Three days, four friends, ten lakes, two peaks, thirteen miles, and too many packets of oatmeal to count. This backpacking expedition into the raw backcountry of Desolation Wilderness made for many unforgettable experiences.
Day One: Echo Lakes Trailhead to Lake Aloha
Mileage: 6 miles (without water taxi)
Elevation Gain/Loss: 1,800ft
Our 7 am alarm clock buzzing signaled the start of an epic adventure. As each one of us rolled out of bed and lugged our gear into the car, the eager expectation of what the wilderness had in store for us was nearly tangible.
This day could not have come sooner. Weeks passed slowly as we impatiently approached the long-awaited trip departure, from purchasing permits in early March to trail hiking mid-August.
An already busy parking lot gave way to groaning as we doubted how secluded our idealized adventure might actually be. To our amazement, mere moments on the trail thinned the crowds to small clusters of climbers making their way to and from the various lakes in the region.
During the summer, a local company offers water taxi services to make access to Desolation Wilderness easier. A $20 one-way ticket buys a relaxing 3-mile ride through the lakes and drops passengers at the far end of Upper Echo Lake. COVID-19 closures for this season meant 3 miles of hiking tacked onto our walk for the day, culminating in 6 total miles to Lake Aloha, our destination for the night.
The initial 3 miles along Lower and Upper Echo Lakes were very gradual, with limited elevation gain allowing our bodies the ability to adjust to heavy packs while getting acquainted with the ground below our feet. The 3-mile mark gave way to our first uphill challenge.
Our packs, loaded with three days worth of supplies, left our thighs screaming as we reached the climax of the ascent, with roughly 900ft of elevation gained over a mile and a half distance. Views back over the lakes made every screaming step worth the work.
The final few miles wove us in and out of forests, alongside lakes, through meadows, and finally to Lake Aloha. We decided to save the cutoff to Lake of the Woods for our way back and headed directly for Lake Aloha.
Permits for Aloha allow for camping anywhere within the specified zone, so we traversed the lake’s many peninsulas in search of a spot before settling on a granite outcropping with a few meager trees from which we hung our Sawyer gravity filters.
A dip in the nearby water washed the sweat from our bodies and refueled our souls before we enjoyed our first stove made meal. Clean, fed, and fully satisfied, we settled in to enjoy a night under the stars.
Day Two: Lake Aloha Day Hikes Exploration
Mileage/Elevation Gain/Loss: Unknown
The sun rose early. The first sight of its head over the peaks ahead prompted sweat to stream down our faces. It was already hot. Minimal shade meant a quick oatmeal breakfast before setting off.
With so many surrounding lakes, our goal for the day was to maximize exploration. With lightened daypacks on our backs, our slumbered silhouettes made headway up the granite boulders lining the sidewalls of Pyramid Peak, towering nearly 10,000-feet above.
While cracks and craters along the scrambled path prevented us from reaching the point, stunning views and scattered swimming holes continued to occupy our attention along the way.
From the high point of our hike, we scoped out alternative routes to get us back to camp, hoping to skip the lengthier trek around the lake and cut through it via island hopping.
The return proved to be quite difficult with fingers of water separating land and ultimately leaving us stranded on one dead-end peninsula after another. Minutes turned into hours as we skipped from one landmass to another, eventually finding ourselves back at our original around-the-lake trail.
Afternoon thunderclouds halted activities, all the while giving deeper respect for mother nature’s ability to render humans completely powerless. We hid out in our waterproof tents and waited for the storm to pass.
As soon as the skies cleared, our restless legs carried us a short 0.3 miles from our camp along the Northeast side of Aloha to Lake Le Conte and an additional mile to a viewpoint for Heather Lake.
The promising views atop Cracked Crag were too coercive to pass up. A short but steep jaunt to the tip gave views to a ladder of lakes towards Tahoe: Susie Lake, then Grass Lake, then Lily Lake, culminating in faint views of Fallen Leaf Lake.
A cluster of lingering clouds signaled to us that a good sunset was in store. We hustled our way back down the mountain in time to enjoy an epic event unfolding on the horizon.
