Desolation Wilderness | Backpacking into Tahoe’s heart and soul

From camp with a view of the ridge. | Ben Lazar

There is something awe inspiring about hiking into expansive, untracked wilderness that captures the spirit and connects us to something much larger than ourselves. I find this happens when I hike and backpack in the depths of nature.

Jeff Brunings, Ben Lazar, Priya Hutner and Wendy Wright at Eagle Falls trailhead. | Courtesy Priya Hutner

I set out with friends for a weekend adventure to Upper Velma Lake, one of Jeff Brunings’ favorite backpacking trips in the Desolation Wilderness area. There were eight of us in all; he coordinated the trip. Four of us departed from Eagle Falls in the afternoon on a warm and sunny day with our packs strapped to our backs.

That night the winds howled off the ridge above us, the tent whipped to and fro, flapping and then yielding, waiting for the next gust and shaking in the wind. I sat up in the darkness mesmerized by the sound and force of Mother Nature.

Reno photographer Ben Lazar carried his camera equipment in his pack, which added additional weight. Wendy Wright’s pack included breakfast for two mornings. Jeff hauled our dinner and cooking gear. I worked hard to travel as light as possible and was on snack detail. Jani Osborne and her friend would arrive early in the evening while Will Richardson of the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science and his girlfriend Jennifer said they’d get in sometime after dark.

Open to hiking and camping (permit required). Dogs OK.

Upper Velma Lake  11 miles roundtrip | Moderate
Eagle Lake  3 miles roundtrip | Moderate

We parked at the Eagle Falls trailhead parking lot. Stone steps led us across a bridge and over the creek to a long, winding set of steps. As we progressed, each step seemed taller and steeper than the one before it. Jeff explained that it would be about 2-plus miles uphill. My quads would be getting a workout. The total trip to the campsite was about 5.5 miles. My backpacking experience was limited but 5 miles didn’t seem that far. I forgot to account for the 20 pounds on my back, the heat and the 1,200-foot elevation gain.

Jeff Brunings setting up bear bag. | Ben Lazar

The sun beat down on us. The falls poured over a rock wall and into Eagle Lake beneath us. People were swimming. I longed for a cool dip, but we were on a mission to get to camp before dark and set up. At times the trees offered refuge from the heat. We continued our climb. Ben and I stopped to rest a lot while Wendy was off ahead of the pack like a gazelle even with the extra weight in her pack — in addition to our morning meals included five large peaches and a five-gallon bag of red wine (for which I was thankful later that evening). The heaviness of her pack didn’t seem to faze her nor slow her down. We scrambled up a massive granite rock face and reached a ridge that gave way to a beautiful view of Lake Tahoe off in the distance. I was grateful when the steps leveled out onto a trail with gnarled tree roots, large rocks and forest floor. Majestic granite walls rose up around us through the woods. As we continued to climb, eventually the granite was beneath us, as well.

The trails were well marked and eventually we came to a fork in the path: one lead to Middle Velma Lake while the other to Upper Velma Lake. We took the left fork. The trail began to descend, which came as a welcomed relief. We reached Upper Velma Lake a few hours later and set up camp with a beautiful lakefront view. The rest of the crew arrived. We devoured a delicious pasta dinner, drank wine and eventually settled in for the night.

A view from above looking down on Desolation Wilderness. | Ben Lazar

The next morning, we rose with the sun, filtered water and prepared for a day hike in the area. We scrambled up massive granite slabs that connected to a trail, passed a large lake and let the dogs frolic in the water. We continued our hike. Will kept straying off trail and walking up the hills when I finally asked him: “What are you looking for?”

“I am looking for tiger beetles,” he said. “They’re fun to watch as they sprint around at a million miles an hour, chasing down all the other insects. They literally run so fast that they cannot process things visually and need to stop and reorient. They are metallic green with huge mandibles, long legs and big ol’ eyes. A nightmare if you’re an ant.”

He also said he was keeping his eyes peeled for the elusive white-tailed jackrabbit.

We arrived at Dicks Lake for lunch; it offered a stunning view of Dicks Peak. Some stripped off their clothes and jumped into the chilly water. After lunch, one group set off to hike up Dicks Peak while another hiked back to camp to relax and warm their bodies on the sun-laden granite slabs.

That night the winds howled off the ridge above us, the tent whipped to and fro, flapping and then yielding, waiting for the next gust and shaking in the wind. I sat up in the darkness mesmerized by the sound and force of Mother Nature.

Desolation Wilderness with its wild-open expanses, craggy rock outcrops, miles of granite and winding trails gives the hiker an otherworldly experience. Backpacking here connects one with the land and the heart and soul of Tahoe.

The trail is rated moderate. Permits are needed to camp in Desolation Wilderness and are available online or can be picked up at either the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Supervisor’s Office or Taylor Creek Visitor Center, both in South Lake Tahoe. |