Last September was our final family backpacking trip of 2015. I had been backpacking in Desolation Wilderness with friends the week before and was eager to return to see more. And not just see new areas either. The previous week’s hike had been shrouded in thick smoke from the forest fires, so I barely got to see what was right in front of me! Just a week later, though, and we were treated to blue skies.
To get started, we visited the Taylor Creek Visitor Center near Fallen Leaf Lake to get our permits. Getting permits for Desolation Wilderness is a little different than what we’re used to in the Eastern Sierra. Rather than quotas based on a starting trailhead, the quotas are based on zones of your first night’s destination (map here). This keeps people from bunching up at the most popular spots. There is also a fee for permits in this heavily used area: $5/person for one night, $10/person for 2 to 14 nights. Trying to get near Lake Aloha, we ended up getting a permit for Zone 39 which contains American Lake.
American Lake is a small lake on the south end of Lake Aloha, connected by a short section of Lake Aloha’s outlet creek. No trail leads directly to it, and it’s on the opposite side of Lake Aloha from the Pacific Crest Trail / Tahoe Rim Trail. Because of this, it’s likely to see fewer visitors than some of the more easily accessed destinations.
We parked in an overflow parking area above the Echo Lakes Trailhead. This is a very busy trailhead, so it’s best to get there as early as possible. The trailhead is at the bottom of the hill near the boat ramp. There’s a trail kiosk here with permits for day hikers. Yes, a permit is even required for day hikes into Desolation Wilderness due to the high number of visitors. I had a friend joke one time that they should rename it “Destination Wilderness”. A seasonal water taxi operates on Echo Lakes, but unless backpacking with young children, a backpacker won’t mind the scenic hike around the lakes. The Echo Chalet is also here, a popular resupply stop along the PCT.
The shoreline of Echo Lakes is dotted with cabins, and the trail stays high above them. This, along with thick brush, makes lake access inconvenient most of the time. Once around the upper and lower lake, the trail crosses the wilderness boundary. The foot traffic from day hikers thins out considerably from this point on.
One thing you’ll be immediately aware of is the rocky trail. In fact, the name “Desolation” is because of the wilderness’s large amounts of barren rocky terrain. It was once even called “Devils Valley“. While the distances on the map don’t look that long, the terrain will slow you down and make you appreciate a sturdy pair of boots.
Due to its popularity, it’s not uncommon to meet unprepared people on the trail in Desolation Wilderness. Near Margery Lake we met a lady that asked us for directions to get back to Echo Lakes. I was happy to help her, but was also concerned that she was out later in the day without a good sense of where she was headed. The previous week, we saw a couple on the Mount Tallac trail out of drinking water and hiking in flip flops. Thankfully, someone else was taking care of them.
Before reaching Lake Aloha and just after Lake Margery, the trail forks. The trail to the right is the PCT and goes to the north side of Lake Aloha. We took the left trail, though, to reach the eastern side of Lake Aloha. This trail will get you close to American Lake, ending at the southeast corner of Lake Aloha. The rest of the way to American Lake is a cross country route. To make things easy, I navigated to the lake’s coordinates with my GPS. Walking a compass bearing would’ve worked as well. It’s definitely not a straight shot, though. It’s a maze of many ponds and rocks to navigate around, sometimes causing you to backtrack if you get walled up.
We passed a few good camping spots by water on our final stretch through the rock maze. This is noteworthy, because there is so much rock that it can be hard to find a spot big enough for a family tent! Our route brought us out at the south end of American Lake where we found a good existing campsite. There was enough room to stake down a tent, and even a nearby area that made a nice kitchen with a view of the lake. We could see another camp further up to the northeast, but other than that, it was quiet. The nearby lake outlet had remnants of a dam, and there were other signs of previous human activity like old metal cable. It made me wonder what this area looked like before the dams on the creeks. Were there still big lakes, or just a few random ponds like we passed earlier?
We awoke to a sunny beautiful morning. With nearby Pyramid Peak and a number of lakes, there is so much to explore in the area! But unfortunately, we really had to think about getting on the trail for the return trip. We decided to alter our route for the hike out, though, heading north from American Lake to explore the shore of Lake Aloha.
We made it to Lake Aloha for some breathtaking views, a deep blue lake surrounded by mountains of gray granite. But walking along a shoreline is no easy task. Again we were in a maze of rocks, searching for the path of least resistance. We slowly made our way over to the southeast corner of the lake to get back on the trail. The lake level was very low, and we found an easier route across the wet sand. It took some scouting ahead to find a dry route through, but eventually we rejoined the trail we had come in on the day before.
We had made our final water refill stop when leaving Lake Aloha, and were now starting to run out as we hiked through the heat back along Echo Lakes. We’d be back at the trailhead soon, so there was no need to try to get down to the water. Knowing that the Echo Chalet was right at the end of the trail, we started making our drink and ice cream orders and figuring out who was going to watch the dogs. When we finally got to the chalet, though, it was closed for the season! Talk about a let down. And now we were really thirsty. Cold drinks would have to wait a little longer until we got back to South Tahoe.
I really enjoyed this hike, but two days just weren’t enough to do it properly. Without a layover day to explore the American Lake area, it felt rushed and I felt like I didn’t get to see enough. Too much hiking, and not enough play. American Lake provided some nice solitude, though, and that can be hard to find in Desolation Wilderness if you don’t get off the main trails.
- Mileage: This hike is about 12-13 miles out and back.
- Difficulty: Intermediate. Not too far, but the rocky trails and terrain can be tiresome. Also requires some cross country navigation to reach American Lake.
- Complete photo set from this trip on Flickr HERE.
- Recommended Map: Tom Harrison Maps – Desolation Wilderness
- Recommended Guide Book: Desolation Wilderness and the South Lake Tahoe Basin