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Desolation Wilderness, California, United States

Backpacking in Desolation Wilderness

A trek through Lake Tahoe's Desolation Wilderness past Velma Lake, Fontanillis Lake, Dicks Lake, and Eagle Lake

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    This guide contains photos
 (12 votes, 7 reviews)
Difficulty: Difficult
Length: 13.8 miles / 22 km
Dog Friendly
Overview: This hike provides a great tour of some of the best features of desolation wilderness. It is great for a 2-day, 1-night backpacking trip on a weekend or for a long day hike. All lakes along this hike are spectacular and are great for swimming. There are a number steep sections, particularly near the beginning and end of the hike, but the views make up for it.

Tips: - Middle Velma lake has more camping spots than the other lakes in this area.
- Make sure to get a wilderness permit for overnight camping from the ranger station before hiking.
- After wet seasons there can be a lot of mosquitos in this area, so come prepared with deet and quick reflexes.

Points of Interest


Parking and Trailhead

There is a campground just off of Hwy 89 where you can find overnight parking (make sure to fill out the form available at the trailhead so rangers know where you are). If this lot is full you may be able to find some parking along the Hwy 89.

The trailhead is at the back of the campground parking area, the furthest point from Hwy 89.

Steep climb

The first part of the hike is a very steep climb to the first view point. After the first mile it gets significantly easier, and the views at the top and a swim in the lakes will make it all worthwhile.

Views of Emerald Bay

After about 1 mile of uphill hiking you will be rewarded with your first view of Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe below. You can wander off the main trail a little ways to get a better view.

Granite Lake

After another 0.5 miles you will see Granite Lake below on your left (it would take some extra work to reach the lake). Continue up the trail another 0.5 miles and you will reach the end of this section's climbing.

Desolation Wilderness View

After the first 2 miles you will reach the top of the climbing section and be rewarded with an amazing view with Eagle Lake below and to the right. You will walk by this lake near the end of the hike.


Continue straight at this junction to reach the lakes in this area (Velma, Fontanillis, Dicks) if you don't have the time or energy for the full loop, take the trail to the right to hike down to Eagle Lake.


Soon you will reach another split in the trail. You can go either way because you will eventually loop back to this point. Dicks lake is to the left, Middle and Upper Velma are to the right, and Fontanillis is about the same distance either way.

The Velma lakes have more camping choices, so it may be nice to hike straight there and continue the rest of the loop the next day.

Upper Velma Lake

Soon you will pass by the side of Upper Velma Lake. You can camp near this lake but if you do you will have more to hike the next day. Camping at Lower Velma only leaves about 8 miles for the next day.

Middle Velma Lake

Middle Velma Lake has a number of camping spots and is a great lake for swimming, but know that it can be very cold, especially in June and July. There are a number of small rock islands in the middle of the lake that you can hop between and rest to recover from the cold.

Fontanillis Lake

Fontanillis Lake is a beautiful lake but there are not many easily accessible camp spots. You will walk along the entire length of the lake on your way to Dicks lake.

To your left you can see Lake Tahoe in the distance.

Dicks Lake

Dicks Lake is another option for camping, but the spots are limited. If you are lucky, you may grab the best spot just off the trailhead with lots of flat space and a great view of the lake and the mountains in the background.


You now have completed the lakes loop. Continue to the right (if you went counter clockwise around the loop) and head back towards the lake Tahoe.


Soon you will arrive at the last junction. You can continue to the right where you will hike back down towards Granite Lake and the parking lot, or hike to the left to visit Eagle lake and eagle falls.

If you choose to continue to eagle falls (recommended), you will need to walk about 0.5 miles along the shoulder of Hwy 89 to each your car, but don't worry, there is plenty of room to hike there.

Eagle Lake

After hiking down you will arrive at eagle lake, which is a popular day hike destination. There are some nice spots to sit by the lake and enjoy a snack or a swim.

Eagle Fall

Just before the end of the trail you will cross a bridge over eagle fall. Just after the bridge there is a view point where you can look back to see the entire waterfall.

Parking Lot

Your hike is over (almost). If your car is at the other parking lot, you will need to hike a few minutes further along Hwy 89 to the right to reach the parking lot. The walk passes quickly as you will have great views of Emerald Bay below.
Pictures in this guide taken by: chris, laytonw, nchastings, dubosegriffin, e46jester
Had a great time, despite a sleepless first night at Dick's Lake. Be forewarned, the spots there are beautiful, but the wind can be extreme. All of lakes are incredible. Some of the best swimming out there. Even in the drought.

Ran into a couple of groups that didn't quite have their bearings, but everyone on the trail was very polite.

Walk back up to Bayview at the end went quickly, but the cars drive rather quickly along the road.

Visited on Aug 29, 2015

by mattban on Sep 07, 2015
Great guide! followed this completely! We did not have an excellent map so during the portions where the trail markings where gone made it a little more "Compass heading hiking" than so much just walking the trail. We were not every day hikers and that first up hill climb was more than 2.5 miles of switchbacks..KILLER..we had to stop quite a few times to rest. After that it was easy with tons of killer views and water sources to refill. We did the hike all the way to middle velma and then only took 2 hours to hike out so perfect! Middle Velma was beautiful!
Visited on Oct 17, 2014

by aos899 on Nov 07, 2014
Really, really great hike! So happy I stumbled across this recommended itinerary :D
- Definitely a healthy climb the first 2 miles but very doable.
- The trail becomes a bit free-form at times and we would subsequently get off trail. Always able to recover though (granted, we went just after a snowfall which made the trail easier to follow at times since we could see foot prints but would also hide markers)
- The lakes are absolutely gorgeous! Great for filtering water and eating a serene lunch
- The walk back after visiting Eagle Lake along highway 50 sorta sucks especially after experiencing all the wonderful trails... It is a 1.02 miles walk. There is a shoulder but minimal at times + for some reason all the cars passing are going pretty quickly... All in all we would still stick to the proposed trail as it was great to finish with Eagle Lake.

Will definitely do this trail again!

Visited on Sep 22, 2013

by SoLT_explorer on Sep 25, 2013
Awesome guide Chris! Our group had a wonderful time (7 ppl, 2 dogs). Got a Saturday overnight permit reservation on for Fontanillis Lake, car camped at Luther Pass on Friday night, headed out early to the Taylor Creek Visitor Center to pick up the permit on Saturday, and drove over to the Bayview Trailhead. Dropped people off and shuttled the second car to the Eagle Falls Trailhead so we had a way of getting back. We got slightly off trail when we reached Upper Velma but found our way back to Fontanillis where we camped on the side of the hill. Beautiful views and great swimming spots. Only pests were the mosquitoes that were in full force at that time so make sure you bring bug repellent! Awesome trip and I can see why one would do this hike again :D
Visited on Jul 07, 2012

by debisaur on Jul 17, 2012
Great guide.
Just a small note: can you add some information on the permitting process? How to get them, how easy/difficult?

by ilya_ktsn on Jun 06, 2012
Your Fonanillas Lake & Eagle Falls pictures are beautiful. It looks like a great backpacking trip.

by trailsnet on Dec 31, 2010
I can't take credit for all of the pictures in this guide, some are by other EveryTrail members. This area is one of my favorites, that's probably why I have done this exact trip 2 times even though there are so many other great places in this area.

by chris on Dec 30, 2010

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