Desolation Wilderness Backpacking Guide: Lake Aloha & Endless Views
Hard earned tips, gear suggestions, and beautiful film photography from 5 days hiking in California's famed El Dorado National Forest
Contax G2, Mamiya 7
You know this place from scrapbooks found in that aging cabin on the shore of South Lake Tahoe. These are the moments captured in guidebooks left on the shelves of local cafes in rural Sierra Nevada towns. Depictions of old time ladies and gentlemen standing iron clad with steel frame packs atop a granite basin peering down into deep turquoise lakes scattered with sparse pine and gnarled juniper.
Desolation Wilderness is a 63,960-acre federally protected wilderness area in the Eldorado National Forest. A stunning lanscape split by crest of the Sierra Nevada, just west of Lake Tahoe. It's the kind of place where you create memories that will be passed down to your children and your children’s children. A place we must protect.
For our five day backpacking trip, our group consisted of four friends brought together by a passion for climbing with a desire to explore the High Sierra without the burden of ropes and heavy hardware. What we ditched in ropes, we made up for with film, cameras, and tasty food packs.
Beautiful views, dark skies for stargazing, and the promise of dynamic mountainous terrain punctuated by freshwater lakes at every turn. Desolation Wilderness truly is the path to Valhalla.
"Beautiful views, dark skies for stargazing, and the promise of dynamic mountainous terrain punctuated by freshwater lakes at every turn."
How & When to Hike Desolation Wilderness
The Tahoe area is a ski mecca, and on good years, we are blessed with feet of snow. That means choosing the best time for your desired outdoor experience can mean targeting a particular one to two month period of time. If backpacking is your jam, as is ours, June and July the best times to visit for hiking. We set out over the 4th of July week and didn’t encounter any snow directly on the trail. However, keep an eye on the forecast because there is a great chance you’ll experience summer rain showers.
Permitting was a breeze. Just call the El Dorado ranger station and inquire what areas are open. You’ll be able to choose the area you will spend the first night based on availability and then camp wherever you like for the subsequent nights.
Where to Hike in Desolation Wilderness
Our 35 mile loop route began near Wrights Lake Campground, where we left our cars to begin our hike at Rockbound Trailhead. We followed the Rockbound trail to Maud Lake on night one to fulfill our permitted obligation before heading up and over the pass to Lake Doris.
From there, we cut left, making a clockwise loop to Fontanillis Lake for night two. Along the way, there are many small lakes you can explore. Some are directly on the trail, and some are minor detours. It’s up to you and your group to pick and choose which bodies of water you want to see, but our favorites for lunch breaks and swimming were:
- Lake Schmidell
- Fontanillis Lake
- Gilmore Lake
- Lake Aloha
One of our trip intentions was to build in a rest day at Lake Aloha to soak in the beauty and reward ourselves for a strenuous ascent crossing over Dick’s pass. Nights three and four were spent at Lake Aloha, where we used the off-day to micro island-hop and swim around the iconic lake.
Backpackers Vacation: Lake Aloha
We took the long way to Lake Aloha and after 25 miles of hiking, mostly uphill it was time to take a break and enjoy. You know those tasty treats you were saving for a special occasion? The heavy tripod you schlepped? The light sneakers you brought? Now is the time to bust them all out.
The sky was clear, and the weather was cool at sunset upon our arrival. The amber Sierra golden hour revealed the mecca to us, bringing back feelings of nostalgia for someplace we’d visited in our dreams.
Smooth granite mountains lined the bowl of the lake while shelves of Joshua Tree-like boulders created a bounty of natural campsites. The water level was a little lower, and the snow, scanter than I remembered from my days camping as a teenager. The passage of time was evident—Lake Aloha has aged with the changing climate.
The realization left me feeling more motivated to accelerate climate and environmental solutions… and more appreciative for this beautiful nook that provides all who visit such a warm welcome.
"It’s hard not to feel reinvigorated in the High Sierra backcountry, and that's why protecting it means protecting what makes us human."
On an off day at Lake Aloha, you have time to enjoy the stars, day hike, island-hop, and enjoy both a sunset and a sunrise. It’s hard not to feel reinvigorated in the High Sierra backcountry, and that's why protecting it means protecting what makes us human. I hope the same humble feelings of interconnectedness are passed along to you too.
Do’s & Dont’s for Backpacking Desolation Wilderness
DO plan a down day for lake exploration. Having an entire day off to really enjoy the many freshwater lakes in the Desolation Wilderness will enrich your experience. Unless you are a mile-hungry thru-hiker on the PCT (respect!), make time to get your feet wet.
DO wake up for sunrise at Lake Aloha. One of our trip’s most memorable and photogenic experiences was the alpenglow on the mountains surrounding Lake Aloha at dawn. Make the extra effort to wake up before dawn and hike a few hundred feet up the basin to get a magic view.
DO bring a hammock. With so many sturdy trees, there are lots of opportunities to quickly sling up your hammock during a lunch break or an after-dinner place to ponder.
DO enjoy a tasty treat to reward yourself on push days. Chocolate, bourbon, pad thai. Whatever your heart desire, that won’t weigh you down too much.
DON’T forget to bring swim gear. Bathing suit, quick-dry towel, and a dry bag for island hopping at Aloha. (I forgot a dry bag and wasn’t able to take my camera with us on our day hike!)
DON’T leave your bug repellent behind. With so much water around, there are tons of mosquitos at night. We brought a natural repellent for the day which kept most buzzers at bay, but at night when the skeeters were out in droves, we needed some heavy-duty deet to keep them away.
DON’T bring too much water. There are tons of places to fill up along the way. I don’t think we ever went more than a couple of miles without finding a freshwater stream or lake to top up our bottles. Personally, I only had two liters on me at any one time.
DON’T forget rain gear! Even though the weather might look good, rain can come up unexpectedly, and you don’t want to be unprepared. So a rainfly for your tent and a waterproof outer shell is critical.
What to Pack for Backpacking in the Desolation Wilderness
Backpackers Pantry Pad Thai, $10
Hands down the best-dehydrated meal you can get, in my honest opinion—and it’s vegan! There are packets inside with crushed peanuts, powdered lime, peanut sauce, and spices. Honestly, this was better than some Thai restaurant food and was a huge mood booster after a challenging ascent day.
Trader Joe’s Peruvian Giant Inca Corn, $6
Great salty, crunchy snack for the trail that even the critters will love if you’re not careful. Seriously, we turned our backs for five minutes, and a backcountry mouse raided the bag.
Ben's 100 Tick & Insect Repellent, $6
I ended up getting the Ben's InvisiNet after this trip and wish I had it for Desolation at night. It made sitting outside and cooking so much easier. The bug repellent is a must. Luckily, a couple of hours after sunset, the mosquitoes return to hell from whence they were spawned and aren’t much of a nuisance during late-night stargazing.
Eno DoubleNest Hammock, $70
You will thank me later. Also, don’t forget to pick up the suspension straps to give you some flexibility to hang between trees that are far apart.
Platypus QuickDraw Microfilter System, $40
Two of my campmates had this or a similar system, and I was constantly taking much longer to hand pump my water. You can’t go wrong with this system, and it’s super lightweight. Just make sure to keep it clean – clogs can slow it down. Bonus tip: get a large bag for the camp to cook with at night to minimize the number of trips back and forth to the water source after a long day on the trail.