Making up 63,960 acres across the Lake Tahoe Basin, the Desolation Wilderness’s beauty is incomparable. Its glacially-carved valleys, alpine lakes, and silvery granite peaks span the Sierra Nevada and make up some of the most scenic hikes in California’s expansive Eldorado Forest.
Desolation Wilderness backpacking can be one of the best experiences you will have when hiking in the United States. However, with tens of thousands of acres, determining the Desolation Wilderness hikes to explore can be overwhelming. To make things easier for you after you grab your hiking backpack and put on your hiking shoes, we have decided to compile a list of the top Desolation Wilderness hikes.
The Best Desolation Wilderness Backpacking Locations
1. Bayview and Eagle Lake Trail Loop
This 6-mile loop trail allows you to hike past glacier-carved lakes, into a granite wonderland, and up to panoramic views of Lake Tahoe.
Starting at the Eagle Falls Trailhead, you will get to temporarily join an eager crowd heading to the Eagle Lake, a glinting oasis that is set amidst a stunning granite amphitheater. After checking out this lake, backtrack approximately 500 feet to the intersection of the Velma Lakes where you will quickly lose the crowds and ascend to the rugged backcountry.
Gaining approximately 1,200 feet over about 1.6 miles, each step will take you higher into the barren but beautiful rocky terrain, with numerous mountains layering into the distance. Make a left at the 3-way junction onto the Bayview Trail. Here, you will be able to enjoy a stunning view of Lake Tahoe with the Emerald Bay being your backdrop.
2. Lake Aloha Trail
Lake Aloha Trail is a 12 miles moderately trafficked loop. Being fairly flat, with only 2 sections of significant altitude gain, the trail is ideal for intermediate and beginning hikers.
Starting at Echo Lakes trailhead, the trail meanders past the lower and upper Echo Lakes, slowly gaining elevation as the hiker walks past a smattering of summer cabins. The trail continues on the lake’s eastern side towards the Mosquito Pass. You will, however, need to jump off on one of the numerous side trails and head west towards Lake Aloha area.
In addition to allowing you to enjoy the view of stunning wildflowers, Lake Aloha trail allows you to explore up to 5 lakes in the 20.1-kilometer round trip. The entire trip takes an average of 6 hours. However, you can cut the time down to about 3.5 to 4 hours by taking a water shuttle.
The trail features a smattering of camping areas dotted along the way. If you would like to spend a couple of days in the wilderness, all you will need to do is bring your backpacking tent and other camping gear.
3. Middle Velma Lake Trail
The Velma Lakes form one of the best Desolation Wilderness backpacking and hiking getaways for people who would like to escape the south Tahoe summer crowds. There are 3 lakes – Lower, Middle, and Upper Velma Lakes. The hike out to the Middle Velma Lake is a 7.6 miles roundtrip and takes an average of 4 to 6 hours.
There are 2 trailheads to the Velma Lakes area – the Bay View Trailhead and the Eagle Falls Trailhead. The Eagle Falls Trail is more challenging and steeper than the Bay View Trail. The 2 trails connect at approximately 8,000 feet and from there, it is just a straight shot to Velma Lakes.
Although you can make this adventure a day hike, backpacking may be a more ideal option since you will get additional time to explore the area and spend a night in the wilderness. Before setting up a camp, however, you may need to ensure that you have the necessary permits since the rangers do check overnighters rigorously.
4. Horsetail Falls to Ropi Lake Trail
Rated as moderate, the Horsetail Falls to Ropi Lake hiking trail begins at the Pyramid Creek Trailhead and covers a distance of 5.6 miles out and back. Most of the hike will involve scrambling on huge boulders – to have an easy time, you should consider donning good-grip and supportive hiking boots.
The trail is not well-marked past the initial 0.5 miles. To avoid getting lost in the wilderness, you should hike along or near the Pyramid Creek, always keeping the water within eyesight or earshot along the way.
The unmaintained trail will take you past the Horsetail Falls up to various beautiful lakes. After hiking for a short distance, you should be able to view the Tahoe waterfall. At this point, you will have to climb up and down boulders featuring some trick stream/log traverses. A climb to the top will allow you to explore Avalanche Lake and Pitt Lake before settling at Ropi Lake.
Being one of the smaller lakes in the Desolation Wilderness, Ropi Lake offers an uncrowded and quiet place for those would like to stay overnight. Camping under the stars with the Pyramid Peak looming in the not-so-far distance makes for one of the most beautiful nights outdoors.
5. Gilmore Lake Trail
An 8 miles round trip featuring a 1901 feet elevation gain, the Gilmore Lake trail is one of the best Desolation Wilderness hikes that allow you to explore a beautiful alpine lake with the option for a side trip to the peak of Mt. Tallac.
The easiest way to reach Gilmore Lake is to start your backpacking trip at Glen Alpine trailhead. After grabbing your backpacking backpack, you will start your hike on a gravel road, following the Glen Alpine Creek. On your way, you will see Soda Springs, the Modjeska Falls, and the historic Glen Alpine Resort.
Continuing on the Glen Alpine trail will take you to an intersection featuring a sign pointing towards Grass Lake. Do not take the Grass Lake path, but instead take the path to the right at the fork. You will come across 2 additional intersections where you will need to also take the right fork.
At this point, you will be on the Pacific Crest Trail. Continuing north on this trail will take you to an intersection featuring a sign pointing towards Lake Gilmore. The lake will be less than 1/10 of a mile from this intersection.
