Tahoe native photographs all named lakes in Desolation Wilderness

Claire Cudahy
Lake of the Woods - 8,040 feet
Courtesy / Mike Mullen |

Three years ago Mike Mullen was at a crossroad in his career, and when a friend asked him what he would do if he could do anything, his answer was certain: photograph lakes.

Though Mullen, who works in online commerce, knew this would not be the sort of full-time job that paid the bills, he decided to make his future retirement plan a current reality.

Over the course of three years Mullen took 24 trips into Desolation Wilderness to photograph the named lakes he found on maps. Mullen created, and about a year and a half into his project the Instagram account, @lakesofdesolation. He has 89 photographs that he is now turning into a self-published book, expected out in October.

“I was born in Truckee and grew up in Tahoe City, so actually from my house I could see Rubicon Peak and the eastern edge of Desolation,” said Mullen, who now lives in San Francisco.

“I went a few times as a kid, but Tahoe still feels like home to me even though I’ve lived away from it for longer than I lived there. So that was a big part of the draw.”

The trickiest part of the project was not finding the time to take hiking and backpacking trips, but deciding where to draw the line on what was considered a lake in the 63,960-acres of federally protected wilderness.

“It’s actually not as obvious as it might seem. There’s about 150 or so, but that includes lots of little unnamed lakes and ponds. I decided not to try and photograph all of those because it’s hard to draw the line on what to do and what not to do. Some of them dry out, and how small does it have to be before you don’t consider it a lake?” explained Mullen.

So Mullen decided to stick with named lakes on the various maps he collected. His first official trek of the project was from Barker Pass to Emerald Bay where he photographed Rubicon Reservoir, Rock Bound Lake, 4-Q Lakes, Horseshoe Lake, Lake Zitella and Rockbound Lake.

“Photography started out as a hobby, but over the course of the project I definitely learned a lot more about it,” Mullen said.

Picking a favorite lake in the Desolation Wilderness is no easy task either.

“Whichever one I was most recently at, I really feel like every time I go I think, ‘Whoa, this is my new favorite lake,’” laughed Mullen.

“A few stand out though. Lake of the Woods is really beautiful with the view of the Crystal Range and all the trees around it. It’s a really special place — Clyde Lake as well. And then some of the smaller ones like Highland Lake. It’s a really beautiful little spot. There’s a trail to it above Stony Ridge Lake out of Meeks Bay.”

Mullen is now in the process of compiling the book version of Lakes of Desolation.

“It’s sort of a catalogue of the lakes, so each lake with its name, elevation and the date I photographed it, and a small essay about my experience, which will provide a little bit of background information on the area and about me, and try to form a narrative around the whole project.”

At the same time Mullen has moved on to project No. 2: photographing the lakes of Yosemite National Park.

“Yosemite National Park just posted on their Instagram that there are 2,000 lakes, but my count came up with 138. Again, I use the methodology of named lakes,” explained Mullen.

In obvious ways the project pushed Mullen to learn more about photography and the Desolation Wilderness, but it also taught him an even more important lesson.

“I’ve had conversations with people on Instagram who’ve expressed that they wish they had done this, but now for health reasons can’t,” said Mullen.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned from the project is do it today. Figure out a way to make it happen, whatever it may be. With a bigger task, if you break it down into sets of smaller tasks, you can make progress.”

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