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The land of lakes not quite free from the spell of winter

Alex Close
Wet, wintery conditions are still prevalent throughout the Desolation Wilderness. Photos by Alex Close / Tribune News Service
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As you hike up from the hugeness of Lake Tahoe, westbound away from Emerald Bay on the Eagle Lakes trail, you don’t see snow right away. You don’t feel the temperature drop. Actually, you can hike all the way up to the Velma Lakes and still feel like it’s summer time.

However, you will notice one difference in Desolation Wilderness for a mid-July hike.

The amount of water up there is staggering.

For a normal spring hike, seeing rushing rivers and ponds virtually everywhere is not uncommon.

However, for a mid-July hike, traversing snow fields and rock hopping sections of trail that are submerged is unusual.

Despite rushing rivers and plentiful bodies of water, Desolation didn’t really look all that different from any other, more normal July – until you climb over Dick’s Pass.

The switchbacks that lead hikers over Dick’s Pass are covered, still, by a snowfield that blankets the entire face with a few feet of snow.

The best way to get up to the top of the pass is definitely not over the snow.

Skirt the rocks bordering the snowfield to get up. The trail marker is still easy to find from the northwest corner of the snowfield atop the pass.

Of course, the best way to get down is to slide over the snow field. In fact, this is a much easier and shorter way than the trail provides, when the snow is melted.

Sliders should beware of rocks popping out and keep themselves in control. However, this field is not exceptionally steep and sometimes it’s actually harder to slide than to stop.

In this land of a thousand lakes, crossing over Dick’s Pass is like entering a new world. As you look down onto Fontenellis Lake and across the valley to the next pass, you realize that winter still has a very firm grasp on the area.

While Fontenellis’ water is thawed and as blue as the sky itself, much of the shoreline, or granite rock faces that surround the lake, are still covered in snow. Areas that have slid down, broken off or hang over the water from the rocks above illustrate perfectly the three feet of snow still present.

Camping at Fontenellis is, however, accessible. While there aren’t many spots on the lake, the ones that do exist are mostly clear of snow. Some areas on the east side of the lake are still swamped however.

With the amount of water present, mosquitoes are definitely an issue. Don’t go back there without some sort of repellent.

However, if the wind is blowing, as it usually does – swirling through the valleys – the mosquitos will stay hidden.

The real mind-blower in that particular area is Dick’s Lake. The fairly big and almost perfectly circular lake is still half covered with ice.

The camp spots where the trail first hits the lake are clear, although there are still large areas covered with snow, including the half or full square mile or so between the lake and the top of the pass.

The northern half of Dick’s Lake is covered with a broken ice field. While the ice looks to still be a foot thick or so, walking on it would not be a good idea, as it’s all broken up and thawing by the day.

For those summer hikers who have never seen Desolation in the winter, a hike up to Dick’s Lake can be done in one day, and offers a glimpse into what the area looks like when it’s not hot and dry.

For another mind-blower, check out the river that flows from the north end of Fontenellis and down to the Velma Lakes.

Normally at this time of year it’s not really a river at all but more of a creek. The trail usually crosses this point at an eddy and, while rock hopping is required to get across, right now it’s much different.

The river itself is basically not crossable. Dead trees and logs that have clogged together at the mouth of the river provide safe passage across, but really this is still within the lake and not over the river at all, which is a torrent of whitewater divided by deep, broad pools.

Hikers exploring the area should take into consideration the less-than-summer conditions. While snow gear is not necessary (crampons, snowshoes or skis, beacons, probes or shovels) it is a good idea to understand that trails may be hidden, and crossing snow may be required. Hikers should pack warm clothes (as always in the backcountry) and be prepared for colder temperatures. Overnight the wind can pick up and it can get very chilly.

Hikers should always carry a good topographical map of the area as well as a compass or a GPS unit that they know how to use. With snow or water covering many sections of trail, hikers might need to navigate back to the trail on their own.

Also, the water in the lakes up there is still very, very cold and not suitable for swimming. As evident when looking at Dick’s Lake, hikers should be very careful near water, as slipping in could result in hypothermia very quickly.

All in all, it’s a beautiful time to visit the backcountry, but hikers and backpackers should be wary of the climate. Don’t go up there expecting hot, dry conditions. There is a lot of water and a good amount of snow still to melt.

The bad news is that mid-summer hikers might find a colder wilderness than they’re used to.

The good news is the beauty of the lakes and the power of the rivers are going to stick around late, possibly until the snow falls again in the fall.

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