Backpacking in Desolation Wilderness From Echo Lakes to Emerald Bay


During my first summer living at Lake Tahoe I enrolled in a course offered through Lake Tahoe Community College’s Wilderness Education program. The class was a fantastic way to learn more about the new outdoor playground I found myself living in. I also learned some new skills and met a few good friends along the way. This particular trip was the second half of a mountaineering class and took a group of us on a four day backpacking trip through Desolation Wilderness.

Lower Echo Lakes Trailhead with the Lake Tahoe Community College mountaineering class. And no, the baby didn’t join us for this trip.

 Monday, July 24, 2006

After performing gear checks and shuttling our cars between our exit and entry points, we made it to the trailhead at Lower Echo Lake, on the south end of Desolation Wilderness. That was right around noon. This backpacking trip was going taking us on a modified route from Echo Lakes to Emerald Bay. I say modified because you could easily hike the Pacific Crest Trail/Tahoe Rim Trail north to an intersection just past Dick’s Lake and continue on down the trail to Emerald Bay. Instead, we would take a day hike up to Pyramid Peak, as well as to summit Dicks Peak.

There are eight of us in the group, including our instructor Rick. Everyone except Mathew, who I recently befriended in the first half of the mountaineering course, is a few years older than I. And, I believe most of the guys are married.

Once we started hiking, I was amazed by the stark contrast between the bleached granite, deep blue sky and lakes, and the rich greens of Jeffery Pines and old, gnarled Junipers. I knew the Sierra Nevada Mountains existed well beyond the ridge line surrounding Lake Tahoe, but I never realized just how accessible everything was and how beautiful it all could be. And, since the Pacific Crest Trail and Tahoe Rim Trail uses the same trail at Echo Lakes, we basically tapped into a direct pipeline to miles of pristine wilderness (whether you travel north or south).

Lake Aloha Alpine Spa

We traveled about seven miles and took about four and a half hours to reach our first campsite, which was located on the western side of Lake Aloha. The area where we camped reminded me of a resort spa thanks to the small pockets of water in and around the peninsula and the multiple granite ledges from which to swim and relax. There were also manmade retaining walls, allegedly constructed sometime during the 1920s or 30s that allowed the lake to retain more water than it naturally would. One of the guys said that Lake Aloha acts as a reservoir and collects the surrounding snow melt. Much to my surprise, the water was cool rather than cold despite the lake being a drainage for all that melting mountain snow. Probably because we were there in late July.

Earlier on our hike we stopped to swim at Tamarack Lake. I wasn’t a huge fan of the experience, however. Slimy rocks lined the bottom of the lake, unlike Lake Aloha which is filled with large granite slabs from which you can navigate without slipping or stumbling.

Tomorrow’s plan is to leave our gear at Lake Aloha and then hike to Pyramid Peak. When we return we’ll collect our stuff and make our way to the next “lodging.” I’m glad that we’ll be slack-packing up Pyramid Peak. I feel strong, but there’s no reason to carry the extra weight if we don’t need to. Lake Aloha seems appropriately situated for staging a base camp from which you could embark on a number of day hikes. My primary concern, as is always the case when leaving gear unattended anywhere in the wilderness, is that critters will chew and claw their way into my pack while we’re away.

Getting Ready to Make Dinner at Lake Aloha

It sounds like the others are beginning to prepare dinner. Time to eat!

I feel so much better now that I’ve eaten and had a chance to genuinely relax. For dinner we ate beans, tortillas, salsa verde, and avocados. Mathew couldn’t find any bulk dehydrated refried beans before the trip so he bought dehydrated black bean soup and red beans and rice soup, and then combined both in Ziplocs. When he cooked it he used slightly less water so that the paste was thick enough to spread over the tortillas. Quite the chef.

Conversation was light and fun, and many of the guys asked me about what I did for a living and where I came from. As much as I appreciated their interest in me, for the past year or so I’ve just grown really bored of talking about myself. This is usually not the case! I’m not sure what the deal is, but I kinda feel like I’ve run out of ideas and profound thoughts. I know this isn’t true, but ever since I moved to Tahoe it just seems like I’m in a mood to take things as they come and to listen rather than speak.

