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2018: Desolation Wilderness Loop

August 16, 2018

2018: Desolation Wilderness Loop
Wrights Lake–Lake Schmidell–Gilmore Lake–Lake Aloha– Wrights Lake
(≈40 miles)

Nick and Mark

July 16–20, 2018

I had met Mark on a previous hike. He lived up in the Sacramento area and he suggested the route as he was familiar with Desolation Wilderness, and I had never been there.  The trip was full of great lakes for swimming, something both of us love to do while hiking. While it was mostly on trial, we got in a little cross-country hiking as well. The scenery is overall incredible, though on this trip it was slightly marred by some haze from the Yosemite fire.

There were some mosquitoes the whole trip but never enough to be much of a bother. In a few places the flies were also a nuisance.

Desolation Full map

Full Profile

Day 1: Wrights Lake to Lake Schmidell (9 miles)
Day 2: Day Hike loop (9 miles)
Day 3: Lake Schmidell to Gilmore Lake (11 miles)
Day 4: Mt Tallac Peak, then Gilmore Lake to Lake Aloha (3 miles + 7 miles)
Day 5: Lake Aloha to Wrights Lake (12 miles)


Day One: Day 1: Wrights Lake (Rockbound Trailhead) to Lake Schmidell (9 miles)

Day 1 profle

110m trailhead

Mark and Nick at Trailhead

We started at the Rockbound Trailhead at Wright’s lake. It was about an hour and a half drive from Mark’s house to the Trail-head, and was 9:40am by the time we all geared up and off hiking.

The trail started out woodsy. The hike is mostly uphill but also fairly gradual all the way to the pass.

170 wildflowers


This turned out to be a good time of year for the wildflowers.

We took a nice dip in Maude Lake, which was warmer than we expected. We got to the pass at about 2:00ish. Not that high a pass, but nice views.

203mm Nick at Doris

Nick at Doris Lake

Then arrived at Lake Schmidell a bit past 5:00pm.

The most open camping is on the far side, crossing the outlet. Those were taken and we went a little further around where we found some more makeshift spots, but hillier on that side. However, basically, it was just us and two other couples there.

270 mark tent at schmidell

Mark’s tenet at Lake Schmidell

Day 2: Day Hike loop (9 miles)

Day 2 proile

We did a day hike for our second day, doing a loop around to several lakes.

It was a pretty warm night, not getting below 50ºf. We took our time in the morning and headed out at around 9:00am. We took the trail back around the NW side of Lake Schimmel to go up and over to the Leland Lakes.

345mm view of Leleand lakes

Leland lakes

At the first lake we saw this frog just hanging out in the shallows. After first swimming away a little bit, he (she?) came back and seemed to just watch us.

350 frog

Frog at Leland

The lake is fairly shallow and we went on to the second Leland lake to swim. While still cold, it was really not as cold as I expected, and we could swim around for a bit. We did not stop at McConnell lake as it was quite marshy and reedy, where we had considered a lunch stop.

On the way to Horseshoe—with the trail getting sketchier as well, we noticed some nice falls cascading down the side of the granite to our left. We deciced to go up and check it out, clambering up to some cascading falls. We found a spot to sit and then a place to actually get under a bit of the falls, sitting on a rock! There was also a great view from there.

Past Horseshoe, making our own way mostly, seeing an occasional cairn, we found this sort of stream/swimming hole that was very warm with slow moving shallow current to take another dip in. Just past it was a place to lie on the rock with water pouring around you.

At the 4-Q Lakes we decided to cross-country back to camp over the ridge rather than go the long way around on the trail. After some discussion we decided to go around the north side of the lakes. We did stop to take another dip in the last of the 4-Q lakes. At that spot we ran into a guy who worked for a wildlife agency and he mentioned that they had reintroduced about 60 of those frogs in the 4-Q lakes and he was there to see how many he could find of them. After our dip we went cross-country back over the ridge to camp.

Day 3: Lake Schmidell to Gilmore Lake (11 miles)

Day 3 profile

In the morning I woke to what I thought was fog, but was actually smoke from the Yosemite fire.

280 lake schmidell

Smokey haze at Lake Schmidell

We got a decent start at about 8:15am, heading NE to Camp Flats at 9:20 and then meeting the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at about 9:50. Once on the PCT, we did start seeing more people, though according to Mark, not nearly as many as we might have without the fires and it being a weekday. We stopped for lunch at Middle Velma Lake, which was slightly off the trail, but worth it. We even swam out to a little islet.

610n Nick at Velma crop

Nick at Velma

Fontanillia looked like it had really good swimming too, but we needed to hike on at that point. The trail starts heading up before you actually get along Dicks Lake. That starts the climb to the pass. The trail is relatively graded so it is just a long climb without ever being really steep. We got to the pass at about 3:00pm and took a break there for the view—which was quite hazy from the smoke.

