of waterproof hiking boots. Navigating mountain trails with a heavy backpack strapped to your torso puts grueling pressure on your feet, so you want to keep them happy. Our trip was in July, a month where the thought of rain seemed remote if not almost comical. Yet rain can happen at almost any time at high elevation with little warning. It did for us.

We began our hike on an average sunny, blue-sky day, yet rain found a way to pound on us numerous times over the next three days. It also hailed on us no fewer than five times. Lightweight rain gear is a must; but back to those waterproof hiking boots I mentioned earlier. When there is a good soaking of rain the trails quickly turn into a series of miniature muddy rivers. Even if every other part of your body gets soaked (clothes dry quickly once the rain stops), you want to keep your feet dry to keep misery at bay. This brings me to the next piece of essential equipment, a good, lightweight tent.

The weather in the Desolation during summer can be delightful to the point that you might choose to sleep out under the stars a night or two. But when you need a tent as shelter from mosquitoes, torrential rains, thunder, lightning and all hell breaking loose, there is no substitute for a dry, cozy shelter. One day we were moving our camp to a different lake as the clouds were darkening steadily. Off in the distance we heard peals of rolling thunder that seemed to be heading our way. We arrived at our new camp in the nick of time and made a mad dash to get our tents up just as the storm hit. For the next several hours we were each mesmerized (in separate tents) by crashing lightning and booming thunder that seemed so close it was frightening. Tents should be not too heavy, fairly quick to set up and offer a waterproof floor. Setting your tent up at least once in the backyard before venturing out assures that you remember how to do it and have all the necessary parts.

Picking a place to pitch your tent is almost an art. The Desolation offers tons of nearly flat sheets of granite upon which to place a tent, but who wants to sleep on a rock? The danger of pitching your tent in other areas is they tend to be lower, meaning places where water might gather in case of rain. I pitched my tent in a spot I was sure would not fill with water if it rained, and turned out to be wrong. Fortunately the waterproof bottom of my tent came up a few inches on either side, just enough to keep things dry inside. Removing it from the puddle to higher ground was a fairly easy undertaking.

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Speaking of water, you’re going to need a lot to drink and for cooking. While I did notice some people drinking directly from streams, you do not want to risk picking up giardia, a condition caused by drinking tainted water where you will want to spend several days as near a bathroom as possible not having any fun at all. Water filters come in many forms these days from pumps to straws, but the best and newest are a lot like those Camelbak hydration systems. The newer filters look like thick plastic bags allowing you to scoop as much as a gallon or more from lakes or streams. The full bag is then elevated from a branch while the water quickly flows from the filter into other receptacles for drinking or cooking. In a few minutes you can have all the filtered water you need with very little effort.

Where would backpackers be without freeze-dried food? Picture genuine gourmet recipes (cajun chicken, pesto salmon pasta, beef stroganoff with wild mushrooms, etc.) packaged in tough cellophane bags, just add water. Look for brands like Backpacker’s Pantry and Mountain House. You can order enough food for almost any trip via the Internet. We found these recipes to be delicious, and even the ritual of getting together to boil water for our individual meals became a time we looked forward to.

Speaking of boiling water, there are a number of stoves on the market that make this a quick and easy process. Since campfires are prohibited in the Desolation Wilderness, you must bring some sort of stove and enough fuel to get the job done. Simple pleasures are the best while in the wilderness, and a hot cup of coffee or tea at the right time seemed almost decadent. I ended up bringing over twice the fuel I needed thanks to the efficiency of modern stoves.

Prior to this trip I retired the ultralight backpacking stove I’d used for the last thirty years. It did the job, but it took too long and I supposed they must have come up with something more efficient in recent years. I was right. -Meet the Jetboil Java Kit. (Whoa…) Here’s a stove so efficient it boiled water in just a few minutes. It also comes with a coffee press filter allowing you to toss ground coffee into the hot water, wait a minute or two, press and enjoy. We met a number of other campers who had them and swore by them.

File this next one under how dumb do I feel today? The Desolation Wilderness is considered bear country, so all food must be either hung high from a tree or locked in a “bear canister” and positioned well away from camp. A bear canister is hardly more than a very large, plastic peanut butter-like jar with a locking lid. There are large and small sizes, but since we were going for a week I opted for the larger one. I nearly flipped when I discovered they wanted $80 for this reject from a giant’s recycling bin, but bit the bullet and bought it anyway. –Grrrr…

The Desolation Wilderness can be a busy place, so a permit system was established in an effort to spread people out and preserve the quality of the experience for everyone. The Desolation has been broken into 45 different “zones” with a quota system limiting the number of people in each one. Each group in the Desolation must carry a permit or be subject to a stiff fine. Luckily these are fairly easy to obtain online in advance of your trip at At least once you are in the Desolation there is no rule about going wherever you want or even changing zones, as long as you have that permit.

I’ve left physical conditioning for a trip to the Desolation for last since there are a number of variables involved. Needless to say, the rigor of hiking up and downhill at high elevation with as much as 50-pounds strapped to your back tends to filter the types of people you are likely to encounter in the Desolation. It is not the sort of place for people with serious health concerns or who are carrying a lot of extra weight. Most of the people you meet are younger and in reasonably good shape.

Both of my sons hover close to 30-years old and are in decent physical shape, so they did well. I am twice that age and, I had thought, still in pretty fair shape for my age. By way of training I went on almost daily eight to ten-mile up and downhill hikes with my fully-loaded backpack for several weeks prior to our trip. Turns out, it wasn’t enough. I hadn’t suspected how much I would be affected by the elevation. Before I go next time I will drop the 20 extra pounds I’ve been meaning to and spend more time hiking at higher elevation. As it turned out I was fine, only a lot slower than my two strapping sons. I had to rest much more often than they did, especially on those uphill grunts. They gently teased me by giving me the trail name “Father Time.”

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So why go the the Desolation Wilderness, or any other end-of-the-world destination in the first place? The answer is elusive and may go beyond the limits of simple answers like wanting to have a good time. We did have a splendid time and promised to make it an annual affair, but the kind of connection you experience in the wilderness has nothing to do with wifi.

There is a certain natural humility you feel when surrounded by such vastness, such beauty and majesty, and this is good. In time you might lose hold of that other world, the world you live in most of the time, and come to realize the world you live in day-to-day is not necessarily the world. There is so much more. Vast natural beauty connects with something inside of us ancient and primordial, something infinitely larger than even the most daunting so-called challenge or problem you may face in everyday life. Suddenly the things we think are so important, spend so much time worrying about, seem small and cheap by comparison. It is under the influence of such feelings that people begin to see more clearly, sense the things that are really important in life and the direction they need to go.

It isn’t necessary that you experience these feelings with a single other person, but you are lucky indeed if you can. It is amazing how much can pass between people in such a place where it doesn’t matter how few words are actually spoken. The connection goes deeper than words if you let it. All of that beauty, all of that greatness, all the exhilaration you feel upon vanquishing the next uphill climb stays with you long after you leave the wilderness and becomes a part of you.

There is nothing at all desolate about the Desolation Wilderness, and we will be back. If it were up to me to come up with a name that better describes this place and the warm feelings it inspired in my sons and I, I might be tempted to call it the Jubilation Wilderness.

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