Starry nights and spectacular sunsets: two-nights in Desolation Wilderness
Updated: Oct 12
Date: 28 July – 30 July, 2021
Location: Desolation Wilderness
Entry point: Echo Lakes Trailhead
Total distance: ≈ 15.5 miles (25 kilometres)
Elevation gain: ≈ 1,970 feet (600 metres)
Highlights: Watching sunrise and sunset over Lake Aloha, skinny dipping in Upper Echo Lake at golden hour, learning about the history of the area from Don, *finally* seeing the Milky Way, not getting eaten by bears
Summary: A two-night adventure in the rocky landscape of the Desolation Wilderness, which included our first night hike, plenty more skinny dipping and a spectacular end to our epic Californian camping trip.
On Wednesday morning, we got up early, packed up our campsite and drove to take pictures of sunrise over El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. Singing along to Hamilton, we said "I'll Be Back" to Yosemite Valley and began the drive to our fourth (and final) camping trip of our wild Californian adventure. On the way out of Yosemite Valley, we drove through a forest thick with smoke. With beams of light pouring through the smokey air, the scene was tragically beautiful. It wasn't the only time we witnessed the impacts of wildfires that day. A couple of hours into our drive, recent fire damage was evident on both sides of the highway. The trees were blackened and the vast landscape looked lifeless and devoid of colour.
Along the drive, we spotted a bald eagle, soaring just off the highway above us and immediately after crossing the border into Nevada, we saw a casino. Very on brand. We stopped for lunch at a Thai restaurant, then continued on towards Lake Tahoe. We pulled over at the Logan Shoals Vista Point to get a view of lake, stretching out into the distance with water that was remarkably blue. The whole drive north we had been chased by rain clouds, and the storm finally broke while we were in the supermarket getting supplies for our final trip. We rushed back to the car and drove onwards to Stateline, where we (unknowingly) crossed the border back into California.
Day 1: Echo Lake Trailhead to Lake Aloha // 6.2 miles (10 kilometres)
By the time we arrived to the Echo Lake trailhead, the storm had passed and the sun was shining again. We parked, sorted our bags and finally set off on the trail around 17:30. It was our latest start of the trip and we knew we might end up having to walk in the dark to get to where we were meant to camp for the night. We kept to the Pacific Crest Trail as it followed the shores of Lower Echo Lake, passing beautiful lakeside cabins accessible only on foot or by boat.
We stopped for dinner at the ferry landing at the top of Upper Echo Lake. Sitting on the pier, we cooked miso soup with instant noodles as we soaked in the quiet of the moment. It felt miles away from the crowds of Yosemite Valley.
Just as we finished eating, a man approached the pier. He introduced himself as Don and explained that he lived in the cabin nearby. We ended up chatting for half an hour as he told us about the history of the area. Don explained how his grandfather had built his family's lakeside cabin in the 1920s and how his father had brought a piano on a barge to the cabin so his mother could continue composing operas while the family was staying there each summer. He told us stories about exploring the Desolation Wilderness with his mother, when he and his brother were still toddlers. He described the different lakes in the area and made recommendations for where we should visit on our short trip. It was a delightful and informative conversation.
After Don said goodbye and headed back to his cabin, we stripped down and went for a swim. The water was cold, but felt almost silky on my skin. The trees lining the shores of the lake glowed golden with the setting sun and the sky filled with pink clouds. We were still in the water, completely naked, when Don came back out, presenting us with a book that he had written with his brother – a photographic guide to the Desolation Wilderness. We were touched that he would share this with us, and vowed to use it to help plan the rest of our trip.
We set off again as the sky was darkening, head torches at the ready for when it got too dark to navigate the rocky terrain. ("Head torches" was definitely the term I got made fun of most for using during this trip. For any Americans reading, I mean "headlamp." That better?). The path wound its way over granite outcroppings before heading into the forest.
Minutes after entering the darkness of the forest, I saw something glimmer off to the left of the path. I didn't think anything of it at first, assuming it was just light reflecting off a camper's tent. But when I glanced back, my heart almost stopped. I saw two pricks of light in the darkness – a pair of eyes, gleaming out of the forest, watching us.
"Are you okay?" Brett asked, having also seen the eyes.
"No." I responded, simply.
We quickened our pace.
Was it a bear? Probably not. Was I fully convinced it was a bear in the moment? 100%, yes.
