One of the most popular adventures people look forward to when visiting the Lake Tahoe region is having a mountain hiking experience in the awesome Desolation Wilderness, which, I hasten to add, is their wilderness!  And yours too!

          Your personal wilderness experience can be realized by day-hiking along the wilderness trails or overnight camping in the wilderness back country. It’s your choice. I recommend an overnight stay so you can fully realize and benefit from seeing the additional features of a wilderness experience; notably a sunset, the nighttime stars, and a morning sunrise.

           I personally love Desolation Wilderness. It is a remarkable place; it is close to where I live, easy to get to, and only moderately difficult to hike up into the high country. As I hike, with a good expense of effort (as you will too), the wilderness seems to beckon and give encouragement to continue upward. High in the wilderness the hiking is only as strenuous as you want it to be. Trails meander easily along streams and by lakes or you can hike up challenging slopes to take in broad vistas of the mountains around you and the lakes and streams below you.

          Desolation Wilderness shines in its remarkable combination of granite and water. Ever-present lakes are found in ice carved granite basins, called cirques, whose sides are massive granite walls rising to heights of five hundred to a thousand feet or more above these sapphire blue lakes that dot the landscape. Most of these pristine gems are linked to one another by crystal clear streams. The streams—those marvelous streams with their rough and tumble cascades falling into quieter pools and ponds—are particularly exciting to see in the Spring as they make their way from lake to lake continuing down and out of the Wilderness.  Desolation Wilderness boasts more than 130 streams and lakes—all joys to behold.    

Forest, stream, wilderness
Solitude Twin Lakes Creek and Crystal Crags

          Lush coniferous forests fill the lower elevations of Desolation; however, higher up where glaciers exposed and polished broad expanses of granite thousands of years ago, forest settings are sparse.  Single trees and modest groupings of trees grow in small areas among granite slabs and boulders where just enough soil has come into existence to provide sustenance to the few that grow there along with other flora.

          Wide varieties of flowering plants typically grow around the edges of lakes, streams, and near other sources of moisture. Surprising to some, is the abundant plant life that also exists in the higher barren rocky landscape. To see them, all you have to do is to look down beside your feet. Unless standing on solid granite, you immediately see small flowering plants everywhere. The spectacular wilderness flower show begins soon after the snow melts and continues throughout most of the hiking season. Even in late summer and early fall, it is possible to step back into springtime if you climb up high enough.

          Without the discussion of granite, you would not have a complete portrait of Desolation Wilderness. Granite is everywhere from relatively flat smooth polished bedrock terrain upon which you can easily walk—creatively labeled “Sierra Sidewalk”–  to the peaks, and cliffs, and masses of rough jagged rocks and well-rounded car-sized boulders, called erratics, having been chaotically strewn around the landscape by retreating glaciers. It is an open space in which you may hike and climb to your heart’s content. It is truly a playground for adults as well as children.

          Adding to the inspiring sights are the sounds of this mountain wonderland that fulfill the wilderness experience as you hike. The sounds of nature surround you—just listen. In addition, you can listen for the quiet. For if it is quiet solitude you seek, you can discover secluded out-of-the-way places, your own personal space just away from the beaten paths, a sanctuary, where you can feel peace and comfort. Here where human contact is effectively nil, quiet prevails, you are bathed in solitude, and you may find that you can actually hear your own thoughts.

             It is a wonderful place to relieve yourself of stresses and other personal burdens you carry because of the chaos we confront on almost a daily basis in our world these days.  This relief you seek, and will realize, is the experience of solitude with its inclusive natural healing qualities. The health benefits of solitude have always been a part of the mountain experience there ready to be imparted to the visitor seeking solace. In John Muir’s words and those of others, wilderness solitude bestows healing by soothing the soul and refreshing the spirit. The gift of solitude added to a well engaged hiking adventure intensifies the awe and wonderment of your wilderness experience now and into the future.

Granite boulders, River, wilderness
Desolation water way by Bill Finch

          In addition to the remarkably enjoyable qualities of the Desolation Wilderness experience just presented, I want to introduce you to the experience of engaging solitude while on your Desolation Wilderness hiking adventure.  

          To have successful engagement, you need to be more aware of the wilderness surroundings or setting in which solitude may be joined. In order to immerse yourself fully in experiencing solitude, you must intentionally involve all of your senses so as to enable your thorough and complete immersion in the wilderness environment or setting. The wilderness attributes previously presented are collectively the setting in which you have the opportunity to achieve the full measure of solitude. For this experience to be fulfilling, you essentially need to be by yourself away from people in a quiet place surrounded by all that is nature. Muir encourages us to leave the trail and “Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer.”  When you see what looks like an opportune place to leave the trail, do so safely. However, since we always advocate hiking with a buddy, I recommend that you share the experience with someone who will concentrate on having his or her own solitude experience without intruding on yours.

          Experiencing your wilderness is akin to celebrating being alive. To begin this celebration, turn on all of your senses. Mentally and physically engage with your wilderness environment. Give attention and focus to all the incoming stimuli. Begin to become one with your present environment and your wilderness experience in this setting of solitude.  

