My Favorite Sierra Wilderness Lake — By Bill Finch

When I began hiking in the Sierras, primarily in Desolation Wilderness, my thoughts of what lay “beyond the next ridge” or “around the next turn” were exciting incentives to see what was ahead. My pursuit of new discoveries was always rewarded. I could gaze at a long vista and study my surroundings forever – and still can. 

Of all the wonders in the Desolation Wilderness, I became partial to the beauty of wilderness lakes. I tended to appreciate some lakes more if they had an outstanding ruggedness that contained an aesthetic blend of granite, water, flora, and sky (features of each appearing as an artist would include them in a painting). 

The lakes of Desolation Wilderness are many, each with features that distinguish it from another. As I encountered a new lake, I took particular note of features that were aesthetically pleasing to my mind and held my gaze longer. Over time, I had fashioned a mental list of features that had captivated my attention at each new Lake I saw. Using those thoughts like a checklist, I would search each new Lake for those traits upon my arrival. Even though some of my desired features were always present, not one Lake had them all. I wondered if the items on my “Perfect Lake” features list even existed together at a single lake. Would I ever find a lake that fulfilled my image of a perfect lake setting? 

If one leans toward the “Not Alone in the Universe Theory,” then you can trust that a perfect lake exists somewhere for everyone! So was born a mission to find my perfect Lake. For emphasis, I created a written list of essential lake features to be present for me to call a lake “perfect.” I decided I needed two categories of traits. One list would cover the physical characteristics and the second list address subjective qualities necessary, in my view, to round out the definition of my perfect Lake. The lists would serve as my mental guide as I searched on. 

Blue lake granite peak
My first sighting of the lake as I came over a ridge.

Here is my list of essential physical characteristics in describing my perfect lake setting. 

1. Size is a factor. While large lakes with lots of surface area are indeed impressive, I have come to appreciate smaller lakes more. So for my list, I chose a lake of four to eight acres of crystal clear water. 

2. My perfect Lake must have an irregular shoreline. I like the idea of the Lake offering physical limits that present difficulty hiking around its perimeter. The Lake does not have to have a beach, but there should be access at some point along its shoreline to easily acquire water. 

   3. I would want an abundance of very large granite boulders shaping some of the shoreline attesting to nature’s power and force that positioned them there long ago. A fair portion of the shoreline should be devoted to a line of rugged granite cliffs, with some descending steeply into the Lake itself.

4. I would like to see shapely granite masses rising from the Lake’s surface forming attractive little islands. In addition, each island should have aesthetic enhancements consisting of creatively placed trees and other flora all contributing to the scenic splendor of my perfect Lake.

5. The area surrounding the lake setting should have a scenic artistic balance of water, granite, young and mature trees, and blooming flora for my appreciation and enjoyment.

6. My perfect Lake should have an active inlet stream flowing–or cascading–into the Lake and actively exiting downstream away from the Lake. 

7. Ideally, the Lake should be away from the beaten path with no trail leading directly to it and not be easily seen by hikers. In other words, little or no evidence of human presence. As much as possible, I want to have the Lake and its surrounding area to myself. There, I’ve said it!

8. Finally, as “frosting on the cake,” I would appreciate a panoramic mountain view across the horizon and its reflection on the Lake before me. 

Here is my list of subjective qualities I feel are also essential to fully describing my perfect lake setting.

First, it’s important to remember a wilderness experience is a sensory experience. Thus, some of the desired physical attributes from my previous list also contribute to my subjective qualities list because they stimulate my senses in pleasing ways and produce enjoyment along with soothing feeling of tranquility and bliss. 

1. First impression is of foremost importance. The appreciation of the breathtaking view of the physical beauty of my perfect Lake — being in the eye of the beholder of course. At first sighting, the Lake must grab your attention and focus your concentration. It’s as though it calls out to you, “Behold my splendor, my perfection”! When this happens, your immediate reaction should be nothing short of breathtaking. I agree this is visual, physical attraction, but it is a personal reaction with subjectivity at its roots.

2. Equally important, if not more so, is the subjective quality of Solitude. But what is it? Solitude has a sense of stillness, soundlessness, and quietness. It allows serenity and bliss to be achieved. Solitude is the ‘secret sauce’ in this mix of ingredients we call a “wilderness experience.” Without it, connecting fully with the wilderness (i.e., this perfect Lake), immersing yourself in, and becoming one with the wilderness is impossible. Therefore, Solitude must reign; it is mandatory.

