Backpacking at the Desolation Wilderness

The Desolation Wilderness has been a favorite spot among backpackers since it was founded in 1969. It’s all for a great number of reasons — it is seemingly untouched,  photos don’t do justice to how beautiful the area really is, backpackers you would meet (if you see them at all, as there’s not a lot) are friendly, the cold refreshing waters you bathe in after hours of endless hikes, the night sky, this list could go on and on.

We went there for a three-day backpacking trip this August. We are all Desolation Wilderness virgins, and boy, we were amazed!

What to Bring: Backpacking Essentials, warm clothes, your backpacking permit

Tip: We hiked past Susie and Heather Lakes, uphill to Aloha Lake where we camped the first night. Heading back, we did the loop towards Glen Alpine Trailhead via the Tamarack Trail. It was steep downhill. Our knees felt wobbly afterwards. Also, if you fear heights and narrow trails, this is not the way to go.

So what is there to enjoy at the Desolation Wilderness? Here are our picks:

1. Surrounding Yourself with Nature

Desolation is a nature feast. There is so much to discover and rediscover when you surround yourself with nature. You get to see surrealistic places like the island at the Heather Lake. If you are lucky, you can even get to see the sun cast its first rays on it first thing in the morning if you camp near it. Also, when I say nature, it’s not just these snow-capped mountains, the pines, and the magnificent granite rock formations. It is also seeing marmots, deer, several species of birds – including a red-tailed hawk!

After hours and hours of hiking, we reached the perfect place to camp.


2. Chasing Meteors

On our second night, we laid on a big boulder by our next campsite at the Lake of the Woods. We traced constellations and counted meteors while watching the glorious night sky. We were way up in the mountains, but probably a few hundred ft elevation less than when we were at Lake Aloha, which was an elevation gain of 2000 ft from Glen Alpine. There, we were able to enjoy an unobstructed view of the Milky Way, made more special because of the Perseid Meteor shower.

3. Appreciating People

This may be ironic but I feel that when you’re used to being in a city like San Francisco (or Manila) where there’s just too many people, most of whom you ignore, backpacking to a place like this where you are surrounded by about less than seven people at any given time makes you appreciate people even more. When you’re at the wilderness, you have more time to introspect and strengthen your relationship with others — in my case, my husband and our friends. For a couple of nights, it was just us — we cooked meals together, shared stories, learned from each other. And it’s not just about other people, you will learn a lot about yourself too, as I did. You would learn more about your character, how strong you are and could be (mentally and physically), and your connection to the rest of the earth — this, unless your lifelong goal is to be an hermit, of course.

4. Swimming in Cold Waters

I am honestly not a fan of swimming in cold waters. However, after hours of trekking, dipping in lakes so cold suddenly wasn’t as bad of an idea. Larry and I discovered saw a mini waterfall while exploring after having set up camp at Lake of the Woods, and well, I had to do it. Despite the cold, I jumped in (and then out after about three minutes, haha).  Larry is so much braver.  Among us, he is the only one who would readily jump in any of the cold lakes we had seen. Brrrrr.

5. Conquering Yourself

The Desolation Wilderness is an adventure where you can conquer yourself. Along with its beauty are obstacles a beginner backpacker like me might find intimidating — boulders, heights, cold spells, extreme heat, hunger and thirst.  But, as Larry would say, “You don’t have to go fast, you just have to keep walking.”  Every time I find myself thinking “I’m so tired” or “This is too steep”, I would remind myself to just keep walking. Then, I would just see myself conquering whatever mental obstacle I had that had me feeling physically limited.

Not gonna lie, this is an extremely long hike, with some steep areas, so get ready.


I specifically remember our trip downhill, after already about more than five hours of hiking from the mountains back to the trailhead. My knees had become wobbly and we had to traverse this extremely steep and narrow trail. I was so tired and then we saw an old lady looking way past her sixties, hiking uphill alone. We talked for a bit, wished each other a happy hike. In my mind, though, I had an image of a strong woman imprinted, and how inspiring for me she truly is.

How to get to the Desolation Wilderness: From Sacramento, drive east on U.S. 50 to South Lake Tahoe. From South Lake Tahoe, take California Route 89 North to Fallen Leaf Road. Then just take Fallen Leaf Road to the end (Glen Alpine Trailhead).


Have you been to the Desolation Wilderness?  Share your story on our Comments Area.

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  1. miriam 3 years ago

    It looks a great post! my family would love to spend the day there and the chasing meteors sounds great!

  2. Lucy 3 years ago

    I really want to chase meteors and get some awesome pictures of the night sky. This place is freaking 2 hours away from where I live and I didn’t know it existed! Thank you!!

  3. Carol 3 years ago

    Drat! The secret is out. Desolation is my very favorite hiking spot. I love the smell of the pine trees and the granite boulders.

    • Iva Maurin 3 years ago

      You must be super awesome! I love the landscape and topography of the area. And the trees by the waters, they look surreal! So beautiful.

  4. Viviane Feeney 3 years ago

    This post has brought my mind back to the basics; the last travel blog post I read was an account of staying in Austria in a flash palace between two people & eating in fancy restaurants. & then I find contrasting simplicity in this post; hiking, camping, meteorite watching & connecting with nature. It shows a sign of courage that you went out and had an adventure, and that it does not have to cost a dime!

  5. Alex 3 years ago

    I’ve never heard of Desolation Wilderness before but your experience sounds amazing! I’m not too outdoorsy but your pictures and description make me want to pack my bags and take a trip there

  6. Lucy 3 years ago

    Looks like this could be my next adventure 🙂 your pictures are amazing!!

  7. Iva Maurin 3 years ago

    Hi Jailaine! Nothing is impossible 😉

  8. Jailaine 3 years ago

    Hi Iva! I wish I could someday visit that place!

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