Tahoe Rim Trail/Pacific Crest Trail through Desolation Wilderness - Hiking

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Summary

West of Lake Tahoe, Desolation Wilderness is one of the most scenic hiking and backpacking destinations on the Tahoe Rim Trail.

Written by

Aaron Hussmann

Distance

25.0 miles

From the Echo Lakes Trailhead to the Northern boundary of Desolation Wilderness, the TRT/PCT is approximately 25 miles. However, it is highly recommended to break this trip up into multiple smaller day hikes to truly explore everything Desolation has to offer.

Destination Distance From Downtown

18.1 miles

Difficulty

3 of 5 diamonds

Hiking through Desolation Wilderness can present moderate climbs through open, sun-exposed terrain. Actual trip difficulty will depend on your destination.

Time To Complete

14 hours

Starting from Echo Lakes, it is technically 25 miles from the trailhead to the end of Desolation Wilderness. This hike would typically take 14 hours to accomplish in one piece, but it is recommended to break Desolation Wilderness into multiple day hikes to best see its full beauty.

Seasonality

Summer and Fall

This is best done in Summer and Fall when the heavy Winter snowpack has freed up the trail and North facing passes.

Dog Friendly

No

Dogs are not usually recommended because of the rocky nature of the trails in Desolation Wilderness.

Fees Permits

Yes

There are no fees to park at most of the trailheads to access Desolation Wilderness, with Eagle Falls being the exception. Day use permits and overnight permits are always required to enter and travel in Desolation Wilderness. Day use permits are free.

Review

Intro

The 63,000 acre Desolation Wilderness situated just West of Lake Tahoe is a hiker’s paradise. The majority of Desolation’s roughly 80 named lakes are within a day hike from any trailhead, with ample vistas of sharp granite peaks, lush meadows, and old growth forest in abundance. Both the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 165 mile Tahoe Rim Trail share an approximately 22 mile segment of absolutely stunning trail through this breathtaking corner of Lake Tahoe. While I certainly can’t speak for the entire PCT, this segment of the Tahoe Rim Trail is hands down the most scenic portion of an already stunning through hike.

What Makes It Great

Beginning from the Echo Lakes trailhead and hiking North, the PCT/TRT skirts the Northern shoreline of Lower and Upper Echo lakes before crossing the Desolation Wilderness boundary. A corridor of trail junctions continues for several miles, with no less than nine lakes lying less than a mile away from the PCT/TRT from the trailhead to Lake Aloha.As the largest lake in Desolation Wilderness, Lake Aloha lies 6.0 miles from the Echo Lakes trailhead (if you don’t take the water shuttle). This 12 mile roundtrip journey is a formidable option for a dayhike, especially if you leave room for exploration of the many side lakes. 

Continuing past Lake Aloha, the PCT/TRT starts to gain a high alpine feel as you hike past stunted wind-blown trees through huge slabs of glacially sculpted granite. Dick’s Pass (13.6 miles from Echo Lakes trailhead) acts as a mid-way divider of Desolation Wilderness as the trail morphs from the high country feel into low-lying lush valleys and wildflowers. This northern portion of trail bids farewell to abundant lakes and welcomes a dense, old-growth forest with streams meandering throughout. 

Multiple trips can be made to connect with the PCT/TRT as it winds through Desolation. Recommended trailheads include Echo Lakes for South to North, Glen Alpine (Fallen Leaf Lake)and  Bayview/Eagle Falls for exploring the heart of Desolation, and Meeks Bay for a North to South traverse.

Who is Going to Love It

Intermediate and expert hikers alike will thoroughly enjoy everything the Desolation Wilderness section of the Tahoe Rim Trail and Pacific Crest Trail has to offer. This roughly 22-mile segment is best accomplished in a series of out and back hikes or point to point hikes with car shuttles.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

Day use permits are required for all travel in Desolation Wilderness. These help land managers assess trailhead use and help emergency responders locate people in case of backcountry emergencies. Free day use permits can be obtained at all trailheads that access Desolation Wilderness. For more information on rules and regulations in Desolation Wilderness, 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.

Location

Echo Lakes

38.835, -120.043918

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