3. The next is the quality of Quiet. Simply stated, quiet means no interrupting sounds caused by non-wilderness influences i.e., people. Even the visual presence of people can be distracting. The Quiet of the wilderness permits you to experience serenity from Solitude. If Solitude reigns, as it must, then profound Quiet is palpable. Soon enough, though, your keen sense of hearing will begin to hear the soft sounds of nature; flowing water, bird song, a breeze through the trees, and more, all welcome changes from what we hear in our daily lives away from our beloved mountains.

My lists became the guide and the search continued for my perfect Lake. Finally, after a few seasons of hiking and seeing many beautiful lakes with some of the characteristics I was looking for, I wondered, “Was I asking for too much”? Admittedly, I was beginning to think so, but then one day…it happened!  

Desolation wilderness Granite
My friend climbing up the staircase north as far as he could easily go

A friend and I were scrambling up a steep slope and as my head cleared the top, I began to see a lake coming into view below me. As I continued climbing, the view broadened and the Lake grew impressive and amazingly awesome! 

I could sense the boxes on my perfect lake characteristics list being checked off one by one in rapid succession. 

Suddenly, I had an “Eureka” moment – could this be the Lake I’d been looking for? I thought so. We hiked down toward the Lake and immersed ourselves in its visual beauty from left to right, across to the inlet stream, and up the granite cliffs on the right. 

A warm invitation was offered: “come, explore, and get to know me.” The pull was strong. So we did. But only for a while as, unfortunately, we were on a day hike and past our turnaround time so we couldn’t do as much exploration as we wanted that day. However, I took an abundant amount of digital pictures to study later, which heightened my eagerness to return as soon as possible. Subsequent visits and overnight campouts confirmed that I had come as close to making a full 100% discovery as one could. If I had to rate it, I would say it was a 95% successful find!

Another couple of summer seasons passed since that day of discovery. Since I had yet to find a more perfect lake, I wrote an article about my lake discovery experience. It just so happened that the Lake was unnamed either on any official TOPO map or commercially sold (e.g. Tom Harrison) maps. That being so, I decided to call it My Lake.

For present-day readers, I added the preceding introductory discussion and updated some of the following discussion that originally appeared in the article I wrote a couple of years ago—which follows:

A Lake With No Name–

  an Undisturbed Gem in the Sierra Nevada Bill Finch

High in the vastness of John Muir’s “Range of Light,” is a wilderness lake so sublime that I was astonished beyond words when I saw it for the first time a few years ago. It was incredibly beautiful. As I caught my breath, it beckoned me to come closer and enjoy its spectacular wilderness qualities. Even today, it outshines any alpine lake setting I have experienced, though I have seen others that closely compare. In the nature of things in the Sierras—each new discovery seems more beautiful than the last—until you just know the one that is perfect for you.  

The article continued with a discussion of how my previously discussed physical and subjective qualities stood out in every direction I looked. It is in a location where Solitude reigns supreme and quiet prevails. The only welcome sound is of the soothing flow of the gently cascading stream as it enters My Lake.

Very little evidence of hiker traffic exists. It is not in an area usually frequented by day-hikers because of its distant location from any trailhead. Only one trail along the stream from the west leads to the Lake and ends almost at the edge of a twenty-foot cliff descending straight into the Lake. Here stands a very old Sierra Juniper tree guarding the western edge of the Lake that I have named it the Sentinel Tree. Its purpose, I’m sure, is to prevent casual hikers from getting any nearer to this pristine Lake.  

The granite staircase continues up and around to the north.-L

When approaching from the west, there are only two ways past this Lake. Both are very challenging and to most day hikers, insurmountable, I’m sure. The first is to wade the stream to get to the Lake’s south shoreline. Once there, you can hike only a short way before having to ford it again in order to continue hiking downstream. Again, both water crossings are dangerous. 

The second, also challenging, is bypassing the Lake on the north side. Climbing up and over is not a safe option. You must backtrack west from the “Sentinel Tree” until the steep granite features no longer prevent you from heading north. Then you can scramble around and through the area north of the granite cliffs to make your way east and past the Lake to where one can intercept the stream again. Hikers who are intent on following the stream down to the several lakes to the south find themselves nearly past My Lake when they finally get back to the stream. Looking back over their shoulder at My Lake is about as close as most get to it. 

As a side note, a backpacker proclaimed in his Youtube video, that this was the “hardest lake to get around he had ever seen.” (Youtube video, “Two Nights at Desolation Lake” by SacWildelife 8/2/15). 

