Isolation in Desolation
Removed from South Lake Tahoe’s famed nightlife in spirit more than by distance, the Desolation Wilderness area, located just beyond the first ridge along much of the southwestern shore of Lake Tahoe, reaches a delicate balance between seclusion and accessibility.
“There are so many neat areas within striking distance that are just day hikes,” said Bob Becker, recreation specialist with the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday. “The Desolation Wilderness is easy to get to and you can still get all that you want out of a wilderness experience.”
Included as part of the El Dorado National Forest in 1910, and designated a national wilderness area in 1969, Desolation is now jointly managed by the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and the El Dorado National Forest. Years of aggressive management have limited human impacts to the area.
While popular areas in Desolation show the wear of repeated use, much of the wilderness’ 63,960 acres is little traveled compared to most of the Lake Tahoe Basin.
“You can still find isolation up there,” Becker said reverently on Thursday.
While there is surely an abundance of places to go in the Desolation Wilderness, it might not be enough for Becker, who leaves the discovery of lesser-known destinations up to intrepid hikers.
Off trail jaunts are commonplace in the wilderness, and Becker did not discourage the practice, but he encouraged hikers to come prepared with knowledge of how to read a map and bring proper supplies.
Even those who plan to stay on the trail should pack plenty of water, a first aid kit, and warm clothes, Becker said.
Some forethought for those planning to camp in the Desolation Wilderness was also recommended.
A maximum of 564 people are legally permitted to camp in the 63,960 acre area at any one time between the Friday before Memorial Day through Sept. 30.
The number of campers in the wilderness area is further regulated by its division into 45 zones, some with overnight quotas as low as two people.
Approximately half of this quota is filled through a Forest Service reservation system and is often booked solid on weekends during the summer.
The rest of the permits are doled out on a first come first serve basis at the Forest Service’s Taylor Creek Visitor Center and Forest Supervisor’s office in South Lake Tahoe.
Among the other essentials for overnighters in the Desolation Wilderness is a rope and a bag large enough to store all food and strongly scented items like toothpaste.
Although the process of tossing a bag of belongings into a tree can feel strangely like stringing a piñata, it’s not a gang of blind-folded, bat twirling youngsters that campers need to be concerned with.
The year around residents of the Desolation Wilderness are the ones who could cause problems.
While bear encounters are rare in the Desolation Wilderness, according to several forest service staff, a couple sightings are typically reported toward the end of summer.
Food should be hung 10 feet up, 5 feet out and 5 feet down from a tree branch to keep perishables out of the grasp of the less imposing, but equally-as-hungry critters inhabiting the wilderness.
Accessible from 15 trailheads in and outside of the Lake Tahoe Basin, popular trailheads at the South Shore include Eagle Falls and Bayview, near Emerald Bay. Popular trailheads to Desolation within a short drive of the South Shore include Meeks Bay, Echo Summit and Camp Sacramento.
Desolation Wilderness Fees
Permits are required year around for both day and overnight use of the Desolation Wilderness Area.
Day-use permits are free and can be issued at most major trailheads during the summer or obtained at the Taylor Creek Forest Service Visitor Center of U.S. Forest Service Forest Supervisor’s Office in South Lake Tahoe.
Overnight permits are non-refundable and cost $5 per person for one night, $10 per person for two or more nights up to 14 days. Children 12 and under can camp for free.
Although the fees might seem unusual to the average backpacker, the funds collected go straight back into the management of the Desolation Wilderness, according to Bob Becker, recreation specialist with the U.S. Forest Service.
A $3 per vehicle per day parking fee is also required at the Eagle Falls parking area, but the fee is waived for overnight permit holders.
All national forest lands in the Lake Tahoe Basin are currently under increased fire prohibitions, restricting smoking and limiting campfires to developed-fee campgrounds.
While open flame fires have been banned from use in the Desolation Wilderness for more than a decade, reports of illegal campfires were still coming out of the backcountry as of Thursday afternoon.
The increased measures across all national forest lands in the basin have been in place since June 25, a day after the ignition of the Angora fire on June 24.
An illegal campfire is believed to have caused the blaze that destroyed 254 homes and charred more than 3,100 acres of land in the basin.
The extra measures will remain in effect “until conditions moderate,” according to a press release from the Forest Service.
Desolation Wilderness Highlights
Tallac Peak — Accessible by multiple trailheads at the South Shore, including a couple on the west side of Fallen Leaf Lake, this strenuous hike is at least four miles one-way, depending on the route you take. The hike provides spectacular views of both Lake Tahoe and the Desolation Wilderness.
Lake Aloha — The 7.5 mile one-way hike from Echo Summit to the Wilderness’ largest lake is relatively mild compared to the shorter and steeper trek from Camp Sacramento and can be made shorter by taking the water taxi across Echo Lakes. Fishing and island hopping between the lake’s granite crags are some of favored activities at this lake.
Horsetail Falls — A popular day hike, this impressive series of waterfalls is 1.4 miles one-way and is accessible from the Pyramid Creek parking area located off Highway 50, approximately six miles west of Echo Summit. A $3 fee is required to park at the Pyramid Creek lot.