The Ultimate Guide to the Desolation Wilderness

The Desolation Wilderness is the region of granite mountains looming above the Western shore of Lake Tahoe. Originally established as wilderness in 1964 by the Wilderness Act, today Desolation Wilderness is one of the most used wilderness areas in the country!

From alpine lakes to towering peaks, Desolation Wilderness provides ample opportunity for exploration. The area offers something for everyone. There are numerous spots that are easily accessible as day trips. There are also thousands of acres to explore on your own time.

Loon Lake Trail

Desolation Wilderness Overview

The Desolation Wilderness is a granite wonderland. There are many trails, mountains, and lakes to explore. But, it is also a place where there are a lot of people. Due to this, usage is monitored heavily. Don’t let this dissuade you. The Desolation wilderness is popular for a reason!

Sign in the wilderness

Things to Know before Visiting the Desolation Wilderness

Due to it’s easy access, it is tempting to hop in a car and drive straight to the Desolation Wilderness. But, there are a few things to know first to help you have a successful and fun excursion.

Permits

All visitors need to have a permit to enter the Desolation Wilderness. Yes, even day use visitors! If you are planning on visiting for a day hike, you can get a permit from the trailhead. There is no cost associated with this permit. You simply self register using the provided permit forms, and keep your copy with you while depositing the other portion in the supplied box.

If you are planning on camping, there are a few extra steps. First, you do still need to have a permit. But these permits are not so simple as the day use ones. Instead, you will need to get a permit that designates a zone that you will be allowed to camp in for the first night. The zones are operated using a quota system. Some zones are significantly more popular than others. These can be obtained up to six months before your date of entry.

The zone quota is active from the Friday before Memorial Day through September 30th every year. Outside of these dates, you still need a permit. But they do not operate on the quota system. If you plan to travel through Desolation outside of these months, be prepared for deep snow and winter conditions.

If you come across this guide too late and realize all of the quota for your desired date is taken, there is still an option to get a permit. 30% of all quota is reserved for day of entry. If you are planning on camping in one of the more popular zones (Aloha), you will need to be very early to get day of quota on weekends.

Desolation Wilderness Ranger Stations

There are 4 rangers stations associated with the Desolation wilderness:

Rules and Regulations

Most of the rules for visiting the Desolation Wilderness are standard compared to other wilderness ares in the US. Some of the notable exceptions:

  • No Campfires. Campfires are prohibited in the Desolation WIlderness. You are still allowed to use a camp stove or jetboil, but fires are prohibited.
  • Pets are Allowed On Leash. You are welcome to bring a dog as long as the dog remains with you and on leash.
  • Group Size Limited to 12. The maximum group size in the Desolation Wilderness is 12 people.
Echo Lake

How to get to the Desolation Wilderness

If you live in Northern California, then the Desolation Wilderness is extremely accessible. The wilderness area is located just north of US 50 and to the West of Lake Tahoe. If you are traveling from San Francisco, take I 89 East to Sacramento. From Sacramento, take the 50 for another hour or so until you turn Left to your trailhead.

If you are starting from South Lake Tahoe, most of the southern and eastern trailheads will be less than 15 minutes drive from stateline.

 

Hikers at lake Aloha

Best Time to Visit

The Desolation Wilderness gets a significant amount of snow. In years where there is above average snow pack, be prepared for snow through early July. In the Fall, heavy snow can return as early as September. But most commonly there will be a significant snow fall by late October.

It is still possible to visit the Desolation Wilderness in the winter time. If you are proficient in winter backcountry travel, the Desolation Wilderness is a wonderland in the winter and early Spring.

Lake Tahoe and Desolation Wilderness

Hazards

The Desolation Wilderness is well-trafficked and patrolled. Even if you are a beginner camper/backpacker, you are unlikely to run into any serious trouble. With that said, there are a few things to keep in mind to help you have a safe and enjoyable trip.

  • Wildfire. In recent years, wildfires have increasingly become a reality of summer in California. These fires usually rage through Northern California in August or September. If you are planning on camping in the Desolation Wilderness during Wildfire Season, be sure to check the Air Quality Index before heading out.
  • Bears. There are black bears in the Desolation Wilderness, and many of them are not particularly afraid of humans. These bears don’t want to hurt you, they just want your food. For the safety of you, your food, and the bears, be sure to keep your food in a bear resistant container. Personally, I use the Ursack.
  • Water. Unlike other parts of the state, water is plentiful in the Desolation Wilderness. But, due to high usage, it needs to be purified or filtered before it can be consumed safely. I always take the Sawyer Squeeze with me.
Trail through Desolation Wilderness

Suggested Itineraries

Despite its small size, there are many opportunities for hikers to explore. While there are more great options than I am able to list out here, these are some suggestions that are considered classics in the Desolation Wilderness.

