Desolation Wilderness is a land of spectacular beauty. Soaring peaks of granite, honeycombed with scores of lakes, it towers over the southwest corner of Lake Tahoe. This High Sierra Nevada, 7 mile round-trip hike takes you to Lake Aloha and the heart of Desolation Wilderness.
Leave Hwy. 50 at Echo summit and take a short drive through pine forest to Echo Lake. Echo Chalet (www.echochalet.com, 530-659-7207) provides a boat taxi across Lower and Upper Echo Lakes. The 15 minute boat trip costs $14 per person each way, but it cuts off 2.5 miles of hiking coming and going. You can buy a topo map and load up with snacks for the trail at the Chalet’s store.
It was early spring in the high country, mid-June, when Heidi and I set out. A stiff westerly wind blew down Lower Echo Lake, and the water taxi was grounded. It was beautiful day, and the extra 5 miles felt like a bonus. We were in no hurry. It would stay light until after 9pm.
Leaving the chalet on the Pacific Crest Trail, cross a spillway and hike above the north shore of Lower and Upper Echo Lakes at 7,539’. The flat, soft gravel trail is ideal for striding out. After Upper Echo Lake, the PCT gradually ascends through open country. The surface turns to loose rock, and you need to be more mindful of your footing.
Look back to beautiful views of Echo Lakes, deep blue and shimmering, nestled in a long valley, surrounded by snowy forested peaks. Ancient, stately junipers with deep red bark cling to cracks in granite cliffs.
Once again, I salute the founders of the PCT for finding the most beautiful route.
Entering a forest of white fir and lodgepole pine, we hiked over patches of snow. Early Sierra wildflowers were starting to bloom, but the most stunning was the snow plant. It emerges from ground freshly cleared of snow, bright red with an intricate spiraling architecture. The Latin name Sarcodes Sanguinea means “bright flesh-like thing.” It has no chlorophyll and is nourished by fungi in the soil.
For the last mile to Lake Aloha, we hiked over snow that was at times 12’ deep. It was firm with a soft top layer, and nice hiking surface. The boot prints of earlier hikers guided us. We passed a small lake still half frozen. This year, the snow should be melted from the trial in early July.
After a short descent, we reached Lake Aloha at 8,120’. It sits in a glacial basin surrounded by raw granite peaks – Mt. Price 9,975’, Mt. Agassiz 9,967’, and Pyramid Peak 9,983’. Mother Nature has outdone herself, an immense canvas painted with a glacial brush.
Rivers of snowmelt poured into Lake Aloha. It is a vast lake when it fills, peppered with hundreds of granite islands. Now, early in the season, it is a labyrinth of ponds and channels winding through fissures in the rock. We explored for a few hours, following seasonal rivers, venturing into the lake on rocky peninsulas before heading back.
Late last August, my friend Scott and I hiked to Lake Aloha. The water taxi was running, an exhilarating ride that saved us 2.5 miles each way.
The trail was dry and there was a feel of early autumn in the air. Lake Aloha was weeks past its full stage. Snowmelt had drained into Pyramid Creek, over Horsetail Falls, and joined the South Fork of the American River.
Echo Lake is approximately 10 miles west of So. Lake Tahoe off of Hwy 50. It is a 3-4 hour drive from the Bay Area depending on traffic. Detailed directions.
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