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Backpacking the PCT across Desolation Wilderness

Backpacking the PCT across Desolation Wilderness

Summer Backpacking near Lake Tahoe has many options, however the opportunity to backpack on the PCT into desolation Wilderness is by far the most sought after experience for hikers in the Central Sierra yearly.

Backpacking into Desolation Wilderness provides visitors and locals alike a simple well earned separation from the bulk of the crowds and lets you enjoy the serenity and wildness of the desolation wilderness. However Staying on the Path of the PCT provides you an opportunity to check off one of the best segments of the famed long distance trail in the high Sierra.

Here our our tips and favorite lake backpacking locations along the PCT.


“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” ~ John Muir

Lake Aloha
Lake Aloha- Desolation Wilderness

Entering the Desolation Wilderness from the south is the most common route for most PCT visitors. The PCT crosses the Sierra on Echo summit at HWY 50 South West of Lake Tahoe. For many PCT travelers Lake Tahoe is a natural stop along their journey to find an abundance of food and to take a day off from the trail. You can often find hikers seeking a ride into town from Echo Lake during the Mid summer season around the Forth of July.

For beginner Backpackers leaving from Echo Lake provides and easy travel along the PCT to Lake Aloha or Lake of the Woods (note Lake of the woods is not directly on the PCT, you must be willing to venture off trial .5 miles) Roughly 7 miles from the lodge at Echo Lake this route can also be shortened by taking the Water fairy from the Lodge at Echo Lake.

PCT Trail Along Echo Lake

From Lake Aloha Backpackers will start to experience the various passes of the Desolation Wilderness Routes as well as many of the more popular destination lakes in the Wilderness back country. Headed towards Dicks Pass backpackers are invited to visit Heather Lakes, Susie Lake and Gilmore Lake, with an optional 2.1 mile off route option to Half Moon Lake .

Once over the 9380′ Dicks Pass ( the highest Point on the PCT trail in Desolation Wilderness) hikers will have their choice of overnight locations at dicks Lake, Fontanillis Lake, or the more popular Upper and middle Velma Lakes.


“The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” ~ John Muir

Middle Velma Lake

Once past the Middle Velma Lake backpackers will climb roughly 200 feet before being rewarded with a stretch of 10 miles of wilderness forest to the West of Phipps Peak, which gradually descends out of Desolation Wilderness and back into the Eldorado and Tahoe National forests by Richardson Lake and headed to the famed Barker Pass and the Granite Chief Wilderness region.

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.

A Common Three Day treks have backpackers staying at Lake Aloha on night one, Traveling over Dicks Pass to the Velma Lakes on day two, then on day three completing their trek out of the Wilderness to the north. For those not interested in completing the trail segment after day two find an easy exit and rewarding experience following the alternative trail route over Phipps Pass to Rubicon, Stoney ridge, & Past Lake Genevieve lakes before exiting at the Meeks Bay resort trail head.

Crag Lake – Desolation Wilderness

Desolation Wilderness Backpacking does require a permit. Over night permits can be obtained from the Forest Service Visitor Centers in South Lake Tahoe. Please Note that no Campfires are allowed in the Desolation Wilderness. Portable Stoves are permitted. Because the Desolation Wilderness is one of the Most visited Wilderness areas in the nation, it is also in the most danger of being destroyed by over use. You should not only expect to see many others on your journey but we hope you will help us keep the leave no trace principles in order to preserve this wilderness experience for generations to come.

Make sure to set up camp at least 100 feet away from the water, and to use camp areas that have already been established if possible. Many location in Desolation Wilderness have illegal camp areas which volunteers for years have been trying to repair. Do you part by making sure you carry out what you bring in and only stay in designated areas.

About The Author

Sierra REC magazine - Charlie Pankey ~ Publisher

Local Explorer and adventure seeker in the Lake Tahoe Basin and the Sierra Mountain Region. Loves Hiking and Exploring the National forest, National Parks and Wilderness Regions of the Sierra Nevada.

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