This hike is eight miles round trip, but can be shortened to only three miles if you take the paid water shuttle across Echo Lakes.
Destination Distance From Downtown
2 of 5 diamonds
With only slight elevation gain, the bulk of the difficulty on this trail comes from avoiding using the water shuttle, which adds 2.5 miles one-way on to the hike.
Time To Complete
This hike can take from four to six hours round trip depending on whether the user opts for the water shuttle across Echo Lakes.
Spring, Summer, and Fall
On Leash Only
The rocky talus of this trail can be harmful to dogs' paws.
Camping permits are required and can be obtained from the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Overnight permits cost $5.00 for the first night and $10 for 2-14 nights. Permits booked in advance also cost an additional $6.00 reservation fee.
Cradled in a lush valley below jagged, granite peaks, the glacially sculpted Echo Lakes basin offers ideal opportunities for novice and seasoned backpackers alike to camp overnight in one of Lake Tahoe’s most scenic backcountry destinations. With minimal elevation gain and the luxury of a water taxi to shave miles off your hike, campsites in Desolation Wilderness can be as close as 1.5 miles away from the Echo Lakes trailhead. Although this trail does see high use during peak summer periods, there are still multiple pockets of solitude to be found in this pristine valley.
What Makes It Great
Several pristine alpine lakes lie less than six miles from the Echo Lakes trailhead. Their crystal clear, cold waters are an enticing draw on hot summer days. The Echo Lakes region also acts as a portal to the rest of Desolation Wilderness, with more than 63,000 acres of untouched wilderness.
From the Echo Lakes trailhead, backpackers have the option of either hiking 2.5 miles along the northeastern shore of Echo Lakes or of paying a fee to take the water shuttle across Lower and Upper Echo Lakes, depositing you at the Desolation Wilderness boundary. From here, it is a 1.5 mile hike with 300 feet of elevation gain to reach the trio of Ralston, Tamarack, and Cagwin lakes with a multitude of dispersed camping options underneath towering hemlock trees. This trifecta of alpine lakes are perfect for first-time backpackers, those with young children, or those with new to the backcountry.
After the junction to Ralston, Tamarack, and Cagwin lakes, backpackers can choose to continue on the Pacific Crest Trail to Lake of the Woods and Lake Marjorie after a short climb through Haypress Meadows among thick stands of hemlock.
Who is Going to Love It
Backpacking in the Echo Lakes region, particularly overnight trips to Ralston, Tamarack, and Cagwin Lakes, offers a perfect opportunity for brand new backpackers and those with small children to hone their skills while still being a short distance from the trailhead. This region receives a good portion of the visitors to Desolation Wilderness, making the trails well-defined and easy to follow. For more experienced hikers, the Echo Lakes region offers a great overnight base camp for peak bagging adventures and day hikes to the dozens of surrounding lakes.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Overnight camping in Desolation Wilderness is regulated by a strict quota system, with the Echo Lakes region being one of the fastest filling destinations. Overnight permits can be obtained in advance online or by visiting the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Headquarters in South lake Tahoe. Campfires are never allowed in Desolation Wilderness. For more information, visit the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
From South Lake Tahoe, drive west on Highway 50 toward Sacramento. As you drive over Echo Summit, a short passing lane emerges with the single lane Johnson Pass Road branching off to the right. Bear right on Johnson Pass Road, then take your second right following signs for Echo Lakes. Parking can be challenging during busy summer months.