Desolation Wilderness

2008 August 14 to 17

Desolation Wilderness and Granite Chief Wilderness


The cabin is located on the South Fork of the Yuba River, about 5 miles east of Downieville (see SierraStreamSideCabins dot com for more information). Em, PJ and I would be joining Melissa, Mark and Isabella for our 3-day, 2-night trip which was also our first family vacation.

After locating the cabin on an AAA map, I noted that if I started hiking north on the PCT at Echo Lake (South Lake Tahoe in Desolation Wilderness), about 100 miles later I’d reach Highway 49 which I could follow 5 miles west to the cabin.

After determining the facts above, all I did to prepare for the trip was to assemble some maps, pack my bag, and gather some food a few nights before hand. I probably should have looked at the maps and talked to a ranger regarding the trail conditions.

Day 1

On August 14th, a Thursday morning, the trip began around 4:30 am with me driving up to South Lake Tahoe while Em slept in the passenger seat. PJ stayed at home with Gong-Gong and Lau-Lau. The driving portion of the trip went by quickly in just under 3 hours and by 8 am I was on the trail, walking along the east side of Echo Lake and admiring the boat-in or hike-in homes.

At 8:14 am, after walking along Echo Lake, I officially enter Desolation Wilderness. Woo Hoo!

A few miles beyond Echo Lake I came upon perfection know as Lake Aloha. It would have been nice to stay there for a few hours, or few days, but it was only 9:15 am so I pressed on after a photo. More beautiful lakes appeared with names such as Heather, Susie and Gilmore then I began the climb up Dicks Pass, arriving around noon. I was happy with my progress given that I had started the day at sea level, started hiking 4 hours earlier at 7414 feet, was now at elevation 9360 feet, and felt great.

Lake Aloha is the perfect combination of granite and water, the islands are just a bonus. I took this photo at 9:16 am and look forward to taking Em and PJ here for car-camping style backpacking, since it’s such a short walk, especially if you take the water taxi to the end of Echo Lake.

Around noon and 12.8 miles from my starting point I reached Dick’s Pass, the highest pass and largest elevation gain of the entire trip.

After descending Dicks Pass I went by the lovely Dicks Lake, the stunning Fontanillis Lake and skirted Middle Velma Lake. I was enjoying myself tremendously and looking forward to swimming that night in an equally wonderful lake before bedding down for the night.

This photo, taken at the northern end of Dicks Lake, shows Dicks Pass quite well. You might think that the pass is at the lowest point on ridge in the photo, as I did when hiking up the other side. However, the trail continues to the right up to clearing in order to avoid the steep descent directly into the lake.

Two hours or so later I was nearly out of water. I had crossed many dried up stream beds, and the granite / lakes of lower Desolation Wilnderness had been replaced with a dry, dusty trail. Walking was easy but the terrain was far removed from earlier in the day. Indeed, it wasn’t until after 10 miles of this dry dusty walking that I came upon Richardson Lake. I quickly set my chemicals into action so I could drink in half an hour and while the chlorine dioxide worked on the potential bacteria and viruses I went into the water. Yuck. The lake was surrounded by vegetation and had a muddy, shallow bottom. It was not nice at all and I didn’t linger. After extracting myself from the mud and while waiting for my water I studied my maps and was somewhat horrified to find that the last 10 miles would be the norm for the rest of the trip rather than the exception.

Around 4 pm I reached this sign post indicating that I was leaving Desolation Wilderness. I was in too much of a hurry to reach water to realize that I’d chopped off my head.

Back on the trail, I headed towards Barker Pass and a point 31.3 miles from my starting point earlier that day at Echo Lake. Where the trail crossed a fire road, I met 4 men standing around looking at maps. These kind men informed me that their was no water for 14 miles beyond Barker Pass and they were leaving the PCT for the night to be able to camp near water. I asked if I could tag along and camp with them for the night while deciding what to do and they graciously agreed. It was only then that I realized that I didn’t join a group of 4 but rather a Boy Scout expedition consisting of almost 20 people! They had also started at Echo Lake, but did so 4 days before me.

During my first night I enjoyed meeting the members of the group that ranged in age from a few years beyond double digits to mid sixties and showing them my lightweight gear. Just prior to entering my tent for the night, I found myself on my hands and knees, struggling not to vomit. It seems the combination of the long day, altitude, and the two drinks Terry made me with 150-proof rum joined together to form the perfect storm. Luckily, I was fine after lying down for a few minutes.

Day 2

I’m not sure exactly where we camped that night but the next day we reached Barker Pass after about an hour of leisurely walking. From the pass we followed a fire road, not the PCT, then took a trail into Granite Chief Wilderness. Like the end of yesterday, the terrain was dry and dusty and although we did descend a nice canyon, I wouldn’t go back there. The trails could have used some maintenance as well. At one point the trail was completely obscured by many fallen trees and it took a bit of searching to find the trail on the other side. During this search I was very glad that I wasn’t alone.

