“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.“~John Muir, Our National Parks (1901)
Could I still carry a fully loaded backpack and not be crushed by its weight and the forces of middle age?
Well, I knew I could do it. The real question was, could I carry a full backpack and enjoy myself?
The occasion was my friend Natasha’s 50th birthday. The destination, Lake Aloha in the California’s Desolation Wilderness, near Lake Tahoe.
I made my checklist – tent, pots, Bearikade container filled with three days worth of food — and scrutinized each item for its weight. Over the past couple of years, I’ve replaced various pieces of old gear with ultralight equipment – like my 15 oz Z-Pack sleeping bag – but still couldn’t quite commit myself to the raw food/no stove ultra ultralight approach. For me, drinking cup of hot coffee or tea at a remote campsite is part of the wilderness experience. But could I do without a book, a journal? I couldn’t. I threw both in and strapped on the pack for the trip to the airport.
When I arrived in San Francisco, heavy rain was falling –a totally unanticipated event in this drought-ridden state. On-and-off heavy downpours continued as we drove to Echo Lake, where we planned to take the water taxi to its upper end. On our drive, we debated options: stay in a cabin or lodge for the night? Head out in the rain?
At the Echo Lake store, we learned that the cabins across the way were not yet open, but a water taxi was loading up. We rapidly re-organized our stuff, pulled on rain gear, and jumped in boat.
When we set off from the trailhead at the upper end of Echo Lake, my pack didn’t feel terrible. By then, the rain had stopped, and the leftover dampness tamped down the dusty trail that I remember from previous hikes here. The air felt fresh and the usually dusty sage brush smelled sagey. Orange paintbrush and pink phlox bloomed beside the trail. As we walked among the ponderosa at Haypress Meadows, the grass glowed vibrant green.
I was glad I remembered to bring a couple of dimes so that we could open the Bearikade bear-proof food canister, especially after I realized I had locked the swiss army knife in with the food. The meal was a delicious dehydrated Thai curry from Good-to-Go, a little start-up food company at the end of my street in Kittery. Real vegetables — green beans, hunks of cauliflower — sprung to after soaking in boiling hot water for 20 minutes. As we ate dinner, a mother duckling and her five ducklings paddled by.
As the sun set, my friend and I toasted with the champagne we’d brought (along with our books) and continued our non-stop conversation about our families, jobs, mutual friends, politics, books, Morocco (where we both served as Peace Corps Volunteers), and a hundred other topics.
I was definitely enjoying the moment, but confessed that I wasn’t fully immersed in it, because in my head, I already was planning another backpack. “I know what you mean,” Natasha said. “I’m feeling greedy for more of this.”
That first night, more rain fell, but we were warm and dry in my tent. The next morning, after our backcountry coffee , we set out on the trail for Lake Aloha.
The 64,000-acre Desolation Wilderness, one of the nation’s most popular, is well-travelled. Gold miners once prospected here, without much luck, and cattle grazed in Haypress Meadows, before receiving official wilderness status in 1969 (although the area had been less restrictively protected for many years as part of the El Dorado National Forest).
In general, the Forest Service struggles with the idea of wilderness. Can an area threaded with hiking trails truly be called a wilderness? Purists want to abolish trails and all man-made structures (like dams or shelters) in federal wilderness areas. However, a wilderness with no trails or trail signs and which is travelled by thousands of hikers is one in which many people will get lost. Thus, all major trail junctions have signposts with arrows, but the trails are not marked with blazes or cairns.
Without blazes and cairns, it is fairly easy to lose the trail in the Desolation, but not hard to navigate back to where you thought you were, as long as you have a good map. We learned this truth early, when we missed the junction for Lake Aloha, and found ourselves confronting a large granite wall at the far end of Lake of the Woods. A couple of rocky slides looked like they might be climbable without the risk of death, but, having children back at home, we opted not to scramble up steep rock cliffs. A short backtrack, along with our map, led us to the trail that threads up and through a meadow before descending to Lake Aloha.
In sharp contrast to its landscape, Lake Aloha conjures up hibiscus and jasmine and other lush tropical flowers. By mid-summer, the straggly stands of paintbrush and other wildflowers will have wilted, and this will be a landscape of granite, dust and scraggly Sierra pines. But in early June, the walking along and above the lake was easy. We set aim for Heather Lake, just beyond, and had lunch there before turning back to our base camp.
Again, we lost the trail. Instead of climbing to the meadow, we found ourselves looking out at the granite landscape of the Desolation Valley, with Pyramid Peak in the distance. We knew that Lake of the Woods was below this ridge and not far, but didn’t want to take our chances on bushwhacking to the head of a steep rock wall. A short backtrack led us to the trail junction and we were on our way.
Back at the campsite, we finished off the champagne and stuffed ourselves with a chipotle three-bean chili before retiring to the tent.
Towards dawn, I woke up to the chorus of coyotes howling and yipping up on the ridge. Tucked in my sleeping bag, inside the thin walls of a nylon tent, I was exactly where I wanted to be. Although I had carried in more gear than I needed, I felt lighter than I had in years.
Sources and resources
The Desolation Wilderness is laced with over 150 miles of trails, and offers many great options for both day hikes and backpacks. On an earlier trip, we enjoyed a dusty and hot family hike to Tamarack Lake (from Upper Echo Lake). Swimming at Susie Lake is a great reward after a three mile-ish hike in.
Visit the Desolation Wilderness website for information on trails and permits.
Although the 19th century writing reads slow, anyone who hikes in the Sierra needs to spend a summer slowly savoring John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra.