Middle Velma Lake

Aug 23, 2015

In mid June (2015), my friend Paulo and I did an overnighter to Middle Velma Lake in the Desolation Wilderness. We chose this hike for its relatively short length (13 miles), renowned scenery and doable drive from SF. This guide summarizes most of what we did (except at step 13 we just went back the way we came to the Bayview trailhead.)

The route was a semi-loop, somewhat resembling a badminton racket, with a hike to and from a small loop. Middle Velma (our home for the night) is only 6 or so miles from the Bayview trailhead (just south of Emerald Bay) and we got to see a bunch of lakes from the trail. We did the hike Sunday to Monday so we didn’t have to compete with weekend crowds for a campsite. We did however, have to compete with them to get to the trailhead! I always forget just how busy Tahoe gets on the weekend.

One important logistical thing to note about Desolation - you have to get a permit to camp at whichever lake you’re staying at. Get them online here. While this does give you less freedom to make decisions on the trail, I see why this is necessary to make sure the lakes don’t get overrun by too many visitors. We also brought a bear can with us as I’d heard that the bears here are quite good at retrieving bear bags and I am by no means good at hanging them!

Day 1

We weren’t able to get to the trailhead until the mid afternoon on Sunday as my girlfriend Tamanna was leaving for New York and my housemate Toby was running the SF marathon that morning! After waving Tamanna off and watching Toby triumphantly run past us on mile 24 of his marathon, singing Bon Jovi’s ‘Living On A Prayer’ at the top his lungs, we set off towards Tahoe. At least we tried to…the car we initially rented was parked quite literally on the marathon route! After a phone call and a rush across town to retrieve a different car, we got on our way.

After fighting our way through the Tahoe traffic, we finally got to the trailhead. The main reason for the delay seemed to be pedestrians crossing the road to get ice cream. This reminded me why I normally try to avoid Tahoe when seeking isolation!

Lake Tahoe

The first two miles are a steep climb, but after this, no significant ascension remains. Make sure to keep an eye out for great views of Lake Tahoe on the way up (see above). On a steep climb I often focus on the trail and forget to look around. Once the you reach the top, an amazing view awaits you; Lake Tahoe on one side and Desolation Wilderness on the other.

Top Of The Climb

After this, we followed the trail to the first signposted junction of the route. Taking a right leads down to the northern side Emerald Bay. We took a left to head towards the Velma lakes. Shortly thereafter, we came across Upper Velma lake. It was really picturesque with the sun nicely catching a small meadow on the trail side of the lake. With the sun already getting quite low in the sky, we didn’t have much time to stop so we pressed on to Middle Velma.

Upper Velma Lake

Soon enough, we reached Middle Velma Lake. We found a nice site on the eastern side of the lake and set up camp. After a very satisfying freeze dried meal of something that vaguely resembled Pad Thai, we chilled and watched the sunset. There were no clouds in the sky, so it wasn’t the most theatrical of twilight hours, but such times in the mountains never fail to clear my head.

Sunset at Middle Velma Lake

Like most people (I think), I have worries constantly swilling around my head. What should I be doing with my life? Am I living selfishly? Why am I living on the other side of the world to my family?!

However, when I’m out in the wild watching the sun go down and the stars come out while listening to the sound of a lake washing against its shores, these concerns are lifted and I’m left entirely calm. I’m not sure if the calmness is justified but the feeling is one that I crave nevertheless.

It’s hard to say what causes this sudden change of state. Maybe it’s the perspective that landscapes can place on your life, or the chance to step back from the day-to-day or even something on an entirely biological level. I suppose in a way, the wilderness is like a drug to me. It changes my state of mind and I don’t know why. Even though I travel a long way to reach these special places, they take me somewhere further.

Wow, that was cheesy. Many apologies and thanks for indulging me.

Day 2

After a somewhat restless night we emerged from our tent to a perfectly still morning. The lake had that wonderful mirror-like quality that unimaginative photographers like me dream of. With only 8 miles left, we took our time packing and fueling up for the day and broke camp around 9 am.

Morning at Middle Velma Lake

We headed back to the junction on the main trail where we turned off towards Middle Velma the evening before. Here we turned right and headed up towards Fontanillis Lake. There were a few hundred feet to go up to the lake which we weren’t expecting. I guess we needed to wake up our legs anyway! Fontanillis is a very open lake with dramatic scenery, though it didn’t look like there were a whole lot campsites around it.

Paulo At Fontanillis Lake

Next up was Dicks Lake. After a few forgettable teenage jokes near its signpost, we headed to the lake and took a break. This lake is in a great setting surrounded by steep peaks and passes. It’s much bigger than the other lakes on the this route and would be great place to swim. We decided not to as it was quite early in the day and we still felt the occasional cold, morning breeze. Instead we elected to wait until we reached Granite Lake which we saw about a third of a way up on the initial climb the day before.

Dicks Lake

Once we completed the loop we started heading back. The only things of note on the return journey were having our permits checked by a ranger (something that hasn’t happened to me on the trail before) and a rather bracing dip in Granite Lake. You can see me trying to feign comfort below.

Me In Granite Lake

Overall this was a relaxing and really scenic overnighter. Highly recommended as a getaway from the Bay Area, though I’d recommend avoiding the weekend if possible.