This is the second year in a row that we have decided to skip the crowded beaches and head to the mountains for a very quiet Fourth of July. When we planned this trip several months ago, we thought, ‘what’s a better place than heading to American Lake in Desolation Wilderness to celebrate our country’s birthday?’
I had stumbled upon American Lake five years earlier when on a backpacking trip to nearby Lake of the Woods. I remember thinking it would be a great place to camp and made a point to return there, which is exactly what we did this weekend and it could not have been more perfect.
PREPARING FOR YOUR TRIP
Securing Your Wilderness Permit
As with most backpacking destinations, you’ll need to secure a wilderness permit for any overnight stays in Desolation Wilderness. The area is divided into 45 zones and permits are required year-round, with quotas in effect from the Friday before Memorial Day to September 30. For the permit, you must enter on the day your permit begins and your first night has to be within your designated zone. For any subsequent nights, you are allowed to move zones anywhere in Desolation.
American Lake is zone 39 and there are a total of 10 permits available during quota season for this zone, which makes it feel like you have the whole place to yourself. To reserve your permit, I’d highly suggest that you do it well in advance and up to six months from your planned trip. We reserved ours about four months prior to when we were planning on going and had no issues getting permits for the zone we wanted. To reserve your permit, click here.
What to Bring
Aside from the usual backpacking gear, there are a couple of things that I can’t stress enough: bear canisters and bug spray.
Although bear canisters aren’t required (but highly encouraged) and you can technically hang your food if you’d like, I would definitely recommend you bring one. On our way up the trail, we ran into a girl frantically coming down the trail that said, “there’s bears up there!” Ummm, yes. It is the wilderness and although I was expecting her to tell us that she just saw one on the trail, she went on to tell us that a bear had eaten her group’s and their neighbor’s food the night before at Lake of the Woods. She was coming down the trail to get as much food from the market at Lower Echo as she could so they didn’t have to end their trip early. Just a quick six mile jaunt down and then back up again with a bag full of food. Sounds awesome (not) and definitely avoidable if you had a bear canister.. anyways, apparently the bear had pulled their food out of the tree. I don’t know if they didn’t hang it properly or what the exact circumstances were, but I would highly encourage a bear canister. Not only do they serve a multiple purpose as a seat, but they give peace of mind that you won’t wake up in the morning to a ravaged bag in a tree.
As for bug spray, Desolation Wilderness is notorious for mosquitoes and I have definitely been eaten alive here before. Luckily, we didn’t have many skeeters except for 30 minutes each evening, but I would still bring the good stuff (Deet 100). If they are out in full force, you won’t want to feel like a prisoner to your tent. Good news is, you don’t have to worry too much about ticks or other creepy crawlies.
Like most lakes in Desolation Wilderness, American Lake is accessible from a variety of trailheads depending on where you want to start, desired mileage, and elevation gain/loss. We decided to enter from the Echo Lakes trailhead at Echo Summit. When there isn’t a global pandemic and it is the summer season, you can shave nearly 2.5 miles off of your hike by taking the water taxi from Lower Echo Lake to the far end of Upper Echo Lake. Since the taxi is not currently running due to COVID-19, we had to hike alongside the two lakes, which was super enjoyable and I am glad we did. We had fun looking at all the beautiful lake cabins and making goals to have one someday in our future.
To get to the trailhead, take Hwy 50 to Johnson Pass Road (turn right if coming from South Lake Tahoe) and then make a left on Echo Lakes Road. There is quite a bit of parking in the trailhead lot, but by the time we arrived at 6:55 am on the Friday before Fourth of July, the main parking lot was already completely full. We had to park close to a ½ mile from the trailhead on the side of the road, which wasn’t bad, but did add some distance to our trip. If there isn’t any room on the side of the road, there is an overflow lot where Johnson Pass Road intersects with Echo Lakes Road. I would highly recommend getting here as early as possible though.
Wherever you end up parking, following the signs for the PCT in the main overnight lot, down the hill, and over the dam to the trailhead.
