August 04 2020
On the great Californian backpacking bucket list is Desolation Wilderness, a vast area of granite and alpine lakes. Situated in the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe with the Pacific Crest Trail running right through it, backpackers flock here annually for a very different wilderness experience. However, it has gained a lot of notoriety, becoming something of a mountain Mecca in California, and you must get permits to go.
Navigating the where and how to get Desolation Wilderness permits is something of a Kafkaesque labyrinth, but we’ve done the research for you. We’ve made all the phone calls and gone to all the websites for your quick guide on how to acquire your overnight camping pass for this unforgettable backwoods bucket list location.
What is Desolation Wilderness?
Desolation Wilderness is a federally protected wilderness and outdoors area west of Lake Tahoe in California, just near the Nevada border. It is in the Eldorado National Forest where the Sierra Nevada Mountain ranges runs. It has over 60,000 acres, which equates to just under 100 square miles.
It is sometimes known as Devil’s Valley and it became “Desolation Wilderness” under the Wilderness Act in 1964. It is known as excessively rocky due to the abundance of granite and few trees grow in the sparse soil that populates the area.
The highest peak is Pyramid Peak at 9,985 feet among the Sierra Nevada and Crystal Range that run through the area. There are many lakes, with Lake Aloha being the largest in the area. Additionally, there are many waterfalls, with Horsetail Falls being the most popular.
It has over a dozen trailheads to access its lakes and mountains. Day use and overnight camping require permits to limit visitor numbers and promote more authentic outdoor experiences for park goers. For overnight camping, there are 45 zones with “permitting quotas,” meaning only a certain number of campers can stay in that zone, to further control overcrowding and preserve the wilderness area. Here is a map of Desolation Wilderness with all of the zones you can camp overnight in.
IMPORTANT NOTE ON COVID PERMIT ACCESS: Paper permits are unavailable in 2020 and only available online.
Where is Desolation Wilderness?Desolation Wilderness is located in Eldorado National Forest in El Dorado County, California. It is in northeast California near the California-Nevada border. Desolation Wilderness borders Lake Tahoe on the west shore near Emerald Bay and D. L. Bliss State Park.
Why You Should Go to Desolation Wilderness
Desolation Wilderness boasts some of the most beautiful stone edifices in Northern California. We went in September when the heat was not as high and crowds were lower, and could not have been happier. While there is little tree cover, alpine lakes freckle this granite playground with gorgeous waterfalls and wonderful swimming holes.
Because they don’t allow too many people in, we felt some solitude and were able to camp away from people for that outdoor experience. You will definitely feel as in awe as John Muir out in Desolation Wilderness with all the craggy peaks and crystal clear water.
Does the Pacific Crest Trail Go Through Desolation Wilderness? Does the Tahoe Rim Trail Go Through Desolation Wilderness?
Whether you’re doing a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (or even the whole PCT) or just hiking around the lake on the Tahoe Rim Trail, you will go through Desolation Wilderness. Interestingly, trails are on the same path whether you’re going through it from north to south or vice versa.
You will need a day pass or overnight permit to walk through or camp inside the nature area in Eldorado National Forest.
Where to Get Desolation Permits: Traditional Ways
There are several ways to reserve a permit for this nature area in Eldorado National Forest. The parks system has set aside 70% of permits to reserve in advance, with the other 30% to be picked up the day of for spontaneous park goers and people less inclined towards tech and reservations.
The quickest way is to go to Recreation.gov’s website for the Desolation Wilderness Permit page to book your stay. You can see not only what days are available but what zones on those days as well.
Additionally, you can call in to reserve your permit. Call the National Recreation Reservation Service at 1-877-444-6777. The Call Center hours are: Summer, 7:00am to 9:00pm PST; winter: 7:00am to 7:00pm PST.
Finally, you can get permits in person and on the day of, concluding the last 30% of permits. There are three locations to pick them up:
Pacific Ranger Station
Pollock Pines, CA 95726
Monday to Saturday 8:00am to 4:30pm, Sunday 8:00am to 12:00pm
Taylor Creek Forest Service Visitor Center
Visitor Center Road, CA-89 N
South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150
Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit
35 College Dr,
South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150
Monday to Friday 8:00am to 4:30pm, Saturday & Sunday closed
IMPORTANT NOTE ON COVID PERMIT ACCESS: Paper permits are unavailable in 2020 and only available online. Please read the next section on how to get your permit under Covid restrictions.
How to Get a Desolation Permit Now in Covid100% of permits right now are available online. You cannot get one via phone or in person at a ranger station, so reserve at the site to get your place.
Unfortunately, permits are unavailable the day of, as they have been in the past. Be sure to plan out your trip as there are now no spontaneous visits.
Day use permits are now unavailable. Only overnight campers may go and trek into Desolation Wilderness.
How much does the Desolation Wilderness permit fee cost?The fee for a permit is $5 for the first night and $10 more dollars if you intend to stay anywhere from 2-14 nights. So, $15 if you intend to stay more than one night.
Other FAQ’s About Desolation Wilderness
What is the maximum group size you can have?Twelve people. However, certain zones have a quota of less than twelve people, so plan your destinations or group size accordingly.
Can you bring dogs to Desolation Wilderness?You can definitely bring your pupper or doggo on the trail. But due to park rules, it must be on a leash or you will be fined. Some people recommend that you do not bring your dogs, as the trail is rocky and could be harmful to sensitive paws. (However, getting your dog some dog boots may be a good idea.)
Can you have fires in Desolation Wilderness?No, you cannot. All fallen wood provides habitats for critters and also should not be moved.
What wildlife is there?Mule deer, coyotes, porcupines, badger, bobcats, and even red foxes and wolverines reside there. Moreover, black bears are very common. They will smell your food, so bring a rope to hang it up or consider purchasing a bear canister to store your food in.
Can I ride a horse in Desolation Wilderness? Can I ride a bike?
No bikes are permitted in Desolation Wilderness. The only way to travel through Desolation Wilderness is by foot and by horse. The maximum number of animals you can have are 2 per person and 12 per group. You cannot tie them to trees overnight (but for quick breaks, yes) and cannot camp within 200 feet of a water source with a horse.
While the process of acquiring permits may seem a little arduous, Desolation Wilderness is entirely worth the time and planning it takes to reserve permits. Whether you’re overnight backpacking/camping, passing through the PCT or Tahoe Rim Trail, or simply trying to enjoy a good and long day hike, Desolation Wilderness provides sights and trails that are hard to forget and easy to enjoy.
Have more questions? Leave them in the comments and we’ll address them! Happy hiking!