Desolation Wilderness and Lake Tahoe region

Travel resources | Other California destinations | Other California trails

The low sierra around Lake Tahoe are a good introduction to the High Sierra for beginners. The best season to hike around here is probably late spring, when the meadows overflow with flowers and the lakes have lots of water. The worst season is probably late summer when all that is left is the crowds. If you don't see anyone for more than ten minutes, you probably lost your trail. (One sign says that the Desolation Wilderness is "the single most visited wilderness in the USA", which might be true if one considers the size of the wilderness).

Here are some popular routes:

  1. Pyramid Peak (3,043m). The Pyramid Creek trailhead for the Horsetail Falls is at Twin Bridges (2.5 kms east of Strawberry, left-hand side of highway 50 if you are heading to Tahoe from the Bay Area). The trail is initially a loop, so make sure to leave the loop when it starts bending back. The trail continues to a board where where you must self-register. The "falls" (about one hour) are actually a series of rapids that come down from the ridge to the west. Pyramid Peak is to the southwest. As you continue hiking along the "falls/rapids" look for a convenient place to start heading south (90 degrees left from the rapids). If you find a use trail, you don't have to scramble over boulders. The low point in the ridge (about two hours) is marked with huge cairns, but not easily visible from below. When you reach this ridge, you have the first view of Pyramid Peak to the southwest. Cross the little canyon and climb the much higher ridge to the south/left. At the top of this ridge (2.5 hours) there is a vast plateau. Cross the plateau (3 hours) and head for the spine of Pyramid Peak (3.5 hours). Then climb the spine to the top (about 4 hours). You have good views of Lake Aloha to the immediate north (actually a collection of small lakes) and of Mt Tallac (slightly northeast). From the summit look south and you will see a stretch of Highway 50. That's the Rocky Canyon route. Memorize the general direction (basically you'll be heading south) and proceed to the series of meadows that help you gently lose elevation. When the vegetation gets thicker, look for the use trail. It's an excellent trail that winds its way through the forest. It's very steep in places but always very easy to follow. Not "rocky" at all. You are more likely to pick it up on the right/eastern handside (going downhill) but the trail is entirely on the left/western handside of the creek for the last part. If you are doing any bushwhacking, you have missed the trail. The Rocky Canyon "trailhead" is virtually invisible but it's across from an ancient milestone that says "4.3 miles", if you can find it (coming from the Bay Area, right hand-side of highway 50). There is a tiny parking lot a bit before this milestone ("before" if you are coming from the Bay Area). If you parked a second car here, the good news is that there is no parking fee and there is no place to self-register. If your car is at the Pyramid Creek parking lot, you have to walk on highway 50 back (left) to that trailhead for about 1 km, a very unpleasant walk. Print the topomap.
  2. Freel Peak (3317m), highest peak of the Lake Tahoe region (3,316m). From South Lake Tahoe take Highway 50 towards Nevada (Myers) and then turn left on Highway 89 south to Luther Pass (about 15 kms). Go down on the other side about 1 km and then turn left into the first road. As of 2015, there was absolutely no sign. Once you turned into it, there should be a gate (closed in winter) and then a sign that announces road 31051. Drive this unpaved road (low-clearance vehicles should be ok in the summer) to its dead-end. Do not turn right or left into any of the side roads. It is about 6 kms to the wide parking lot of what apparently is called Horse Meadow (again, there is absolutely no sign). To your left there are three peaks, of very similar heights. There is a ridge that runs gently starting a little further north from Horse Meadow to the top of the middle peak. That's the route, and that's Freel Peak. Scramble for the left of the three peaks, aiming for the saddle between the left one (Freel) and the middle one. It takes about 2h15' from Horse Meadow to Freel Peak. (You can also summit Freel Peak from the Rim Trail, and that is a proper trail and well marked from the opposite side).
  3. Mt Tallac (2,967m) to Emerald Bay. The trailhead is located 6 kms north of South Lake Tahoe on Highway 89. From the Lake Tahoe Visitor Center of South Lake Tahoe go north on Highway 89 for about 1 km and turn left into the paved road directly across from the entrance to Baldwin Beach. Hike to the top (about 2.5-3 hours) and return via Gilmore Lake and Dick's Pass to the Eagle Lake trailhead across from Emerald Bay. Print the map. Dick's Pass is the highlight of this route (Susie Lake, Half Moon Lake and Lake Aloha on the south side, and Dick's Lake and Fontanillis on the north side). A bit down from the pass you also see the prettiest of the Velma Lakes (Upper Velma Lake).
    • Mt Tallac trailhead across from Baldwin Beach (elevation 2,000 m)
    • Mt Tallac 2.5 hours (3,000 m)
    • Gillmore Lake 4h
    • Dick's Pass 5h15' (2,800 m)
    • Velma Lakes junction 6h45' (2,400 m)
    • Fork to Eagle Lake 7h
    • Eagle Lake 8h
    • Eagle Lake trailhead across from Emerald Bay (2,000 m)