When you reach the trailhead on the other side of the dam, go right and up until you reach an intersection in a short minute. From here, hang a left and you’ll soon be climbing slightly above the shoreline. You’ll be above the shoreline for most of your hike around Lower Echo Lake. The hike is very pleasant here and it was a perfect temp when we started just after 7:00 am. After a couple of miles, you’ll reach Upper Echo Lake and begin to veer away from the lakes, through some beautiful wooded trail, and then up a rocky slope. The slope is exposed and there are rocky sections to navigate, but before you know it, you’ll be at the top of some switchbacks and on a beautiful wooded trail.
Continue to follow the trail till you reach a marker for Lake Aloha that points you to the left. Follow this down for a ways until the trail goes left, but at this point to reach American Lake, you really need to be following a GPS. The trail ends and you’re route finding on your own over granite rocks, navigating around little lakes, and generally making your way west through Desolation Valley.
Note: there is very little to no water available for your hike to Desolation Valley (about 6 miles to get to Desolation Valley from the trailhead). Make sure that you have plenty of water. Since we did this early in the day and the temp was mild, I was fine with 2L of water till we got to American Lake.
Where to Camp
After about 7 miles and 1,100′ elevation gain from the trailhead, you’ll reach American Lake. Upon reaching the lake, there are numerous places to camp on the east shore. You can either go by the waterfall at the south end of the lake or travel to the northeast shore when Lake Aloha spills into American Lake. We found an amazing campsite between the south and north shores on the east side. It was fairly protected with a large granite rock and even had a private little island that we named “party island” you could swim or float to.
Wherever you decide to camp, make sure you are 100′ from the water and on a durable surface. Also note, it can get pretty windy in Desolation, so if you can find a more protected spot with trees and rocks like we did, that will definitely work in your favor.
There are so many amazing lakes to explore in Desolation! If you are here for two nights and use American Lake as your basecamp, I’d highly suggest a quick trip to Lake Aloha to see the dam and do some swimming. You can also reach various peaks in the Crystal Range like Pyramid Peak and Mt. Price (as seen in the picture below). For those looking for a longer day hike, you can reach Dick’s Peak.
If you don’t mind a little extra weight in your pack, bring a floatie! We had so much fun floating around the lake on the 4th of July. We felt like the only ones there and had an awesome time floating to the islands and other side of the lake.
Last, but not least, there are NO fires allowed in Desolation. Ever. Please make sure to abide by these rules as well as all Leave No Trace principles. Unfortunately, it just takes one bad mistake to ruin it for everyone else. We want to be able to enjoy this beautiful area for years to come! It is an incredible gift and something we should all be able to enjoy responsibly. Have you ever been to American Lake? Or, do you have a favorite place in Desolation? Leave a comment below.
“Third time’s the charm” has never had as much meaning as it did this past weekend. The last two years in a row I have had permits to backpack Big Pine Lakes, but for reasons due to weather, fire, and Elton John, they have all been cancelled (and yes, Elton was totally worth it on his Yellow Brick Road tour). This past weekend, those backpacking dreams came true and I laid my eyes on what might be one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen.
PREPARING FOR YOUR ADVENTURE
Securing Your Wilderness Permit
If you’d like to experience the desolation and beauty of Big Pine Lakes, the first thing you’ll need to do is secure a permit for North Fork Big Pine Creek. You can day hike here without a permit, but any overnight stays require a permit that you can secure up to six months in advance from recreation.gov. I HIGHLY suggest that you secure your permit as early as possible due to this destination’s popularity, and for good reason. So, if you are planning on backpacking in June – August, you will need to get your permit Dec – Feb.
For the most jaw dropping views of Temple Crag, as pictured below, you will want to indicate you’ll be staying at second lake. There are seven lakes total and the first three are the only ones with views of Temple Crag. We didn’t make it past the third lake, but according to pictures, the upper lakes are amazing in their own right, you’re just going to have to work a little harder to get to them as they are at even higher elevation.
Unless you live in the Big Pine/Bishop/Mammoth area, the trailhead can be quite a bit of a drive. For us in Lake Tahoe, it was 4+ hours to get to the trailhead, so we opted to stay at the nearby Benton Hot Springs the night before our hike. I would totally recommend the tub sites at this campground. It was clean, private, and such a great way to kickoff our trip. In hindsight, we also would have reserved a site for the night after our hike to soak in the amazing springs. From Benton, the drive to the trailhead was just over an hour.
