Desolation Wilderness, so aptly named. Mountains of broken rocks. Towering ranges of granite faces, topped by heavy snow. It is the very definition of barren. For the longest stretches, almost nothing grows. Yet it is uniquely impressive, like no other section of the Pacific Crest Trail, north or south
I begin the day at Echo Lake, a small resort community at mile 1092, by stocking up at the local grocery. Fishing boats bob at the docks. A boat taxi ferries folks to cottages up and down the shore. The PCT follows a ridge overlooking the water to the east, winding among pines and massive granite boulders. With the morning sun glinting on the crystal lake, it is a gorgeous scene.
As the trail gains elevation, the trees thin out, then largely disappear. The gray granite vistas are starkly beautiful, in their way, but unrelenting. Sometimes the trail is no more than a faint dirty streak across featureless slabs of rock. Other times it is an ankle-twisting, foot-bruising gauntlet of sharp, sun-split stones.
For good reason, the area is popular with day-hikers. Many carry picnics and fishing poles for trout in the high-altitude lakes. They glisten like pearls beneath towering cliffs, streams splashing down from the melting snow. From time to time, huge boulders come tumbling down as well, decapitating hikers or smashing limbs. I watch, aghast, as one lands splat on a little girl’s pet dog. Game over, Toto. So sad.
Actually, I’m making this up. You can only wander in the heat through these rocks for so long before going a bit crazy. Striking as Desolation Wilderness may be, at the end of the day I’m just not a stone-lovin’ kind of guy, I guess.
All this changes as the trail rises toward Dick’s Pass, at mile 1105, the last of the High Sierra’s major ascents. At the summit ridge, I clamber over a stubborn berm of snow. It’s surprising how much remains in the forested upper reaches of the north face. You slip, slide, fall, posthole — but without risk.
A few miles from Dick’s Pass, I stop for the night at Middle Velma Lake and bushwhack to a camp site on a rocky promontory of, naturally, smooth granite. The setting sun lights up the hills to the east, again mostly granite. But it’s nice even so.