Desolation Wilderness: Be warned!
This is a popular area, and requires advance planning due to the system of reservations and trail quotas. If you are looking for isolation, don't come to Desolation! But the scenery is wonderful, the fishing can be great, and it is very accessible to the Bay Area--which is why they have all those regulations, reservations, and quotas. You will meet an amazing collection of people on these trails.
Climb any peak in the Desolation Wilderness, and you will be surprised by the number of lakes that become visible from the top. And you will begin making plans for your next trip!
In 2011 they changed the reservation system here, so it may be better than the old days. But it is also more expensive. The on-line system uses Recreation.gov. Or you can pick up a few first-come, first-served permits the day of your hike.
Velma Lakes: A tough climb up out of Emerald Bay takes you first to Eagle Lake, then four more miles to Velma Lakes. Early in the season these can be mosquito heaven, but the area is stunning and well worth the climb. P first did this hike when he was about 11 months old, carried on his mother's hip although he doesn't remember much of the trip! There are lots of other lakes in the area to explore as well. Like most of the destinations in Desolation, it can be done as a day hike, but then you miss the quiet evening time...and the mosquitos humming around your head. 10 miles, depending on where you turn around.
Lyons Lake/Lake Silvia: A nice five mile hike brings you to a stunning granite bowl with deep blue water, brook trout, and not very many people. Most of them stopped at Lake Silvia, because they heard that last half-mile to Lyons Lake was brutal. It's bad, but not that bad, and not even half a mile. And from here you can easily clamber up the peak to the west of the Lake for views over most of the Wrights Lake basin. 11-12 miles or so, rt.
Smith Lake: This short but steep trail out of the Wrights Lake trailhead takes you past Grouse Lake and tiny Hemlock Lake before sending you up over a granite lip to Smith Lake.
It's steep--the last few hundred yards before Grouse Lake is as steep as anything you'll find anywhere. But the views over the whole Central Valley are wonderful, and Smith Lake is an isolated granite bowl with deep blue water. There aren't a lot of campsites here (Both Grouse (4) and Hemlock (3) have more) although they are designated. Here, you'll find a few marginal sites up on the ridge northwest of the lake. You might stay at one of the lower lakes and then hike up here--but then you'll miss the sunset. 6 miles+ round trip.
Island and Twin Lakes: Also from the Wrights Lake Trailhead, this must be the most popular hike on this side of Desolation Wilderness. The trail leads you over large slabs of granite as you climb into the basin that holds all three lakes, as well as a quite a few smaller tarns, including Boomerang Lake. The better campsites are at Twin Lake, and you will see far more people there.
But Island Lake offers more isolation, and while the campsites are few and far between--along the north shore--the scenery is truly remarkable.
From here you can tackle adventurous traverses to either Smith Lake or Tyler Lake for even more fun and games in Desolation. Even if you don't go over the ridge, the climb up to the north towards Tyler offers some great views of Island Lake as you can see from the photo at left.
6-7 miles round trip, unless you tack on another mile or so to circumnavigate Island Lake itself, or decide to head over the mountain to see what you can see.
Loon Lake to Spider Lake and Rockbound Lake: In 2011, when the snowpack seemed as if it would stay on the mountains forever, we headed up this way in late June. And while we had to tramp through soggy trails, ford creeks that were well outside their channels, and search for the trail from time to time under a few feet of snow, we made it. And we think you could make it, too.
The first few miles are along the southern side of Loon Lake, and offer lovely views of the lake itself. You can even hear the OHV trail on the far side of the lake, as the testosterone gets running and the motors start roaring. But once you get past the trail to Pleasant Camp, the trail becomes an old road, which is both easy to follow and pretty darn nice after all that slogging. And in the end, it takes you to a series of nice lakes. The only concern you should have early in the season is crossing Rubicon Creek beyond the lake....it can be really roaring. Still this is a nice alternative to higher elevation hikes, as it never gets above 7,000.
That's Loon Lake in the photo at right, just before the trail heads up over the pass. 11-12 miles rt.
Other Tahoe/Desolation Wilderness Destinations:
Rubicon Trail: The premier trail in the Tahoe Basin, this one leads along the edge of the lake from DL Bliss State Park to Emerald Bay. Parking can be a problem because the trailhead is also a great beach access point, so get there early. Then enjoy about 8 miles of beautiful views, an occasional small climb, and lots of other hikers.
General Creek Trail: This is one that leaves right from the campground at Ed Z'Berg Sugar Pine Point State Park. It follows General Creek (no surprise there!) up to Lily Pad and eventually Duck Lake. It's a nice work out, and if you are staying that the park it's worth doing some evening just to see if you spot any animals. But it doesn't have great views, and Lily Pad lake is...full of lily pads.
Ice House Reservoir and beyond: The road to Ice House is always open, because the SMUD keeps the road plowed even in the winter. And there are some nice hikes in this area. We hiked the dirt road along the reservoir itself, starting at the Strawberry Campground and then continuing to the lovely rapids and cascades that empty into the lake at the east end.
The road is about two miles long, and quite easy. In fact, we saw someone drive it in a Buick. But once the road ends, the trail gets steep. And after half a mile or so, it runs right up into a major granite outcropping. You can climb up this (we went up the route through the granite along the creek, which is class 3 and 4, and came down the hillside northwest of this, which was much easier. And if we had had the time, we would have loved to explore further up this canyon. The stairstep rapids are really wonderful in early summer! Take a look at the photo at right!
Bassi Falls: This one is almost too easy. From the main road across from the Azalea Campground on Union Valley Reservoir, you can take a rough dirt road about two miles to the trailhead, and then hike another half mile to the falls. But even if you chicken out on the dirt road (we did, about 200 yards from the end!) this is still worth hiking--even from the bottom of the road!
Why? Because in a good snowmelt year, these falls positively explode down the cliff face in clouds of white water, foam, and spray. A great show, as you can see from the photo at left.
Van Vleck Bunkhouse: In 2011, when the snow seemed to last forever, we looked for a hike we could take in late June that was still passable. And with a little help from the Eldorado National Forest Rangers, we found this one.
The trail is easy enough to follow, because it's a paved road. But once you get a few miles off the main road, this sideroad is blocked by snow early in the season. That's OK. Just part your car (off the pavement, please!) and start hiking up the road. We followed it well past the wilderness trailhead, and had a great time finding a route up to the east of the road that would give us a view of the Crystal Range.
We failed. So on the way back, we hiked over to the Van Vleck Bunkhouse itself. It's only half a mile off the road...and within about 400 yards you have stunning views of the Crystal Range--at this time of year, covered with snow. Great hike--but be prepared to slog through snow and runoff early in the summer. That's the view in the photo at right.
It would be easy enough to turn this into a short backpacking trip as well.
Biking around Lake Tahoe: Yep--there is a bike path around much of the lake, although if you are a serious road biker you will probably prefer to just take the highway. Great views are just about everywhere here...and the whole thing is about 70-75 miles.