Desolation Wilderness: Part III of III
Desolation Wilderness is strewn with Alpine lakes, nearly 10,000-foot peaks and few people. Getting to all of its unique spots requires special equipment and the willingness to carry it. Today, we look at one of hundreds of hikes in the wilderness area – Eagle Falls to Fontanillis Lake.
While much of Desolation Wilderness lies just outside South Lake Tahoe’s city limits, the wonder the area’s granite peaks and Alpine lakes inspires is often miles removed from the wilderness boundary — in the backcountry.
Renowned for its accessibility, the heart of the wilderness area can be entered via six trailheads within the Lake Tahoe Basin.
Eagle Falls trailhead provides spectacular day hikes and a relatively short walk for backpackers looking to camp in backcountry locales.
Finding parking near the trailhead’s location off Highway 89 near Emerald Bay on a Saturday afternoon can be as challenging as carrying on your back all of the belongings you’ll need for a night, but after two passes my group of four is on its way to the solitude hinted at by a $5 wilderness permit.
Noticing our conspicuously large backpacks, a U.S. Forest Service employee approaches us at the trailhead and takes the opportunity to launch into a short briefing on the “do’s and don’ts” of Desolation camping.
He checks our permit, reminds us campfires are prohibited, tells us to hang our food away from wildlife, and encourages us to camp and dig our latrine 200 feet away from water sources. He then sends us on our journey to Fontanillis Lake.
We’ll stay one night and walk approximately 12 miles round trip.
Heading up the trail, Eagle Lake and Eagle Falls are the first landmarks. The water provides a short and scenic walk for day-hikers, or a salivation-inspiring oasis just out of reach for backpackers already headed past the lake on the steep, rocky trail into the wilderness.
Although the trail levels out significantly after the first several miles, this first section rises abruptly and can be strenuous.
Bayview trailhead reportedly provides a less arduous hike and meets up with the Eagle Falls trail after about three miles.
At this junction one is presented with the view of a magnificent granite ridge and a little known side of one of the South Shore’s better known peaks, 9,735 foot Mt. Tallac.
Just after this point, one of my fellow backpackers takes the opportunity to remark on the almost surreal high elevation surroundings, saying, “it’s just like the Shire,” referring to the idyllic homeland of the diminutive hobbits in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
Although the twisted, wind-blown junipers and conifers stunted by the harsh alpine environment hint at the fantasy evocative of Tolkiens work, it is the epic peaks of the Desolation Wilderness, like Mt. Tallac, that can make one feel hobbit-like.
The next fork in the trail gives backpackers the choice of heading towards Dicks Lake or three lakes known as the Velmas.
The trail towards Upper Velma Lake descends gently and the area surrounding the lake provides numerous wooded areas to camp.
Opting for the fork towards Dicks Lake, the trail begins to pick up elevation in the form of a series of switchbacks, but the climb is a pleasant one as better glimpses of a granite-bordered Lake Tahoe are afforded with each step.
The Dicks Lake trail eventually leads to Fontanillis Lake, a deep blue pool surrounded by large boulders in many sections and providing a unobstructed view of 9,974 foot Dicks Peak.
Upon reaching our destination, we set up camp and had the entirety of the lake to ourselves throughout the night.
A slight breeze began to blow, silence permeated the air and, as the last red splashes of the day’s sunset marched their way up one of the tallest peaks in the Desolation Wilderness, the allure of the backcountry became clear.