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Mt. Tallac from Lily Lake

Desolation Wilderness

Mount Tallac Hike Links:

August 22nd, 1999

11.6 miles
3330 vertical feet
Total Time: 9:06

Rating: 9/10

Directions:   View Driving Map

Jean, Jennie, Leslie, Nancy, Reza, and I hiked in the Desolation Wilderness.

We started our journey by driving on Fallen Leaf Road, adjacent to Fallen Leaf Lake. The road is narrow and bumpy, better suited to SUVs than the cars we were driving. But eventually we passed the marina and turned left toward Lily Lake, the starting point of our hike.

The Desolation Wilderness is a very popular place for hikers and backpackers, and the parking lot was filled with cars. We found parking spots near the bathrooms and prepared for our hike under sunny skies. Nancy had checked the weather forecast earlier, and it had called for thunderstorms today. However, the latest forecast she'd seen hadn't forecast thunderstorms. So we were hopeful. For now, it was sunny with a few small innocent looking high, white clouds.

After signing in, we started our hike a little after 8:30am. Our first steps? Back the way we drove up. I'd wanted to do a loop hike, and the only way to do this involved walking on pavement. We walked back down the road, stopping at an overlook of Fallen Leaf Falls -- a nice cascading waterfall which eventually flows into Fallen Leaf Lake.

Fallen Leaf Falls

At the fork in the road we turned left. This brought us to and through the Stanfurd Sierra Camp (boo! hiss!). A couple of older men were playing tennis right next to the lake, one of them wearing a shirt with a big red S. We started a GO...BEARS! yell while walking past them.

Resisting the temptation of vandalism, we walked through the camp and to the parking lot at the end. From there, we took the unmarked trail (well, it's marked "Trail") that follows the western shore of Fallen Leaf Lake north. The trail is very rocky and is relatively slow going. But it's only three tenths of a mile, and we soon took the left fork up and away from the lake shore.

Jean walking along the trail adjacent to Fallen Leaf Lake

This part of trail is even worse, though. The vegetation here consists of bushes threatening to reclaim the trail. It's not nearly as bad as some other trails (such as the Carmel River Trail in the Ventana Wilderness), but it was still frustrating. Especially since Reza, Jennie, and I had ascended Mt. Tallac before via a somewhat different route, and hadn't had the same problem.

Still, as we headed up the trail and it curved westward, the views started to open up. Soon we could see the southern end of Lake Tahoe, in addition to the whole of Fallen Leaf Lake. Despite the views, the bushes were getting annoying and the forest was a welcome relief. After a break under the trees, we came to the trail we'd taken two years earlier and turned left.

Next up on the trail was Cathedral Lake. It would be a great place to filter water, but we all had plenty at this point. Our plan was to go back a different way, via Gilmore Lake, so I figured I could filter water there if necessary. Instead, we stopped at Cathedral Lake for a few minutes to reapply sunscreen and then continued on our way.

Reza in front of Cathedral Lake

The trail crosses a small creek with lots of wildflowers on either side. The trail started looking familiar to Jennie, Reza, and me. We passed by a large rock outcropping. Around this time we stopped for a break. Leslie revealed that she'd broken her sunglasses -- snapped them right on the nose bridge. Walking around at elevation without eye protection is a bad thing, so we fixed up her glasses by taping them with some first aid tape.


Once through the trees we found ourselves staring at a large bowl which can be considered the crux of the climb -- switchbacks lead the way up to the ridge. From there, it's a gradual ascent to the to. There seemed to be more snow near the top of the bowl, but in different locations. Whereas there was snow very close to the trail two years ago (we had a snowball fight), there was none close to the trail this time.

The switchbacks are nothing compared to the 99 switchbacks on Mt. Whitney. They are, to be sure, steeper (which isn't really saying much). But there are only a handful. Soon we were standing on the ridge, a grand view of Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake below us. Unfortunately, the meadow at the top wasn't as green as it had been the previous time we'd hiked it.

View from the top of the switchbacks (Lake Tahoe at left)

From here the trail climbs gradually through open forest. Near the top is a trail intersection. To the left is the trail we'd be taking going down via Gilmore Lake. To the right is the trail to the summit. After a few steps the views opened up dramatically, until we were standing on the edge of a precipice, looking down at almost all of Lake Tahoe, over 3000 feet below us. To our right was Fallen Leaf Lake. This was reason enough to do this hike, but the views from the top are even better.

Rock cairn at the meadows. This definitely wasn't here two years ago.

View from just near the top

After a brief rock scramble, Jean and I reached the top. Nancy and Jennie were already there, and Leslie and Reza were on their way. It was now about 2pm. The clouds had started to move in by now. But nothing as threatening-looking as the clouds above Mt. Dana when we'd climbed it.

Jean standing on the summit

I took out my chair, CD player, and headphones, and carefully inserted my Sarah McLachlan - Mirrorball CD. I'd been looking forward to this. I skipped to track #2 and a huge smile grew on my face as I listened to the crowd roar and the sounds of "Hold On" started to play, the gorgeous view of Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake in front of me. Hearing that song on headphones is enjoyable enough as it is, but with the view, too, it was amazing. I'd love to just stay at the top and play the entire album. But I knew others would want to listen to the CD's they'd brought up, so I stepped aside after just one song. Leslie listened to "Do What You Have To Do", Jean listened to "Angel", and Nancy listened to her Yo-Yo Ma CD.

Leslie enjoying the sounds of Sarah McLachlan

We ate, enjoyed the view, took pictures, and congratulated one another. But then someone else at the top said they saw lightning in the distance. And we noticed the clouds were moving in. And then I felt a drop. It was time to leave.

