Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Desolation Wilderness - Backpacking to Half Moon Lake

Yet again because of recent rain- and snowfalls, we had to change our plans, and instead backpacking in the Castle Peak area, we went backpacking in Desolation Wilderness.

In the Castle Peak area we planned to hike to Paradise Lake, but we were worried we might not reach the promised paradise because of the snow, as the highest point of that hike was nearly 9'000 feet (2'750 m). The highest point of our hike to Half Moon Lake in Desolation Wilderness was 8'200 feet (2'500 m). Also, the latter hike was several miles shorter, which made us feel more confident that we would manage to finish it.

Desolation Wilderness is right on Lake Tahoe’s southern-western edge, near South Lake Tahoe city. Its location and accessibility are likely reasons to explain its popularity. Nevertheless, it is possible to find a desolate place in the wilderness if you set out for a backpacking trip to one of the lakes located there. During the first two miles of our hike we met several other hikers, but as soon as our trail started climbing up on a set of steep switchbacks, we did not meet anybody else.

To get to our final destination, Half Moon Lake, we had to cross a rain-swollen creek, which, in the shallowest place, was around 1.5-2 feet high and 35 feet wide. Luckily, the park ranger warned us about the creek, so we carried sandals with us. When we got close to the creek, we removed our hiking shoes and socks, rolled up the trousers, put the sandals on, and walked through the freezing-cold water as fast as we could. It was actually not as bad as I had anticipated (we survived and did not loose any toes).

From the creek we had 2 more miles to the lake. We had to hurry as there were only 2h of daylight left and we still needed to set up a tent and cook a dinner. The additional challenge was that the dinner should be cooked as far away from the tent as possible, as the area is known to be inhabited by bears. Because of that we also carried a bear can with us. Before the nightfall we packed all our food, as well as all other scented items there, and we hid it under the rocks, some 150 feet away from the tent. However, it seems that the bears must have been partying in other part of the mountains that night, as we neither heard them during the night, nor we saw any bear footprints on the snow next morning.

Unexpectedly, it took us a lot of time to find a decent spot to set up a tent as the terrain around Half Moon Lake was full of both big boulders and smaller rocks. The place where we ended up setting it up had several stones that made it quite difficult for us to sleep well. Every attempt to turn was painful and led to waking up. On top of that it was extremely cold night. Even the water that we kept inside the tent froze overnight!

To survive, we had to sleep in all our clothes. I had on two pairs of winter socks, long thermal underwear, two pairs of trousers, three blouses plus two fleece jackets, gloves, and a cap that covers the whole face except for the eyes. Anil on top of all that also wore his jacket... And even with all those layers we barely felt comfortable. If it had been even a bit colder, we would have likely not been able to sleep at all.

In the morning I couldn't feel my toes, and it took them around 1h of walking to warm up. For a brief moment I even feared that I might loose some of them... This experience made me make a resolution to always carry an extra pair of gloves and 2-3 extra pairs of warm socks. You never know when you will need them.

Also because of the cold I didn't take too many pictures of Half Moon Lake, which is a pity as its location is spectacular. From three sides it is surrounded by the tall granite walls, which prevent the wind from blowing there. Also, it is clear that this place does not see too many visitors and all plants and animals can live there undisturbed. It might be one of the very few unspoiled and serene, but at the same time easily accessible, places left in the US.

I hoped that on the way back to the car we would be able to go on a side trip to Mt Tallac, which at 9'735 feet should offer spectacular views of the Tahoe region. However, we were so exhausted after the cold night that our only dream was to get back to the car, and our warm home, as soon as possible.

All in all it was a great trip, and we both enjoyed it thoroughly despite the cold. The beauty of Desolation Wilderness more than compensated for this and other inconveniences.

Anil crossing one of many small creeks that formed because of recent rains and melting snow:

First two miles of the trail:


This is the creek, which caused as some trouble to cross:

You have to admit that it looks a bit ridiculous to be wearing sandals and standing in the snow:

I am freezing in the tent...

Half Moon Lake:

Ice on the trail: