A New Look at an Old View

by Mike Osebold

Desolation Wilderness in California is the most beautiful area I’ve ever seen.

There is actually nothing “desolate” about it. It has majestic conifer trees, lush fields of wildflowers, and sculpted mountaintops. Its most striking features are the stark beauty of its towering granite formations. It’s located just off Highway 50 near Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Among the numerous trails and mountains, I’ve chosen climb Mt. Tallac, which rises some 9,700 feet. This may not be impressive compared to the giant mountains in other locations, but it offers more beautiful natural features than most climbs. On this hike, I want to climb farther than usual. Those who stay below timberline miss part of nature’s work; above timberline, the majesty of the mountain reveals itself in full.

There is no gradual slope at the trailhead; you immediately start a sharp ascent that rarely levels off. I’m huffing and puffing by the time of the second rest period, but if you want to see the best scenery in the world, you have to ascend the mountains. Nowhere else can you see the big trees, flowers, and incredible vistas. But Desolation is a special place: not only do the mountains have great flora, but the granite formations and slopes offer another dimension missing in most places.

A good part of the hike is on loose rock, and high-topped hiking boots with a firm grip are appreciated. I pass Jeffrey pine, with its beautiful bark; mule ear grass covering acres; yarrow and larkspur; then look up to see the powerful granite dome ahead.

I look down and see Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake. Two beautiful lakes side-by-side. The Tahoe area has attracted developers, vacationers, and visitors from around the world. As beautiful as it is, I cannot help but feel the relief of being away from the bustle and development of the Tahoe area, while still enjoying the same environment.

I look over and see an incredible view: Pyramid Peak overlooking a huge ravine, creating a sweeping vista. I note that Pyramid Peak has roughly the same features as Yosemite’s Half-Dome. I think of both Lake Tahoe and Yosemite Park, and their scarred beauty: the bottleneck traffic, the crowds, the prominent buildings. I think of Desolation’s history, how it was so fortunate to have been declared off-limits to development as early as 1931, and later designated a Wilderness Area in 1964. Without these early protections, the area would have second homes, off-road vehicles, and speedboats.

I stop at a small meadow to have lunch. There’s no question about it: a sandwich and hot coffee taste twice as good after a strenuous hike. Across the way are the purple of lupine against the bright yellow of an outcrop of mustard, like canvass strokes of purple and yellow. After a rest, the hike resumes, with the white fir forest giving way to red fir.

Finally above timberline: onto the giant sculptured granite. I take off my backpack, feeling a slight chill as the breeze cools my sweat-soaked shirt. I catch my breath and look down across the last stand of trees, the bright blue lakes, and the tiny specks of civilization. It produces a feeling that can only be found above timberline.