Lake Tahoe from the summit

Much as we hated to leave such a beautiful place, we knew the risk was too great. Somehow, those innocent-looking clouds had turned into menacing dark clouds. It was clearly raining on a distant range of mountains to the east. 9,735 feet is not a good place to be during a thunderstorm, so we packed up our stuff and started heading back down. It was about 2:40pm.

Gilmore Lake

Starting our descent with storm clouds in the distance

At the trail intersection we continued on down toward Gilmore Lake. This part of the hike could be quite beautiful, as there are lots of wildflowers. But, unfortunately, we couldn't enjoy it much because the skies started to open up and it started to rain. And rain. And then we could start to hear the thunder and lightning closer at hand.

Within minutes the remaining blue sky had been swallowed up whole and the clouds unleashed their fury on us. I've never seen it all happen so quickly. In contrast, on Mt. Dana, we could see the clouds coming the whole time and knew the timeline. While the storm on Mt. Tallac didn't happen without any warning, the storm seemed to develop so swiftly that we hardly had time to react. I paused just briefly enough to put my jacket on. I didn't bother stopping to get my poncho out to cover my pack. We all just wanted to get down, down, down.

We raced down the slopes of Mt. Tallac at a record pace. Even after descending a fair bit, we still weren't safe. The trees didn't provide enough cover, leaving us still fairly exposed. I knew it would be safer to find a denser forest, preferably away from bodies of water. Unfortunately the trail would take us directly to Gilmore Lake. Disconcertingly, we could see lightning in that direction, most likely in the range of nearly 10,000-foot peaks Mt. Price, Mt. Agassiz, and Pyramid Peak, on the opposite side of Lake Aloha.

Although it could have been closer. The shortest interval between lightning and thunder that we witnessed was 3 seconds. This would put the distance at about 3/5 of a mile! Which is too close for comfort if you ask me. Besides, if you can actually hear thunder, then the next strike could be you. Thunder can only be heard for about 3-4 miles, and successive strikes can be that far apart.

At the time, I thought 3 seconds meant 3 miles. And I didn't realize that even 3 miles wasn't far enough. But still, we were all sufficiently motivated to keep moving toward lower ground. It hailed briefly and continued to rain. It was a very long thunderstorm -- lightning struck off and on for about 2 hours. Very different from the 15-minute outburst at Mt. Dana.

We saw some people along the trail who were trying to wait it out -- people next to lakes and underneath isolated trees. I didn't feel all that safe walking around, but I knew that what they were doing wasn't a good idea, either.

Eventually we reached an elevation where the forest became denser and there were more bushes, and we weren't so exposed. I felt much better then. Still, even after the thunder and lightning stopped, the rain continued off and on until the end of the hike.

The storm finally shows signs of weakening

Past Gilmore Lake the trail has periodic wooden steps. We stopped here so that Leslie could apply moleskin to her feet. Reza decided to endure his own foot pain and do without moleskin.

Near the end of our descent we spotted a parked car. And a building. Then I knew we must be on the private property that the hike goes through. The "trail" now consisted of a rocky road -- one I wouldn't want to drive my car on, and one I didn't enjoy walking on. It was a sea of rocks, each roughly bigger than a golf ball but smaller than a baseball. The trail was flat, and we knew we were relatively close to the end, but the rocks were so unpleasant it seemed like an eternity before Nancy shouted out when she saw her car in the parking lot.

After 9 hours (and less than 3 hours on the descent), we'd made it back alive. As we cleaned up after the hike, the sky turned blue and three birds flew by in formation, low in the sky and squawking. The storm had passed, and by nightfall the sky would be completely clear.

Lessons learned? Well, first of all I've now purchased a weather radio. At dinner we found out that there'd been an extreme thunderstorm warning. I don't know when it was announced, but the radio might have warned us and we might have started our descent sooner. Whether that would have done any good, however, is debatable, since we would have no doubt still been outside when the storm hit, albeit a little closer to our cars.

Thunderstorms generally happen in the afternoon in the Sierras. I base this both on things I've read and on personal experience. This means that getting off the summit by early afternoon is the best course of action. The sooner the better. This means an earlier start in the morning. 8:30am is relatively early, but earlier is better. I'd prefer an earlier start for any high-altitude Sierra hike -- 7-8am, or earlier if agreeable. Besides, hiking in the early morning is actually quite nice.

All the planning in the world can't guarantee not getting caught in a thunderstorm. Especially on a backpacking trip. So it behooves anyone who hikes in the Sierras to know what to do in a thunderstorm, and to know CPR just in case. Many people survive lightning strikes if CPR is administered. I'll be reading up some more and putting more lightning information on my hiking web page.

Now, for a completely different subject.

I plan to return to Mt. Tallac, perhaps 2 years from now. Perhaps I'll make it a regular hike. It's the only major hike I've done more than once, and there's a reason -- the view from the top. After all the hiking I've done since the last time I hiked Mt. Tallac, the view from the top remains my favorite. And that's saying something considering I've now done 88 hikes covering 662 miles.

So Mt. Tallac is definitely a great hike. But is it my favorite? I would have to say no. First of all, the rocks at the end of this hike were atrocious -- enough to make me not want to do that trail again. I'd prefer the original route we took two years ago. But that has rocks on the way down, too. Still, even without the rocks, I wouldn't consider it my favorite hike. Some of the intermediate views are nice, but really, for me, the whole reason to do this hike is the view from the top.

My favorite hike? So far, it's got to be Alta Peak in Sequoia National Park. The view from the top isn't quite as good as from Mt. Tallac, but it's still very good. The thing that makes Alta Peak such a great hike is that it's great from start to finish. It's got more than just a view from the top. If it was just that, it'd be rather depressing, since it's a 6.9 mile hike just to get to the top. But it's much more, providing several intermediate views, all worthy of contemplation. Along with Mt. Tallac, it's one of the few long hikes I would do again.

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