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Desolation Wilderness Loop

Desolation Wilderness

August 18th - August 22nd, 2011

32.4 miles
6060 vertical feet
32 hours, 7 minutes
Rating: 10/10

Directions: From South Lake Tahoe, take Highway 50 towards Placerville. Just past Echo Summit, look for the signs for Berkeley Camp / Echo Lake and turn right. Go about a half mile and turn left onto Echo Lakes Road. Follow it to the large parking lot on the left near the end of the road. There is also a small dirt lot on the right. Permits or fees are not required for parking in either of these lots. If you follow the road all the way to the end, you'll reach the boat dock, where there is no overnight parking allowed.   View Driving Map

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Just days after returning from last year's 4-day, 18 mile trip in the Desolation Wilderness, I started calculating what we could possibly do the following year. As it turned out, the trip I found that best fit our range was yet another trip in the Desolation Wilderness, this one a 5-day, 32 mile lollipop loop. Despite being in the same general area, it would cover very little of the same trail as the previous year. In fact, it would only share 0.3 miles of trail in common.

In March of this year, I got a postcard stating that Desolation Wilderness permits would now be available online, and a month earlier than the previous year. So a few days later (in late March), I made the permit reservation (for a fee of $26 for the four of us).

As soon as we returned from our Yellowstone/Grand Teton trip at the beginning of August, I started making a list of all the things we needed for our backpacking trip. The first thing I did was order a second bear canister, since I knew the one we had would not be big enough to fit food for a family of four for 5 days - even if two of the backpackers were small kids.

We made a couple trips to REI to pick up dehydrated meals and other supplies, but really only started packing in earnest about 3 days before leaving. In retrospect it would have been better to start packing sooner, but I simply didn't have the time (contrary to what you might think, I don't do this for a living).

In the middle of packing, I started to wonder about trail conditions. Normally, I wouldn't even consider it to be a problem hiking under 10,000 feet in mid-August. But I knew that this had been an extraordinary winter, with more snow than usual and also late snow. So a day or two before we were supposed to leave, I started scouring the web for Desolation Wilderness trail conditions. I checked Flickr (since you can search photos by date), but nothing of note came up. I found the Desolation Wilderness trail conditions page, which is excellent. It relies on trail user reports and summarizes conditions for each zone (the wilderness is split up into 45 zones). Every zone had a report, although most of them were from July. Since we were going in mid-August and the snow was melting fast, I knew conditions would probably be better than the troublesome-looking reports I was reading. For example, a July 31st report said that crossing the Rubicon River near Camper Flat (which we would have to do) was not advised. I was beginning to worry that maybe we should find alternate plans. But I tracked down a forum user on who had been there more recently, and he said it was in fact easy. That eased my mind a lot. Still, I couldn't find reports for every place we'd visit, so we'd just have to be prepared for river crossings and snow and make the best decisions we could when we got there. In retrospect, if I had thought about it a bit earlier, I would have started looking at trail conditions a couple weeks before, and perhaps sent out some inquiries to see if anyone had been there.

A Tuesday night of packing turned into a Wednesday morning, and then Wednesday afternoon. We finally left the Bay Area around 4:15pm, still not having completely packed, but with pretty much everything we needed at least dumped into the car. We did make one brief stop at the REI in Concord, as we needed to buy Jared some new Keen sandals (he'd outgrown his older pair). Since I knew we'd be crossing rivers and streams, I felt it was a necessity for this trip.

We stopped in Davis for dinner, then checked into our Lake Tahoe hotel around 10:30pm. Lake Tahoe is about 30 minutes past the trailhead, but it has the best accommodation options in the area. I suppose we could have stayed in Placerville or Pollock Pines, but that would not have provided us with an extra night of acclimatization to the higher elevation.

At the hotel, we tried to finish as much packing as we could before getting some sleep.

1Echo Lake to Lake Aloha 4.11040300
2Lake Aloha to Dicks Lake 8.618401510
3Dicks Lake to Lake Schmidell 6.59501440
4Lake Schmidell to Clyde Lake 6.614401260
5Clyde Lake to Echo Lake 6.67901360

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