On this hike I planned to explore several lakes that are not far off the Tahoe Rim Trail in the southeastern corner of the Desolation Wilderness. My starting point was the Echo Lakes trailhead. My primary destination was Lake of the Woods and, hopefully, Ropi Lake. I also planned a side trip to Tamarack, Ralston, and Cagwin Lakes. Alas, my trail-finding capabilities fell short of what would be needed to find the smaller lakes (see more below), but it was a really nice hike nevertheless.
Here is an overview of my route. I should note that this section of the Tahoe Rim Trail is coincident with the Pacific Crest Trail. Also, the Desolation Wilderness is part of the Eldorado National Forest.
Since I planned to enter the Desolation Wilderness, I stopped at the kiosk to take care of my day use permit. The first 2½ miles after that are along the north shore of Lower and Upper Echo Lakes. This view is to the southeast across Lower Echo Lake, with Becker Peak (on the left) and Talking Mountain (on the right) in the background.
A visual highlight of hiking through the open granitic areas was seeing strikingly beautiful, usually isolated Sierra Juniper trees, seemingly growing right out of the rock formation. They are among the earth’s oldest-lived tree species.
At the west end of Upper Echo Lake the trail passes through a forested area and goes past the spur trail to the water taxi dock.
As the trail leaves the Echo Lakes behind it begins a steady climb with a moderate grade of roughly 10%.
Shortly before the Desolation Wilderness boundary, there is a wonderful view looking back along the length of the Echo Lakes. The elevation was just over 7600 feet, and the forest was thinning and transitioning to mostly open granite.
About ¾ mile into the Desolation Wilderness, there is a pretty view of Tamarack Lake, south of the trail. Later in the day I planned a side trip to the shore of this lake. The peak on the right is Ralston Peak.
Not far away I found a particularly interesting Sierra Juniper tree, shown here on the right. If you look closely at the base of the trunk, you can see either more trunk or a massive tap root within the rock. This trunk/root then takes a 90 degree bend and continues down to the ground several feet away. It seems amazing that this tree managed to grow along such a tortuous path before eventually reaching proper sunlight.
About 4.8 miles from the trailhead I left the Tahoe Rim Trail / Pacific Crest Trail on a marked side trail to Lake of the Woods. The trail climbs another 100 feet or so before cresting and descending into the basin where Lake of the Woods is located. On the way up this small incline I came upon a virtual red carpet of ground cover with the trail passing through.
About 0.6 miles past the “crest,” the trail arrives at the shore of beautiful, and aptly named, Lake of the Woods. The trail follows the lake shore for about ¾ mile. This view is from the southeast edge, looking north.
Here is another view looking southwest across the lake with distinctive Pyramid Peak in the background.
After passing Lake of the Woods, there is an almost imperceptible rise in the trail, followed by a definitive descent. As the trail proceeds onto bare granite it is marked by cairns. Somewhere around the 7900 foot elevation, determined after the fact, I must have missed a cairn. At the time I was aware that there weren’t cairns any more but I continued in what I thought was the correct direction, descending south southwest along a kind of valley. In retrospect, if I’d paid more attention to the breadcrumb track on my GPS relative to my map, I would have realized that I should be heading nearly due west. In any case, after descending another 100 feet or so of elevation off-trail, I decided to give up on Ropi Lake and turn around. I followed my breadcrumb track in reverse until I re-encountered cairns and was able to navigate that way back to the more conventional trail approaching Lake of the Woods.
This view is representative of the beautiful back country, with no other way to mark a trail than cairns on bare granite.
After reaching the conventional trail I began my return toward Echo Lakes. When I reached the Tamarack Lake trail junction, about 0.5 mile inside Desolation Wilderness, I went ahead with my plan to explore Tamarack, Ralston, and Cagwin Lakes. My trail description indicated that the trail was marked with cairns, so I tried to be more careful about trail-following. I successfully reached Tamarack Lake (easy navigation), but again lost the cairns as I tried to find a small balloon loop that would go near smaller Ralston and Cagwin Lakes. Once I was sure I’d lost the cairns I turned around, again retraced my breadcrumb track back to the established trail, and returned to the trailhead.
By the time I reached the kiosk at the east end of Lower Echo Lake, the sun had just disappeared behind the side of Becker Peak. I had been paying attention to the time, though, and was confident that there would be plenty of daylight for the final part of my hike. In fact, I kind of took my time hiking along Lower Echo Lake, enjoying how the view changed as the sun got lower in the sky. I reached the dam at the trailhead in time to enjoy the sunlight reflecting from slight condensation (? – certainly not smog!) in the air over the lake. Pyramid Peak is in the background at the left, and I think one of the other peaks could be Mt Price.
Even though I didn’t reach all of the lakes I’d hoped to, this was a wonderful hike. And the next time I need to follow a trail marked only by cairns, hopefully this experience helped me improve my trail-finding skills.