Desolation Wilderness was designated as a Primitive Area in 1969 and became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System; its 63,690 acres is an expansive, natural world of granite, towering pines, streams and pristine alpine lakes. Tucked behind the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe, Desolation Wilderness is only accessible via horse or foot.
In 2016, Tahoe City native Mike Mullen published a photographic account of his adventures into Desolation, titled “The Lakes of Desolation,” featuring photos of 87 named lakes that Mullen found from the U.S. Geological Survey. Readers can get a glimpse into the natural, impressive landscapes of this area.
Although Mullen grew up in Tahoe City, he didn’t go into Desolation Wilderness until he was an adult living in San Francisco.
“I hope that people get the perspective of being in wilderness and the indifference of the natural world and see this as an opportunity to reconnect with nature.” – Mike Mullen
“Even growing up in North Shore, Desolation seemed so far away. It wasn’t until I came back in 2008 and hiked up to Eagle Lake that I became interested in the lakes [of Desolation],” he says. While working in the tech world, Mullen made it a goal to come back and take pictures of the lakes when he retired. However, after reaching a turning point in his career, he decided to fulfill his dream sooner than later. In October 2013, he set off on foot in the first of 24 trips into the wilderness.
“I often asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But it became a compulsion. There are a bunch of different reasons of why I did this,” he says.
The project took two years for him to complete. He found the lakes on the USGS map. Mullen encountered weather a few times while walking through Desolation, but fortunately a lot of his trips in were day hikes.
“Some [of the lakes] are 10 miles in, so those were overnight hikes,” says Mullen. “It was a unique experience — getting caught in a big storm is uncomfortable but people can deal with adversity better than they think. If I fell down on a sidewalk in San Francisco, it’s a catastrophe, but here I was punching down snow and falling all the time. Even uncomfortable bits were tolerable and it ended up adding to the richness of the experience.”
In compiling the book, Mullen says he learned some broader life lessons, as well as the nuts and bolts of the publishing business.
“I didn’t want to think about putting together a book. I just took it on as a personal project. It was a year from taking the last photo to turning it into a book. I started photographing Yosemite and took some time to digest the [Desolation] experience.”
As he was sitting on his lakes of Desolation photographs, Mullen met Brendan Madigan at Alpenglow Sports, who encouraged him to turn his project into a book.
“Working with Alpenglow has been really fun, connecting with people. I think this is an important part of Tahoe City history,” he says.
When asked which Desolation lake is his favorite, Mullen says, “The last one I’ve been to. Each one has its own thrill — of arriving and seeing it for the first time.”
He also mentioned Lake of the Woods being one of his favorites for its great views of the Crystal Range.
“It’s forested, has a nice quality. It feels good there,” he says. “Each lake is different for me; there are a huge variety of blues.”
Lake Kalmia was one of his most challenging lakes to get to because there is no trail to it. It took him four attempts before he stumbled on it.
“An interesting part of doing the project was realizing how many lakes are a part of Desolation,” he says. “I hope that people get the perspective of being in wilderness and the indifference of the natural world and see this as an opportunity to reconnect with nature.”
“The Lakes of Desolation” is available exclusively at Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City and through Mullen’s Web site. He is currently working on exploring the lakes of Yosemite.
For more information, visit lakesofdesolation.com.