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Trans-Desolation Ski Tour

Touring along the Echo Ridge, against the backdrop of the Crystal Range

Across the Wilderness. One of the most rewarding tours in the Tahoe area is a trip across the Desolation Wilderness.  Passing over high ridges and through rugged lake basins, this trip is all about the gorgeous scenery.


This trip is best done as a 2-3 day tour.  Take more days if you want to go at a slower pace and/or bag some peaks along the way.  Because this is a point to point tour, you'll want to arrange a car shuttle or be extremely confident in your hitchhiking abilities. 

There are any number of variations on this trip, but the general idea is to ski from the southern end of the Desolation Wilderness, through the Lake Aloha basin and then out to a car stashed at Emerald Bay (or vice versa).  If you have an extra day, you can also ski up to the Sierra Club's Ludlow Hut at Richardson Lake and then out via McKinney Creek.  I'll describe a few options from south to north, and you can tailor this information to suit your desired trip.

Starting Points

The best places to start a trans-Desolation tour are either Ralston Peak, Echo Lakes or Echo Ridge.  The first two starting points are described in detail on the Ralston Peak page.  Basically, ski over Ralston Peak or over the Echo Lakes and aim for the Haypress Meadows area.  The Ralston Peak alternative is more direct, but involves substantially more climbing.  If you are up for some mellow ski touring, I recommend the Echo Lakes start.  If you want to burn some calories and make some turns en route, try the Ralston entry.  From Haypress Meadows, it's an easy jaunt NW over an 8,340' saddle to Lake Aloha. 

(photo by F. Hochsteadter:  Tele skiing on the south face of Jacks Peak). 

A compromise between the two alternatives described above is start your tour by skiing over Echo Ridge.  This is my favored approach:  It avoids the tedious flat slog across Echo Lakes, and the climb over Echo Ridge is not as demanding as Ralston Peak (the snow coverage is also generally better on the east side of Echo than on the south side of Ralston).  Climb up the east ridge of Echo Peak to the flat summit ridge (described on the Echo Peak page).  After tagging the summit of Echo Peak and enjoying the views, descend down the west side of the ridge and ski to the 8,160+' saddle between Echo Peak and Keith's Dome.  Contour around the south side of Keith's Dome, traversing above Haypress Meadows, and aim for Lake Aloha.

Adventurous types who are expert skiers (with full packs!) can also start this tour by skiing over Pyramid Peak.  To do so, climb the SE ridge and drop down either the east or north faces of the peak to the Lake Aloha area.  This option is described on the Pyramid Peak page.

Desolation Valley

Once you get to Lake Aloha, enjoy the views as you ski along the NE shore.  If you have some time,   At the end of the lake you have a bunch of options.  A few are discussed here in order of difficulty and adventure:

  • The standard route is to drop down to Heather and Susie Lakes (losing quite a bit of elevation), and then climb up towards Half Moon Lake below the south face of Dicks Peak.  From Half Moon Lake (a good camp spot), you ski over Dicks Pass to Dicks Lake, wrap around the north side of Peak 9,190', and ski out to Emerald Bay via Maggies saddle and Granite Lake.

(photo courtesy C. Gallardo:  descending Dicks Pass)

  • Another option is to climb up to "Janine Peak" (Peak 9,579' -- located just east of Dicks Pass) and ski down its steep NE chutes.  This will drop you down to Azure Lake.  From here, ski up to Maggies saddle and out to Emerald Bay.  Resist the temptation to drop down the Cascade Lake drainage -- the vegetation is thick down there, and the traverse above the west side of Cascade Lake is sketchy.

  • A more adventurous route for those who prefer ski mountaineering to ski touring is to ski over the east ridges of Jacks and Dicks Peaks.  This route crosses some steep terrain and should only be attempted when avalanche hazard is minimal. From the northeast end of Lake Aloha, drop down towards Heather Lake.  Don't ski all the way to the lake.  Rather, after about 1/8 mile hang a left and start climbing up the steep SE face of Jacks Peak, essentially following the inlet stream of Heather Lake.  You won't be able to see the summit until you reach a gap at around 9,000'.  From here, ski almost due north and aim for the 9,520+' saddle just east of Jacks Peak.  The north side of this saddle is steep and care should be taken finding a safe route down.  Descend about 350' to the flat bench below, and then traverse north along the 9,200' contour towards Dicks Peak (see photo above, taken from east ridge of Dicks Peak looking across to Jacks Peak).  If you have the time and the inclination, tag the summit of Dicks Peak; the views are simply outstanding.  Either way, you'll want to cross the east ridge of Dicks Peak at the 9,400' saddle just east of the summit.  From here, moderate slopes lead down a broad ramp to the west side of Dicks Lake.  Although higher, this saddle is far more gradual than Dicks Pass.  From Dicks Lake, skirt around the north side of Peak 9,190' and then ski out over Maggies saddle and Granite Lake.

Exiting to Emerald Bay

The best route to Emerald Bay from the Dicks Lake/Azure Lake areas is to ski over the pass in between the two Maggies Peaks ("Maggies Saddle"), and then past Granite Lake to the Bayview Trailhead along US 89.  This is pretty straightforward, but if you need it more beta can be found on the Dicks Peak page.

Along the east shore of Lake Aloha, staring up at Jacks Peak.  The Jacks-Dicks route follows the obvious snow ramp just left of center and crosses the flat ridge right of the summit (photo: E. Ongerth)

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