The Desolation Seven Summits loop offers the best showcase of the Desolation Wilderness I can think of and arguably contains the most rugged and impressive mountain scenery of any route in the Sierra Nevada north of Sonora Pass. The aesthetic loop climbs seven of the high points in the Desolation circumnavigating Lake Aloha and also providing grand vistas of Lake Tahoe. The loop contains a nice mixture of big climbs, scrambling and trail miles. Total mileage is close to 30 miles with nearly 10,800 ft of elevation gain. Considering the vast majority of the elevation gain is off-trail on often arduous terrain, this is a great workout.
The Desolation Wilderness is located west and southwest of Lake Tahoe and is known for the granite landscape created by the Crystal Range with its beautiful lakes and views. It is easily the most rugged area of the Tahoe basin. With such beauty and relative close proximity to the Sacramento metro area and South Lake Tahoe comes over-appreciation in the form of crowds and trail quotas. However, this route explores sections of the wilderness that still feel wild, largely owing to the fact that the heart of the route between Pyramid Peak and Dicks Peak is entirely off trail. You won’t see many other people on this section, if any. I personally have yet to see anybody in the Desolation off a trail. It is this off-trail section that also provides the most spectacular views of Lake Aloha, the crown jewel of the Desolation, and the Crystal Range. Last summer when I did this loop I skipped Ralston Peak (it was the Desolation six summits; photo album with ideal photography conditions in 2012 here) but tagged it on the way out this time. I found Ralston to be a worthy addition with great views of Echo Lakes and a different perspective on the Crystal Range and Lake Aloha. Even with the addition of Ralston, I managed to go 40+ minutes faster than 2012 finishing in around 11 hours total. The faster time is attributed to (1) better navigation between Pyramid Peak and Mount Agassiz, (2) better route up Jacks Peak, and (3) taking the Tahoe Rim Trail to Gilmore Lake and Mount Tallac from Dicks Pass instead of the off-trail ridge. Without taking hundreds of photos and nursing a nagging injury, I imagine this loop would go in less than 8 hours. Strava route here.
A good snowpack is far from a guarantee in California and not to be taken for granted. The high elevations have already accumulated a nice base this fall and the forecast for the second half of December has the potential to provide a series of cool and wet systems through the new year. This forecast would give any snow-sports fan a wide grin, and if it materializes, it would provide a phenomenally great start to the season.
With all the excitement, I’ve been thinking about some snowshoe adventure ideas that would be awesome to check out this winter, some of which are located below from north to south:
Mount Lassen, Lassen Volcanic National Park: A 20 mile roundtrip to climb this peak that seems much more aesthetic in the winter when snow covered (as opposed to a pile of volcanic pumice).
Castle Peak & Peter Grubb Hut: Easy access off Interstate 80 with nice views of the peaks of north Lake Tahoe.
Mount Rose, Mt. Rose Wilderness: Gorgeous views of the second highest point in Tahoe.
Pyramid Peak, Desolation Wilderness: The highest point in the Desolation Wilderness and the views looking over a snowy Lake Aloha would be amazing to see.
Mount Tallac, Desolation Wilderness: One of the best views of Lake Tahoe, with a great climb.
Freel Peak & Trimmer Peak: The highest point in Tahoe with a fantastic view of the lake.
Round Top, Mokelumne Wilderness: A classic snowshoe route from Carson Pass with great views of the surroudning wilderness.
Horse Ridge & Ostrander Hut, Yosemite National Park: I have never been to this corner of Yosemite National Park and it looks beautiful, especially in winter conditions.
Winter Alta, Pear Lake Hut & the Tablelands, Sequoia National Park: A visit in 2011 to the summit of Winter Alta was amazing. This time I hope to explore further along the Tablelands with a summit of Big Bird Peak and close views of the Great Western Divide.
Mount Williamson, John Muir Wilderness: Lots of vertical to reach the summit of the second highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the state of California. Williamson also has one of the best views of the Kaweah Range and the Great Western Divide.
Mount Whitney, John Muir Wilderness: It would be great to ascend the highest point in the contiguous United States in winter conditions.
Hopefully I will get to a few of these this winter!