Go Off Trail And Explore This Stunning Chain of Lakes Near Lake Tahoe

Desolation Wilderness, Ca – Pyramid Creek is best known for its 500 ft cascade down horsetail falls off HWY 50 at Twin Bridges as you leave Lake Tahoe Basin back towards Sacramento.  One of the largest waterfalls in the state of California, Horsetail Falls is a popular destination for day hikers looking to experience Desolation Wilderness up close, without a long distance hike into the wilderness. A moderate to easy 3 mile loop hike from the parking lot will put you at the base of one of the waterfalls last big plunges.

However, Pyramid Creek’s hidden secret is the chain of remarkable clear water lakes that are all linked together as they share the winter snowmelt from the high country and flow out to Folsom and the California water system. Stretching all the way back to Lake Aloha, Pyramid Creek is the main source of water for at least 10 Desolation Wilderness Lakes.

On two summer visits, we explored the bulk of lakes on two long day hikes going off trail in the Wilderness to follow this wild and beautiful stream. A recommended wilderness adventure for your next visit to Desolation Wilderness.

Access Points to Pyramid Creek and Desolation Wilderness:

There are two primary access points to these adventures. The lower half of the adventure starts off Highway 50 at Twin Bridges. This heavily trafficked area provides visitors and passer-bys the opportunity to park and immediately walk alongside Pyramid Creek towards Horsetail falls.

After the first 3 miles of easy to moderate climbing up the canyon this trail becomes difficult and at times unrecognizable if you decide to journey up the side of Horsetail falls into the first series of Pyramid Creek Lakes. Avalanche / Pitt / Ropi Lakes.

The second access point is Echo Lakes recreational area, this trail follows the PCT / Tahoe Rim Trail back into Desolation Wilderness and gives visitors two routes to explore the upper series of lakes on Pyramid Creek.

  • Route 1 goes to Lake Aloha then allows you to follow the stream south/ downstream past American Lake, Channel Lakes and into Desolation Lake a before dropping into Ropi Lake via another large Cascade down the granite.
  • The Second routes invites you to walk to the south side of Lake of the Woods and follow the trail down to Ropi Lake (Avalanche and Pitt Lake are in the same general area, so with a little Map skills you catch these two lakes as well) then explore upstream to Desolation, Channel, American and Aloha Lakes before following the PCT back to Echo Lake.

This chain of lakes can be visited on a day trip but the route is considered difficult, Total Mileage will vary based on your navigation skills, for instance direct route from HWY 50 to Ropi lake is only 2 miles, but it will feel like five, and a it is fairly easy to add miles going up and down the granite picking your route. And between Desolation Lake and Channel Lakes you will need to choose a route that might include going around a high point in the granite as following the creek at times leads you to a places that are hard to traverse.

However this is also a great backpack destination, This is considered the Section 44 into Section 39 on the Zone designation map. Backpacking Permits are required and Reservations can be made at: To Reserve Permits: Online: Log on to Recreation.gov and enter “Desolation Wilderness” into the search field. Click on Desolation Wilderness to reserve a permit up to 6 months in advance. By phone: Call 1-877-444-6777 to reserve a permit for your stay in Desolation Wilderness. Only credit cards are accepted with this method; please have your credit card ready. In Person: Visit one of the permit offices listed above. Reservations will only be accepted at offices in-person. Offices will not take reservations over the phone, by mail or by fax, as they had in the past.

The Lakes of Pyramid Creek

Lake Aloha

Lake Aloha End of Fall 2018

Lake Aloha is a large shallow back country reservoir located at an elevation of 8,116 feet in the Sierra Nevada Range, west of Lake Tahoe. It is one of the most visited lakes in Desolation Wilderness and very popular backpacking destination.

The shortest and easiest approach is from Echo Lake by the Pacific Crest Trail. Alternately, it can be reached by the Glen Alpine Springs Trailhead, near the city of South Lake Tahoe. From the south, Lake Aloha can be reached by the Ralston Peak Trail or cross country through Horsetail Falls and Desolation Valley. The primary outflow from Lake Aloha is Pyramid Creek, which flows south for roughly four miles before it empties into the South Fork American River near Twin Bridges

American Lake – Not Photographed

Channel Lakes

Channel Lakes 2018

Desolation Lake

Desolation Lake 2018
Cascade Start out of Desolation Lake down to Ropi Lake

Ropi Lake

Ropi Lake ~ Desolation Wilderness

Ropi Lake

Not Photographed here is small set of lakes to the West of Ropi Lake that feed into the lake as well through direct channels. (Toem Lake, Gefa Lake, Pyramid Lake and Waca) These lakes sit at the base of Pyramid Peak and South of Lake Aloha.


Pitt Lake

Small Shallow lake between Avalanche and Ropi Lakes


Avalanche Lake

Avalanche Lake ~ Desolation wilderness
Avalanche Lake is the First Lake at top of Horsetail Falls

Horsetail Falls

Backpacking Fee Schedule:

  • Reservation Fee: $6 per party/permit (nonrefundable). Permit fees are paid at time of reservation. Plan carefully before making your reservation.
  • Overnight Wilderness Permit Fee: $5/person for one night, $10/person for 2 to 14 nights. The cost of a single permit will not exceed $100. Children 12 and under are free. Permit fees may be refunded if changes or cancellation is done more that 14 days in advance of date of entry. All fees are non-refundable within 14 days or less of date of entry.
  •  Pre-Paid Fee Card: $20 for an annual pre-paid fee card. The card covers only the overnight permit fee for cardholder and is valid for one year from date of purchase. You still must obtain a permit, subject to quota limits, and pay any reservation fee. Because a wilderness permit is a special use authorization, Interagency Passes do not apply.
  • Service Charge: $5.00 for a change to the date or for adding people. Additional permit fees may apply. No fee for cancellations. Changes to reserved permits can be made online, through the call center, or in person.
  • Trailhead Day Use Fee: Currently applies to Eagle Falls and Pyramid Creek parking areas only. A daily Trailhead Day Use pass is $5 per vehicle per day. (This fee is waived for overnight permit holders. Be sure to obtain or print your parking pass and properly display in your vehicle. The Pass does not guarantee parking will be available.)
  •  A $20.00 Annual Day Use Pass is available, valid at the facilities listed below where a parking fee is required. This Pass is valid for one year from date of purchase. Facilities include: Eagle Falls, Pyramid Creek, Carson Pass, Meiss, and Woods Lake Trailheads. Also covers day use fees at the Dru Barner Campground. (Parking at the Carson Pass and Meiss Parking areas is limited to June 1 to October 1st due to their operation as a State SnoPark during the winter months.)
  •  Interagency Annual, Senior, and Access passes allow the holder to park at the above listed facilities for free. Interagency Passes do not apply to the Wilderness permit or purchase of the Fee Card or Parking Pass.