We spent the next half an hour hiking through the forest in the dark, our head torches illuminating just a few metres of the path ahead of us. The trees loomed up around us on all sides, dark and dense, branches blocking any light from the night sky. As we walked, we banged our hiking poles together above our heads, to make ourselves appear big and threatening to any bears watching us from the shadowy depths of the forest.
Instead of just shouting out "hey bear!" every couple seconds, I decided we should start singing. The first song that came to my mind was "Yellow Submarine," so Brett and I sung to ourselves (and any watching wildlife) as we followed the path through the forest. We sung songs from my limited repertoire of songs-I-know-enough-words-of-without-listening-to-the-music, including some Adele, John Denver, songs from the Sound of Music, "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Down By The Bay" (turns out Brett and I are really bad at coming up with rhymes when we're pre-occupied with not getting eaten by bears).
Our camping permit that night was for somewhere in the forest, but we both agreed that we would rather keep walking until we found somewhere with more open ground. (Just a quick note for anyone who doesn't know...there are brown bears in the Sierra Nevadas, and they are almost always completely harmless. We weren't about to get eaten by bears. I was just overreacting as a result of the *unknown*).
Eventually, we made it out of the forest and emerged onto the shores of Lake Aloha, our intended destination for the trip. Hoping we hadn't woken anyone with our singing, we found a flat spot to set up our bivys. The sky was clear, and for the first time on the trip, the moon didn't rise until midnight, which meant it was actually dark enough to see the Milky Way! We walked down to the shore of Lake Aloha to take pictures, once again revelling in the quiet of the wilderness. The water on the lake was completely still and the reflected stars shimmered weakly in the black water. After awhile, we headed back up to our campsite. With the stars spread out in the sky above us, we crawled into our bivys and went to sleep.
Day 2: Exploring Waca and American Lake // 3 miles (5 kilometres)
On Thursday we got up early to watch sunrise over Lake Aloha (would you expect anything less from us?). We packed up our campsite in the event any rangers came by asking for permits. As the sky lightened, we could finally take in our surroundings. After the lush meadows of the Sierras, it was obvious why this rocky, mostly barren landscape was known as the "Desolation Wilderness."
The water on Lake Aloha was perfectly still, offering a reflection of Pyramid Peak and Mount Price as the warm light crept towards us. Dead trees lined the shores of Lake Aloha. Don had told us about them, explaining that the lake used to be much smaller, but when it was dammed, the water levels rose and killed off the trees surrounding the lake. Some have remained standing, but many lay broken on the shore. The white sun-bleached wood littering the landscape was almost skeleton-like.
We ate a leisurely breakfast on the shore of the lake, then pulled out the map and Don's book to plan our day. There was a glorious lack of mosquitoes, although we did have to stare down a chipmunk that was eyeing up our food.
Once the sun had risen fully, we went for a swim in the breathtakingly blue water of Lake Aloha. I felt almost guilty about disturbing the perfectly still water. As usual, we swam out to some different rocks until we found an ideal place to dive/jump into the deep water.
We decided to spend the day exploring the area south of Lake Aloha. We set up our tarp in a perfect location, left my bag and headed off. Once we had passed the bottom of Lake Aloha, the landscape became a mix of ponds and rocky islands. We hopped across rocks, winding our way through wilderness in the general direction of the next lake.
We stopped to eat bagels on the shore of American Lake, before jumping in the water for our second swim of the day. We swam out to the island in the middle of the lake and had fun jumping off the rocks into the deep water.
After our break, we attempted to head towards Waca Lake. As we continued navigating the watery landscape, storm clouds began to roll in. We were both still a bit traumatised from our first experience of an electrical storm in the mountains, so we turned around and when the thunder started, we decided to hide in a forest and wait it out. As we watched other people continue to hike near the shore of Lake Aloha, we sat on the ground, played "would you rather" and questioned whether we were being overly cautious.
Eventually, the rain stopped and the thunder receded into the distance. We headed back to our campsite, where we napped under the tarp. But just an hour later, the storm was back.
The rain wasn't heavy and the thunder was off in the distance – nowhere near as concerning as when we'd had our close encounter with a lightning bolt near Lake Sabrina. The thought of camping outside in the middle of a thunderstorm terrified me, but we also realised we had a multi-hour hike to get back to the trailhead – during which we would be even more exposed to the elements. We decided to give it an hour and if the storm hadn't stopped, we would make our way back to the car.
