August marks busy time for Desolation Wilderness; what to know before you go |

August marks busy time for Desolation Wilderness; what to know before you go

J.P. Kelsey
This photo taken in late July shows Crystal Rage in Desolation Wilderness. Crystal Range is southwest of Upper and Lower Echo Lakes. A map, compass and waterproof boots are the reccomended as minimal supplies dor navigating the area.
Courtesy/ Shannon Maguire |

We’ve finally reached August, which means Desolation Wilderness has just about peaked as far as how much of the snowpack and accompanying ice will melt. The clearing, however, also means more people accessing the area for camping, even with late winter conditions still existing in sections.

“The snow and water isn’t slowing people down,” said Dustin Bell, forest ranger at El Dorado National Forest. “A lot of people aren’t aware of the conditions and go out anyway. Our visitation has been very high this year.”

Before heading out, there are some things to know about trekking through Desolation Wilderness and setting up camp. Since the area is one of the most used wildernesses at approximately 640,000 acres, a permit is required to enter — year round. A day permit is free and can usually be picked up at major trailheads near the wilderness; an overnight stay will require a permit and fee.

According to Bell, there’s also a limit of 12 people in a group that can enter. He said this is in order to help mitigate resource damage. “If you allowed a group of more than 12 to camp at a campsite for three days, you’d definitely see more significant impact than a smaller group,” said Bell. “It’s about protecting the resource and limiting the amount of damage one group could do in a short time.”

Having a visitor quota is another thing potential campers should be aware of. Desolation Wilderness is divided into 45 zones and each has a different number of visitors allowed — it could be as few as two and as high as 40.

“We limit the amount of people that can camp in certain zones to uphold that wilderness experience,” said Bell. “If you hike all day to a lake then find there’s 100 people there, you’re not really going to feel like you’re in the wilderness. It also helps us keep track of how many people are camping where so we can focus our work projects.”

Campers can go to other locations after their first night has been established in a zone, however.

Bell said he was in the wilderness last week and observed snow at north facing areas as well as areas above around 8,000 feet. Bell said that it’s important to bring gear that can help navigate hazardous conditions that may still exist.

“A map and compass, or GPS if you have that, are important navigation tools to have,” he said. “Trekking poles are important for testing the snow out and also good for river and creek crossings, which are high this time of year with the warm weather and melting snow. And letting people know you’re going out in case you’re delayed is a good idea.”

Bell said the Forest Service “10 essentials” is a good place to start for any excursion into the wilderness, camping or otherwise. This includes anything from bringing extra clothes for layering to a first-aid kit.

There’s also the issue with campfires. Although camping may not be quite the same without a campfire, building one is completely prohibited in Desolation Wilderness. “That’s a pretty important one for us,” said Bell. “Not just because we don’t want people to burn the forest down, but we want to keep the resources intact — like the dead and downed wood that biodegrades back into the soil. In a high alpine environment, you need all the nutrients to go back down into the dirt.”

Bell said the rules around entering Desolation Wilderness are mostly about keeping the land in as natural as possible state while also allowing for people to experience one of the United State’s most unique areas.

“Since this is a designated wilderness area, we try to preserve the natural condition and let the national processes take charge out there,” he said. “We do manage the area, but we try to leave our imprint relatively small. Because we want to leave this area pristine for future generations.”

Permits can be obtained up to six months in advance at Bell said potential visitors who use the online permit resource should read and sign the permit before planning a trip. Another useful site that covers anything from guidelines to trail and weather conditions is

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