Standing near the Lake’s eastern shoreline, where I first came upon it some years ago, I looked across to the other side, perhaps no more than two hundred yards away, and drank in its splendor once again. It has a very irregular shoreline. It is a relatively small lake, a little more than four acres in size. There is a narrow finger of a peninsula jutting out into the Lake. There are a couple of little islands where granite boulders, shrubs, and a few trees compete for space in an eye-pleasing arrangement reminiscent of a perfectly crafted design by a Japanese Zen Garden Master. 

The granite continues around to the northeast.

This artistically pleasing and very photogenic balance can be enjoyed from other vantage points around the Lake as well. Here on the east side of the Lake, the land slopes gently toward the water. Across the Lake, the visual highlights are the granite and the joyfully tumbling cascade spilling into the Lake. Granite slopes begin to rise from the stream inlet, first slowly, then sharply upward with vertical drops into the Lake and more granite beyond and around to the northeast. 

The mirrored reflection of the Lake’s western shoreline, the distant mountains, and the granite slanting up to the right make for a stunning visual treat. If the lake surface is tranquil, as it sometimes is, the reflection is a splendid sight to savor.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to revisit my now favorite (perfect) wilderness lake several times and immerse myself in what I call a John Muir experience. My Lake is situated perfectly for taking full advantage of the most “glorious” sunrises and sunsets. I discovered that there is no better way to start a day of wilderness adventure than by experiencing – celebrating – a sunrise. My original article from all those years ago was about one such John Muir sunrise experience and is more than worth repeating here again. 

How many times John Muir must have witnessed the “arrival of the morning” pageants I could not guess, but I know they were highly regarded, personally enjoyable experiences. He indicated such when he wrote, “How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains! To behold this alone is worth the pains of any excursion [trek to get there] a thousand times over.” 

As I have experienced, sunrises in particular, can bring special moments of sheer pleasure that begin early when the stars yield their light to the emergent dawn–reminiscent of the lights dimming in a theater just before the main event begins. 

And it begins with enthusiasm. From this point forward, you quickly become immersed in a succession of shifting changes of color in the landscape as the light show plays out dramatically–not just in front of you, but spectacularly on the distant horizon as well.

The first hint of the sun’s approaching arrival appears on the mountain peaks as they awaken awash in a rich reddish-orange glow that seems to flow down the mountainside like an avalanche of light pushing the shadow of darkness before as it advances down the mountain. In just minutes, the brilliant presentation of the new day on John Muir’s “Crystal Range” slowly lightens to an ochre tan and then slowly changes more until the mountains assume their natural daytime granite-gray with a tinge of rusty red from the iron oxide within the granite.

At almost the same time, directly in front of you, the changes in the visual aesthetics just across the still-dark water of the Lake are equally impressive. With more light emerging from the dawn, the granite shapes around the Lake that first appeared stark and naked become outlined by dark and light shadows created by the glimmer from the not yet risen sun. Just a moment later, they take on the crisp sharpness and clarity of an old Ansel Adams black and white photo, which lingers until the sun’s direct early morning light ignites the embedded crystals within the granite. At the precise moment of sunrise, intense morning light bathes the landscape as the sun seems to proclaim, “I have arrived; morning is here”!  

As if this wasn’t impressive enough, vivid color erupts nearly everywhere as if by the wave of a magic wand! The sudden bursts of color add a higher degree of appreciation to an already dazzling landscape. Color provides not so much a complementary gesture as it makes the aesthetic finishing point of the wilderness lake scene. Flowers adding the brightest colors: deep magenta Red Mountain Heather, bright red Mountain Pride, White Mountain Heather, the yellow Pretty Face, and the rich purple Mountain Jewel Flower, to name a few. 

They are found next to the lakeshore and throughout barren areas where they seem to emerge from the granite itself. Trees deliver rich earthy color; dark raw umber wood hues, bright reddish-brown of the Sierra Juniper’s trunk, and graying wood grain of stately lifeless trees both standing and fallen. Some are so weathered they are approaching the color of the granite. Rich green shades from shrubs, bushes, grasses, and thriving trees add to this picture of wilderness coloring. The Lake itself contributes the final touch, as the surface becomes a vibrant indigo blue as it reflects the morning sky to complete this vision of perfection. Softly complimenting this broad panorama is the subtle luster of the granite crystals that changes throughout the day as the sun moves up and across the sky. (Even on a day when the sky is overcast, an exhibition of another sort presents itself as the cloudy day granite gray of dawn unveils an Adamsesque motif emphasizing differing tints and shades of gray.)

