Desolation Wilderness

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Desolation Wilderness
IUCN category Ib (wilderness area)
Desolation (7505058534).jpg
Desolation Wilderness from Mount Tallac
Map showing the location of Desolation Wilderness
Map showing the location of Desolation Wilderness
Location El Dorado County, California, USA
Nearest city South Lake Tahoe, CA
Coordinates 38°55′11″N 120°10′12″W / 38.91972°N 120.17000°W / 38.91972; -120.17000Coordinates: 38°55′11″N 120°10′12″W / 38.91972°N 120.17000°W / 38.91972; -120.17000
Area 63,690 acres (257.7 km2)
Established January 1, 1969
Governing body U.S. Forest Service

The Desolation Wilderness is a 63,690-acre (257.7 km2) federally protected wilderness area within the El Dorado National Forest, in El Dorado County, California. It is located along the crest of the Sierra Nevada (mountain range), just southwest of Lake Tahoe.

It is a popular backpacking destination, with much barren rocky terrain at the edge of the tree line. It has extensive areas of bare granite rock formations.

Lake Aloha is a reservoir in the wilderness area, with shallow, clear waters sitting in a wide granite basin carved by glaciers of the last ice age. The Crystal Range is within the wilderness area, with Pyramid Peak as the highest point in the range and the wilderness at 9,985 feet (3,043 m)[1] in elevation. Among the many waterfalls within the wilderness is Horsetail Falls.


The location was originally set aside as the Desolation Valley Primitive Area in 1931 with an area of 64,000 acres (260 km2). In 1969, it became the Desolation Wilderness.[2]

It is within the Eldorado National Forest and is managed by the US Forest Service. The national forests began as forest "reserves" and were managed by the General Land Office until the Forest Service came into existence in 1905.


The Crystal Range as seen from Desolation Valley near Lake Aloha

The following is a list of trailheads that provide access to the wilderness.

The Tahoe Rim Trail and Pacific Crest Trail pass through the wilderness.

Permits are required for both day use and overnight camping. In the summer, a quota system is used for overnight trips to limit the number of visitors on any given day in the wilderness. Desolation Wilderness is one of the most heavily used protected areas in the United States. This Wilderness area is split up into 45 different zones, with each having a specific permitting quota. 70% of each zone's overnight permits are available through the National Recreation Reservation Service (NRRS) at or 1-877-444-6777. Reserved permits can be printed at home or picked up at a Forest Service office within 14 days prior to date of entry. A signed copy of your permit must be in your possession. The remaining 30% of each zone's quota is available first-come, first-served at either the Pacific Ranger Station (year-round) at 7887 Highway 50, Pollock Pines, CA 95726 (530-644-2349) or in the summer at the Taylor Creek Visitor Center at Visitor Center Road, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150 (530-543-2674).

For more information, visit the United States Forest Service Desolation Wilderness website


The Desolation Wilderness provides a home for many species of plants, fish and wildlife.

Desolation Wilderness supports predominantly Red Fir and Lodgepole Pine forests with associated species such as Jeffrey Pine, Mountain Hemlock, Ponderosa Pine, Western Juniper, and Western White Pine. Most forested areas occur between 7,400-9,000 foot (2250–2750 m) elevations, becoming patchy to rare at higher elevations. These hardy trees take root in excessively rocky and often nutrient-poor soils. As much of the ground surface in Desolation is bedrock granite: soils are limited. Decomposed granite accumulations are often shallow deposits within glacially scoured basins. The most extensive forested areas are found on moist soils bordering lakes, streams, and meadows. The limited tree cover in Desolation is valuable for watershed protection, wildlife habitat, and esthetics.

The sparse woodlands of widely scattered western junipers and lodgepole pines are interrupted by patches of montaine chaparral species such as Pinemat Manzanita, Huckleberry Oak, and Mountain Pride Penstemon clinging to the expanses of barren rock. There are many wet meadows throughout the wilderness, each unique due to the differences in elevation, exposure, soil composition and soil depth, resulting in a wide diversity of annual and perennial plant life. A variety of wildflower species, sedges, and grasses inhabit these fragile wet areas. Aspen and Willow are common to these wetland areas.

Mule Deer are the largest of the game species found within the wilderness. Black Bears are increasingly common, with individuals being displaced from the Tahoe Basin and lower elevation western slopes into the higher country. More common, yet seldom seen, are the smaller mammals like Coyote, Porcupine, Badger, and Bobcat. Species of special interest that are very rare in the area are the Fisher, Pine Marten, Red Fox, and Wolverine.

Desolation also provides an ideal habitat for numerous alpine rodents such as the Yellow-bellied Marmot, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel and Douglas Squirrel. Also found is a member of the rabbit and hare family, the Pika. There are also a variety of mountain birds like the Steller's Jay, Clark's Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Sooty Grouse, Mountain Bluebird, American Dipper, occasional Golden Eagle, and others.

Within Desolation's numerous lakes and streams are also a variety of game fish such as the rainbow and brook trout. Excellent fishing can be had at Gilmore Lake. Less common, but also present are brown and golden trout.


Snow melt drainage on the east side of Pyramid Peak



  1. ^ "Pyramid". NGS data sheet. U.S. National Geodetic Survey. Retrieved 2012-07-31. 
  2. ^ Godfrey, Anthony. The Ever-Changing View-A History of the National Forests in California. USDA Forest Service Publishers, 2005. p. 445. ISBN 1-59351-428-X

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