DESOLATION WILDERNESS - There's no way to bottle the beauty of fall, or write it down for that matter. But you can walk among it and let the mad patchwork of color envelope you, take you in like a hypnotist's swirl. Keep your eye on the trail. There's plenty to trip on.
I spent the weekend hiking in Desolation Wilderness. After a night in my hammock at the edge of Lake of the Woods, I woke up to a sudden realization. The surface of the lake had glassed over. As the sun rose, it mirrored a perfect image of Pyramid Peak bathed in the pink morning light. The trees and shoreline on the far side of the lake were illuminated, auburn, rust, gold and deep evergreen.
The air was crisp and dry. The silence was deep and complete. I stood on a little granite outcropping and just watched the curtain lift. I was hooked, mesmerized, hypnotized. I decided right then and there that fall is my favorite season for hiking and backpacking. The simple reasons why are below. The real argument can never be captured with words.
After Labor Day, the roads around Lake Tahoe empty of their summer rush. The beaches quiet down. And the trails are often abandoned. Shoulder seasons like spring and fall can offer sincere peace and quiet. Fewer people mean it's easier to get to the trailheads, find a parking spot and secure an overnight permit (if you're going out for multiple days). It also means that the feeling you get when you're padding down your favorite trail, like you're an intrepid explorer off to be one with nature, is that much more complete.
Though it varies, the vivid colors of autumn's annual light show usually peak in October. Shrubbery and grasses dry out and turn crisp. Willows, around many mountain lakes and streams, slip into their fall gold. And the beacons of the season, aspen, cottonwood and maple leaves shift through a spasm of color, green to yellow to orange and red. If you're out walking, expect to see luminosity that the rest of the year just doesn't offer. For the latest fall color information, call the U.S. Forest Service's Fall Color Hotline at 1-800-354-4595
If you spent the summer under layers of sunscreen or a downpour of perspiration, you'll appreciate the change in temperature that usually comes in October. Around Lake Tahoe, fall weather is often at its hottest between 60 and 70 degrees and at the coldest around 30 degrees. The cooler temps make hiking in the morning a sweat-less affair and hiking in the afternoons pleasantly warm. Nights can drop to below freezing, so if you're out overnight, take a cozy sleeping bag. Also, with winter on the way, weather is prone to sudden changes. Prepare for all conditions.
Fall is an intense time for many species of wildlife. With winter on the way, it's either stock up or head south. Hikers can expect to see Canada geese trooping across the sky in V's, honking to their hearts' delight. Monarch butterflies are also on their annual move to warmer climes and may come flapping across Lake Tahoe's trails. Squirrels and chipmunks are stuffing their cheeks. Bears are bulking up with anything they can find. If you're on a multi-day hike, carry your wildlife-proof containers.
When the cold season does roll around, you don't want to regret not taking full advantage of the long days when getting outside doesn't mean donning earmuffs. I know it's a struggle to resist the temptation to gorge on fatty foods and fall asleep until it snows, but there's more to life than winter. Though it has perks of its own, winter shuts gates, closes roads and buries trails. It's hike now or wait until next year, my friends.