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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Desolation Wilderness, Eldorado National Forest

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

by: Michael Hodgson

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Contact Information: Eldorado National Forest Information Center 3070 Camino Heights Drive Camino, CA 95709 (530) 644-6048

Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit 870 Emerald Bay Rd. South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150 (530) 573-2600

Taylor Creek Visitor Center: (530) 573-2674

Location: Desolation Wilderness is in north-central California along the eastern border, 3-1/2 hours northeast of San Francisco, 2 hours east of Sacramento, and 1 hour southwest of Reno, Nevada. It's bounded by logging roads and operations to the north and west, Lake Tahoe to the east, and US 50 to the south. Getting There: Access it from I-80 or US 50.

Seasonal Information: This is a land of stark contrasts. Warm summer days, mild falls, and relatively low elevations belie the barren rock and harsh, windswept alpine winters and the sudden summer storms. Summer temperatures of 60 to 75 degrees F draw crowds in mid-June. In winter, the temperatures are in the high teens or 20s.

Wildlife: Deer, marmots, and a few bears make up the region's wildlife.

Insects: Contact the park office for information. Plant Life: Cedar, pines, firs, mountain grass, and wildflowers characterize the area.

Facilities: Camping is primitive in the wilderness area. Closest to the wilderness border is Bayview Campground (916-544-5994) to the east. It's a free site with a 48-hour limit operating on a first come, first served basis. For information on campgrounds outside of the wilderness, call (800) 280-2267. Parking: Contact the park office for information.

Permits: Deolation operates under the U.S. Fee Demonstration Act. Contact the Eldorado Information Center in Camino for more permit information. Between June 15 and September 30, when a quota is in effect, overnight hikers should be sure to contact the Forest Service 90 days before their outing.

Policies: * There is a limit of 12 people per group. * No campfires, motorized vehicles, or bicycles are allowed in the area.

Hazards: Be alert to extreme weather conditions.

Leave No Trace:

  • Camp at least 100 feet from all water sources.
  • Stay on trails to reduce erosion.

All LNT guidelines apply.


  • A Guide to Desolation Wilderness is available from the Forest Service.
  • The 15-minute USGS topo map Fallen Leaf Lake provides a view of most of the Desolation Wilderness area.
  • The CD-ROM "Sierra Nevada" is available from the National Park Service.

Other Trip Options:

  • Grab some maps for Granite Chief, Tahoe, and Robbs Peak if you want to venture beyond the most accessible trailheads or turn your hike into more than a weekend excursion.
  • Or explore El Dorado National Forest's other wilderness area, Mokelumne Wilderness.
  • Mt. Rose is a newly established wilderness area in Nevada, northeast of Lake Tahoe. For more information, contact: Carson Ranger District 1536 S. Carson St. Carson City, NV 89701 (702) 882-2766

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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.


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