Day 2 started with a short walk on a fire road to Barker Pass, followed by more fire road walking, as seen in this photo.

Around 11 am I insisted the group stop so I could take a photo.

A bit before noon we entered Granite Chief Wilderness, which was just as nice as the northern part of Desolation Wilderness.

After entering Granite Chief Wilderness we descended this pleasant canyon. I had dreams of epic pools upon reaching the river crossing at the bottom it was not to be. The largest pool I found was barely big enough to submerge myself, which I did repeatedly.

Easy walking, except when fallen trees obscured the trail, which they did on numerous occasions.

I’ve never been to Hell Hole Reservoir, but Henrik and Ann go about every other year for boat and camping. They say it was really nice, until Tom Steinstra ruined it.

On my second night we camped at Big Springs and the scouts put on an initiation / awards show. The former is a secret which I can not divulge while the latter consisted of awards for worst blisters, most methane production, general dirtiness, and my favorite, bowel movements. Daniel won the bowel movement award and during his acceptance speech described in somewhat startling detail each movement, sometimes up to 3 in one day, including texture and color. It should be noted that Daniel carries a toilet seat strapped to the outside of his pack.

On day 1 I stubbed my toe really hard on a root. I was pretty sure I was going to lose the nail but as of August 28th it’s still there. I used Injinii toe-socks on this trip for the first time and will certainly use them again.

Alas, on September 5th, Beppo's 9-month birthday, while at UC Berkeley's Strawberry Canyon swimming pool, the toenail fell off. Mommy declares it to be 'super gross'. Daddy agrees and notes that it smells pretty bad as well.

Day 3

The third day, and our last, was an easy hike up to Five Lakes and then down to Alpine Meadows Ski Resort parking lot. Five members of the group left camp early and were not seen again. The rest of us arrived at Highway 89 around noon, and while waiting for the adults, the scouts tried to teach me to play Bridge and also taught me the “Behind the Green Glass Door” riddle. Once the adults made it to the highway we walked up the road to the parking lot where I was fairly shocked to see only two vehicles, a Chevrolet Suburban and Dodge Ram Quad Cab pickup truck, for 16 people and 16 packs. Into the Suburban went 2 people in the front, 4 in the middle, and 3 in the back while in the truck we fit 3 in the front and 4 in back. It wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I thought it might be.

The spot where we camped the previous night had a log cabin and some sort of log cabin oven.

When you see day hikers you know your close. These photos were taken between the Five Lakes junction and Alpine Meadows Ski Resort.

Daniel carried a toilet seat. What more can I say.

On the drive back we stopped in Truckee where I bought drinks for the members of our truck. The “Fatty Feed”, a scout tradition following a hike, took place at a Taco Bell in Auburn while milkshakes were consumed from a Carl’s Junior in Dixon. During and between these stops Norm entertained our truck with tales from his life as a private eye. In the late afternoon we pulled into the Orinda Bart station and I bid the group a fond farewell. After a quick trip to the Downtown Berkeley Bart station I ran after the number 7 bus, missed, and decided to walk the 4 miles home rather than calling Em.

Gear / Food


As usual, my pack was very light. Even with a large bear canister (BearVault), rain jacket and pants (Porepro by 3M), insulating jacket (Montbell down sweater), 2 person tent (Tarptent Rainbow), inflatable pad and pillow (Montbell), and camera with mini tripod my pack probably weighed in around 12 pounds. Add in 6 pounds of food and 2 liters of water and I was carrying no more than 20 pounds at the start of the trip.


When I’m backpacking with others I enjoy a hot meal at the end of the day, but not nearly so much when by myself. To these ends, two nights before leaving the Bay Area I went to Trader Joes to buy 2500 calories for each of my 4 days. The repackaged food ended up weighing 1.5 pounds per day. I also enjoy a single cup of coffee each morning, but didn’t want the hassle on the trail, nor the caffeine withdrawal headache. My solution, which worked quite well, was 2 pieces of Jolt gum each morning.

Except for the Gatorade which has been in a drawer for many years, this photo shows everything I bought at Trader Joe’s in it’s original packaging.

And this photo shows everything repackaged. The trail mix, apricots and licorice were mixed together for my breakfast and lunch while the crackers, cheese and jerky were mixed to form my dinner. The bars filled in the gaps while the Gatorade allowed me to drink much more than I would have had I been consuming water only. Given the hot and dry conditions I was very glad to have the sugar / salt water. This combination of food provided me all the energy I needed, tasted OK, and I was never hungry. The Balance bars melted a bit and were hard to eat without a lot of water. I would not bring the Almond Brownie (bar with purple stripe) flavor again. The other bars, peanut butter, honey peanut, and chocolate peanut butter were better.