PCT 2019: Day 117, Tentsite at Mile 1115.1 to Tamarack Lake

Desolation, yes; hesitation, no

If you only knew of Desolation Wilderness by its name, you might assume it is a dreary and lifeless place. But don't, because you couldn't be more wrong.

This land is filled with snowy mountains, 130 azure lakes, and abundant wildlife. The rugged mountains range from 6,500 feet to nearly 10,000 feet. Pristine lakes of all sizes dot the landscape. And everywhere you look are granite boulders, forests with ancient juniper, fir, and lodgepole pine trees, plus many wildflowers.

DateSunday, September 1, 2019
WeatherClear sky with a high temperature in the mid 70s
Trail ConditionsOne long ascent and descent, sometimes rocky
Today's Miles19.1
Trip Miles1727.9

There are consequences for this scenic beauty, however. It is a fragile land that requires protection.

Desolation Wilderness was given a special wilderness designation long before the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Additional protections have been necessary in recent years. Permits are now required to camp here and fires are prohibited.

The Pacific Crest Trail will remain in the wilderness all day today.

I left camp after 6:30 a.m. Our goal for today was Tamarack Lake, located at the south end of the wilderness.

After about three miles, I came upon a work crew moving rocks. They were from American Conservation Experience, a non-profit organization that works in partnership with a federal agency, Americorps.

The crew members are considered volunteers, though they do receive a small bi-weekly allowance to cover food expenses. At the end of their program, Americorps will pay them a small stipend.

The work being done here is essential for the long-term viability of the wilderness. When trails are well-maintained, hikers will stay on them and not tread on environmentally sensitive areas. The work will also help to control damaging erosion.

I was pleased to see I was back in the home range of the Sierra juniper. I had enjoyed seeing some of these in higher elevations of the Mojave desert.

Because of their stout trunk and tendency to grow on exposed and rocky slopes, they always look old and mighty to me. And in fact, some of these are very old. One is estimated to be at least 3,000 years old and could be 6,000 years old.

The first of the many lakes the trail would pass today was Middle Velma Lake. The trail went over a small footbridge at a stream near the lake, then began a long climb by going to a ledge above the lake.

The ledge provided a vantage point to see the whole lake.

The cloudless sky and sparkling lake seemed to be competing today to see which could be the most blue.

Climbing another 350 feet in less than a mile, the trail reached two adjacent lakes. The first was Fontanillas Lake.

I stopped to refill my water bottles where a stream spilled from the lake.

Bright pink blooms of rosy spiraea stood nearby.

The trail followed the shore of Fontanillas Lake, then continued for another half mile up to Dick's Lake.

Once again, the blue color of these two lakes was rich and deep.

Leaving the lake, the trail went sharply up to Dick's Pass. The climb to a ridge was made a little easier by a big switchback and some stair steps cut into the trail. These eased the steepness of the climb.

Higher still, the trail became more difficult because it was steeper but without stair steps.

Seeing a patch of common woolly sunflowers gave me an excuse to stop on the climb for a short break and take photos.

I reached the top at noon. Dick's Pass was flatter than most passes, with a broad, nearly-treeless field of gravel.

Looking back, I could see the route I had walked so far today. Closest to the pass was Dick's Lake, with Fontanillas Lake just beyond. Farther away was Middle Velma Lake.

About 22 miles away, Granite Chief Mountain was barely visible on the horizon. This mountain was part of the ridge around Lake Tahoe. We passed it two days ago, which was our first day back on the trail after leaving Oregon.

Continuing to the north side of the pass and down the other side, the remainder of Desolation Wilderness came into view. This included several more lakes.

Jutting from the shore of Lake Aloha was Pyramid Peak, the tallest mountain in the wilderness.

Its pointed, granite summit reached 9,983 feet in elevation and made it unmistakable.

Farther down from Dick's Pass, the trail crossed a meadow of brilliant wildflowers. These included wavy-leaf Indian paintbrush and California corn lily.

While on this descent, I caught up to Bluejay, but only for a few minutes. Before long she was out of sight again.

Looking to the west, I continued to see Pyramid Peak as I headed down from Dick's Gap. At a lower elevation, Lake Aloha could no longer be seen below the mountain. Although a ridge stood in front to block a view of the lake, a smaller lake called Susie Lake could be seen now.

Centuries ago this terrain had been scraped clean by glaciers and this view gave clear evidence of that. Trees and other vegetation sparsely dotted the bare granite the glaciers had exposed.

I reached a stream flowing from Gilmore Lake at 1:45 p.m. and found Bluejay there. She was filtering water.

The campsite we had chosen for tonight was only 7.1 miles away. I decided I had some spare time, so I stayed several more minutes to take a long break. It was the first one I had taken today that lasted more than a couple of minutes.

The trail took me past two more lakes, Susie and Heather, before reaching Lake Aloha. The last of these was by far the largest lake. The trail followed its shoreline for 1.5 miles.

By now, I was starting to see many weekend backpackers. This wasn't a surprise, though, because today was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.

After leaving the lake, only 2.4 miles remained to reach a side trail that led to Tamarack Lake. Unfortunately, the trail became more rugged because of erosion. Then it seemed to split without any trail markers to indicate which direction was the PCT.

Without hesitating, I guessed which direction to take and followed the path to the left. That turned out to be a mistake. I walked about a tenth of a mile before I began to have doubts about the trail's direction.

A quick check of the map on my Guthooks app confirmed I had made the wrong choice.

Once I had backtracked to the real trail on the right, I continued to the junction of a side trail to Tamarack Lake. This also turned out to be a confusing trail. It was so covered in rocks it was difficult to be sure of the real footpath.

Because of my trouble with the poorly-marked trail and the rocks, I thought I was going much slower than usual, but I arrived at the lake before 6:30 p.m. It took me another 10 minutes of wandering back and forth before finding where Sunkist and Bluejay were camped.

The rocky ground limited the number of flat spaces available for pitching a tent, so I had to camp far from them.

If the person who named this area Desolation Wilderness thought the name would keep people away, that idea was wrong. There were many people camped by the lake tonight on this holiday weekend.

We dismiss the back roads
To ride these streets unafraid
Resigned to scraping paint
From our bones unashamed
No more the eye upon you
No more the simple man

Desolation, yes
Hesitation, no
Desolation, yes
Hesitation, no
As you might have guessed
All is never shown
Desolation, yes
Hesitation, no

From "Age of Innocence" by William Patrick Corgan (The Smashing Pumpkins)


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.