OK, I’ll admit it…I have problems. And if you’re anything like me, you have problems, too.
- We suck at planning. More specifically, we suck at planning in advance. I finalized this trip the day before I left, and it all seems to boil down to one reason…
- We try to pick the perfect trail. No lie, I’ll spend hours and hours pouring over the options trying to find that one special hike — as if the destination would cease to exist next week! Sure, some trails are easy to plan (Half Dome, Lost Coast, etc.). But an entirely new wilderness to choose from? Game over. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
Despite the limited time frame, it didn’t take long to organize everything necessary for this trip. But what about the trail? There aren’t very many clear-cut loops when looking at a map, so here’s a list of what Google has come up with:
- Emerald Bay to Dicks Lake ~ 14 miles
- Mention of an 18 mile hike, text describes a different loop ~ 32 miles
- Seven Summits ~ 30 miles
- Marathon Loop ~ 26 miles
- Crystal Range Loop ~ 35 miles
- Glen Alpine to Lake Aloha ~ 12 miles
- Rockbound Pass to Red Peak
- List of popular routes
Obviously some are a bit longer than others, but a 2 night trip would be best for anything over 15-20 miles unless you’re packing ultralight!
After much deliberation, I decided to go from Echo Lake to Lake Aloha / Heather Lake and back. I didn’t plan the exact route, but I knew where I would start and end up…enough information to fill out the permit.
Off we go!
WILDERNESS PERMIT: Obtaining a permit is rather straightforward. There are 45 “zones” in Desolation and roughly 16 trails leading into the area. Note that on your first night, you are required to camp in the zone you mark on your permit. After the first night, you’re free to camp anywhere. During the summer months (until the end of September), there are quotas for each zone in effect.
- Destination Zone: 33 – Aloha
- Entry / Exit Trail: 007 – Echo
COST: $5 per person for the first night or $10 per person for 2 to 14 nights — plus a $6 handling fee for the overnight permit. No entrance or parking fees (at most lots).
BEAR CANISTER: Not required, but nice to have just in case.
MAP: I found this map to be good for planning and a backup. I use the GPS on my phone almost exclusively on trips.
PARKING: The last stretch off of route 50 is a small residential road that ends at a parking lot. You can park here during your trip and will likely see plenty of other vehicles as well. There is a small boat dock down a little further, but be sure not to park in the lot there (no overnight parking allowed).
DISTANCE: 17.9 miles
ELEVATION GAIN: +3,503 feet
TIME: 1 day 3 hours 46 minutes
Desolation has some of the wildest landscapes I have ever seen (so far).
The ground is a seemingly endless sea of granite peppered with manzanitas and oaks. Crystal clear lakes dot the wilderness, beckoning you to take a dip. Forests of pine will give you momentary reprieve from the trails of loose rock, only to disappear as quickly as they sprung up.
The weather was amazing. Mid-60’s on both days (maybe creeping into the 70’s on Sunday), dipping to low 40’s at night. Day hikers were present at Echo Lake and a handful of others were spotted with camping gear, but for the most part human contact was scarce.
You’ll start at the southeastern edge of Echo Lake, piggybacking on the PCT for most, if not all, of the trip. 5 miles to Lake Aloha, though it ends up being more like 7 or 8 to the end of the lake. There are a number of cabins that line the shore of both Lower and Upper Echo Lake. Yes, I did try to find out how much they cost — no, it didn’t work.
Now you have some time before you’re actually in Desolation Wilderness. The park boundary is roughly 3.5 miles from the start of the trail. Before you reach this point, the hike is relatively flat and easy. Once you’re near Desolation, however, it begins to climb (see the elevation profile).
This is the fun part. Not only do you climb over 1,000 feet, but you’re doing so mainly on rocks of sizes ranging from tennis balls to puppy-sized spiders. I hope you brought good boots!
After leveling off a little over 8,000 feet, the trail becomes a mix of forest and granite. Some parts are covered in fresh pine needles and wooden slats. Others are less inviting, a path carved through giant piles of rock.
6 miles in, Cracked Crag is in view — Lake Aloha is right around the corner.
At a little over 6.5 miles, you’re staring at Lake Aloha. The water was a bit low during my trip (drought, ack!), but it was still incredible. Yes, the water was cold. No, I did not go in (I was tempted, though). Little granite islands dot the lake. The water was low enough that most of them could probably be reached.
The trail keeps moving around the lake. There are quite a number of good sites along this trail on the east side of Lake Aloha if you plan on camping here.
The original plan was to camp somewhere between Heather and Suzie Lake, just east of Lake Aloha (as mentioned on my permit…*cough*). After scouting the scenery, I decided that pitching right at the end of Lake Aloha (up and to the right of the trail when facing north — roughly 8.2 miles in, 8,074 feet elevation) was the perfect location. It was secluded, protected slightly from the wind and sun, and the ground was nice and flat, covered in sand.
I set up camp, took a nice nap, and woke up right as the sun was going down. I saw a few other campers in the distance by their fire (no fires allowed, dammit!), but no other signs of life.
The moon was not set to rise until after 3AM, allowing me to flex my very new muscles at astrophotography. I woke up at 145AM to spend a bit of time getting used to my new camera (Canon 6D!). It was quiet, clear, and calm.
But not for long.
At 2AM the wind started picking up. Let’s also remember that it’s in the mid-40’s. For the next 30 minutes, until I couldn’t stay outside any longer, the wind kept increasing in magnitude. The entire night, while I drifted in and out of sleep, the wind was whipping the rain fly. If I had to guess, I would say gusts up to 20-30 mph. Luckily, I packed warm!
Who wants to hike back the exact same way? Not me! And not you, either. The detour was supposed to take me along a trail near the north edge of the Lake of the Woods — oops. I seemed to have missed the junction, because I managed to somehow veer off the trail onto a “trail”. After scrambling up and over a crest of rock, I came across the western edge of the Lake of the Woods. A formal trail is lacking along this side of the lake, but the terrain is forgiving enough to allow passage to the eastern side (via the south).
After reaching the east-side trail, you’ll come across several lovely campsites while heading back to the PCT. These are spots to remember since the views are absolutely stunning. Shimmering water laps on lightly colored beaches with mountains splashing the background. There are campsites either right on the lake shaded by trees or next to large precarious boulders. The smell of pine lingers in the air. Seriously. Camp here now.
After the Lake of the Woods, that’s it! A push to the top (8,330 feet) right as you start heading back to the PCT, but then it’s all downhill from there. Be careful on the rocks going down, it seems to be more treacherous when you’re tired and aching to sit down. I hope you enjoyed Desolation — I know for sure I’ll be coming back.