Desolation Wilderness: An attempt of Pyramid Peak

We set out to climb an impressive mark in the Sierra Nevada, specifically the Crystal Range, just to the west of Lake Tahoe: Pyramid Peak, the tallest point in the Desolation Wilderness, and a “must-do” hike according to other peak baggers around California. I had spent last weekend in Yosemite at Glacier Point, a peak standing at 7,214 ft., and had experienced a long, hot, grueling day that left me thirsty and with sunburns.

Now, Yosemite is just 2.5 hours south of Tahoe National Forest, so I imagined similar conditions on what I believed was a comparable hike. Furthermore, the Lyons Creek trailhead that leads to Pyramid Peak sits at 6,700 ft. and the top of the mountain reaches 9,983 ft., so I was braced for a challenging day hike – nothing more – and brought three friends along. I felt pretty prepared.

We can joke about it now; but we were absolutely, comically unprepared.

Driving up Wrights Lake Road, off of Highway 50, just before sunrise

Driving up Wrights Lake Road, off of Highway 50, just before sunrise

We left San Francisco at 4 a.m. and set out northeast. Only once we were winding up highway 50 towards Tahoe did we start seeing patches of snow, and when we finally caught our first glimpse of the mountains from the road, we all echoed the same thought: “Are those peaks… completely capped in snow?” We had not anticipated snow, at all.

I had to put my car into four-wheel drive heading up Wrights Lane Road, which takes you 4 miles off of highway 50 and straight to the Lyons Creek Trailhead, one of the more popular approaches up Pyramid Peak via the West Ridge route. We parked next to only one other car and set off in 1.5 to 2 ft. of snow around 6:45 a.m. I was the only one in the group wearing shoes that were not water resistant, and though my extra-tall gaiters helped guard snow from slipping inside of the tops of my boots, it did nothing for the soles, which were helplessly soggy all day long. All of our feet were soaked throughout the entire day, and at our turnaround spot two of the guys wrung out ounces and ounces of liquid from their sopping, sweaty socks. It was nasty.

We followed a set of tracks for the first two or three miles until they zig-zagged away from each other into different directions. We started following one, having to turn around after a quarter mile, and would follow the other until it doubled back and seemed to loop around to the original trail. Finally, Joey took the lead and started trail blazing into what we thought looked like the most obvious direction. Mind you, we did not have a map or a compass with us, we walked solely on instinct and with the intention to reach the clearing that we assumed must be so close.

Hiking through daybreak up the Lyons Creek Trail

Hiking through daybreak up the Lyons Creek Trail

That clearing was nowhere near as close as we thought it would be. Also, trail blazing is hard work. We were lifting our legs and dragging ourselves through almost 2 feet of untouched snow, reaching over trees and brush and rocks as we stumbled upon them. We did get validation that we were walking in the right direction each time we came across a cut log – those became one of our only signs that we were on the right path. Still, it was a tiresome and long process getting out of the main forest area.

When we finally reached the clearing that we’d been waiting hours to stumble upon, I realized that we had walked 7 miles that morning even though Sylvia Lake was supposed to have only been 4.7 miles from the trailhead. Part of that mileage would have come from turning around a handful of times, but I was worried that we might have been moving too far to the west, and missed a trail on the east, putting us even farther from the lake. A little after 10:30am, when we’d been walking for nearly 4 hours, we decided to camp out on a log to enjoy lunch, relax, and turn around. We left our sunny field spot at 11:30 and got back to the car by 2:00.

Our resting spot, with Pyramid Peak visible in the background.

Our resting spot, with Pyramid Peak visible in the background.

On the return, the streams we’d been hopping over (or in some cases, walked straight through) were rapidly expanding and quickening from the melting snow. The final two miles of our trip looked like an entirely different trail with the small tributaries that formed in the hours that had warmed us that morning.

Overall, it was a solid attempt. Everyone had high spirits and was eager to trek on through the less-than-ideal conditions. We all aided each other through the difficult snowy steps over logs and across streambeds, and most importantly, we’re all psyched to come back in a couple months once the snow has melted to give Pyramid Peak another shot.


  • Expected length: 11.4 miles
  • Actual length: 12.1 miles
  • Expected elevation gain: 3,300 ft
  • Actual elevation gain: 1,300 ft
  • Time: 7 hours
Panorama shot from Wrights Lake Road across the Desolation Wilderness

Panorama shot from Wrights Lake Road across the Desolation Wilderness

Glacier Point: Yosemite’s Panorama Trail


I had never been to Yosemite before, so I wanted to make my first time worth something. I didn’t have to research for long before I found dozens of reviews calling Yosemite’s Panorama Trail one of the most scenic and must-see of the park. The 8.5 mile trail was marked “challenging” on most websites, so I could think of no word other than “grueling” to describe the round-trip version of this trip I had conjured on my own.