Day Hikes

Mount Tallac

Distance: 10 Miles

Elevation: 3,300’

Mount Tallac is the classic day hike in the Desolation Wilderness. Mount Tallac is the tallest mountain along the edge of Lake Tahoe at 9,738’. The 10 mile out and back hike takes you up 4000 feet to some spectacular 360 views. In the summer, parking fills up quickly, but if you only have time for one hike, make it this one.

Lake Aloha With Echo Lake Water Taxi

Distance: 9.5 Miles

Elevation Gain: 1,900’

Echo Lake is one of the most popular trailheads in the Desolation Wilderness. The reason it is so popular is because of the access to Lake Aloha. Lake Aloha is doable as a day hike, but it is definitely a long day. One way to make it more pleasant is to take the Echo Lake water taxi. Lake Aloha is 6 miles from the trailhead, taking the water taxi is able to shave off 3 of those miles.

Dick’s Lake

Distance: 10 Miles

Elevation Gain: 2,500’

Another popular trailhead, you start this hike from the road above Emerald Bay. This hike is a great little loop that can be extended based on your fitness. You have a lot of climbing at the beginning, but the numerous lakes you pass along the way make it well worth the effort. If you are feeling strong, you can extend this hike to include the Velma Lakes as well.

Horsetail Falls

Distance: 3.5 Miles

Elevation Gain: 650’

This is the tallest waterfall in the Desolation Wilderness. Access is from off of US 50. Just because this hike is shorter does not mean that you won’t get some epic views. This hike is great if you are coming from Sacramento or the Bay since the trailhead is extremely easy to access.

Weekend Trips

Lake Aloha

Distance: 12.5 Miles

Elevation Gain: 1,900’

Permit Zones: 22, 27, 33, 38, 39

This is the crown jewel of the Desolation Wilderness Lakes. Lake Aloha is dotted with hundreds of granite islands. In the summertime, the water is definitely warm enough to jump in. The most convenient access is from Echo Lake. The trip to Lake Aloha is neither particularly far, nor vastly different elevation, so this is a great introductory backpacking trip.

Rubicon Reservoir

Distance: 16.5 Miles

Elevation Gain: 2,000’

Permit Zones: 1, 6

The trip to Rubicon Reservoir starts from the Loon Lake trailhead. This makes this trip great for two reasons. First, Loon Lake is stunningly scenic, walking alongside it will surely be a highlight. Second, this trip is at lower elevation, which means that it is passable earlier in the season than the trails higher up.

Velma Lakes

Distance: 12 Miles

Elevation Gain: 2,800’

Permit Zones: 16, 17, 23

Lower Velma is an extension to the Dick Lakes day hike mentioned above. This is definitely the best single night loop in the Desolation Wilderness. The loop offers the most variety with several smaller lakes as well as views of Tahoe. The trail takes you through the core of the Desolation Wilderness and provides ample scenery.

Ropi Lake

Distance: 5 Miles

Elevation Gain: 1,500’

Permit Zones: 44

Ropi is a trip for people who are ok climbing a lot. Start by following the path to Horsetail Falls. Once you get to the base of the Waterfall, you leave the trail and basically climb straight up the side. This will be challenging, but you will be rewarded with more (though not complete) isolation compared to the aforementioned trips.

Longer Trips

Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)

Distance: 17 Miles

Elevation Gain: 9,300’

Trailheads: Echo Lake, Highway 80

The PCT travels through the Desolation WIlderness. If you are already hiking the PCT, you probably do not need this guide. If you are just interested in section hiking, then the PCT takes you past the highlights of the Desolation Wilderness. You will make your way around Lake Aloha as well as the Velma Lakes.

Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT)

Distance: 31 Miles

Elevation Gain: 4,700’

Trailheads: Echo Lake, Barker Pass

The TRT does a full circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe, but many people say that the section through Desolation Wilderness is the most stunning part. Just like the PCT, the TRT begins at the Echo Lake Trailhead. The two trails track each other for a while before TRT heads East toward

What to Bring

  • Gossamer Gear 50 Litre
  • Gossamer Gear the One
  • ground tarp
  • Montem Trekking Poles
  • Headlamp
  • REI Sleeping Bag
  • Nemo Sleeping Pad
  • Thermal pants and shirt
  • Base layer shirt
  • Leggings
  • Fleece
  • Baseball Cap
  • Hat
  • wool gloves
  • Pot
  • Stove
  • Gas
  • lighter
  • Spoon
  • Sawyer Squeeze
  • Cnoc bladder
  • water bottle
  • Trail runners
  • 2 pairs of socks
  • sunglasses
  • sun screen
  • garmin in reach mini
  • battery pack
  • Ursack
  • Trowel

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