700 Nick at Dick pass vista

Nick at Dicks Pass

Then down to Gilmore Lake by 5:00pm. There were a lot of others camped there (at least several dozen). But with the people somewhat spread out, we had our privacy and it did not feel like there were that many people. The best camping looked to be on the south-east side, but there was already a group of teens there. We camped out one of the most western spots. Still a very nice developed spot. Water near. Muddy to enter, but again nice temperature-wise.

730 Nick at Gilmore lake

Nick at Gilmore Lake


Day 4: Mt. Tallac Peak, then Gilmore Lake to Lake Aloha  (3+7=10 miles)

Day 4 profile

We started with a hike up to Mt Tallac peak, leaving camp at 7:15. We got a little off trail somehow following some cairns into the boulders which was not the way up. Soon we got back on track, not having lost too much time. The easy-to-follow trail takes you pretty much straight up to the peak (on the way back we could not figure out how we could have lost the trail coming up). The views from the peak were incredible even with a little haze form the fires. Great views of Lake Tahoe as well as all 360º. There was some issue with a horde of flies right at the peak though.

880pan Pan form Tallac

Panorama form Mt. Tallac

921mm marmot at Tallac peak

Marmot at the Tallac Peak

After enjoying the views for a while, we headed back down.

We had planned to make a leisurely lunch and swim at Gilmore but the bugs got bad, so we just packed up and got going.

We stopped for lunch on the way around Sonia Lake, finding a little spot that jutted out into the lake to picnic.

990 Heather Lake

Heather Lake

Then we headed to Lake Aloha, which is amazing with all the shallow islets dotted over it and it spreads all over.

We decided to hike as far toward the southern and western side for our next days’ cross country over the pass and up to Pyramid peak. With the smoke we had some discussion of changing our route and not doing that if the haze was going to obscure the view, and that night it did get quite smoky. But it started to clear in the morning.

1090 Nick tent at Aloha

Nick’s tent at Lake Aloha

To find our camping we kind of meandered around the lakes of the southern end and ended up right at the outlet of Lake Aloha.

Day 5: Lake Aloha to Wrights Lake (including climbing Pyramid Peak) (12 miles)

DAy 5 profile

The plan was to make it to Lake Sophia which was about 6-7 miles of cross country including doing a peak. We started out at 7:00am, wanting an early start to do the climb.

1150m mark and Nick with Pyramid behind

Nick and Mark below Pyramid Peak

We headed off for the assent going up and down over some granite. The soon we were finding our way up, again over mostly granite. After getting up to the ridge, we found the trail that lead up toward the peak.

1225mm Nick buolder hopping to Pyramid Peak

Nick hopping up to Pyramid Peak

Once at the final ascent one has to just boulder hop up the last couple hundred feet up. We stashed our packs at the bottom of the final ascent to pick them up on the way back (at 11:40am). Great views of Lake Aloha from the top.

1270 Nick at Pyramid--Aloha backround

Nick at Pyramid Peak looking down on lake Aloha

The way down was much more difficult hiking than the way up. There are some places where there is a sort of use trail at times, but it comes and goes with different people making different “trails.” Lots of loose gravel going down steeply. The final ascent Lake Sophia was extremely steep and then difficult boulder hopping down to the lake.

1300 boulders to lake Sylvia

Mark scrambling down to Lake Sophia

The camping was on the other side of the lake, and we had to do a little bit of bush-whacking to get to the use trail around the lake.

It was about 3:00pm and we had been doing a lot of difficult hiking and were planning to camp there. The lake itself turned out to be a bit stagnant, not inviting for swimming at all. Also, there were flies and some mosquitoes, and then also only a few good camping spots, all of which were taken.

After finding a so-so spot, and not being too happy about it and considering there was not much to do there, and hours to kill, we decided to see if we could find better camping down the river.

1325mm hiking in woods

Mark heading down the trail

We meandered down on the trail looking for spot, not finding anything developed or worthwhile. Then we figured as it was only a few miles to a trail head, there was unlikely to be any camping along the way, we decided just to push on and hike the rest of the way out. For the last few miles we had to leave the main trial to get over to the trail to Wrights Lake, and according to our info there would be a little bit of cross country through the woods. Luckily though, the trail cut all the way back to the trial to Wrights Lake. However, by the time we finally got to the car it was 7:30pm, making it a long day of hard hiking. We took a dip in the lake to clean off and headed back to Mark’s place.

To see more of my photos from this trip click here


  1. Brilliant. That water looks cold!

    • Actually the water was relatively warm. We could actually swim in it without having to just jump in and swim right back out.

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