2 Free Issues and 3 Free Gifts!
Full Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
Zip Code:
Email: (required)
If I like it and decide to continue, I'll pay just $12.00, and receive a full one-year subscription (9 issues in all), a 73% savings off the newsstand price! If for any reason I decide not to continue, I'll write "cancel" on the invoice and owe nothing.
Your subscription includes 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Or click here to pay now and get 2 extra issues
Offer valid in US only.

Also on

Enter Zip Code

Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Desolation Wilderness, Eldorado National Forest

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

by: Michael Hodgson

PAGE 1 2

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.

PAGE 1 2

Subscribe to Backpacker magazine
Sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter
Address 1:
Address 2:
Email (req):

Reader Rating: -


Margaret Baptista
Sep 09, 2010

We just spent the weekend in Desolation Wilderness. We entered at Echo Lake and camped at deserted Clyde Lake. It was breathtaking! Yes, there were more people on the trail along the way than we'd have liked. But, the crowd started to diminish by the time we got to the north part of Aloha Lake. Desolation Wilderness is the perfect place to take a novice backpacker of any age, especially for an older child. Trails are moderate, and you can get a beautiful lakeside camp spot packing in only a few miles. Makes it great for day hikers, too.


Your rating:
Your Name:


My Profile Join Now

Most recent threads

Trailhead Register
Hurray for Curry! Ingredient helps to block colon
Posted On: Aug 28, 2014
Submitted By: JimInMD
Hiking on rocks
Posted On: Aug 28, 2014
Submitted By: Walkinman
View all Gear
Find a retailer

Special sections - Expert handbooks for key trails, techniques and gear

Check out Montana in Warren Miller's Ticket to Ride
Warren Miller athletes charge hard and reflect on Big Sky country, their love for this space and the immense energy allotted to the people who reside in Montana.

Boost Your Apps
Add powerful tools and exclusive maps to your BACKPACKER apps through our partnership with Trimble Outdoors.

Carry the Best Maps
With BACKPACKER PRO Maps, get life-list destinations and local trips on adventure-ready waterproof myTopo paper.

FREE Rocky Mountain Trip Planner
Sign up for a free Rocky Mountain National Park trip planning kit from our sister site

Follow BackpackerMag on Twitter Follow Backpacker on Facebook
Get 2 FREE Trial Issues and 3 FREE GIFTS
Survival Skills 101 • Eat Better
The Best Trails in America
YES! Please send me my FREE trial issues of Backpacker
and my 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Full Name:
Address 1:
Zip Code:
Address 2:
Email (required):
Free trial offer valid for US subscribers only. Canadian subscriptions | International subscriptions