Backpacking Desolation Wilderness

Desolation Wilderness

October has to be my favorite month for backpacking in the Sierras. The temperature is somewhat cooler than the heat of our September summer but the weather is usually sunny and stable, with most of the tourists (and mosquitoes!) gone for the season. I had much of the backcountry to myself, seeing only a handful of people during my trip and most of those close to the trailhead.

Probably my favorite area in the Lake Tahoe region, Desolation Wilderness covers 63,960 acres of land just south west of the lake. The scenery is stunning, featuring endless alpine lakes surrounded by alpine and sub-alpine forests, high granite peaks, and glacially formed valleys.

Echo Lakes, CA

There are 15 different trailheads to access the Desolation Wilderness, from both the east and west sides. I began my backpacking trip at the Echo Lakes trailhead as I love hiking along those two lakes, there is plenty of overnight parking, and the area is quick and easy to get to coming from San Francisco. I left my house with a full mug of coffee first thing in the morning and was on the trail before noon.

In addition to the beautiful scenery and close proximity to San Francisco, I enjoy hiking in the Desolation Wilderness because you can bring dogs on the trails. I did not bring Lola on my backpacking trip (see earlier posts about her lack of camping etiquette) but I have previously brought her along for day hikes throughout the area. One of her favorite places to hike and swim is Grass Lake, a few miles west of the Fallen Leaf Lake trailhead.

PCT Desolation Wilderness

My backpacking plan was a three day, two night trip to test out gear and just enjoy some solitary time in the backcountry. The PCT runs right through the heart of Desolation Wilderness, so I planned to follow the trail for a couple of days, with my first camp at Lake Aloha and second camp at another lake of my choosing further up the trail.

Lake Aloha Desolation Wilderness

Sometimes called the centerpiece of Desolation Wilderness, Lake Aloha lies between 6-8 miles west of the Echo Lake trailhead, after only a moderate altitude gain. Lake Aloha is a breathtaking sight with acres of shallow waters enveloping numerous granite islands. After a stove malfunction, this ended up being my only campsite for the trip, as I did not want to camp too far up the trail in case I ran out of edible food.

From Lake Aloha, there are plenty of smaller lakes to visit nearby, including the popular Lake of the Woods and Ropi Lake. On my hike out, I took a sidetrip along these lakes before catching back up with the PCT. Numerous 9000 foot peaks in the area will also keep the peak baggers among you busy for days.

animal tracks Desolation Wilderness

Desolation Wilderness boasts an abundance of wildlife, including black bears. I had an entire family of chipmunks hang out with me at camp and I awoke to somewhat scary prints next to my tent. At first I thought they might be black bear prints but now I think they were more likely wolverine, coyote, or even bobcat tracks.

If you like to fish, bring your gear as the lakes and streams are supposedly full of trout. You can catch your own meals every night instead of eating freeze-dried food in a bag.

As the weather looks great for this weekend, I am tempted to head out again for one last backpacking trip before the winter season officially begins.

Know Before You Go:

Permit: A permit is required for both day and overnight use. Day permits can be obtained at each of the trailheads. Overnight permits are regulated by quota for each of the 45 zones, from Memorial Day to September 30. If you plan to go during high season, you can reserve your permit as early as April. You must camp in the permit zone for the first night but can camp anywhere the rest of the nights of your trip. Overnight permits cost $5 plus $6 for “processing”.

Fishing License: If you plan to fish, you will need to have the appropriate license from the California Department of Fish and Game.

Bear Can: There are black bears in the area so you will definitely want a bear can or some sort of bear bag rig up.

Cooking:  Unlike Yosemite, fires are strictly prohibited in Desolation Wilderness. Bring your camp stove for cooking meals and making coffee.

Water Purifier: Even though the lakes and streams are crystal clear, you will want to filter your water to avoid getting sick.

Leave No Trace: Practice Leave No Trace principles. Bury human waste and pack out all garbage and toilet paper.

Climbers: Bring your climbing shoes! There are endless amounts of granite boulders to play on once you get to camp or even along the trail.

Map: For hiking, mountain biking, and backpacking in the Lake Tahoe region, I use the waterproof and tear resistant topographic map from Adventure Maps.

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