Next, to get to the trailhead, travel to the town of Big Pine off of Hwy 395. In town, you will turn West on Crocker Street by the Shell gas station. This will eventually turn into Glacier Lodge Road and after 10 miles, you will arrive at the trailhead. The trailhead is clearly marked for “hikers” and “overnight parking.” You do not need a parking permit and there are some nice vault toilets here. If there isn’t any parking in the lot — and there might not be if you get here after 8:00 am June – Sept — there is plenty of parking on the road.
What to Bring
Although the hike in is under 6 miles to the second lake, you will be glad if you pack fairly light due to it being all uphill. I’d recommend bringing your typical backpacking gear (you can find my list here), plus extra layers to keep you warm at night. Since you’ll be camping well above 10,000′ it gets chilly as soon as the sun sets behind the mountains and you’ll be grateful if you have a few extra layers (at least when we went in June).
Also make sure to pack your bug spray! In June, the mosquitoes were annoying and I came home with well over 100 bites. Those little buggers love me, so you might not fair as bad, but it is still important to protect yourself from the annoying skeeters.
As mentioned above, the trail from the car to the second lake is ALL uphill. According to my Gaia GPS app, we hiked 5.61 miles to our first campsite and gained 2,668 feet in elevation. It’s also important to note that the first several miles are all exposed and can be very hot on a summer day. There is also no water until you reach the second falls, so make sure you have plenty, especially if you have a dog with you.
After you reach second falls and the John Muir wilderness boundary, you will welcome a change in scenery and hike through a wooded forest with aspens and pines that provides some relief from the sun. You will also pass by the Lon Chaney cabin which is a fun pit stop to read about the history and imagine what it would have been like to own that little slice of heaven.
After the cabin, you will start again up an exposed area and soon reach the 10,000′ mark and a sign that states “no fires.” At this point, we were greeted by the prettiest little hummingbird that was enjoying the Indian Paintbrush. I had no idea that hummingbirds could live at 10,000′ and relished the idea that it might be a sign from my late mom who absolutely loved hummingbirds.
At this point, you are getting much closer but still have a couple of miles to go. You’ll continue to climb past the wildflowers, aspens, and pines, and before you know it, you will be looking down upon first lake. Once you reach first lake, it is a short and easy hike on to the second and third lakes.
Where to Camp
We had our heart set on camping at second lake, so quickly hiked past first lake on to our destination. There may have been some good camping here, but we didn’t stop to check out any of the campsites.
Upon reaching second lake, there were a few tents setup on the east shore, which is lined with granite cliffs. We decided to continue on to a dirt trail through the woods and down to a sandy beach. Here, we found a nice tent site perched above the lake that was fairly private and less exposed than the granite sites we saw upon first arrival. We were both completely spent from the day and glad we found a great spot with an amazing view.
Although we loved our first site and the incredible view, we decided to explore the next day further down the trail and found an even better site on the northwest shore. This site was closer to the water and much bigger than our previous site so we packed up and moved. In fact, it could easily have held three tents, but we liked the fact that we could use the separate areas for our tent, kitchen, and card playing. There were also some awesome granite rocks to sit on and take in the view of the crag and falls at the inlet of the lake. Moral of the story, don’t take the first site that you see when you reach second lake. Keep going down the trail till you get close to the inlet, and there are some awesome sites that are good size and fairly private.
If you continue even further past second lake and onto the third lake, there are some additional sites there with equally as impressive views. We found a few that were pretty large and would be nice for groups.
As always, it is important to practice leave no trace principles anytime you are in the wilderness. A few of the sites we came across had obvious fire rings and burnt wood/trash. If you come across one of these, please be sure to destroy it and not give into the temptation of a fire. This is such a beautiful place and it would be so sad to see it destroyed because of careless behavior.
