Desolation Wilderness

Desolation Wilderness is an alpine landscape scoured by ancient glaciers and punished over and over by heavy winds and snow. Here, in the high country above Lake Tahoe, only the hardiest trees grow, twisting in the gales to make a scene out of their survival. The Climb to this granite wonderland is steep. The reward? Azure lakes, dramatic peaks, starry skies and hungry trout.

ABOVE: Golden hour at Lake Aloha during a trip in early June, with the sun setting over Mosquito Pass. Located at 8,116 feet, this is the largest body of water in Desolation Wilderness.

ABOVE: You’ll find plenty of wildflowers — like Tahoe Lupine — growing here during the summer despite the harsh conditions of this upper montane forest ecosystem.

LEFT: Fishing for trout can be good in Desolation Wilderness — if you know where to look. While many of the lakes here are teeming with small trout, many are also void of fish. Do your research before heading into the high country and you’ll be rewarded.
RIGHT: The fast water in streams rushing between lakes is a good place to find consistent action — but access is not as easy as it may appear on the map. Be prepared to scramble over and around granite obstacles. You’ll have to work for your fish up her in the backcountry.
LEFT: The lakes and streams of Desolation Wilderness are home to brook trout (pictured here), rainbow trout, brown trout and a handful golden trout.

ABOVE: Like a watchful spirit, the Milky Way glides over Lake Aloha, Pyramid Peak and the rest of the Crystal Range in the Desolation Wilderness backcountry.

ABOVE: Last light lingers in the high country around Dick’s Lake. This is one of my favorite moments from a trip with my dad and my pup. Here’s our camp at last light, with the night’s first stars beginning to twinkle, and the rush of snowmelt singing us to sleep.

ABOVE: Fontanilis Lake: It looked like an easy jaunt to here from our camp at Dick’s Lake, but steep granite along the shore meant dicey access. We did, however, find a handful of vibrant brookies in the stream flowing into this gorgeous body of water.

ABOVE: Snow can linger through the summer months, especially after wet winters. During this trip, in mid-August, we had to traverse a small snowfield on the way up to Dick’s lake, elevation 8,420 feet.

Golden hour at Lake Aloha during a trip in early June, with the sun setting over Mosquito Pass. Located at 8,116 feet, this is the largest body of water in Desolation Wilderness.

You’ll find plenty of wildflowers — like Tahoe Lupine — growing here during the summer despite the harsh conditions of this upper montane forest ecosystem.

Fishing for trout can be good in Desolation Wilderness — if you know where to look. While many of the lakes here are teeming with small trout, many are also void of fish. Do your research before heading into the high country and you’ll be rewarded.
The fast water in streams rushing between lakes is a good place to find consistent action — but access is not as easy as it may appear on the map. Be prepared to scramble over and around granite obstacles. You’ll have to work for your fish up her in the backcountry.

The lakes and streams of Desolation Wilderness are home to brook trout (pictured here), rainbow trout, brown trout and a handful of golden trout.

Like a watchful spirit, the Milky Way glides over Lake Aloha, Pyramid Peak and the rest of the Crystal Range in the Desolation Wilderness backcountry.

Last light lingers in the high country around Dick’s Lake. This is one of my favorite moments from a trip with my dad and my pup. Here’s our camp at last light, with the night’s first stars beginning to twinkle, and the rush of snowmelt singing us to sleep.

Fontanilis Lake: It looked like an easy jaunt to here from our camp at Dick’s Lake, but steep granite along the shore meant dicey access. We did, however, find a handful of vibrant brookies in the stream flowing into this gorgeous body of water.

Snow can linger through the summer months, especially after wet winters. During this trip, in mid-August, we had to traverse a small snowfield on the way up to Dick’s Lake, elevation 8,420 feet.

Know
Before
You Go

One of the most popular backcountry destinations in California, Desolation Wilderness endures heavy use from backpackers and hikers. Factor in the challenges of a changing climate, and this area, like most of the High Sierra, faces an uphill battle in the decades ahead.

  • Permits are required to enter Desolation Wilderness from spring to fall — even for day hikers — and are limited by a strict quota system. Here’s some more information on permits from the U.S. Forest Service. You can reserve them online, or try to get lucky and pick one up in person the day of entry.
  • The weather changes rapidly here and access to the high country is dependent on the coming and going of winter. The Desolation Wilderness Volunteers website is a great place to check trail conditions before you head out.
  • Take a look at these trail summaries to gauge the length and difficulty of hikes. Also of use when planning a trip.
  • This handy guide contains much of the above information in one place and is worth having on hand.
  • Remember to always practice the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace.

Know
Before
You Go

One of the most popular backcountry destinations in California, Desolation Wilderness endures heavy use from backpackers and hikers. Factor in the challenges of a changing climate, and this area, like most of the High Sierra, faces an uphill battle in the decades ahead.

  • Permits are required to enter Desolation Wilderness from spring to fall — even for day hikers — and are limited by a strict quota system. Here’s some more information on permits from the U.S. Forest Service. You can reserve them online, or try to get lucky and pick one up in person the day of entry.
  • The weather changes rapidly here and access to the high country is dependent on the coming and going of winter. The Desolation Wilderness Volunteers website is a great place to check trail conditions before you head out.
  • Take a look at these trail summaries to gauge the length and difficulty of hikes. Also of use when planning a trip.
  • This handy guide contains much of the above information in one place and is worth having on hand.
  • Remember to always practice the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace.

Desolation Wilderness

Directions to Desolation Wilderness

Desolation Wilderness is far from a hidden secret. In fact, it’s so popular you’ll need a permit to enter, even if you’re planning just a day hike. And while permits can be hard to snag, getting here is easy. There are several trailheads in the vicinity of South Lake Tahoe, with access from Highway 50 and Highway 89. Finding a spot to park can be difficult on summer weekends — consider yourself warned.

Related Organizations

Tahoe Rim Trail Association

The mission of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association is to maintain and enhance the Tahoe Rim Trail system, practice and inspire stewardship, and preserve access to the natural beauty of the Lake Tahoe region.

Pacific Crest Trail Association

The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to protect, preserve and promote the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as a world-class experience for hikers and equestrians, and for all the values provided by wild and scenic lands.

Eldorado Backcountry Ski Patrol

We are a volunteer backcountry ski and snowshoe patrol associated with the Eldorado National Forest.  Our members come from many different backgrounds and experiences.  However, we all share a love of the outdoors and of skiing and snowshoeing.  We work together to assist the public by marking and maintaining trails, patrolling backcountry areas and providing winter-safety educational programs to the public.

Eldorado National Forest Interpretive Association

The Eldorado National Forest Interpretive Association (ENFIA) is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to helping the Eldorado National Forest serve the public. ENFIA entered into a formal agreement with the National Forest Service and the Eldorado National Forest in May of 1988, to assist in the educational, historical, scientific and interpretive activities of the Forest Service.