Desolation Wilderness backpacking Grass Lake Desolation Wilderness Backpacking -  passing by Grass Lake. Notice the cascading waterfall in the background!

Desolation Wilderness Backpacking

Adventures, and mis-adventures, you might say are life's way of giving us learning opportunities. Earlier this summer, Mike, assistant manager at Granite Chief Ski & Mtn Shop, with his girlfriend Yuka, wanted to get out for a couple of nights under the stars.  "We have Desolation Wilderness backpacking just minutes down the road from us, so it is a natural place to go. It feels like our backyard, and that's what maybe led us to be a more causal than we should have been", Mike recounted. Rounding out the family, their two dogs, Jaxy (a Shepard Husky), and Sakura (a Shiba-inu). No trail trip would be complete without them.

The Backpacking Plan

The plan was simple: head out from home on the north shore of Tahoe, stop for a fresh morning brew (of the coffee kind), and then begin their hike from the Glen Alpine trailhead, near Fallen Leaf Lake. Camping destination -  Lake Aloha, in Desolation Valley. Spend two tranquil nights moon and star gazing, a day in-between exploring, and then retrace their steps out. Simple, straight forward ... Of course, what fun would it be if all went completely as planned, right?

While Jaxy and Sakura eagerly waited to jump into the Subaru, little delays snuck into other nooks of the morning considerations.  Prompt departure let go of, the foursome reached Fallen Leaf Lake, and their trailhead by late morning. Two hikers fueled by a java stop, and two, four legged girls, ready to charge on pure DNA. Packs on, off they went ...

As Mike and Yuka flowed into a trail walking rhythm, both Jaxy and Sakura were in full, 'dogs in the woods', mode. You know the scene, running around every tree, forward and back, into every water source, and onto every increasing patch of snow. Along with the trailhead being left behind, so were Mike and Yuka's thoughts of day to day responsibilities. The catch, that off switch also included one backcountry travel duty. Being the experienced backcountry guy, Mike said, " I didn't bother checking our map, as we knew where we were headed.  That was until we realized, did we miss a turn?"

Change in Plan

Yep, turn missed somewhere back along the way. Their current location, now having pulled the map from Mike's pack, was roughly two miles from where they were intending to be. No big deal, but it was starting to get late in the afternoon. They had also forged three adrenaline raising streams. Adding to the scenario, their four legged marathon running members of the family were showing signs of going too big on the day.

Taking advantage of a moment's downtime, Yuka decided to check  Jaxy's and Saruka's paws ... "Not good", said Mike. "In all of their excitement they had worn their paw pads down into the tender zone. There were blisters developing, and even a few  tears." Both dogs then became the subject wilderness doggie first aid ... cleaning and dressing their paws. Lake Aloha would have to wait for another trip, but just around the corner was Susie Lake, and the outlet river from Gilmore Lake.  An audible was called, and Mike proceeded to pick up their 80 lb. Shepard Husky. Jaxy didn't quite carry like a good old 80 lb mountaineering load. Nonetheless, she and Mike persevered, which included an agility and confidence test on yet another log stream crossing.

Desolation Wilderness Backpacking - dogs and stream Jaxy and Sakura (pre paw wear & tear) enjoying a cool dip in one of the calmer streams.

Moonlight, Sunrise, & Re-purposing

That evening the Jet Boil stove did its thing, and AlpineAire's Southwest Style Masa with Beef  never tasted better. As dusk transition to night, all four settled in for the near full moon rising. Because of their forest setting, however, they experienced a play of shadow and light.  "It was kind of spooky," joked Mike. "It was as if someone was slowly moving around a spotlight, something out of an old horror movie. We just needed the appropriate music to go along with it, ha!"

Day two - the sun, rose, but the dogs did not! They were going to need the day for a deep recharge. Be that as it may, Mike had the Jet Boil quickly fired up, and the scent of fresh coffee, along with dressed up oatmeal, drifting amongst the trees. Sakura and Jaxy parked themselves in the tent, heads resting in the open doorway.

With the girls not going anywhere, Mike and Yuka adjusted their ambitions for the day, and stuck to short strolls from camp. Across Desolation Valley was the iconic view of Aloha Lake and Pyramid Peak, still mostly frozen. They greeted multi-day hikers, and a few adventuresome day travellers.  The latter included, much to Mike's disbelief, one person in flip flops. Yep, go figure, right ... to each their own.

The second night everyone enjoyed a smooth, sound sleep, that is until Mike woke at sunrise with anxiety. He realize that Jaxy may not be walking out under her own power. Mentally he drafted a stretcher that Yuka and he would use for the carry out. In the meantime, both dogs received fresh bandages, wrapped with gauze, re-purposed towel and shirt material, and a bit of backup electrical tape. After a few test steps, Jaxy, being the Sheppard Huskey she is, took to walking. In a sigh of relief, the need for a stretcher faded from thought.

On the Way Out

Retracing their steps out to the trailhead was a bit more subdued than the hike in.  Periodic breaks were required to re-wrap Jaxy's and Saruka's paws. Mike and Yuka also met a pair of Forest Service backcountry rangers. The rangers said that with all of the snow and strong flowing water, they had on average been attending to a hiker a day with injury assistance and/or rescue. They had not, however, had to preform a dog rescue.

Shortly after meeting the rangers, Saruka took a few more tender steps on the trail, and settled into a spot of shaded duff.  Had she overheard a part of the conversation with the rangers, and contemplated her options?  Regardless, she was done, and ready to call for a trail Uber.   Mike and Yuka clearly read their Shiba-inu, and took turns portaging  her out the remaining two miles.

Desolation Wilderness backpacking Shiba-inu carry Sakura, having called for a trail Uber, Yuka obliges.

In Retrospect

Mike summarized their Desolation Wilderness experience, "Sometimes it is just too easy to let down your guard when doing things in your backyard. It was a worthwhile trip, but definitely one that provided a difficult learning experience. We'll be more diligent next time, which will come in September, once the dogs have toughened up their paws with more day hikes."  Hind sight is always 20/20, and like anything else, you need to work up to it before to going big. Needless to add, it's not a bad idea to check your map now and then, even in your backyard (so hard for guys to do - at least it is not like having to stop and ask directions, right ;-).

Wilderness Travel

On a side note: The Forest Service rangers mentioned that 60% of the hikers they were coming in contact with did not have permits. If you are planning a Desolation Wilderness backpacking trip, please be sure fill out a day permit, available at trailhead kiosks, or obtain an overnight permit. Mike and Yuka had things covered in that department.

Desolation Wilderness backpacking permit sign Remember to obtain your permit, before you cross into Desolation Wilderness.