Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Getting lost in Desolation Wilderness

You would never know from looking at the parking lot that Desolation Wilderness actually does a pretty good job of living up to its name. Every lot is overflowing with cars and the winding roads are lines with strategic parking jobs. Fortunately, like most wilderness areas, all one needs to do to avoid the crowds is walk farther than a mile.

Desolate would also be a good word to describe the landscape. The entire area is made of granite shaped and carved by glaciers. Plants struggle to take root in this environment devoid of fertile soil, leaving most of the mountains barren with sporadic pines and the occasional bristlecone.

Because there often wasn't any real dirt to walk on, it became difficult after the first mile to determine where the trail was leading. Occasionally, someone would make rock cairne or place some boulders and sticks along the side of the trail to signify where to go...otherwise, you're on your own. This should have been more of a concern than it was to us, as this was foreshadowing to a pretty big adventure to come the next day.

 Scene from the trail with Eagle Lake in the foreground

Another view along the trail

 More granite mountains with Lower Falls (the source of Eagle Lake) in the lower right.

stream crossing

The goal was to camp at a place called Lower Velma Lake, but we couldn't find it. We passed all the landmarks in the directions and finally found a sign that pointed to Upper Velma and Middle Velma Lakes (which were in opposite directions), but no Lower Velma. Since it was getting late and we were tired of walking, we ended up just camping at the next lake we saw, which we assumed to be Upper Velma. After dinner, hanging the bear bag, and checking out the sunset, we had hoped to do a full moon hike.

As luck would have it, just as the sun was setting a layer of clouds rolled in, but looked as though they might not stay long. We decided to duck into the tent to rest for while until they moved on, but ended up falling asleep within minutes and missed the full moon! Next time!

camp for the night

checking out some more waterfalls near our campsite

This was a pretty cool waterfall near our campsite. Water was cascading down the granite hillside.

Beginning of sunset. The lake below is where we are camping.

Sunset while hanging the bear bag

 The bear bag!
Breakfast view

Morning marmot friend!

Morning climb to see the source of the waterfall.

Source of the waterfall! 

The great pumpkin! Love that little tent.

Craig and me next to where we set up shop the previous night.

The next morning, I headed back up the waterfall to see where the water was coming from. I was greeted by the biggest, most spectacular lake I had seen in the area. It was the mother source of all the lakes and creeks we had passed along the trail! It was such a peaceful setting.

After snapping a few photos and taking in the scene, I headed back down to join Craig for breakfast and packing up to head back. 

About a mile into the trail back, things started looking slightly unfamiliar and we had already caught ourselves getting offtrack several times so I was worried we were not on the trail anymore. I'm assuming we had taken a deer path or something because at times I could definitely see a thin trail that would suddenly disappear again. I can't remember why, but at the time, I thought it made more sense to push onward rather than backtrack to find the official path. This is where the real adventure began. 

After stopping and looking at our surroundings, it became apparent that we had missed the trail that stayed high along the cliffs above us and were now much lower in elevation. We also noticed a creek rushing below us and assumed this would take us back to Eagle Lake (where we were headed). I should note that we also recognized the mountain peaks and could see Lake Tahoe in the distance so we knew we were going generally the right direction and weren't TOTALLY lost. There were just many instances of finding ourselves looking over cliffs, waterfalls, rockfalls, and floodplain jungles trying to figure what the secret password was to get by them.

Trying to find the trail on the hike out.

Craig heading down to the river we were about to follow. He seems unsure of my navigation skills. :-)

 Crossing the top of a waterfall that begins just to my right.


Crossing 2 giant rock falls. I was sore for days after this part...

We finally see what we hope is Eagle Lake in the distance. Still more rock fall sections and river jungles to go.

Craig escaping part one of the plants that refused to let us pass. I wish I could have captured what it was like in there. We had long vines wrapped around every appendage and basically had to use our bodies as a bulldozer to get through. This was probably the lowest point of team morale.

After hours of one tricky situation after another, we made it to the lake and were thrilled to see people on the opposite side meaning that this was, indeed, Eagle Lake! We had a late lunch here and found the official trail, which lead us back to the car. At the time, I was slightly uncertain this early explorer approach was going to get us back, but I think we both dreaded admitting defeat and the thought of retracing our steps, which could have just gotten us more lost. However, looking back, it was such an adventure and a test of our ability to read the landscape, trust that we could do it, and stay positive while enduring unpleasant situations! 
We finally make it to Eagle Lake and can see people on the other side! Yay!

 View of Lake Tahoe from the TRAIL back.

Here is part of the path we took. Crossing first the waterfall, then the rock fall, and finally into the worst part, the vegetation lining the creek. After this, we continued downstream on another, older rockfall until reaching Eagle Falls.