Day Three: Lake Aloha to Echo Lakes Trailhead via Lake of the Woods
Mileage: 7 miles
Elevation Gain/Loss: 1,300ft
Our final day began early again with the sun. Instant coffee surged through our veins as we greeted the day. Our stiffened muscles moaned with each stretching attempt to wake up while the soles of our feet begged for freedom from the boundaries of boots. But our last day in Desolation countered with compelling pleads to soak up every second of this place.
We strapped on our boots and packs and made leisurely strides back towards the trailhead. The route back welcomed a stop and swim in Lake of the Woods with only a mile detour to this destination.
Lake of the Woods was well worth a stop as each one of us remarked at the vast differences in appearance between it and Aloha. Though a simple mile apart, Lake Aloha, amazing in its bare and balding appearance, greatly contrasted the shrub surrounded Lake of the Woods now staring back at us.
Multiple backpackers had already left their designated campsites, making our audible gasps at the clarity of the water carry far and wide in the silence surrounding us.
Trail time moved slowly on the descent with each pound of our feet on the path below giving gratitude to the abundant beauty around us. Eventual efforts brought us back to the car where we found ourselves already reminiscing and ready for continued exploration into the wide wilderness of Desolation next summer.
Tips For Planning A Trip In Desolation Wilderness
Desolation Wilderness is one of the most studied wilderness areas in the country and the heaviest used wilderness for its size. That being said, it’s important to remember these tips when traveling throughout the wilderness area.
Tip 1: Be Prepared!
Desolation Wilderness has gained a huge amount of popularity over the last few years. But it’s one of the most rugged and unforgiving landscapes in the entire Tahoe region. That ruggedness is a primary reason why the landscape is so stunningly beautiful.
But it also means that there can be minimal room for error for first-time visitors. When you’re planning a backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness, start by checking the availability of permits for the area you plan to overnight.
Additionally, you should be familiar with the rules and regulations for Desolation Wilderness to make sure you leave this beautiful wilderness area better than you found it!
Tip 2: Pack It In, Pack It Out
Along the way, we passed a ranger carrying out a large bag of trash he’d collected on a 2-day trek to and from the lake. Leave No Trace etiquette suggests packing out what you pack in. Be prepared for this!
Even biodegradable toileting supplies are hard to dispose of as the granite ground around Lake Aloha makes hole digging very difficult. Keep track of your trash and ensure that it’s coming out of the wilderness with you.
Tip 3: Trailhead Parking & Water Taxi
Though I’d highly recommend overnight trips into Desolation, the limited supply of permits sometimes makes this difficult. Make sure you plan and book permits months in advance for overnight stays.
Day hiking into Desolation Wilderness is also a great option for exploring some amazing spaces. Make use of the water taxi to cut 3 miles off of the trip, allowing yourself more time to explore. Be sure to arrive at the trailhead early in the morning as parking is limited and fills very fast. Don’t park in any unmarked spaces as ticketing is common.
Tip 4: Carry a Water Filter
Shade is incredibly limited around Lake Aloha due to its barren nature. In peak summer months, make sure to bring a water filter for easy hydration when the heat sets in. There are plenty of lakes and water supplies along the trail for refilling if you carry a filter along with you.
While Desolation Wilderness is quite high in its watershed and there’s no animal grazing in the area, it’s always a best practice to filter water when backpacking in this region.
Tip 5: Bring a Map
Though I’d always encourage bringing a map along for any kind of travel, it’s especially useful when out in Desolation Wilderness. Trail markings are few and far between and the various paths from wild wanderers can make it difficult to distinguish correct directions.
With so many small lakes to check out, I’d highly recommend using a map to help you navigate from one to another. Many of the lakes are not signed, so a map will assist with distinguishing one from another as you wind your way through the wilderness.
Final Thoughts/Major Takeaways
Whether on a day trip or multi-day backpacking adventure, Desolation Wilderness will not disappoint. The variety of lakes and peaks within the region are unlike any other and offer visitors endless options for fun. The wilderness guarantees to be well worth your time!
About The Author
Katey Hamill is a writer and photographer based in Truckee, Ca. Growing up a “mountain kid,” Katey developed a love for the outdoors at an early age and spent countless hours exploring her Sierra surrounded neighborhood throughout her upbringing.
In recent years, Katey has been fortunate to expand her travels to Iceland, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and multiple states within the US. She brings a camera and hiking shoes along on every trip with hopes to explore remote places. Check out her photography website www.kateyhamill.com and her Instagram page (@kateyhamill).