I considered cowboy camping tonight. However, the bugs came out in full force as soon as the sun set. So glad I set up the tent.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Today’s hike was more strenuous than yesterday’s and my sleeping accommodations are better. I should sleep well tonight. And instead of tenting tonight, I will be sleeping under the stars. I’m using a ground cloth, closed cell foam mattress, bivy sack, and sleeping bag.

Prior to leaving our Lake Aloha campsite this morning, I swam for about 30 minutes. I woke up at 5AM thinking we were all going to rise at first light, but that wasn’t the case. And before I realized how bad the mosquitoes were, I had already dismantled my tent. So I swam mostly to avoid getting eaten alive. No matter. The early morning swim was a fantastic way to start the day.

Lake Aloha

We began our hike to hill 9,686 (simply referred to by its elevation) at 9AM and we reached its summit at about 12:30PM. The hike took longer than I expected and there were a lot more benches and false summits than I anticipated. Fortunately the views were stunning. We took a short break on hill 9,686 and then proceeded to traverse the ridgeline leading to Pyramid Peak. That was slow going because there was a section near the Throne of Valhalla that required some actual climbing. Mathew, another member of our team, and I had already negotiated the section by the time the rest of the crew reached the same spot. Once Rick arrived, he placed a fixed line so that the people could rappel down using the Dulfersitz method if they chose to. It was fun to watch and caused me to reevaluate the route the three of us in the lead had taken, namely because we did not use ropes and hadn’t really considered the idea. You tend to feel safer in a group, but that feeling also can cause you to take more risks. In this case, it wasn’t the most difficult of climbs and it was a relatively short distance, but it still could’ve yielded catastrophic results had one of us slipped or tripped.

By the time the remaining group members negotiated the short climb, I had already finished the single quart of water I had brought. Bush league on my part. Fortunately when we reached the peak, Mathew had enough water that he could share some of it with me and tide me over until we reached the next water source. We snacked and took some photos while on top of Pyramid Peak, but didn’t linger too long. We still had miles to cover. On our way down from Pyramid Peak there was a massive swath of snow that enabled us to glissade down. A total blast!

Looking Along the Spine of Crystal Range

After returning to our Lake Aloha campsite, we gathered our (undisturbed!) packs and hiked a couple quick miles down the trail to Lake Le Conte. We are exposed on a small prominence opposite of Lake Aloha and have panoramic views of the Crystal Range and Mosquito Pass. Directly behind us is Lake La Conte which is small but deep and frigid thanks to piles of snow melting directly into it. After setting up camp, I dove in because rinsing off before calling it a night usually helps me relax and sleep more soundly.

Jared with the Crystal Range in the Background

Today I remembered how frustrated I can become when traveling in a group. When I served in the Marine Corps, being a part of a large group was one of my main issues when we hiked, particularly when we were on a company or battalion level “forced march.” Everyone has their own rhythm and pace and trying to coordinate so many people is challenging. On the Appalachian Trail, we thru-hikers usually hike by ourselves for this very reason. We meet up at rest stops and campsites, but we nearly always hike by ourselves and at our own pace. Being in the group today was probably one of the contributing factors to my miscalculation of my water needs. Not that I’m exceptionally fast when I hike, but I like to keep a quicker pace in order to minimize exposure. I also tend to push hard early on, and then taper off as the day or event progresses. When working in groups, this isn’t always possible, so learning to adapt is what I contemplated during today’s hike.

The wind is blowing consistently and keeping the mosquitoes at bay. When I sit upright, the cool evening breeze soothes my skin. I wish I could fall asleep sitting here.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Today was another long one. So much so that we decided to stop short of our scheduled destination. I wasn’t feeling exceptionally great because I woke up often last night to the sound of a small critter scurrying around me. I shooed it away numerous times with my trekking poles. I also found myself nursing a minor headache for most of the day. I don’t believe it was a symptom of altitude sickness, just general fatigue and dehydration. The pain eventually subsided thanks in part to being able to swim a couple of times.

