Desolation Wilderness straddles nearly sixty-four thousand acres across the Lake Tahoe Basin between Lake Tahoe and the Eldorado National Forest. Inside it you’ll find backpacking destinations through alpine and sub-alpine forests studded with granite peaks and glacial lakes.
Though still in recovery from the clear-cutting of the majority of the Jeffrey pines and fir trees essential to the explosive growth of Virginia City following the Comstock Silver Strike in 1859, the region’s relative accessibility and undeniable beauty still draws visitors from around the country.
Day Visit Permits
As a result, there are a number of management techniques in use to preserve the region’s wild heritage, although only two of these apply to visitors: permits, and quotas. Folks who’d like to visit for the day—maybe to take the easy and popular one-mile hike from the Eagle Falls trailhead to sparkling, popular Eagle Lake—require a day use permit.
Day permits can be self-issued at most major trailheads or picked up at Pacific Ranger District (for west-side trailheads, managed by the Eldorado National Forest) or the Taylor Creek Visitor Center or Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Forest Supervisor’s Office (for east-side trailheads, which are managed by the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit). These day-use permits don’t require reservations, and aren’t subject to quotas.
On the other hand, backpackers with a multiday itinerary in mind do require permit reservations, which you can make up to six months in advance through recreation.gov. The 30% of permits reserved for first-come, first-serve use must be picked up in person from the Pacific Ranger District in the Eldorado National Forest or at the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Forest Supervisor’s Office up to fourteen days prior to beginning your trip.
If you’re visiting between Memorial Day and the end of September, you’re also subject to wilderness quotas. These are determined by the region in which you plan to spend your first overnight, and some of them are quite small—the Grouse Lakes and Triangle regions each have a total quota of two!—so be sure your intended itinerary can accommodate your entire party.
Once You’re In
Once you’ve spent your first night in your designated destination zone, you’re free to move about the wilderness. Practice good outdoor ethics by staying on the developed trails between destinations, and check out the interactive visitor map to scope out possibilities for connecting those trails into longer loops.
Desolation offers any number of peaks to bag, from bossy 9,983-ft Pyramid Peak to the southwest to Mount Tallac, easily the most iconic as it soars 3,500 feet above Lake Tahoe. If you’d rather get wet than high, there are a number of pristine backcountry lakes just waiting for you. Try them out one by one, or string a few together for nearly twelve miles of a loop tour of Granite, Dick’s, Velma, and Eagle Lakes.
If You Can’t Get Enough, Thru-hike!
If you’re looking for a rewarding challenge that offers a little bit of everything the Tahoe River Basin has to offer, definitely consider the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail thru-hike. You’ll still have to pick up a permit for the portions of the trail that pass through Desolation Wilderness, and these thru-hiker permits aren’t subject to the same wilderness quotas. Cinder cones and hardened lava flows, wildflowers and meadow vistas, stark reminders of the region’s history as a resource extraction point for timber and silver, aspen groves and dense pine forests, high granite passes and ridges, canyons and riverside, and endless wildlife-watching opportunities are just a few of the natural wonders you can expect to experience along the way.
Oh, and one last thing to woof about: Desolation Wilderness is open to visitors of the four-footed variety, so no need to leave your best doggy friend at home for this campout!