Four days of sun, rain, thunder, views, waterfalls, cliff jumping, passes, and lake hopping fun in Desolation Wilderness with Nathan, Yuka, Stephanie, Alex, and Carlos. It was exactly one year ago over the July 4 holiday that Stephanie and I were joined by Alex, Carlos, and Greg while we were on our TRT hike. I guess that means we’ve started a tradition.
We hiked from lake to lake over our four days in Desolation. Starting from Meeks Bay, we camped first at Stony Ridge Lake. The next day we strolled over Phipps Pass and connected to the PCT/TRT and headed south to Fontanillis lake. Day three saw the group part ways, and Carlos and I headed back north on the PCT/TRT and cut over on the Genevieve Lake trail toward Crag Lake before heading back to Meeks Bay on the morning of day four.
day 1 – Meeks Bay Trailhead to Stony Ridge Lake
Max elevation: 7799 ft
Min elevation: 6316 ft
Total climbing: 1762 ft
Carlos and I arrived at the trailhead the earliest at about 10:30 in the morning. We’d planned to get in early so we could have some time to play in the lakes. We’d hiked this trail a couple years ago, so we knew it was an easy, gently uphill 6 miles in to Stony Ridge.
Along the way we met a pair of women hiking out from Crag Lake. They told us another woman had a bear encounter that morning. She’d left her bear can unlocked and near her tent and awoke to a bear ripping through her food. Another camper scared the bear off by banging some pots together, apparently. Good to know some friendly campers are helpfully teaching the bears that humans equal accessible food.
We stopped at Crag Lake for a quick dip in the water and a bite to eat. After that, we were back on the trail for the last little stretch to Stony Ridge. A couple years ago, we’d scouted out some nice campsites on the north edge of the lake across the little man-made dam. It was there we cut off the trail to head towards.
We set camp, went for a swim, and then the day clouded up and rain started. We hung out in the tent and listened to the rain and thunder for a while. One lightning strike hit fairly close, and as we soon found out after the rain stopped, it sparked a spot fire near the top of the ridge heading up to Rubicon peak. Luckily, the next bout of rain took care of it.
I made a trail sign for Nathan, Yuka, Stephanie, and Alex to see where we’d left the trail to set camp. I wasn’t 100% sure they’d see it, even though it seemed hard to miss. As the afternoon wore on, I figured that Nathan and Yuka would surly be arriving soon, so every 15 minutes or so I headed out to the trail to take a look. Finally, after a few checks, right as I was about to head back to our campsite, I saw them coming down the trail…from the opposite direction. They’d missed the sign and continued on. Knowing that we were aiming for the northern edge of the lake, when they got to the shore, they looked toward that area and saw Carlos’ white hat and started to head back. I ushered them to the campsite where they set up their tent and got into dry clothes. Turns out Yuka had seen my sign but thought it was just a pretty design someone had left on the trail!
Later in the evening, fearing that Stephanie and Alex would miss the sign too, I headed back to the trail and took a seat on a trailside log. I didn’t have to wait long before the two of them came rushing up the trail. Steph apparently was on the lookout for a trail sign, so in the end I didn’t have to worry, but it was comforting to know they weren’t hiking past us while I was relaxing at the campsite.
Soon after steph and Alex got their tent up and ate their dinner, we all turned in for the evening.
day 2 – Stony Ridge Lake to Fontanillis Lake
Max elevation: 8845 ft
Min elevation: 7851 ft
Total climbing: 1719 ft
After getting up, getting fed, and getting packed, we headed back out onto the Meeks Bay trail and continued south. Not long after passing the end of Stony Ridge Lake, the trail started its ascent toward Rubicon Lake and Phipps Pass. The views that opened up as we approached the pass were breathtaking. Or maybe it was the steep climb.
Coming down on the other side of Phipps brought us into a more densely wooded area. The trail ends as it hits the PCT/TRT. Carlos and Alex, ever the forward scouts, were waiting at the junction with two day hikers when Stephanie and I arrived. Apparently they’d gotten turned around and were just looking for the quickest way out. We directed them to head back toward the Velmas and head out from there. We also made our way toward the Velmas after a quick snack break. On our way, the sun clouded over, thunder started to rumble, and soon we were being hit by small hail and rain. We grabbed some cover under a copse of trees and I pulled out my groundcloth to help keep us dry. The storm passed and we continued on.