GETTING THERE – 1:45 a.m.

My alarm was set for 1:45 a.m., and I was out the door by 2:00. This was a late Friday night/Saturday morning for San Francisco, so I wasn’t surprised to see a number of drivers out around the city. Once passing through Oakland, though, it was smooth sailing. Around 4:00 I hit highway 120, which I knew would take me all the way to the West gates of the park, so I stopped for gas, coffee, and donuts. It probably only took me a little over an hour to reach the entrance of the park, making a grand total of 3 hours from my start in SF. However, and I’m glad I had called the park ranger in advance for this tip, I drove for 1.25 hours within Yosemite before reaching my destination, Glacier Point. As she reminded me the day before, it’s a big, big park.

I reached the Glacier Point parking lot at 6:15, and enjoyed the dawn on the steps of the large stone amphitheater carved into the side of the hill, overlooking Yosemite’s granite walls and Half Dome at the center of it. The sun started peeking over the hills at 6:30, and I soaked in the rays like a smile for a couple of minutes before beginning my journey.

First 10 minutes of day break, descending the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point

First 10 minutes of day break, descending the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point


I opted to take the road less traveled for this trip. By beating the crowds with a sunrise start, I hiked for nearly 4.5 hours alone and uninterrupted. Since Glacier Point is around 25 miles and a couple thousand vertical feet outside of Yosemite Valley, it’s a much more popular afternoon destination for hikers than morning. So in this planning, I walked against the first crowds I encountered in the later morning coming up from the Valley, and again walked the opposite direction of hikers in the afternoon who were descending from Glacier Point. The direction and timing were perfect for a solo adventure, if not a completely delusional undertaking.


It’s counter-intuitive to begin a day hiking down the side of a mountain, rather than up it. In fact the early morning descending slope went against everything that my body was prepared for. That being said, it was a nice hike down, and a warm day even at 7:00 a.m.

Throughout the entire day, it was easy to stay on track. Each trail was clearly marked, and there were numerous intersections that allowed me to check my distance about every two miles. After the first 2.5 miles, I saw the large granite slabs that surround Illilouette Fall, and crossed a wooden footbridge to the only uphill section going this direction. Keeping my eyes peeled for the lookout spot I’d read so much about – and which makes this trail so unique – I soon saw the unmarked grey path in a little less than a mile. This path that veers to the left off of the main drag takes you to Panorama Point, which was hands-down the most beautiful view I saw all day.

Overlooking Panorama Point

Overlooking Panorama Point

I continued down the traditional Panorama hiking route, past Nevada Fall and Vernal Fall. The top of Nevada Fall offers another vantage point to look out across the park, and walking down the steep, crooked steps that parallel Vernal Fall gave me a cool break from the sun with its shadowed slopes and mist coming off from the waterfall. I read that these were two of the most impressive waterfalls in the park.

Now, note: The small stone steps that line Vernal Fall barely allow 2 bodies to pass through or past each other, so things get bottlenecked here pretty easily. But really, the only point that was inundated with crowds was once I reached the Valley floor, which was packed with people starting the hike up.

TURNAROUND – 10:30-10:50

The trail runs into road at the Happy Isles Trailhead, where I found a shuttle stop for the Valley’s free transportation. There was a snack stand that wasn’t open yet, so I began walking about a half mile to Curry Village hoping to find food. Alas, I did not, and sat on a boulder on the side of the road for a snack and a quick break before I started back up.


A mile past the Happy Isles Trailhead, the path splits left up the Mist Trail and right up the John Muir Trail. These are equidistant in length and meet back up in just about a mile, only difference is avoiding the slower hikers on the steep slopes of the Mist Trail. I did run into a couple of thru-hikers who were following the entire 221-mile John Muir Trail from Yosemite National Park to Mt. Whitney. They were pretty clean looking, so I had to imagine that they were following the traditional north-to-south route.

John Muir Trail to top of Nevada Fall

John Muir Trail to top of Nevada Fall

My time down and my time up were nearly identical, 4 hours either way. In the morning I had taken my time to venture off of the trail for the detours mentioned above (Panorama Point, Nevada Falls), and in the afternoon I had significantly slowed my pace and doubled my number of stops for rest and water. By the end of the day I had drunken almost all of the three liters I had brought with me.

END – 3:00

The last four miles of this trail were grueling, if not for the afternoon heat intensifying, but for the psychological torment of ending a day-long hike headed uphill, rather than down. But finally, over 19 miles and 6,100 elevation gain later, I made it to the top, much sweatier and more sunburnt than when I’d started.


  • 17 miles (with no detours) – 19.5 miles for me
  • Estimated 5,000 elevation gain
  • 8 hours