Finding (relative) desolation a stone’s throw away
Desolation Wilderness is not to be mistaken for a secret hideaway or distant destination.
The 63,960-acre slice of Sierra Nevada backcountry butts up against the southwest corner of Lake Tahoe – practically in our back yard – and is invitingly accessible to the legions of gapers (and locals alike) who pack in to the basin.
Nevertheless, even the most reclusive of backpackers must acknowledge its natural splendor.
This past weekend was spent enjoying a spur-of-the-moment camping trip through the popular wilderness area, beginning Friday afternoon at the Meeks Bay trailhead and ending Sunday on the Bayview Trail above Emerald Bay.
What a place – certainly worthy of its designated status. In fact, requesting that half-day off of work Friday was the best decision I made all week.
My neighbor J.R. and buddies Andy and Brendan, who had been planning the trip for weeks, were to hit the trail by 11 a.m. or so. I would get out of the office as soon as possible, assemble my gear and meet the trio at Stony Ridge Lake, about 6 miles in.
Some lagging occurred in the gathering process, and I departed the Meeks Bay Trailhead between 3:30 and 4 p.m., hustling my steps to make up for lost time. Some two and a half hours later, I entered camp along the west side of the lake to discover friends squatting at the shoreline, pumping water, with 9,000-plus-foot Rubicon Peak bathing in the waning sunlight above.
I dropped my pack with a thud, prompting a surprised response as the three heads swiveled around: “We didn’t think you were going to make it.” J.R. offered a high five.
After unsuccessfully fishing Stony Ridge Lake that evening and following morning, we hit the trail again, climbing to tiny Rubicon Lake where J.R. caught a brilliantly colored brook trout. We continued up to Phipps Pass, which from its 8,800-foot perch opened an expansive view across glacier-scoured gorges to Mount Tallac to the southeast, Dick’s Peak to the southwest and Velma Lakes below. Few lunch stops afford such a fine view.
We pushed on, descending into an old-growth forest of mostly western white pine, fir and mountain hemlock before merging with the Pacific Crest Trail, where men with large, scraggly beards – likely through-hikers – occasionally passed by. Onward we marched until reaching Upper Velma Lake (actually lower Upper Velma Lake), our spot for night two.
I was immediately encouraged. At lake’s edge, brook and rainbow trout of varying sizes cruised through the crystal-clear water only feet away. We would catch and release many of them that afternoon, which also included a round of swimming that doubled as a cleansing bath.
J.R.’s dip didn’t go as smoothly as he would have liked, though, as he sliced the arch of his foot on a rock while climbing out of the water. He brushed it off at the time. The next day, however, on Sunday, the foot started to bark at him as we hiked up to Fontanillis Lake. By the time we reached the lake about a mile up the ridge – a stunningly picturesque body of water near the foot of Dick’s Peak – J.R. was over it.
Instead of continuing up and over Dick’s Pass en route to Susie and Heather lakes, and eventually Lower Echo Lake where he and Andy had planned to exit on Monday, he made the call to stop hiking for the day and post up at Fontanillis to recover. He would exit the Bayview Trail on Monday, just as Brendan and I planned to do within the hour.
But first, there was more fishing to be done, which for me resulted in a colorful, 10-inch rainbow and couple of small brookies. J.R. and Andy said they fished Fontanillis for much of the day, with good success. But we were back on the trail in short order, hoofing it up to Dick’s Lake before veering off the PCT and onto Bayview. We were to meet up with our ride, Brendan’s fiance Lindsey – and her friend’s dog Lilly – who hiked in to meet us on the trail.
Before long, a sparkling blue Emerald Bay, bustling with boat traffic, came into view. A quick swim at Granite Lake and we were back in the Tahoe Basin, reflecting on a fine weekend in a backcountry land tucked in our back yard.