Opt for outside: Backpacking the Red Peak Trail in Desolation Wilderness

Skylar Schoemig/Staff

When was the last time you did something for the first time? Take a trip out of your comfort zone and embrace the tranquility that getting lost in nature provides. Allow Desolation Wilderness to empower you to leap into the unknown and explore the beauty of the backcountry.

From Berkeley, take Interstate 80 up to Sacramento, and then take Highway 50 to Ice House Road. Follow Ice House Road for 40 minutes, and you’ll pass a turnoff for Van Vleck Bunkhouse on Tells Creek Road. Follow this bumpy road all the way to the end, and you’ll arrive at the backpacking parking lot. If you arrive at night, you can pitch a tent next to your car and relax under the moonlight until the next day. Reserve permits for Van Vleck Trailhead to Lake No. 3 on the Desolation Wilderness website. 

From Van Vleck to Lake No. 3, there are two routes. If you’re looking for a more straightforward, uncomplicated thoroughfare, start your adventure eastbound along the Red Peak Trail. This trail is marked, is frequented by locals and backpackers, and is a straight shot to your final destination: Lake No. 3. We unintentionally took the strenuous and generally unvisited Bassi Falls Trailhead. If you’re up for a lively quest, take the Bassi trail southbound from Tells Creek Equestrian Camp — as shown by the green line on the map. This trail ended up adding 4 miles of much-appreciated solitude and scenery to our original agenda. The spectacles and riverscape along the Bassi trail are spectacular, undisturbed and entirely worth the extra mileage. My group walked away from the trip immensely appreciative that we stumbled upon this trail. 

Along the Bassi trail, there are regular piles of rocks stacked in groups of three or more. These piles of rocks serve as trail indicators from prior backpackers and are known as “ducks.” Follow the ducks, breathe in the fresh air and embrace the stillness that encompasses the surrounding environment!

The charm that comes with the Bassi trail is twofold. The trail is very sparsely traveled and provides a magical experience. But because of its infrequent use, many parts of the trail are not well maintained and are physically demanding. At some points along this trail, you’ll have to maneuver your way through areas of dense vegetation. You must rely on your compass, a map and the sounds of the river. Because the trail follows various winding rivers the entire way, it’s very easy to locate your position on the map and continue forward, even if you find yourself off the main path.

After about 6 miles, the Bassi trail links up with the Red Peak Trail. Link arms with your buddies, and take plenty of photos. Just 4.7 miles to go!

Along the way, there are many pockets of lovely landscape that are easily missed behind the vast evergreens. Take it slow, and capture the beautiful surroundings. Shortly after you hit the Red Peak Trail sign, the evergreens slightly open up on your right to an expansive body of pristine mountain runoff. Don’t resist the urge to set down your backpack, and dive in!

As you continue along the Red Peak Trail, the surroundings become increasingly gorgeous. You’ll pass through meadow after meadow and woodland after woodland. You may trudge across glistening snow that remains from winter. Make sure you bring lots of bug spray! The mosquitoes are everywhere.

You’ll also cross a multitude of rivers. The glacial water allows you to refill your water bottle with icy, refreshing liquid. Be sure to bring a water purifier or iodine tablets; it’s good practice to purify drinking water, even if the water appears pure.

The last portion of the Red Peak Trail is quite challenging. Push through, and continue up the final slab of rock. You’ll discover panoramic views of the Desolation Wilderness mountain range and Lake Tahoe!

Follow the trail all the way up to Lake No. 3, and allow yourself to become hypnotized by the magnificent views. Relax for the rest of the evening. Refill water bottles, eat some food to re-energize yourself, set up camp, play some cards and welcome the breathtaking setting. Don’t let the snow and ice stop you from diving into the glassy lake. Attempt the polar-bear plunge and embrace the frosty temperatures, but be sure to stay safe! Most importantly, take a breath, close your eyes and enjoy the wilderness. Time spent in the outdoors is precious. Opt for the outdoors, and let natures beauty manifest through your whole being.

Contact Skylar Schoemig at [email protected].