Solo Backpacking California’s High Sierra Wilderness

Out There Outdoors

By Chris Maccini

I don’t have a bucket list, per se, but there are a few things I’ve always wanted to do and some I’ve been afraid to try. Solo backpacking fits both bills. There’s a self-sufficiency about being alone, off the grid, miles from civilization that’s both exhilarating and terrifying.

With unexpected time off this spring as I transitioned to a new job, I planned a solo adventure to Desolation Wilderness, a 64,000 acre stretch of rugged mountains west of Lake Tahoe. Leading up to the trip, I fixated on details like food and camping gear. But as my departure approached, a new anxiety crept in. Five days. Alone. What would I do with hour after hour of my own thoughts?

My hike began on the Sunday before Memorial Day. The trail was busy with day hikers enjoying the 80-degree weather. As the afternoon wore on, traffic thinned. The sound of hikers’ conversations gave way to the crunch of my own footsteps, the jingle of bear bells, and the forest’s chatter.

The solitude hit me that first evening. My body was tired, but the sun still sat high in the sky. I settled into a shady spot by the lake to journal. After a few minutes on the rocky ground, my butt fell asleep. I got up and stretched. Seconds seemed to crawl past. I couldn’t sit. I was too tired to explore. It was too early to sleep. My brain ached for the distraction of a social media feed, a Netflix show.

Dinner, a bit of reading, a short walk along the shoreline, and finally, the sun dipped behind the western mountains. A few stars blinked to light. I’d survived my first day of desolation. I crawled into my sleeping bag, exhausted and relieved.

The next day presented my most challenging hike, up and over Dick’s Pass at 9,400 feet. Spring snow covered the last mile up the shady north slope. The boot prints I’d been following faded into the slush and steep terrain. I strapped crampons onto my boots and started bushwhacking, following my GPS.

Finally, the terrain flattened as I reached the pass. Exhausted and sweaty, I dropped my pack on a sun-warmed boulder. Endorphins flooded my body. Here was the pleasure of solo hiking. Finding my own way. Overcoming a challenge at my own pace. Looking down both sides of a mountain pass I’d surmounted.

Sunset at Lake Aloha while solo backpacking, with Chris Maccini’s tent in the foreground. // Photo: Chris Maccini

That afternoon, as my feet fell into an easy downhill rhythm on the dry, south-facing side, I noticed my mind following their example. My thoughts sometimes wandered, rehashing the past or planning for my return to civilization. But more often, they returned to the dusty trail, the cool stream, the relief of a moment’s shade beneath a gnarled sequoia.

My routine that night was similar to the night before. I swam in the cold water of another lake. I cooked. I read. I journaled. But the quality of my mind had begun to change. The craving for distraction had lessened. I was able to sit longer in nature’s stillness.

Over the next three days, this feeling intensified. On my final night, I reflected in my journal on the terrain I’d covered, the wildlife I’d seen, but more than anything, I considered the way just four days away from the distractions of modern life had affected my mind. Tomorrow, I’d have voicemails to check, emails to return, feeds to scroll. But the wilderness had given me a reprieve. A reminder. A reset.

This is perhaps what time in the outdoors can provide better than any other pursuit. My trip is an example, but as the sun slipped once more behind the mountains, I realized I don’t need to spend five days alone in the wilderness to find that stillness.

I can turn off my phone and walk the trails of Riverside State Park or savor a summer evening in my own backyard. Five days in desolation reminded me that I don’t need to travel to spend time with myself. I’ve been here the whole time.

Originally published as “Five Days In Desolation: Solo Backpacking California’s High Sierra Wilderness” in the July-August 2021 issue.

Chris Maccini a writer, editor, and audio producer living in Spokane. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from EWU where he was Managing Editor of “Willow Springs.” He once lived with his wife and dog aboard a 28-foot sailboat on the Puget Sound and now enjoys travelling, backpacking, sailing, skiing, and mountain biking. This is his first article in Out There.

For more backpacking stories, visit the OTO archives.

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