You can explore the Lake’s perimeter as there are numerous awesome beaches and camping spots. If you would like some additional adventure, you can follow a trail available on the lake’s southeast side – this trail will take you to Mt. Tallac’s Summit.
6. Clyde Lake Loop
The Clyde Lake Loop covers an average of 8.6 kilometers. Incredible views abound and the unique Uintas geological features are on full display as you explore the trail.
Starting at the Crystal Lake Trailhead, you may be taken aback by a large number of people who are usually here. However, you shouldn’t worry since the trailhead serves numerous varying destinations and the crowds usually thin rapidly.
On the western side of the trailhead’s parking lot, you will need to look for the Lakes Country Trail. After approximately 0.25 miles, turn right on the marked Clyde Lake Trail.
The trail climbs gently past the Cliff, Linear, Petit, and Watson Lakes in a series of simple, flat meanders that alternate with some short climbs. Once you get past Watson Lake, you will be close to Lake Clyde which sits at the top of a rocky shelf stretching from Mt. Watson to the notch.
Once you are done with hiking around Clyde Lake, you will simply need to hop on the single track that takes you to Twin Lakes, move on to Notch Mountain Trail, before turning right to descend back toward Wall Lake and continuing over the outflow bridge back to the Crystal Lake Trailhead.
7. Half Moon Lake Trail
Flanked by the dramatic backdrop of the Jack’s and Dick’s peak, Half Moon Lake is one of the numerous pristine alpine lakes in the Desolation Wilderness that are worth exploring. Compared to other Desolation Wilderness backpacking locations, the lake features much less traffic – this allows you to enjoy solitude after donning your hiking pants and hiking hat.
The 11 miles round trip starts at the Glen Alpine Trailhead. You will start by hiking up a gravel road that roughly follows the Glen Alpine Creek and takes you past old summer homes. Along the way, you should be able to see Modjeska Falls. The road will eventually become a single track and start climbing the glacially carved granite that the Desolation Wilderness is famous for.
After approximately 2 miles, you will reach the Grass Trail Lake intersection. At the intersection, stay to the right and follow the Glen Alpine Trail. The trail will meander through the forest for an extra 1.6 miles before reaching another intersection – again, you will need to keep right. Eventually, you will cross the Pacific Crest Trail where you should find a sign showing the right direction to Half Moon Lake.
If you would like to use your sleeping bag and camping tent, consider moving on to the adjacent Alta Morris lake. This will help you get away from the main trail.
8. Susie Lake Trail
Starting at the Glen Alpine Trailhead, Susie Lake trail is a 7.6 miles round trip featuring an elevation of 2,400 feet. It is one of the moderate Desolation Wilderness hikes and hence it can be explored by almost anyone.
For the first mile, you should expect Susie Lake Trail to wind through a forested area on an old road. Before the trail starts to ascend the ridge, you will get to view the Glen Alpine Springs Historical site.
While zigzagging up for about a mile, you will get great views of numerous mountains until you get to the trail junction that leads towards either Susie Lake or Gilmore Lake. For Susie Lake, you will need to keep left and hike for another 1 mile to reach your destination.
9. Ralston Peak Trail
With less than three miles to the top of Ralston Peak, it is hard to find a different trail offering a more ideal bang for your buck than this hiking trail. While the climb is steep and the trail has an elevation of 2,600 feet, the outstanding views you end up getting make the effort involved worth it.
The hiking trail starts climbing right from its trailhead, mellowing out a bit at approximately 0.75 miles in, and then kicking up again at approximately 1.5 miles in. Hikers start making out their way through a dense fir tree forest that offers plenty of shade.
The trail will allow you to get close to the Tamarack creek where you can enjoy stunning wildflowers and lush vegetation. Before long, however, you will find yourself navigating switchbacks through an open and drier forest.
Approximately 2.3 miles in, you will find a junction – take the less-worn trail heading to your right (northeast) to the Ralston Peak. At the end of your hike, you will be rewarded with incredible views of the Desolation Wilderness and even a great glimpse of Lake Tahoe.
10. Rockbound Trail
Featuring a 12.4-kilometer point to point trip, the Rockbound Trail is ideal for intermediate hikers. While hiking and backpacking with your dog are allowed, you will need to keep the dog on a leash throughout.
From the trailhead, the hiking trail takes you through a forest, passing the Beauty Lake in the beginning. The shade will disperse gradually as the trail passes junctions featuring several other trails, including the Red Peak, Tyler, Old Coral Loop, Twin Lakes Tie, and Beauty Lake trails.
As the Alpine granite comes into view, the hiking trail will enter its steepest section up to Lake Maude and then move on to the highest elevation at Rockbound Pass. Having climbed approximately 1,500 vertical feet and about 6.5 miles from the trailhead, you can relax, eat your backpacking food, and even enjoy the views around the Rockbound Pass.
From the Pass, the hiking trail will pass a junction with the Blakely Trail, wind downhill into the woods, before ending in the T-section with the Rubicon Trail, deep in the Desolation Wilderness heart.
Globo Surf Overview
Crisscrossed by numerous hiking trails, running water, and a large number of alpine lakes, Desolation Wilderness is one of the best places for people who like to explore the outdoors. In this article, we have listed some of the best Desolation Wilderness backpacking locations.
Keep in mind that the Desolation Wilderness has hundreds of locations that are worth exploring. Hence, the Desolation Wilderness hikes outlined in this guide should serve as inspiration for your next adventure in Lake Tahoe Basin.
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- Desolation Wilderness: Trail Destinations – Fs.usda.gov