Night Hiking the Desolation Wilderness

The most stressful part about any trip out of San Francisco in the summer is the actually getting out part. Coordinating a bunch of low-rung employees’ early escape from the office on Friday afternoon is never as easy as it seems. More often than not, the plan to leave at 2:00 p.m. turns to 4:00 p.m. and then, before you know it, it’s 5:30 p.m. and you’re stuck on the Bay Bridge in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

To avoid that inevitable stress, my friends and I took to a new plan when heading out for the weekend: avoid weekend traffic all together and leave in the late evening, a decision that comes with a whole new set of excitements and uncertainties, but luckily no traffic.

It was in that mindset that I pulled into the Lower Echo Lake parking lot just south of Lake Tahoe, normally a 3ish-hour drive from the city, but throw in the obligatory stop at In-n-Out and a late night gas station coffee run, we pulled in around 11:30 p.m.

Echo Lake is part of the Desolation Wilderness, which we learned is the most highly trafficked wilderness area in the United States according to the sign at the trailhead directing us towards Lake Aloha, our final destination.

Before you go: permits are required year-round for both day and overnight use. For five people, one night is $25.

We started hiking off into the night, trudging along what was sure to be an epic pathway on our way back down a day from then. It was a short trip for sure, but we had a friend visiting for the weekend and wanted to give him the complete Northern California experience in his few days here. Under a little moonlight, we carefully made our way over the varied terrain, stopping to fuel-up and de-layer a few times, following our progress on Google Maps (our GPS still kind of worked).

After however many hours, we made it to what appeared to be the lake: pockets, creases and fingers of water interlacing its way through the nightscape. The moon, softly reflecting off of the splintery slivers of water around us, flickered our cranky bodies to sleep, too tired to count the stars or the hours it took us to get there.

The best part of these late-night departures is the moment right when you wake that same morning, blinded by a virgin wilderness and a listless, fume-fuel energy to explore where the night had left you. When I awoke in the Desolation Wilderness, I was surrounded by pockets of alpine water on all sides, shimmering as it whisked its way through a truly unique granite landscape. There it was: Lake Aloha, like no place I have ever seen before.

Shy a few eager hikers and fellow night crawlers like ourselves, the morning was ours to make of it. As our pupils dilated, we pieced our way through the remaining rugged and serene wilderness.

After a few hours of exploring, we collected ourselves and began to file our way down the direction we came just about 15 hours earlier, crossing over familiar patches of soil and across sweeping vistas we could only now see.

We ended up making it back to the East Bay by the early evening (with another stop at In-n-Out, of course). In under 24 hours, we had driven six hours, hiked 12 miles and eaten two protein-style burgers. Is night hiking the most practical way to adventure? Probably not. But when you have limited “sick days” and a short-temper for weekend warrior traffic, it definitely allows you to pack the most into your weekend. Plus, there’s just something about arriving in a new place in the complete darkness and waking up to a whole new world come daylight.

Julie Kukral is a writer and creative currently based out of Chicago, with roots in Connecticut, Colorado and California. You can follow her adventures on Instagram.

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