Tales from the West II: The Breathtaking Views of Lake Tahoe

By: Justin Devendorf

Following up on my first “Tales from the West” post that I wrote for Outside Chronicles back on June 28th, 2018, I thought I’d talk about the only other time (so far) that I’ve hiked a mountain in the Western United States. Just like last time, one of my best friend’s named Ben who lives in Sacramento was there with me (and so was his trusted Cube that has driven us all over Northern California on our many trips) and yet again we drove outside Sacramento in search of a great day of hiking. That’s exactly what we got when we attempted a climb of Maggies Peaks, an 8,703 foot mountain overlooking the pristine blue waters of Lake Tahoe in early August 2016.

What is Desolation Wilderness?

About two hours east of Sacramento, South Lake Tahoe is on the California side of the Lake and is the closest city to where the trailhead to Maggies Peaks was located. We arrived at the trailhead around Noon and checked out our gear. I remember it being a gorgeous day out, the sun was shining but was not terribly hot and we had plenty of food and water for our hike. I also remember the check-in area and facilities being very clean and organized. We signed in at the trailhead (like everyone should always do) and made our way up Maggies Peaks. Shortly after starting, we came across a sign that read among other things “Desolation Wilderness.” Ben and I were slightly confused, what was Desolation Wilderness?

Desolation Wilderness sign – Photo: Justin Devendorf

It turns out that Desolation Wilderness refers to a 63,960-acre federally protected wilderness area that is found in the El Dorado National Forest. The Tahoe Rim Trail and Pacific Crest Trail pass through it and it is very popular for backpackers. Another notable quality about Desolation Wilderness, some of the trails can be hard to see (more on that later).

Ben and I set off on our journey. I can’t remember the exact mileage to the summit of Maggies Peaks, but I’d estimate it was a few miles. One of the first things I noticed about hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains was the brownish, sand-like material that was found all along the trails. It was unlike anything I’d seen while hiking anywhere in New York State. There were also a decent amount of switchbacks immediately upon starting the hike, which got my heart pumping, my legs working and in need of an early break. When your body knows it’s time to rest, it’s time to rest.

Overlooking Emerald Bay

After our rest, which consisted of plenty of Gatorade, water and light snacks such as apples and sunflower seeds (which are my personal favorite) Ben and I continued up Maggies Peaks. The trail became somewhat more “forgiving” than at the beginning as we continued our hike about two miles in; not only in the degree of difficulty navigating the terrain but also Ben and I began to start to see some breathtaking views of Lake Tahoe. One part of the trail directly overlooked an area of Lake Tahoe known as Emerald Bay, a highly popular destination for visitors to Lake Tahoe. Emerald Bay was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1969 by the United States Department of the Interior and is currently part of the California State Park System.

That is the most vibrantly colored blue water I have ever seen in my entire life.

Ben and I spent several minutes admiring the view of Emerald Bay from our spot on the trail and I remember looking at the water and thinking to myself “That is the most vibrantly colored blue water I have ever seen in my entire life.” Still true to this day, and what’s better is that the views were only about to keep getting better for Ben and I, but as can happen on hikes in the wilderness, things don’t always go according to plan.

Our view of Emerald Bay from the trail. Photo: Justin Devendorf
Two nearby mountains overlooking Emerald Bay. Photo: Justin Devendorf

Where’s the trail?

After leaving the spot where we viewed Emerald Bay, Ben and I continued on our hike. However, the further in elevation we climbed, the trail was much harder to follow. To put this in some context, the condition of any random herd path found in the Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness would’ve been in much better condition for hikers to follow than what Ben and I were experiencing. Also, the terrain got much more steep and harder to safely navigate as we continued to move forward. This, combined with the many minutes trying to find the correct path up the mountain, Ben and I sat ourselves down on a large rock, cracked open two Sierra Nevada beers (which I remarked to Ben was ironic as we were in the Sierra Nevada mountains) and both looked at each other and reasoned that we were both content with how far we came and what we had seen, and that we didn’t want to risk getting lost trying to find the trail up a mountain in Desolation Wilderness.

That’s not to say that Desolation Wilderness isn’t safe to navigate, but there are some times when hikers just need to prioritize their own safety, recognize their limits and appreciate what they’ve already accomplished. For Ben and I, it was taking in the beautiful views that Lake Tahoe had to offer. I truly hope to be able to come back someday and try for the summit again!

Looking at nearby mountains which also make up the Sierra Nevada range from our spot on the large rock while drinking our Sierra Nevada beers. Photo – Justin Devendorf
Another view of Emerald Bay from a higher elevation. Photo: Justin Devendorf

Trip Recap

Lessons Learned:

There’s no shame in not reaching the summit. Safety always has to come first when out in the wilderness and not only can one still enjoy themselves without reaching the summit of a mountain, no trip into the wilderness is worth someone becoming seriously injured or killed. 

Book Recommendation:

Favorite Gear Used:

  • My trusted Keen hiking boots I use whenever I hike.

Gear They Wished They Brought:

  • Any kind of trekking poles to help navigate the switchbacks better

Favorite Meal or Snack:

  • Sierra Nevada beer!

Maps, Routes and GPS Information

Route Statistics: 4.25 mi, 1,950′ elevation

Caltop Map: https://caltopo.com/m/L2MH

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