The allure of Desolation Wilderness


Heather Lake and the Crystal Range Bottom | Tim Hauserman


Just to the west of Lake Tahoe lies Desolation Wilderness, a place of polished granite and shimmering mountain lakes. It’s a true backpacker’s paradise: The hiking is not exceptionally hard, the scenery is jaw dropping and the trailheads are just down the road a piece.

When I first started taking my young daughters backpacking, Desolation was the first place we chose, and we kept coming back for more year after year. A short drive followed by a few hours of hiking brought the kids to a place where they could find hours of joy along a lakeshore. They splashed from island to island half way across Lake Aloha, hid from the thunder in the rocky crags at Fontanillis, waited for the friends that would not arrive at Lower Velma, and rested at Gilmore before attacking the formidable Mount Tallac.

On my many Desolation solo adventures, I’ve pondered how amazing it was that I had Half Moon Lake to myself on Labor Day night, wondered where in the hell those teeny, little 4Q Lakes were, watched an osprey dive successfully time after time in the fading light of a Dicks Lake evening, and valiantly, but unsuccessfully, fought off a band of marauding squirrels stealing my food at Middle Velma Lake.

In other words, Desolation is an awesome place to spend a few days. Of course, there are a few caveats: It can be busy and backpacking permits are not only required, but include a fee, and are limited in number. The solution, however, is fairly simple. Go midweek. Go off season. And, by off season I mean the day after all the whippersnappers put away their big backpacks and grudgingly hoist up their school ones. Then, most likely, you can walk right in and pick up a permit to go anywhere you like.

090315-Desolation_2-SelfieAt this point, I could regale you with tales of what is the best lake in Desolation to go to, but that would be giving away my secret. And, truth be told, since I seem to go back to the old standbys time after time, I might have missed a good one anyway. It’s OK, you really can’t miss having a great experience by hiking up to any of the lakes in Desolation. Here are a few options:

Sunset at Middle Velma Lake | Tim Hauserman

For those of us coming from North Tahoe or Truckee, the quickest way into Desolation Wilderness is via the Meeks Bay trailhead off Highway 89 on the West Shore. From here, the trail begins with a flat mile followed by four, only moderately steep, miles to the lovely shore of Crag Lake. Still energized? You can take on another 1.2 miles and reach Stony Ridge, a larger and slightly more remote lake.

The hike into Dicks or Fontanillis Lake from the Bay View Trail is the same distance as the hike from Meeks Bay to Crag, but there is quite a bit more elevation gain. It does, however, make for a much better choice for a two-night campout. Spend the first night at Dicks and then the next morning take the 2-mile, well-graded climb to the top of Dicks Pass. From there, the views truly are sublime. You can then saunter down to the lake for a swim or three and enjoy another evening at the lake. Before heading home the next day, spend the morning exploring Fontanillis and Middle Velma Lakes, both enticingly beautiful and close by.

If you have a bit more than 30 miles in your tank and really would love to experience a glorious crossing of Desolation Wilderness, start at Echo Lake, and roll past the beautiful and mysterious Lake Aloha. It’s one of my favorite Desolation lakes, but it does lose a bit of charm as the season progresses because the water gets quite shallow.

Next, hike on the Tahoe Rim Trail past Heather and Susie Lakes (both awesome and amazingly different even though they are just a mile apart) and make the climb over Dicks Pass. From the pass it is not all downhill, but many miles are, as you descend past Dicks and Fontanillis to Middle Velma Lake.

Now proceed on the Tahoe Rim Trail/Pacific Crest Trail for a few miles before turning right and heading up, up, up and over Phipps Pass, where you get to descend past the Tallant Lakes, which include Rubicon, Stony Ridge and Crag, before you end with an easy mile out to Meeks Bay. Arrange for a shuttle and at least three days off and you will have a blast.