Discover Tamarack and Ralston Lakes: Nature’s Hidden Treasure

Tamarack and Ralston Lakes a Great Beginner Backpacking Destination Off the PCT Near Lake Tahoe

If you’re a nature enthusiast with a passion for exploration, Tamarack Lake and Ralston lakes is calling your name. Located along one of the more popular routes into Desolation wilderness this alpine wonder is waiting to be discovered. Tamarack and Ralston lakes lie next to the PCT just past Upper Echo Lake off Highway 50 near South Lake Tahoe. This trailhead is one of the most used trail segments of the Desolation experience. Still Tamarack and Ralston Lake provide for a great short hike backpacking experience that is great for beginning backpackers in the Sierra.

Tamarack Lake: Where Tranquility Meets Adventure

Tamarack Lake is a pristine alpine gem, surrounded by granite peaks. The journey to Tamarack is a great day adventure in itself, with scenic trail leading you to a pristine and rugged mountain experience in the Sierra Nevada. Whether you’re a hiker or a backpacker, Tamarack promises a memorable experience.

Trailhead and Stats and Info:

  • Best Trailhead: Echo Lake Trailhead
  • Mileage: Approximately 3 miles one way
  • Elevation Gain: Moderate
  • Desolation Wilderness Backpacking Zone: Zone 21
  • Bear Canisters Are Required for all Backpackers
  • Backpacking Permits are Required for overnight Stays in Desolation wilderness
  • Free Day Permits are available at trailhead At Echo lake. Travelers to Tamarack and Ralston Lakes are asked to carry Free Day permit for party. Hikers to Upper Echo lake are not required to have a permit.
Map Tamarack and Ralston lake near Echo Lake
Map Tamarack and Ralston lake near Echo Lake

Begin your adventure at the Echo Lake Trailhead, where you’ll embark on a journey through rocky outcrops covered in Manzanita bush, traveling next to Old Family cabins of Echo Lake. As you ascend, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking vistas looking back over Echo Lakes. Tamarack Lake, with its mirror-like surface and serene ambiance, is a sight to behold. and Ralston Lake with its cold clear water at the base of Ralston Peak provide unique Desolation experiences.

Desolation Zone Map
Zone Map Desolation

Tamarack Lake Experience

Tamarack Lake, being so easy to access and close to Echo Lake is a busy desolation destination. You are likely being joined by a maximum number of backpackers in Zone 21 each night as well as many day hikers dropping into the lake before heading back to their cars at night. Still plenty of campsites are spread around the basin and lake and Access to the lake is easy for watching the stars reflect across the waters at night.

Ralston lake 2019
Ralston lake 2019

Ralston Lake Experience

Ralston Lake is tucked behind Tamarack lake and is less than a 1/4 mile over a small ridge. This small bowl lake has fewer places for a camp spot, but the lake is stunningly clear and cold lake. If you are seeking more solitude in this region, Ralston Lake or smaller Cagwin lake just below Ralston would be a good place to start.

Desolation and the Yellow Legged Frog restoration

There are no fish in Tamarack Ralston or Cagwin Lakes. The fish were removed as part of the Yellow Legged Frog Restoration projects in the Sierra Nevada. This area is precious territory for the Frog habitat and the invasive fish population that was planted many generations ago, by sportsman needed to be removed to help the frogs recover.

Yellow Legged Frog
Yellow Legged Frog

Backpacking Regulations Desolation Wilderness

Backpacking Permits are required to stay overnight at tamarack, Ralston or Cagwin lakes. They are located in Zone 21 and permits can be reserved up to Six months in advance at . Backpackers in desolation wilderness are required to select a Zone where they will stay their first night in the Wilderness.

Desolation Wilderness Permit Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Who Requires a Permit? Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a casual day-tripper, all individuals venturing into Desolation Wilderness are required to obtain a permit. Even if you’re planning a short day hike, obtaining a permit is essential. Day hikers can conveniently secure their permits at ranger stations or self-serve kiosks located at popular trailheads. There are no charges or visitor quotas for day hikers, but please note that a few trailheads may have a day parking fee, exempt for overnight wilderness permit holders. If your adventure involves an overnight stay in Desolation Wilderness, you must acquire a Wilderness Permit either online or from a ranger station before embarking on your journey.

Permit Reservations To ensure a fair distribution of visitors throughout the wilderness, Desolation Wilderness employs a quota system, restricting the number of overnight campers in specific wilderness zones. With 45 distinct zones to explore, these quotas are in effect from the Friday before Memorial Day weekend through September 30. Permits remain mandatory during other times of the year.

Seventy percent of overnight permits are available through a user-friendly online reservation system at, specifically designed for Desolation Wilderness Permits. Alternatively, you can make reservations by calling (877) 444-6777. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance, and within 14 days of your adventure, you can log back into your account at to print your permit. Another option is to visit a Forest Service permit office during business hours to obtain your permit in person. It’s important to note that permit reservations are no longer accepted via phone or fax, and they are not sent by mail.

The remaining 30 percent of permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis on the day of your entry. Keep in mind that some zones have limited daily quotas, so check the provided table to ensure your group adheres to the entry quota. The maximum group size permitted is 12 people.


  • Permit Reservation Fees: A non-refundable fee of $6.00 per party/per permit is charged at the time of reservation. Be sure to plan your trip carefully, as all reservation fees are non-refundable.
  • Overnight Wilderness Permit Fee: For the first night, the fee is $5.00 per person, and for two or more nights up to 14 days, it’s $10.00 per person (non-refundable). The cost of a single permit will not exceed $100.00. Children aged 12 and under are exempt from these fees, and Golden passes do not apply to personal use permits.
  • Pre-Paid Fee Card: You can simplify your permit fees by purchasing a pre-paid fee card for $20.00. This card exclusively covers the overnight permit fee and remains valid for one year from the date of purchase. Please note that you still need to obtain a permit in person, subject to quota limits.
  • Permit Changes: There is a $5 fee for making changes to the date, zone, or the number of people on your permit. However, there is no fee for cancellations.

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