Thankfully, the storm receded and we agreed to stay in the wilderness. We moved our camp so it was sheltered by some trees and then cooked dinner. I ate vegan chick'n noodl' soup (10/10, would recommend) and Brett finished off the trip strong, eating mac n'cheese (yet again).
After dinner, we retreated to our bivys as it started to rain. It cleared up in time for sunset, so we climbed up the hill for a great view out over Lake Aloha. Mother Nature spoiled us with yet another stunning sunset.
As we sat watching the light fade over the hills, a sadness settled on me – the realisation that our time in the wilderness was drawing to an end and we would have to rejoin civilisation the following evening. After twelve beautiful days submerged in nature, waking up with the sun and falling asleep under the stars, I wasn't ready to return to the bustle of urban life.
Day 3: Lake Aloha to Echo Lake // 6.8 miles (11 kilometres)
On our final day of the trip, I got up at 6:00 to watch sunrise while Brett continued to doze. Initially, the sky was blue and the ridge was tinted with pink...
...but just 10 minutes later it was a vibrant orange.
Reluctantly, we packed up our campsite and headed back down to the lakeshore for breakfast and a morning swim. From there, we hiked to Lake of the Woods (not really following a path, which led to some dodgy rock scrambling), where we went for our final swim of the trip.
Flowers lined the path as we climbed up from Lake of the Woods and back towards the PCT. We could finally see the path that we had walked in the dark on our first night. The views out towards the Echo Lakes were beautiful.
We ate lunch near the pier on Upper Echo Lake again. I had written a note for Don, to thank him for the book, and as we were heading off, we stopped by his cabin to drop it off. Don's wife spotted us as we approached the house and then he came out and invited us in. The cabin was tiny, but very cosy. Don and his wife showed us the project they were working on, as well as a three-dimensional map they had of the area. We said a fond farewell and began the final stretch back down to the trailhead. We made it back to the car around 14:00, then set off towards the San Francisco Bay Area, where I'd be staying with my extended family for two weeks.
As sad as I was that our time in the wilderness was over, I was also incredibly proud of what we had achieved. We had successfully planned a 12-day, multi-stage camping trip, and had learnt a number of lessons about how to better plan a trip like this in the future. We had hiked over 86 miles (140 kilometres) and camped for eight consecutive nights – the longest period of camping that either of us had ever done before. We had swum in 11 different lakes and shot over 2,000 photos on five different cameras.
But better than all of that, we had finished the trip uninjured, with our love for one another still intact and dreams for future adventures already beginning to bloom. There's no one I would rather have been with on this epic adventure than Brett. No one who I would rather have huddled next to during a lightning storm or hiked through a dark forest with while being pursued by bears (or not). We had gotten through the scary moments together, which allowed us to revel in the magic of the Sierra Nevadas – the vibrant sunrises and sunsets, the wild swims and waterfalls, the towering granite mountains and sparkling alpine lakes. Although the landscapes aren't quite as dramatic in the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, I'm looking forward to wherever our adventures together take us next ♥
While our story had a happy ending, the magic of the Desolation Wilderness was disrupted just a month later when the Caldor Fire ripped through the area. As far as I can tell, the fire made its way all the way to the far shore of Lower Echo Lake. I spent days checking the fire maps every couple hours, worried about Don and the cabin his grandfather had built. Thankfully, the immediate area didn't sustain too much structural damage, but the loss of natural ecosystems is immense and devastating.
Desolation Wilderness permits: https://www.recreation.gov/permits/233261
Desolation Wilderness info pack: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fsbdev7_018772.pdf
Here's what to do if you encounter a black bear: https://www.sierrawild.gov/bears/bear-encounters/
Tom Harrison's map of Desolation Wilderness: https://tomharrisonmaps.com/shop/desolation-wilderness/
Don's book "Desolation Wilderness South: A Photographic Tour": https://www.amazon.com/Desolation-Wilderness-South-Donald-Caldwell/dp/096261243X
Land acknowledgement: We acknowledge that we were hiking on the traditional land of the Washoe and Nisenan peoples. We recognised how incredibly privileged we are to have had an adventure like this, how lucky we were to get to spend so much time in a wilderness that was stolen from indigenous peoples. Find out whose land you are on by visiting https://native-land.ca/.
A history of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California: https://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-washoe/
For more detail, see: https://washoetribe.us/articleblogpage/735-Page-washoe-tribe-history-past-and-present