If you’d like and have the stamina, you can reach the Palisade Glacier in a few more miles and a few more thousand feet of elevation gain. Being this was our first trip of the season and were pretty wiped out after the hike in, we didn’t try to make it to the glacier, but is on our list for next time. The Palisade Glacier is the southern most glacier in North America and likely won’t be around forever. Make sure to check it out while you can.
This hike can also be done as a loop, reaching the first five lakes and Black Lake. All are beautiful and if you have the time, I would highly recommend it based on what we heard from some hikers we passed. This is also on our list to checkout next time.
All-in-all, I would 10 out of 10 recommend this hike. It is absolutely stunning and there is so much to explore in the area. Comment below if you’ve even done this hike. I’d love to hear how it was for you!
My soul was seriously thirsty for some fresh air in my lungs and dirt under my feet. You see, I’m currently in Orange County, CA about to approach one of the hardest weekends of my life. This weekend we’ll say “goodbye” to my mom at her funeral followed by the burial on Catalina Island.
A little less than a month ago, she lost her courageous and gracious fight against cancer. For seven years, she battled hard and was an inspiration to everyone she met. We traveled to amazing places, she saw me marry the love of my life and my brother meet his future wife, and she lived every day with so much love for life and everyone around her.
The past few weeks have been more challenging than I could have ever imagined and I know that the days to come will present even more emotions. In the future, I’m sure I’ll post on how her death has changed my life forever, but for now, it’s all about one foot in front of the other and hitting the trails for therapy.
Aliso Peak Hike at a Glance
- Trailhead – Seaview Park, Laguna Niguel, CA
- Round trip distance – 1.6 miles
- Time – 1 hour
- Difficulty – easy to moderate
- Elevation gain – 533 feet (most of it is on the way back)
- Summit elevation – 683 feet
- Pet friendly – yes
My parents’ house is relatively close to the trailhead, so I made the trek from their house. If you don’t live in the area, take Pacific Island to the west end of Seaview Park in Laguna Niguel. There is a lot of free parking on the street here.
From the grass of Seaview Park, walk to the west end, toward the gated community. The grass turns to dirt here and you’ll see some drinking fountains along with a picnic table.
After following the dirt trail for about a quarter of a mile, you’ll reach a great lookout that sits on a concrete slab and has a great picnic table. This is a wonderful spot to view Laguna Beach and Catalina on a clear day.
Continue on past the concrete and you will immediately start a steep descent down a washed out trail. The trail is loose in some areas and requires a little bit of fancy footwork to make sure you don’t slip. This section does not last very long and the trail soon levels out past some house where the poor people live (*sarcasm*) and the descends again for a bit before climbing toward the summit. The trail is very well marked as you can see in the picture below.
The actual ascent to the summit is not long or steep, but you will be rewarded with amazing views of Laguna. There is a bench you can sit on at the top and it’s a great spot for some whale watching during peak months as well. While I was up there, I could see a pod of dolphins in the distance just off shore.
The most strenuous part of this hike is making your way back to Seaview park view the steep trail. Although this is a relatively short trail, it will still make you suck some serious wind! There are a lot of great spots to continue to enjoy the view (aka catch your breath).
If you’re in the South Orange County area and looking for a quick hike to take in the fresh air and views, then this is the one for you. It was just what I needed on this particular day to fuel my soul.
Scout Lookout and Angels Landing boast some of the most picturesque views of Zion Canyon in the whole park. With sweeping 360 degree vistas, you can easily understand why this is one of the more popular hikes in the park. There are no permits required for this trail, and in the summer, you can see lines of hikers dotting the cliffside. We hiked the trail in the middle of January during a short three-day road trip. While the crowds weren’t as bad as they are in the summer months, there were still a fair amount of other hikers when we started at 1:30 pm.
The trail starts at the West Rim Trailhead across from the Grotto. Because the Zion Scenic Drive to the trailhead is open to cars in the off-season, December through February (the rest of the year you have to take a shuttle into the park), the trailhead parking can fill up fast. On the day we hiked, they closed the road just past the Zion Lodge around noon, which meant we had to park there and add another mile to get to the trailhead.
