Backpacking Desolation Wilderness

Desolation is one of the most accessible–and popular–wilderness areas in California. The landscape, with it’s trail of clear glacial lakes, iconic granite slabs, thick twisted trees, and mercurial weather makes it a really special place. A world entirely blue and grey. You can really see why they call this the Crystal Range.

An slightly aimless (but totally necessary!) holiday

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks teetering on the edge of professional burn out. It’s not the job–I love the job!–its everything that surrounds it: the drama and the politics; the volume of work and the time constraints involved. Most of all, it’s the frustration that comes with witnessing the same mistakes over and over again, knowing the solution, and still feeling powerless to affect change.

So this Labor Day, I decided an extended break was in order. I spent a few days in the city with my partner as he prepared for a business trip. Then it was up to the Sierra foothills for a night to visit one of my best friends from childhood, who was on a rare sojourn to the West Coast with her kids. After that, I headed to mountains for a hike (more about that to follow). I finished out the week with a visit to my parents.

Day One in Desolation Wilderness: Echo Lake to Susie Lake

When I stopped by the Ranger Station in Placerville to pick up my permit, the ranger warned me that a tree-hang probably wasn’t the greatest idea. Apparently a couple of bears–either a pair, or a mother and a mature cub–have gotten very good at retrieving hanging bags and have even learned to wait until their taken down in the morning before stealing them. Desolation = Jellystone, apparently. Given that, I decided to take her up on the loan of a bear can for the trip.

I parked at the Echo Lake trail head and started out about noon. It was a gorgeous day, warm and beautiful, with a nice breeze. The first section is a relatively flat, running along the North side of Echo Lake. With all the holiday cabins along the shore, it’s almost like walking through a really nice neighborhood.

After Tamarack Lake, there’s a good long climb over trail covered in fist-sized hunks of granite. By the end, I was regretting my decision to carry the bear can, and wishing I owned trekking poles. I reached Susie Lake around 6:00, a total distance of about 10 miles. There, I set up camp in an established lake-side site and cooked up some pasta. I ate my dinner on a rock ledge, looking out at the incredible sunset, and working on a story.


A bad night

My original plan was a three-night lollipop loop hike, taking the Tahoe Rim Trail out and returning via the Rubicon Trail through Rockbound Valley. By the evening I was reconsidering. The food I’d eaten didn’t agree with me. I had an terrible pounding headache. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep. Elevation sickness? I wondered. It didn’t seem possible. I grew up at 5,000 feet and I’ve skied and hiked at way higher elevations. Never had a problem. Around 2:00 am I finally broke down and took some ibuprofen, which helped a bit.

Day Two in Desolation Wilderness: Susie Lake to Lake Aloha

…and then back to Echo Lake again

The birds woke me at 6:00. I took another dose of painkillers for my ever-present headache and made the decision to scrap my plans, and make my leisurely way home. My new plan was to head for the South end of Lake Aloha about 5 miles away. There I’d swim and sun myself, read my book, and write in my notebook–which is exactly what I did.

Until the lightning started around 3:00. Also, the rain.

At that point, I looked into my soul, decided I didn’t really need to camp another night, and booked it out. The mostly down-hill hike was surprisingly easy and I found myself back at the car by 6:00 pm.

I felt a bit bad transforming my planned 34 mile loop into a 20 mile out-and-back. But after all–it was beautiful, I had a great time, and for me the camping bit is kind of incidental. It’s the hiking I really love. So: imperfect, but still okay.

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