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Celebrating 50 Years of Preservation, Recreation and Education In Desolation Wilderness

Written by Charlie Pankey

Once Known Simply As The “Devils Valley” Desolation Wilderness Turns 50!

Sierra Rec Magazine, October 2019 – In 1969, the Lake Tahoe Region became home to Americas newest Wilderness Area, Desolation Wilderness. A 64,000 acre plot of land once called the “Devils Valley” inhabited only by the Washoe and set aside as the Desolation Valley Primitive Area in 1931.

Desolation Wilderness in 50 years has become one of the most visited wilderness areas in the United States. With the proximity to Lake Tahoe and the easy of access provided by numerous trailheads from every side of the wilderness boundary, let alone the famed PCT which crosses the full length of the wilderness region, hundreds of thousands visit the granite basin, clear blue lakes and towering peaks that make up the Desolation Wilderness each year.

“It only takes a few miles of hiking to make you feel completely transported into another world when hiking in Desolation Wilderness”

Charlie Pankey – Publisher Sierra Rec Magazine

Susie Lake

How Did Desolation Wilderness Develop

Although it is commonly believed that Lake Tahoe was formed by the collapse of a volcanic crater, the Basin was actually formed by the rise and fall of the landscape due to faulting.

About 24 million years ago the Sierra Nevada block was formed by tremendous uplifting.  Two principal faults evolved: the eastern margin created the Carson Range, while the Sierra Nevada developed on the western side.  From the “up thrown” fault blocks, the highest peaks in the region originated while the “down thrown” block sank creating a large valley.

Lava flowing from Mt. Pluto on the north shore, then formed a barrier or dam across the Basin’s ancestral outlet, the Truckee River.  Water from snowfall and streams flow into the Basin, gradually creating a lake several hundred feet higher than the present lake.  Eventually a new outlet was eroded from the lava dam creating the present path of the Lower Truckee River.

Following the faulting and volcanic period of the Basin, an Ice Age developed.  Huge glaciers formed and moved down the V-shaped canyons on the western side of the lake (Desolation Wilderness).  These glaciers scoured away loose rock and reshaped the canyons into broad U-shaped valleys.  The rock and gravel left behind at the sides and end of these melting glaciers are called moraines.  As these glaciers melted away, they also left behind brilliant bays, jagged peaks, glacial polished ridges and crystal clear lakes. The Crystal Basin and Future home of Desolation wilderness was born.

Visiting Desolation Wilderness

To Visit Desolation Wilderness you must be willing to hike a couple miles to reach its boarders at pretty much every trailhead location: Trail Mileage

West Side Trailheads (Eldorado National Forest):

East Side Trailheads (Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit):

Middle Velma

Welcome to Desolation Wilderness, 64,041 acres of subalpine and alpine forest, granite peaks, and glacially-formed valleys and lakes. It is located west of Lake Tahoe and north of Highway 50 in El Dorado County. Desolation Wilderness is jointly administered by both the Eldorado National Forest and Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. This is an area where natural processes take precedent; a place where nature remains substantially unchanged by human visitation. You will find nature on its own terms in Desolation; there are no buildings or roads. Travel in Desolation is restricted to hikers and packstock. No motorized, mechanized, or wheeled equipment such as bicycles, motorcycles, snowmobiles, strollers or game carts are allowed. Rugged trails provide the only access, and hazards such as high stream crossings and sudden stormy weather may be encountered at any time. These are all part of a wilderness experience.

Welcome Message crafted by the Eldorado National Forest for its Recreational Opportunities Guide

Staying in the Wilderness

Backpacking and day hiking are still to this day the most popular means of accessing and enjoying the Desolation Wilderness. Horse back riding is allowed on many of the trails and many individuals will kayak or boat across Echo lake to reach the shores of the Wilderness. With Crystal clear water in hundreds of small lakes and rivers of snow melt coming out of the mountains year round, visitors bring their pets, their tents, and much more as the venture into this granite bowl of recreation. Be it scaling one of the various peaks in the basin or spending the day with friends swimming in the ice cold waters of Lake Aloha, visitors have created a recreational mecca for fun, and social gathering.