Once you get to the West Rim Trailhead, cross the Virgin River footbridge, hang a right, and follow the river upstream for about a half a mile until it begins to ascend up a paved path. It gradually gets steeper and turns into the first set of switchbacks that are etched into the cliff. It is amazing to think of how they built that trail!
After a few of these switchbacks, the trail enters Refrigerator Canyon, named for being mostly shaded and relatively cool year-round. After a gradual grade through the hanging canyon, the trail soon turns and starts up the famous Walters Wiggles. These are a series of 20 short switchbacks that bring you up the rock face. The switchbacks are named after Walter Ruesch, who was Zion’s first superintendent. He was determined to create a trail up to Angels Landing, and after seeing what he accomplished, you’d be surprised to hear that he didn’t have any prior engineering experience.
On the day that we hiked, a lot of these switchbacks were covered in ice. It would have been wise to have crampons like a few other hikers we passed, but we made our way carefully and despite a few “oh shit” moments, didn’t end up on our butts or flailing down the side of the cliff.
At the top of the Wiggles, you will be rewarded with beautiful views of the canyon and Angels Landing is so close it might as well hit you in the face. You can stop here and enjoy the scenery from Scout Lookout, or if you’re up for an adventure, continue on for another .6 miles to the top of Angels Landing. Because of all the ice on the trail the day we hiked, we decided we valued our lives too much to attempt making it to the top of Angels Landing. With sections that are only a couple of feet wide, and a lot of people that looked like they had no business hiking to the top in Tevas, we safely enjoyed the view from Scout Lookout.
We can’t wait to go back though, and hopefully, make it all the way to the top. We’ll just make sure that there is no chance of ice and get a really early start to avoid the crowds of hikers all vying for that deadly picture perfect selfie at the top.
Have you hiked Angels Landing in Zion? What was your experience? Leave a comment below!
Utah is an amazingly beautiful state from north, south, east, and west. With a state that has so much to explore, we had no shortage of things to do in our three short days spent in southwestern Utah. The hardest part of our brief trip was narrowing it down to a few key things and deciding what we would have to wait and do until our next trip. Another factor at play was the weather since it is the middle of January. Luckily, we had some nice days, but there was a fair amount of snow and ice to contend with from a previous storm.
All-in-all, our three days in Utah could not have worked out better. Some of our adventures were: hiking to Scout Lookout and Angels Landing, wading through the Narrows, exploring Belly of the Dragon, playing on the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, scrambling up to (and down from) the Kanab Sand Caves, viewing Bryce Canyon at sunrise, and wandering through Snow Canyon.
With winter quickly approaching, I was glad to be able to get in one last backpacking trip before the snow flies in Lake Tahoe. Temperatures are already pretty chilly in the Sierra, so we headed to Point Reyes National Seashore. Point Reyes is a beautiful stretch of protected land approximately 1 hour north of San Francisco. The beaches are pristine, the bluffs impressive, and the views extensive. It is definitely a beautiful place to visit whether you are backpacking or just exploring for a day. We were also blessed to experience beautiful weather for mid-November.
Guess what?! On August 17, 2019, Brian and I did a thing! We got married! After getting engaged on Mt. Whitney last summer and a year of planning, we had the most amazing wedding in Crystal Cove, CA. I’ll write another post on that after I have wedding pictures, but in the meantime, I have to share how amazing our honeymoon was in Fiji!
The Sierra Nevada mountains have always had piece of my heart… and now, more than ever. Since I was a child, I’ve called these majestic mountains home. I grew up in Lake Tahoe, nestled in the northern part of the Sierra Nevada range. I’ve covered countless trails, explored many peaks, and camped under the stars. However, it wasn’t until I hiked the High Sierra Trail (HST) that I truly had an appreciation for everything that makes these mountains so magical. Not to mention, I promised the love of my life my hand in marriage from the top of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney, at the end of our trip!
Last weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to explore Yosemite with Brian and a few of our friends. I had driven through Yosemite before, but had never hiked here, which was something truly humbling. We hiked the Half Dome trail, which was about 15 miles with 4,000 feet of vertical gain. The trail climbs past Vernal and Nevada Falls, meanders past the beautiful Merced river, and then makes the final ascent toward Half Dome. It was definitely one of the most demanding hikes I have ever done.
