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Desolation Wilderness, Eldorado National Forest

Behind the forbidding name lies California's glacier-polished playground.

Little Known Fact:?Desolation Wilderness is the most heavily used wilderness area per acre in the United States.

Just west of Northern California’s Lake Tahoe is a remarkable landscape, mostly devoid of dense vegetation but overflowing with alpine lakes. Hikers climbing out of the densely wooded Lake Tahoe basin are often startled by the Desolation Wilderness’ sudden expanse of glacially polished scenery. It’s like being in an Ansel Adams photograph.

This 100-square-mile wilderness is small by most standards. A strong hiker could cross it in a day or two, but the treasures here encourage you to linger. The wilderness encompasses three mountain ranges and about 130 lakes (many stocked with trout). But be warned, Desolation’s excellent trout fishing and relative accessibility draw a lot of visitors, making some areas less than desolate.

Desolation Valley is a 5-square-mile granite bowl. It once was filled with glacial runoff that spilled into the southern end of Lake Tahoe and washed through canyons before draining into the American River valley to the west. The glaciers disappeared 10,000 years ago, but the hard-edged granite gives the feeling that the Ice Age ended last week.

While visiting in late August, supposedly the warmest time of the year, my friends and I were chased out a day early by freezing temperatures and the threat of snow. We headed into the Velma Lakes region out of the Bay View Campground entrance point. Although the Velma lakes typically are crowded with fishermen and weekend wanderers, we managed to escape the crowds.

Heading toward Fontanillis and Dicks Lake, we found relative solitude and incredible scenery. Even on the most crowded of weekends, it’s possible to venture off-trail a short distance and set up a remote camp amid the granite bowls and high alpine lakes.

Dicks Peak and Dicks Pass ~ at 9,380 feet, the highest pass on the Pacific Crest Trail between here and the Canadian border ~ are worthy destinations for the view alone. The trail to the top of Dicks Peak is obscure at times, but the scree-scrambling left us standing on top of the world, looking down on a windswept granite-colored kingdom dotted with hundreds of blue puddles.

Every paradise has its downside, though; its proximity to urban areas and the Tahoe recreation scene made the Desolation Wilderness crowded and scarred long before its wilderness designation in 1971. Hikers, four-wheelers, and cows all left their marks. Lakes were dammed and cattle still graze some areas. All things considered, however, the Forest Service is doing a commendable job of accommodating the heavy use and stemming the abuse.

Even though Desolation is a popular weekend destination, the northwest quadrant is the least used and can be explored cross-country for those proficient with map and compass. Plan a mid-week trip, if possible, or visit during winter and you’ll have a piece of this magnificent creation to yourself.

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