In this time of physical distancing, one of the best ways to stay safe while finding peace in nature is to take a hike by yourself. Hiking alone allows you to truly connect with wilderness in a way that is just not possible while having a conversation with someone else. In addition to a good dose of physical exercise, taking a solo hike can also be therapeutic, giving your brain a chance to take a break from screens and the news. While many of us have been told never to hike alone, it can be quite safe if you use common sense and take a few precautions.
The longer I hike in silence, the more I begin to feel that I’m a part of nature.
Recently, I set out on a solo day hike to Crag Lake in the Desolation Wilderness. From the Meeks Bay trailhead it’s a 5-mile jaunt (10-mile roundtrip) to the lake with 1,200 feet of ascent. I’d hiked to Crag Lake probably 40 times over the last 40 years, so I was familiar with the route, but every time I’ve hiked it, I’ve found a fresh perspective.
10 miles roundtrip | Moderate
I started out in the early morning to avoid the crowds. Once I’d escaped the drone of traffic on Highway 89, the only sounds were the whistles of birds, squeaky chatter of squirrels and the melodic corn-flake crunch of my feet pounding dirt. The first mile is an easy warmup on an old dirt road, passing low lying lupines and paint brush in the lush meadows. A quick glimpse of the rocky nipple top of Rubicon Peak reminded me of where I was headed.
When hiking alone, your senses are heightened. I noticed the mistletoe hanging from the juniper trees, heard the rhythm of the “cheeseburger” birds (Mountain Chickadees) and saw the fiery red snow plants popping up on the forest floor. I caught the subtle scent of pine and when walking over wet sections of trail listened to the soft squishing of sloppy mud on my boots. The longer I hike in silence, the more I begin to feel that I’m a part of nature, that I’m a character in the middle of the scene that is this piece of the woods. When I’m hiking with others, it feels more like I’m having a dinner conversation while a video of the hike plays in the background.
The trail follows Meeks Creek on a gentle rocky climb, then flattens out and crosses into Desolation Wilderness where permits are required. You can get one at the trailhead for a day hike, but you need to go online and pay a fee for an overnight permit. Soon, you enter a wide, open cathedral where giant Jeffrey pines and red firs form a ring around a sandy flat.
At 3.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail crosses Meeks Creek. The bridge across the creek washed out several years ago. Now a row of rocks bridge the gap. On my solo trip, the water was going over some of the rocks, so I played it safe, doffed my shoes and walked gingerly across the rocky stream bed giving my feet and knees an icy bath. The water level has dropped since then, so you should be able to make your way delicately over the rocks. Hiking poles are recommended.
In another mile, I’d climbed to Lake Genevieve. I kept going just another one-third of a mile to the larger and more attractive Crag Lake. There I found a smooth granite rock at water’s edge and for the next hour sat quietly writing in my journal while taking frequent breaks to ponder Crag Peak and the shimmering lake in front of me. I was practicing a challenging skill that is especially useful this year: sitting alone somewhere in the woods, doing nothing and feeling perfectly content. I haven’t quite mastered it yet, but it does make for an excellent lifelong quest.
Tips for hiking solo
1. Tell someone where you were going, when you will be back and what time that person should start getting worried. While you should bring a cell phone, let your contact person know that if he/she can’t reach you, it could just be that cell service is spotty or nonexistent in the wilderness.
2. Stay within your ability level and add an extra level of caution. Maybe start out hiking a trail you are familiar with and keep the difficultly level within your reach — and stay on the trail.
3. Bring a first-aid kit and know how to use it.
4. Check the weather forecast. Summer afternoon thunderstorms are a frequent occurrence around Tahoe, so plan accordingly and hit the trail early.
5. Bring plenty of water, food, layers of clothing, good hiking shoes and a positive attitude.
6. Practice physical distancing by stepping well off the trail to let other hikers or bike riders go by.
Tim has been spending his time during the coronavirus working on a book about his solo backpacking adventures. His new book “Tahoe Rim Trail: The Official Guide for Hikers, Mountain Bikers, and Equestrians” is out now.