Who has the time or stamina to hike miles and miles up a mountainside to reach a lake oasis? Should such a magical amphitheater only be seen by the eyes of deserved mountaineers? Well, no. You could just head to the Eagle Falls trailhead in Emerald Bay and endure a short (but slightly) steep climb to the snowmelt canyon they call Eagle Lake. It’s a worthwhile destination.
It wouldn’t be the Sierras if there wasn’t granite overhead and underfoot. Along the Eagle Lake trail in the Desolation Wilderness, blocks of granite rock stack like kids’ toys, some with mossy green walls. A regal granite staircase takes you over the creek and above small falls. Over your shoulder, the deep blue Emerald Bay peeks between trees as you jaunt across a boarded bridge. Stopping on the boardwalk, you hear the creek roar like a baby river and watch red strands of willow bushes blur into one hot spot. You might take a picture of the photoesque pools at the top of Eagle Falls. You might wonder about the deadwood tree that still stands, watching over the creek, like it just can’t leave--the tip of where only eagles dare to go.
Once you reach the other side of the falls, the trail’s steep climb begins. It’s feels familiar, like the stairwell in your house, only a thousand times that much exertion it seems, in light of the sunshine. To draw your attention elsewhere, you admire the skyscraper-tall sharp, toothy mountain crags across the valley and--of course, the nearer aspens. You actually admire the aspens, in the full definition of the word. From someone, somewhere, you heard that they photosynthesize through their bark rather than simply their leaves, and that aspens connect with other aspens via their underground root system. Now that’s life. These quakies really live life to the fullest, if you’ll pardon the cliche. They’re, for lack of a better word, faspenating. The wind picks up for a moment and the nearby aspens tremble and shake, but not as if they’re scared. No, their trembling more resembles something you learned about in a college arts class--something called “duende.” All you remember is duende signifies a sentiment that has to do with life as much as it does death. And that seems to define these quaking aspen as well as anything. Speaking of death, piles of deadwood carnage bring your attention to the ground where pine cones settle into needle beds.
Tiny creeks of snowmelt run along rock ledges that border the trail (and that make for great bouldering!). Then, a giant redwood takes your eyes away from anything else. It’s so red, you think, in every way possible. Its bark dons a red tint that’s more than just the sun’s glare. Rust-colored bark peels away from the trunk’s under-skin and reveal patterns like amber waves of grain. How could this hike get any better? Nature’s beauty along the way may have distracted you away from your majestic destination, but it’s still there. Up and around the bend, Eagle Lake exposes itself for what it is: the central crater of a mountain amphitheater. You’ll see that backcountry skiing still survives back here (on a good year) along the mountains’ steep slopes by the curvy S-turns in the shiny snow. If it’s warm enough, you’ll be glad you brought your floaties for a relaxing (“startling” may be a more appropriate word) dip in the lake. Pick out a spot around the lake to sit back and relax. Remember, it’s only a mile-long hike back to the car--and it’s all downhill!