The Desolation Wilderness Mindset

It's incredible how far your body can take you in the wilderness and it's even more incredible how clear life gets when you're out there.

By: Morgan Woodhouse + Save to a List

Backpacking has become somewhat of a meditation for me. Driving out of the chaotic city of San Francisco before the sun has risen, parking the car and carrying nothing but a backpack into the woods- it has become a moment of clarity and a refresh button.

Desolation Wilderness is one of those places that still seems untouched. It has an air about it that is undiscovered and full of wonder. The charm comes from its enchanting lakes, smooth granite surfaces and flowery, green meadows. It has a little bit of everything. It's well populated, but controlled by permit regulations.

One Saturday in August, my fiancé and I made the 3 hour drive to Echo Lakes where our trail began. We were attempting a 40 mile loop in 2 days and I don't mean to sound conceded or overly confident, but I was not worried about my physical ability at all. I am by no means the strongest person in the room or the most in shape, but when I am in the wilderness with a 50 pound pack on my back, I am incredibly perseverant and my strength is overpowering. Out in the woods, my body is strong and feels light of life pressures. The nagging injuries or pains seem to slip away as I walk down the trail, up the switchbacks, over the scree. I'm not scared of not being able to finish, I have full confidence. On the trail, I think of myself highly and appreciate how much I can do. I nourish my body and rest it, but I keep pushing forward. I wish I could say I encompassed this same attitude towards myself in the rest of my life, but it is not the same. The wilderness brings this out of me. So as we started our initial assent out of the small valley and past Lower Echo Lake, the sky was a perfect blue, my mind cleared and my legs sank into forward movement- over rocks, around streams and past whatever lay in the way.


We always start the day early, warming up with the sun. Stopping occasionally for favorite trail snacks such as salted mixed nuts or EPIC jerky bars. As our bodies warmed up, so did the conversation. As we walk, random memories surface. I remember moments from childhood, a joke my dad told 5 years ago, or think about how I want to spend my birthday this year. After my mind has warmed up and I realize that stress has no place here, we tend to dive into deeper topics, maybe talking through problems at work or dreams we have always had. Nature is a wonderful sounding board. It makes you approach problems from a different angle and it doesn't judge you. Most of my life I count down the hours in the day- until lunch, until yoga, until happy hour, until my trip home. But out there, I just walk.

Around noon we our first glimpses of Lake Aloha which is the most beautiful wilderness lake that exists in my opinion. It spills over the horizon, a majestic blue surrounded by mountains and trees, and is breathtakingly still. Sitting on a rock and taking out our tortilla wraps, dried salami and peanut butter, we perched in the sun while ferociously shoveling salty calories into our mouths. Giving our feet a much needed break from our dirty hiking boots by slowly peeling off our socks and dipping our toes into the refreshing water. Not everyone can see this view, it takes effort and desire to be in the presence of Lake Aloha. Knowing we could just be there, on that warm rock, for how ever long we wanted was enough to shed my darkest worries. 

Slowly putting our boots back on, we packed up and carried on. Navigating through the trails we made our way up even higher, up to Dick's Pass. As I began the slow march up I began to realize how walking uphill is one of the most contradicting feelings my body faces. It is being strained, pushed, always somewhat uncomfortable and often negative thoughts flood my mind. But I honestly love it. I love the burn in my lungs and my legs and I love putting in the work to have a spectacular view. Coming to the top, breathing heavily, sweat glistening on my forehead, that moment of stopping and staring. Of knowing what you accomplished. Of knowing there are many more like that to come and in every direction there are new colors, mountain peaks, sparkling lakes and wildflowers. After taking a 10 minute rest to reward ourselves with peanut butter m&ms, we pushed on.

The sun began to set as we reached mile 20 for the day. Sure, my body was tired, but not more than normal. I felt energized by this land. By these views. We passed Dick's Lake shimmering beyond the trees but made our way half a mile further to a smaller, lesser known lake called Fontanillis Lake. Dropping our packs we found a perfect place for our little orange tent. That moment is a low-key highlight of backpacking. Finding the perfect piece of flat land, slowly peeling the heavy pack from your sore back and letting it sink into the ground. Dropping to whatever is the best makeshift chair you can find and just sitting. It's truly incredible. Body pulsing after 20 miles. Sun setting beyond distant peaks, we were even able to see Lake Tahoe far in the distance from our tent site. It truly was incredible. After about 5 minutes of deep breathes and silence, we moved into our camp routine- setting up the tent, fetching water and changing into cozier, clean clothes. It was a crisp summer night as we boiled water to make our delicious dehydrated beef stroganoff pasta dinners. 

Bellies full, we climbed into our cozy tent just as the sun was setting. It's never the most comfortable, but it is consistently supports us in whatever wilderness we are falling asleep in. The tent takes us in, letting us sleep peacefully while the wilderness moves around outside its walls.


Awaking in the darkness has become our norm. I slowly crawl out of the warm tent, excited for the day but never getting used to when the morning air first hits your body, sending a chill down my spine. The key is to get moving right away. Taking down the tent and boiling water for coffee is our first step. Sipping our fancy instant Starbucks coffee we stood as Desolation Wilderness became illuminated by the day.

Packing everything up, we were on our way. It's always sad leaving a campsite and knowing you very well may never see it again. But I guess that's the beauty in it- you move on knowing there are many more yet to be discovered. The day was crisp but not more than 3 miles into our 20 mile return trip, we were hit by the most devastating backpacking element that exists: Mosquitos. They came out of nowhere, surrounding us. Moving quickly was fine, but stopping for a second caused them to land and start biting instantly. It's safe to say we jogged the next 6 miles of our trip, lashing out blindly at the air- part laughing at the insanity of it all and part crying at how unbearable it was. Honestly, it was all a blur. We moved quickly and 2 hours later we had left them behind. Panting and giggling at the ridiculousness of how miserable our lives had been no more than 20 minutes ago.

Having made good time in the morning, we had earned a little break as we approached Lake Aloha yet again. Jumping in, the cold water washed away the dirt from the last 36 hours and replenished my muscles. Sitting on the waters edge we had our second round of tortilla, salami and peanut butter- and yes, it tasted just as good, if not better. Moving on, we began our descent into the final stretch, past Upper Echo Lake and onto Lower Echo. My body was aching, but my mind felt fully calmed and a subtle smile was spread on my face as we wandered back to our entry point. My skin was itching from various mosquito bites, my feet burning with multiple blisters, but my body did not stop. As we rounded mile 40, we saw civilization again. The last push is always hard. Even if you can see the end, even if you know what to expect. It's hard because you just want to be done, but even harder because you know it will be over soon. 40 miles may seem like a long time, but went by in the blink of an eye.

As we made our way into the parking lot, our bodies were pulsing and ready for our post hike treat. 5 minutes later we sat in the grass, lemon lime gatorade in one hand, chocolate chip cookie in the other. It's always satisfying to complete a backpacking trip. Memories already beginning to form, such as how funny it had been when we were attacked by mosquitos, or the solo hiker we met completing the PCT on her own. Each trip has its purpose and yet again, our bodies had carried us far and our minds had been cleared of worry.

As we slowly got up and left Echo Lake behind, I knew we would be back. I was thankful because every time I go back into my normal life I realize how lucky I am to have the wilderness. I feel so lucky after a backpacking trip because I know how strong I am and I have found something that gives me this much gratitude.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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