  4. Fonanillis Waterfalls. The trailhead is at Emerald Bay. The trail is the same that goes to Eagle Lake. After Eagle Lake the trail continues up to the junction with the Dick's Pass trail and the Velma Lakes trail. Turn right towards Velma Lakes. There are three lakes. The Upper Velma Lake (2590m) is created by the 50-meter tall Fontanillis Waterfalls. The Middle Velma lake is about 6 kms from Emerald Bay. Fontanillis Lake is about 8kms from Emerald Bay. The elevation gain is about 500 meters to Fontanillis Lake (2548m).
  5. Emerald Bay to Velma Lakes to Fontanillis to Dick's Peak (3040m).
    • Start from Emerald Bay
    • Eagle Lake 20'
    • Fork to Velma Lakes 1h
    • Middle Velma Lake 2h
    • Fontanillis Lake (2500m) 3h
    • Dick's Pass (2880m) 6.5h
    • Dick's Peak (3040m) 8h
    • Emerald Bay 12h
    Dick's Lake straight to Emerald Bay is 7km. Approximately this loop is 30 kms.
  6. The Pacific Crest trail at the Echo Lakes to Lake Aloha. From this lake you can also continue up the steep switchbacks that take to Dicks Pass and from there descend to Emerald Bay for a spectacular one-way day hike. There are two trailheads for Echo Lakes. The easiest if you are coming from the Bay Area is to off Hwy 50 just before Echo Summit (turn left into the dirt road Echo Summit Dr just before Echo Summit and drive 2 kms to the shores of Lower Echo Lake. The more complicated one is from Lake Tahoe: take Fallen Leaf Lake rd to the southern end of the lake and then left into Glen Alpine Rd.
  7. North of Lake Tahoe: Mt Rose from Brockway Summit via Relay Peak (the highest point on the Tahoe Rim Trail). This is a 32 km one-way hike. From Kings Beach drive north on Hwy 267 for 5 kms to the marked Brockway Summit trailhead (the parking lot is off the highway, less than 1 km on dirt road USFS 16N56).

  8. Spooner Summit to Tahoe Meadows (37 kms one-way) via the popular Christopher's Loop. The trailhead is on the eastern shore. Follow Hwy 50 towards Nevada until you pass the junction with Hwy 28 (Spooner Lake). The trailhead is on the left handside about 1 km after that junction. The trailend, Tahoe Meadows, is just before the Mt Rose Summit visitor center on Hwy 431 north of Incline Village.

Camping nearby: Lovers Leap and Sand Flat along Highway 50. Lots of campgrounds along the west coast of Lake Tahoe, notably Bayview, across from Inspiration Point. Or camp in the Eldorado National Forest after Fallen Leaf (turn left across from the national forest visitor center and drive towards the end).