I’m still on a high from my backpacking trip on the Lost Coast Trail this past week. You can read about that adventure here. One of the things that I didn’t include in my original post is what I ate, but it is definitely not something to be overlooked. Finding delicious ways to stay fueled on the trail can be tricky, but with a simple dehydrator, you can make some awesome recipes, like the one below.
The Lost Coast Trail stretches a rugged section of the Northern California coastline where the redwoods meet the sea. It begins at the mouth of the Mattole River and travels south to Usal Beach. There are two sections of the trail. The north section is 25 miles and follows the beach from the Mattole trailhead to Black Sands Beach. The south section begins at Hidden Valley and travels 29 miles south atop the ocean cliffs and redwood forests. This past week, I had the opportunity to backpack the northern section with one of my closest girlfriends. What follows is a video of our trip and a written summary with some tips and learnings from our journey.
For the longest time I have dreamed of exploring the Oregon coast and Redwood National Park in Northern California. This past weekend, we made a quick trip, but were sure to get in every ounce of adventure we could in the short amount of time we had. We were also able to get in a precious visit with one of my longest and closest friends who just had a baby. Below are some of the highlights from our trip. I can’t wait to go back!
There’s no better compliment from Brian than, “this is blog worthy,” when I am experimenting with a new recipe. The inspiration for this recipe originally came from a Cooking Light email that landed in my inbox, but there was one thing wrong. It called for an InstaPot. I haven’t quite jumped on the InstaPot bandwagon yet, but this recipe still sounded like I needed to give it a try. It was a cold winter night and I needed a fiesta in my mouth!
Have you ever stuck your hand out with a few seeds on it, only to have a cute little chickadee land on your fingers and pluck that morsel off of your palm? No? If this sounds fun and you want to channel your inner Snow White, Chickadee Ridge is your place to go for an experience like no other.
Whenever I try to follow a paleo lifestyle, or at least reduce the amount of inflammatory grains in my diet from things like bread, pasta, and rice, I always turn to sweet potatoes. They are so satisfying, provide a wonderful source of carbs, and are full of nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, manganese, copper, potassium, and much, much more. Here’s a few of my favorite sweet potato recipes I’ve made over the years:
It’s that time of year again. The time of year where it seems like every person who has a blog or social media presence is posting about one of two things: 1) a review of the previous year, or 2) what their goals are for the coming year. While cliche, I do think that reflection and goal-setting are an important part of personal development. I also believe that there is something to be said about making those things public. If you’ve announced the ways you plan to grow and develop to the entire world, you’re that much more likely to do it, right? It’s worth a try.
I can’t believe it. My little girl turned 11 today. Over the past 11 years, she has taught me patience and responsibility, but most importantly, unconditional love. Roxanne has been by my side through ups and downs, and always, always, loves me no matter what. There really is something to be said about the loyalty and comfort that dogs can provide.
Over the past year, we’ve really started experimenting with new recipes in our cast iron dutch oven every time we go camping. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into at first, but I have come to absolutely love it. It’s probably because I just put the stuff in the dutch oven and then Brian does all the hard work—moving it around, putting coals on top, making sure it is the right temperature—but between the two of us, I think we have a pretty good thing going.
I can’t believe it’s taken me two months to write about my awesome trip to Kauai, but better late than never? This was my fourth (or fifth??) time visiting this amazing island and it did not disappoint.
If you’ve ever heard the term “island time,” you know it refers to a slower than average pace. Like a really slow pace. I only wish that vacation went by in “island time” speed. Instead, it seems more like time is on steroids and goes by way too fast. There is just never enough of it. We definitely made the best of our time though and I’ve put together all the highlights of each day.
If there is one place I can never get enough of in the Lake Tahoe area, it is Desolation Wilderness. The 63,000 acre area with endless trail systems and lakes has a solid permit system that keeps it from being overcrowded. Although this sometimes works to your disadvantage if you can’t secure a permit, it is worth the solitude. Every time I go, it is a different experience with memories to cherish for a lifetime. This past weekend with Brian and our fur babies was no different.