We summited Dicks Peak early in the day. A stout climb to say the least. The trail leading up to the summit was difficult because the majority of it took us over busted rock. I remember climbing on similar rock when I was a child living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But there the rubble was a result of years of extensive copper mining. Aspects of the trail leading to the peak were steep, but nothing too technical. The primary challenge was dealing with the conditions while wearing our packs. We weren’t planning to backtrack any sections on this particular route so we had everything with us at all times. Descending Dicks Peak was especially difficult due to the loose stuff. My ankles definitely got a workout.

As far as food goes, this trip has worked out perfectly. One of the guys scheduled to be in our cooking group was unable to attend, so we were operating on the idea that we would be missing one dinner (since that person was responsible for bringing one). However, we’ve managed to have just enough food. At this point I only have a few snacks left for tomorrow. Usually I bring way too much food that I end up hiking excess food out of the field. There’s no question that it’s good to have extra supplies, but I prefer to keep them at a minimum.

Although today I didn’t drink as much water as I should have, in general I’ve found that my water and calorie consumption has increased because. Inherently there’s more down time when traveling in a group which causes me to eat and drink more often. We rest twice as much as I would if I were alone, so I find myself eating twice as much! Also, the frequent stops leave me exposed longer leading to a greater need to drink water.

A Forest Ranger stopped by after dinner. Rick knew her so she stuck around to chat. It sounds like she might be hiking with us tomorrow for part of the trip.

I’m zipped up in my bivy sack and sweating like crazy. But the mosquitoes are so bad right now that I dare not open up. With what little light there is outside I can see their silhouettes flying around me.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Today was another challenging, but exceptional day backpacking through Desolation Wilderness. We bushwhacked our way to Lower Velma Lake early on thanks to our alpine start of 6AM. Then we continued to push to the base of Eagle’s Buttress for the remainder of the afternoon. Lower Velma was another beautiful lake offering cool, crisp water. I located a steep slab at the edge of the lake and dove into the water a number of times.

On Top of Eagle’s Buttress

We moved slowly toward our way to the base of the buttress because it was a relatively steep ascent and there was a lot of underbrush to negotiate. Once we arrived, we staged our gear, took a break, and then planned a route up the buttress. A handful of people free climbed the 5.7 pitch, but I chose to be on belay (using a bowline on a coil) while I climbed. I knew I wouldn’t fall, but I still didn’t feel confident enough in my skills to do the ascent unaided. Besides, we had the rope so it really wasn’t a big deal to tie up. What was the coolest aspect about making the short climb was that I accomplished it wearing my beefy pair of Montrail Moraine mountaineering boots. I was pleased with their performance as well as my ability to adapt to them rather than having to rely on traditional rock climbing shoes. It really is more about technique than gear.

Although the crux of today’s route was the Eagle’s Buttress, we still had some miles to go before completing our journey. The descent from the buttress was as difficult as anything we did during the past three days. Basically, we needed to climb down a steep angle of scree which was nerve racking and made more difficult due to it being the last major obstacle to overcome. People tend to check out after they complete the hard parts and that’s when many backcountry accidents occur. Knowing this, we kept our wits about us and arrived at Eagle Lake safely. From there it was a quick jaunt down to the parking lot.

My face took a beating from the sun since we spent much of the day on Eagle’s Buttress and, by the time the trip was over, I was exhausted. But even though the trip took its toll on me, it was a total success. It had been a long time since I had pushed myself that hard, and knowing that I could still hang was satisfying. Every time I venture into the wilderness near my new home, I am reminded that I made the right decision by moving to Lake Tahoe.

View of Emerald Bay From Eagle’s Buttress

For all of your Desolation Wilderness excursions, I highly recommend using Tom Harrison’s Map of Desolation Wilderness. All of his maps are very clean and easy to read.