Passing the Velmas, the trail splits with the Bayview trail and heads up the hill toward Fontanillis. At the outflow creek/waterfall, we finally took our lunch break. After eating, we followed the trail along the bank of the lake and searched for a campsite. The one we found ended up being great. We picked a spot with a few well used sites terraced up the side of the hill on the northeast side of the lake. The views from the top of the hill were stunning. From that vantage point you could take in all of Fontanillis, Dicks peak, the waterfall down to the Velmas, and even Lake Tahoe in the distance.
Having gotten camp set, we headed down to the lake for a swim in the icy water. Some were less eager to get in than others, but eventually everyone was in the water. Exploring around the shore a bit, we found a huge boulder that was a perfect cliff jumping launch pad. Nathan, Alex and I were eager to take a few leaps, but the others opted out.
After our swim, Alex, Stephanie and I went for a walk to explore the far side of the lake while the others rested. From our cliff jumping rock, it sounded like a waterfall was somewhere over there. Sure enough, after scrambling over some granite boulders, we came across a waterfall that fed down into Fontanillis. We also noted some perfect campsites for future visits.
Back to the campsite, some more poking around and exploration, then it was time for dinner. After dinner, I surprised the group with some dehydrated pumpkin cheesecake. Full from dinner and cheesecake, we headed back up the hill behind our campsite to take in the views at sunset. It didn’t let us down.
The sun dipped and the mosquitoes emerged, marking the end of the evening for us.
day 3 – Fontanillis Lake to Crag Lake
Max elevation: 8383 ft
Min elevation: 7474 ft
Total climbing: 1260 ft
Our group parted ways this morning. But before that, a couple rangers stopped by to check our permits. We had a nice chat with them about their jobs, good campsites, and the bear story we’d heard a few days prior. After they left, Stephanie, Alex, Nathan, and Yuka were headed back out to civilization via the Bayview trail while Carlos and I made a loop back towards Crag Lake. We had our breakfasts, said our goodbyes, and went on our way.
We headed back north on the PCT/TRT, but instead of turning off on the Meeks Bay trail, we continued on another 4 miles or so and turned off on the Genevieve Lake trail. All morning it was overcast and thunder rumbled in the distance.
The Genevieve Lake trail clearly does not see much use. It quickly descends a steep ravine and there were several parts where the trail has completely disappeared. We had to rely on rock cairns that marked the path. There was a lot of deadfall the entire length of the trial, too. At the bottom of the ravine, the trail flattens out and becomes a bit clearer. It approaches Genevieve Lake from the west and wraps around north and then completely disappears as it crosses the outflow from the lake. It’s easy enough from there to cut through the forest toward the Meeks Bay Trail, though.
After joining back up with that trail, we cut south and retraced our steps from a few days earlier toward Crag Lake. Two years ago when we stayed at nearby Beauty Lake, we explored around and found some great, hidden campsites along the southern edge of Crag Lake. So when we got to that end of the lake, we cut off the trail, made our way through a small, haunted forest, scrambled up the granite boulders and found the spot.
Then it was setting camp, swimming, resting in the tent while it rained a little, eating, exploring the boulders, then sleeping.
day 4 – Crag Lake to the Meeks Bay trailhead
Max elevation: 7513 ft
Min elevation: 6348 ft
Total climbing: 89 ft
In the morning, Carlos and I packed up, trying to dry out our gear as much as possible from the night’s condensation. We gobbled down some breakfast and hit the trail. We made quick work of the 5 mile downhill to the trailhead as visions of diner food in Tahoe City floated us down the trail.
Permits and reservations – from recreation.gov
Book early; it fills up fast
$26 for 2 people
Bear canisters are not required, but recommended. The pine trees and ubiquitous granite expanses don’t offer many great bear bag hang branches.