Azure Lake

But there are those who still venture into Wilderness to find escape and solitude. In Desolation Wilderness that precious commodity is becoming harder to find, but from experience we can tell you if you are willing to go far enough and to look away from the main locations in Desolation that visitors flock to , isolation, and solitude are easily found still with in the boundaries. The ever growing crowds and the reckless use of resources in the early years of Desolation Wilderness have lead to more controls of the years. To enter Desolation Wilderness over night Permits and Quotas are required and no longer can fires be started with in the wilderness area.

Earlier this year news started to surface that the Tahoe Basin was beginning to reach its max threshold for visitors at many of the trailheads leading into desolation and volunteers with the Wilderness program started recording & reporting such items as the ability to not hear human noise while on a trail as well as number counts on small segments of popular trails. We have also started seeing an increase in bear activity involving humans and their cars that have had food left in them at the trailheads.

This all to say Desolation Wilderness after 50 years is still a magical place to visit and discover. As we enter the next 50 years we may just need to work on how to preserve for the next generations.


Stewardship, Education, Care

In 2003 a small group of passionate and dedicated volunteers partnered with the Eldorado and Lake Tahoe basin forest service teams to create the Desolation Wilderness Volunteer Organization. The mission is to promote wilderness stewardship and lead by example to ensure the preservation of Desolation Wilderness for present and future generations. The goal is to assist the Forest Service in maintaining Desolation Wilderness and to help them complete the Stewardship Challenge.

The Stewardship Challenge

The 10-year Wilderness Stewardship Challenge offers a measurement of how a wilderness is doing with regard to reaching successful stewardship levels. Desolation Wilderness volunteers are committed to assisting the Forest Service in reaching all aspects of the Stewardship Challenge, including campsite monitoring, restoration, education, and more.  Desolation Wilderness has performed so well in these aspects that in 2005 it received the Aldo Leopold Award for Overall Wilderness Stewardship. As of 2010, Desolation Wilderness had the highest completion score for the Stewardship Challenge. To Volunteer as a Desolation Wilderness steward you must apply and receive training. New Stewards are welcomed Annually in May before the next Hiking season.

The Next 50 Years

I think it is hard to sit hear to day and envision all the things that may take place to effect the access and joy obtained in the Desolation Wilderness Corridor. I know as a volunteer the last two seasons, it has opened my eyes to how some visitors abuse such a beautiful place and the need for continued stewardship and community support in order for it to remain what is intended to be for the next generation.

I am a firm believer that the pendulum of trends always swings both ways and there may be a day where the popularity wains because of over crowding or other circumstances and the wilderness will be able to breathe again and recover naturally. A few weeks back on my final journey into Desolation as a volunteer this year a fire broke out started by an illegal fire deep in the forest near Lake Aloha. Luckily rangers happen on this remote location and fire crews were able to haul in the needed gear to get it under control before huge trouble broke out. But how long until human mishap or mother nature causes a major disruption to the public consumption of desolation?

Visitors who come to Desolation and wilderness often think of Rangers and government as people who are trying to limit their fun and enjoyment. That is a shame, the rangers that work in Desolation have a deep love for the wilderness, they want everyone to enjoy it. But what makes them awesome in our book is that they want everyone to enjoy it as it is intended to be enjoyed a place to discover nature and enjoy its unique sounds and sights. As a visitor we should take notice of the Rangers practice and recommendations.

Tips to help everyone experience a better Desolation Wilderness Trip

  • Camp 100 ft + from all water sources
  • Don’t burn or use Natural resources for your own enjoyment
  • Carry out all Garbage and Waste (Orange peels, Pistachio Nuts and Toilet Paper do not belong in Desolation Wilderness)
  • Refrain from continued load noice (Load Music, Excessive group yelling are not natural to Wilderness experience)
  • Don’t Feed the Animals – Bears and Mountain lions have become more of an issue in the past years in Desolation. As more visitors enjoy Desolation the more their food becomes a welcome treat for these creatures. Storing food properly will save their lives.

About the author

Charlie Pankey

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