I had an overwhelming feeling that I had just lived a classic John Muir sunrise experience. And I found it exhilarating. After the dawn of day became day, the rest of the lake scene opened itself to more visual appreciation and revitalizing exploration – visiting and rediscovering nooks and crannies and other features around the lake locale – especially the view from high above the Lake. 

blue clear lake desolation wilderness
The panoramic view from above My Lake is awesome–you can see forever. See the Fly Fisherperson in the lower right.

Getting up to the top of the cliff’s panoramic viewpoint from the west shore is not easy and in itself is a small adventure. It requires some backtracking and scrambling but is safe enough. Near the stream inlet across the Lake and to the right, the granite gradually rises toward the north. As it does, the drop off into the Lake becomes more vertical in several places, rising about forty feet above the water. The granite rises and becomes a pair of rounded tops with a deep split or cleft between them. Within the cleft is a small stand of old-growth trees with some soaring above the rounded tops of the granite cliffs. The granite cliffs rise upward to about eighty feet above the lakeshore. It is atop these granite cliffs that the grand view awaits your arrival. 

As mentioned before, you will need to turn around at the Sentinel Tree and backtrack west to a point where you can easily hike to the north and then east around the Lake’s northwest side as if you were preparing to bypass the Lake. But this time, stay close to granite masses as you move east. Soon, suppose you have chosen your path carefully. In that case, you will enter a beautiful couloir with a rather broad flat grassy area about fifteen feet wide between two granite walls about thirty feet high. As you hike through the couloir, you will see a man-sized wedge-shaped cleft or crack in the granite heading upward to the south. Carefully climb up it and soon you will be on top and enjoying the panoramic view of the Lake as it is spread out below you. Ahead thirty miles in the distance is another range of mountains rising above the horizon. 

Big Sentinel tree adn Desolation ranger
The Sentinel Tree and author at My Lake

To my mind, this view is the most tranquil setting of aesthetic beauty, exceeding even what I could have imagined earlier. If I were an artist painting a scene of the perfect alpine lake landscape, this would be it, with no need to add or alter a thing. It is an artist’s nirvana and a photographer’s dream.

If you go there, you will agree that the view was well worth the effort. The lake setting, for that matter, is one of those special, true places where I am most comfortable, where I find my bliss, where I am at home with the universe…if only for a day.

“Once in a while, undefined, waiting for you to bring your color, yourself. A place untouched, unspoiled, undeveloped, raw, honest, and haunting…. Let the mountains have you for a day….” — Sundance  

By going back down the cleft and continuing, you can cautiously make your way over to the east side of the Lake. 

John Muir would have been “gloriously” happy here at My Lake. I can visualize him “sauntering” about and “lingering” here and there, getting to know each rock and tree. When he “spied” a new flower, he would sit and get to know it well before “roving” on. I was so happy to be able to camp here and absorb everything, as did he. It felt good to emulate his manner of enjoying his wilderness experience. I felt fortunate to be able to add digital memory-making to my own unhurried “meandering.” (words in “quotes” are John Muir’s)

After reading this article and admiring the accompanying photos, I’m sure many of you are enthusiastic about visiting My Lake and enjoying for yourselves the same marvelous wilderness experience My Lake bestowed upon me. I am pleased to have shared my experience and some of my digital memories with you. Reluctantly, however, in good conscience and in the interest of wilderness preservation, I cannot reveal the location. To do so would burden me with the guilt of being responsible for My Lake being loved to death—oh the crowds, the noise, the campfire scars, the litter, “oh the humanity,” so said Herbert Morrison! I will note, however, that clues as to its location are sprinkled here and there in this article that could help you to locate My Lake. If you find it, be kind to it and practice LNT. I know My Lake will openly welcome you as it did me. I am sure your wilderness experience will be rewarding beyond your expectations. 

I encourage everyone to go into the wilderness, any wilderness, and purposefully seek out their own perfect, true wilderness lake experience. There is a match for your expectations, lofty though they may be. Such a lake exists somewhere just waiting to be discovered by you. So venture forth, go explore, and find it! When you do, devote time to fully experiencing it. Take pictures and share your story with others, but refrain from sharing the location except, perhaps, with some of your closest friends–who must first be sworn to secrecy! 

I think everyone should have a favorite lake – along with other favorite wilderness locations as well. 

Happy Trails To You!  

 William J. Finch

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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