          Use your sight to Look around you, not just glance but see everything, take it all in, the sights of long vistas, lonely vultures floating on air currents high above, and the short views of things close by like the ageless rock, blooming flowers, and insects feasting on gifts from the flowers. Take pictures not just quick snapshots but thoughtfully composed pictures. Be creative. Be artistic. Make as many digital memories as you can to stimulate the recall of special times. Taking pause to do this will slow your pace, which is a good thing. (A word of caution though, please don’t let your camera take your attention from the wilderness experience in which you are immersing yourself.)

          Use your ears to Listen carefully to all that is going on around you. Listen for the sounds of the wilderness animals as they go about the business of their day. The chirps and calls of the birds, the shrieking warning whistle of the marmot to his kin as you approach their habitat. Liston to the movement of the water in the streams as it tumbles along in babbling brooks or falls swiftly with roaring force down steep cascades. Listen to the soft sounds of gentle breezes wafting through the pine boughs and the louder gusting winds whistling through the high rocks and peaks. Moreover, rejoice in the silence of the wilderness as it allows you to fully experience the solitude of the place you are in.

          Use your sense of touch to Feel the gentle breeze cool on one cheek and contrast that with the warmth of the sun on the other cheek. Touch the roughness of the granite, the different kind of rough from tree bark, the shocking cold of the swiftly moving water in the stream and contrast that with the warm surface water in the stillness of a pond. Feel the sunshine bathe your body with relaxing warmth.

          Use your sense of smell and Breathe deeply the fresh air of the wilderness (Muir called this the breath of wildness) containing all the wilderness fragrances of nature: the flora, the fauna (to a certain extent) and the air just before and after an afternoon mountain thunder storm. Even wet granite has a unique scent.

          Use your sense of Taste to savor the cold mountain water (filtered water of course) that tastes like no other as you quench your thirst. Food without argument tastes better in the wilderness. That is certainly true of hot chocolate and broth. Have you ever tasted wet granite?

          Use your physical abilities to Engage the wilderness. From the beginning of your hike, sense your body adjusting to the hiking challenges of steep irregular terrain and jumping from boulder to rock when making your way through a deep chasm or crossing a stream. Feel your body appreciate the rest you give it when you stop for a snack or rest while soaking your feet in a cold snowmelt pool. Sense the feeling of refreshment as you ready yourself to continue.  When the hike is over, acknowledge having had a very worthwhile experience as you recognize your feelings of satisfaction and achievement. Even feeling tired after a long day is part of a wilderness experience. All of which contribute to a heightened sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. A job well done! Happiness achieved! Stress reduced if not totally removed! All having been accomplished while building a close relationship with the world around you, a closeness that some people would call a spiritual connection. All achieved within the soothing embrace of solitude.   

Phot of desolation wilderness By Bill finch

          It is not uncommon for wilderness visitors to experience spiritual feelings. Authors describe an awareness that they are in the presence of something greater than themselves and are overcome by the stimulating awesomeness and the sheer vastness of our Desolation Wilderness. Numerous writers have shared their thoughts and feelings about this kind of connection with the land. In particular, John Muir expressed himself often as he talked about the immersive qualities of the wilderness as you “become one” with the wholeness of the mountains, the day, and the experience. He and others encourage being absorbed in your experience and flowing with the play of the day. In other words, “becoming one” with your wilderness. Remember John Muir’s invitation,

          “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace          will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while   cares will drop off like autumn leaves….”

now with so much more meaning, I trust, in light of the previous discussion. Muir continues this epistle with a message for our older hikers.

“…As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed,          but nature’s sources never fail.”

Too which I can attest being an older hiker. My ability to “become one” with the wilderness continues to welcome and embrace me even now on my shortened less adventurous treks.

          Let me say one or two more things about going on a day hike. If it is only a day you can spare from your busy schedule, then plan to make the very most of that day by arriving early to the trailhead and stay on your wilderness adventure until the sunlight dims and dusk settles in. (Don’t forget to bring your headlamp)  Moreover, when you hike, don’t be rushed. Allow yourself the luxury of moving less quickly as you hike through the landscape so you can take it all in and miss nothing. In order to take in more of the wonders Desolation Wilderness has to offer, please consider taking several day hikes from several different wilderness trailheads if your time will allow.

          Remember, it is the journey, the minute to minute experiencing of what is happening around you and to you that counts-not just a destination. The destination is only incidental to the journey. And some would say the journey experience in and of itself is the destination.

          As I mentioned before, to get an even greater and more enduring sense of the wilderness, I encourage visitors to backpack in and spend at least one night in the wilderness to experience a wilderness sunset, a night sky full of stars, and a glorious sunrise welcoming you to a new day. If possible, I strongly encourage two nights minimum to allow you to expand upon your wilderness experience.

          Come and hike our trails. The gifts of the Wilderness await. The gifts of Solitude await. You will be richly rewarded. You will be happy you came. Afterwards—I predict you will want to return to Desolation Wilderness to re-experience John Muir’s “Going to the mountains is [like a] going home” sense of peace again.

Other features on Desolation You may enjoy:

William Finch

William Finch

William J. “Bill” Finch is a Lecturer of Leisure Studies Emeritus faculty who retired from the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, Sacramento State University (CSUS) in 2004. He taught classes in Outdoor Recreation Education, Adventure Recreation Programming, Commercial Recreation, and Lifestyle Development. For the past sixteen summer seasons since retirement, he has been a Desolation Wilderness Volunteer for the U.S. Forest Service.

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