By Ryan Loughrey
The entrance to the Desolation Wilderness is anything but – neither desolate nor wild. The southern Lake Tahoe area, including a city aptly named ‘South Lake Tahoe,’ is a hub. It is a summer destination for impromptu weddings (complete with a chapel straight out of Vegas), boats ranging from canoes, speed boats, kayaks, etc, fisherman and fisherwomen, and hikers like ourselves.
We fought the crowds to Echo Lake, which appeared to be the summer home of many, and seemed to be popular with a wide cross section of people. Like others, we parked on the road leading to the parking area since there was literally no room there, despite us arriving relatively early in the morning. We got a little extra mileage on our hike as we followed the road down to Echo Chalet. At the beginning of the trail (the same location as the boat ramp – a natural bottleneck for all travelers regardless of destination), there was a cozy camp store and a U.S. Forest Service ranger answering questions, dispensing wilderness permits, and greeting all the hikers.
We filled out a day hiking permit, and learned that overnight wilderness permits have to be obtained in advance. It was odd to think that in a few miles we would be hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail, and would cross paths with through-hikers just as commonly as we were now sharing the road with families taking their boats to their summer getaways.
The hike follows the northern shore of Echo Lake, and is relatively popular. There are a few small inclines and declines early in the hike, but it is generally accessible. We noticed the age gap between hikers – from those who looked like they were enjoying their retirement hiking with their dogs, to families bringing their young children who may not have been as enthusiastic for the hike as their parents.
Still, once we had escaped the congestion of the parking area (and all of South Lake Tahoe, for that matter), the comfort of the hike was wonderful. We walked along among kindred spirits, those who went to nature for nature’s sake.
The hike follows Lower Echo Lake longwise, and climbs then dips to pass Upper Echo Lake, generally climbing in elevation. There is clear signage that indicates turn offs to other trails that lead to locales such as Tamarack Lake, Lake Lucille, and Lake of the Woods. Although I have no doubt that these are beautiful alpine lakes in their own right, we continued on to our destination.
After hiking for around 3 hours, we arrived at the cutoff to Lake Aloha. We passed the first fork that would have taken us to the south end of the lake, and followed the second one which took us squarely in the middle of the sprawling lake.
Our first glimpses of the lake were everything that the photos promised it would be – azure splendor set amidst a sea of slate gray rock. The crests and dips of the rock made it seem like the stone was an angry sea, frozen in time then flooded with water. The rock was encroaching on the lake spread out like fingers which made for ample spots for the hikers to each have their own outcropping. It is a place of stark beauty.
We found our way to one such area, and after the long hike we were more than ready to jump in. We stashed our backpacks under a tree for it’s shade, and stripped from our sweaty clothes. We’ve swam in mountain lakes before, and expected to find this one icy. Perhaps due to its relative shallowness and the heat from the sun, the water was a welcoming temperature. I had to open my eyes under water, for fear of hitting one of the rocks under the surface. The rocks seemed like whales, large shapes looming under the surface with parts of them occasionally surfacing.
Out on one of the many, mini islands was a small cairn. Since this was moderately far from where we were on the shore, I made it my goal to swim here. For parts, I could almost walk on the rocks with the water up to my knees. Only one part did it seem deep beneath me, and even then it could not have been more than 20 feet deep. It felt like crossing over a chasm, even though I knew that if the lake was contoured like most, it would have already been that deep.
We spent the next hour lounging and exploring. We were relatively close to the trail, and yet felt like we had our own space. We could see hikers and swimmers near us, but even then they were far away. We could hear voices of the people closest to the north, but they must have been behind one of the rocks because we could never see them. The place felt surreal yet strangely safe.
I am strong believer that food tastes better after a hike, and that day was no exception. Our snacks and main lunch dish of tuna and crackers would have been simple under any other circumstances, but after hiking and swimming under the sun, it was heavenly.
We knew how long it had taken to arrive (around 3 hours) and were not excited to start the trek back. Too soon, we left our spot, sun soaked and happy, and took to the trail. We followed the lake for as long as we could, taking pictures and continuing on. We took the cutoff back to the main trail, and passed many groups headed in the opposite direction.
The hike there did not feel like 6 miles. The hike back definitely did. We did not feel the sun too much on the way there, but as it was drooping in the sky and the temperature rose, we found ourselves taking frequent water and food breaks. Our backpacks were not overly heavy, but it seemed with time they gained weight.
We were excited to see landmarks on the way back – cutoffs to other mountain lakes, the shaded grove where the PCT through-hiker was napping, and finally – Echo Lake. I should note that there is a water taxi, which people can take to shorten their hikes. We felt we had to see it through to the end, despite the complaints of our feet.
After the hike, we discovered how our shoes did not fit us as well as we would have liked, and spots where we missed with sunscreen. The end felt like an endurance test, with us caked in sweat and grime and passing cheery faces of those just beginning their hike. We envied those who would be spending the night in the Desolation Wilderness, who would sleep under a blanket of stars. Back in South Lake Tahoe City, we treated ourselves to beer and onion rings, which ended up filling us up enough that this counted as our dinner. I’ve never slept so soundly.
I know that I have only scratched the surface of the Desolation Wilderness. I imagine that there are many more beautiful spots that I have missed that I will have to return to. Still, with limited time we made the most of what we could, and it was an incredible trip I won’t soon forget.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine