Pay-as-you-hike era begins in Desolation Wilderness |

Pay-as-you-hike era begins in Desolation Wilderness

Patrick McCartney

The hike into the Desolation Wilderness from Fallen Leaf Lake begins innocently enough.

Leaving a well-marked trailhead, the trail winds through a cobbled stream course shaded by groves of willow and alder.

In the first mile, the trail follows an old access road, passing by a handful of summer cabins that present an odd, urban scene to the hikers passing by.

Soon, though, the trail climbs past the last remnants

It’s been nearly four years since this middle-aged reporter has shouldered his old Kelty backpack and hit the trail, and my first taste of Desolation.

Desolation Wilderness. The name alone promises a wilderness experience, an adventure shaped by rugged geology, a pristine environment and isolation.

But isolation has been increasingly hard to come by in the Desolation Wilderness. Lake Tahoe’s own wilderness has become so popular over the last 10 years that true solitude has become a rare commodity.

This year, the U.S. Forest Service began charging overnight visitors a fee, part of a national program to help underwrite the upkeep of popular destinations. Backpackers now pay $5 each for a single night, and $10 each for stays of two or more nights.

As I trudge up the trail, carrying a pack that once again is too heavy, dozens of day-hikers blithely pass by, practically skipping up the trail. Occasionally, we exchange cheery greetings.

As the trail passes Grass Lake, it begins an ascent up a south-facing slope, switchbacks carved out of a field of jumbled talus. The day-hikers are fewer now, and hikers with packs labor of the steep grade.

Over the years, I have backpacked dozens of times, but mostly in the southern Sierra Nevada. Most of my hikes have been over passes between 10,000 and 11,000 feet, where the few trees still present are dwarfed and offer little protection from the harsh Alpine sun.

By comparison, my first outing in the Desolation comes as a pleasant surprise. At 7,500 feet, the air is still rich with oxygen. So, even though the hike is arduous, I’m not forced to stop every dozen steps to catch my breath.

As a bonus, the trail is shaded at regular intervals by mature pines, cedars, firs and junipers.

Late in the afternoon, I arrived at Suzie Lake and made camp on the northeast shore. A pretty lake, Suzie Lake fills a granite basin with a dramatic view of the surrounding peaks. Through a gap to the west, the snow-dappled Crystal Ridge glowed in the late light.

One of the nice things about Suzie is the beauty of the basin’s trees. Symmetrical white firs that look for all the world like scaled-up banzai trees ring the lake, and towering over my campsite was a grand old Sierra juniper.

The following day, I took a day-hike to Heather Lake and Aloha Lake, stopping to talk with a few of the other backpackers about their reaction to the new fee system. Most said the fee was reasonable, so long as the money went to the maintenance of the area’s trails.

“It’s reasonable because they put the money back into the area,” said David Clary of Davis, who was camping at Suzie Lake with Sheri Wykoff. “You can see the huge impact.”

Wykoff also said the size of the fee was acceptable.

“It’s cheaper than if you went to a public campground, and it’s cheaper than if you went to a motel,” Wykoff said.

Tim Tyler of Tahoe City and Kathy Mann of Roseville had stopped at Aloha Lake. Mann tossed a branch into the water and Kadie, a golden retriever, charged enthusiastically after it.

“I’m not used to paying for taking a little trip into the wilderness,” said Tyler, an environmental consultant. “Then again, I want to be supportive of trail maintenance.”

Tyler said he is a regular visitor to the wilderness, and loves the Desolation Wilderness.

“I love being closer to nature,” Tyler said. “Despite the heavy usage, it still looks pristine.”

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