Explore Desolation Wilderness

Lower Velma Desolation Wilderness

Take a Walk in the "Devils Basin"

Desolation Wilderness and its baron and rugged nature has such a rich history. Once called the Devils Basin this 63, 000 acre Wilderness preserve has been home to the Washoe Indians, Gold miners, Cattleman and Tourists looking to escape.

The draw to this granite bowl of a universe is an endless landscape of granite and crystal clear pools of water that cascade together through variety of peaks and valleys. The rushing water seemly carving its way in every direction, some feeding Lake Tahoe and others cascading towards Sacramento.

In the Late 18oo’s the first dam was constructed at Lake aloha and soon after many more dams would be constructed to create better water flow and fishing habitats  for the sierra Nevada and the California water system.

In 1931 congress finally designated this as a roadless primitive area and in 1969, the 63,690 acres of the Desolation was incorporated into the National Wilderness Preservation System and became Desolation Wilderness. Today desolation wilderness is one of the most visited Wilderness areas in the United States.

Desolation Wilderness, 63,960 acres of subalpine and alpine forest, granitic 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.

General Info / Facts

Campfires –Campfires are prohibited in Desolation Wilderness to reduce human-caused fires, impacts to vegetation from firewood collection, and to reduce the visual impacts of fire rings and surface scarring. Your wilderness permit is also your campfire permit for your gas camp stove while visiting the Desolation Wilderness.

Method of Travel – Travel is restricted to horseback or foot only. All means of mechanical transportation, including bicycles, carts, and snowmobiles, are prohibited in the wilderness. Wheelchairs are allowed. Stay on trails and do not shortcut switchbacks or create parallel ruts by walking alongside the trail.

Waste – Visitors are required to bury human waste 6 to 8 inches deep and at least 200 feet away from water, trails, and campsites. Toilet paper must be buried or packed out. Garbage must be packed out.

Group Size – Maximum group size is 12 people for both day and overnight use.

Pets – Domestic pets are allowed in the Desolation Wilderness at this time. You are responsible for their actions as well as their welfare. Pets should either be leashed or under direct voice control. Dogs can disturb other campers, get in fights with other dogs along the trail, and scare wildlife away. The Eldorado County leash laws will be enforced inside the wilderness boundary where dogs off leash are an impediment or hazard to the safety of any person, or where dogs are harassing or molesting wildlife.


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Backcountry Fishing

Fishing in desolation Wilderness is abundant, but ever changing as there is an ongoing attempt to resurrect the Yellow Legged Frog habitat in the Wilderness.  We have a Back country fishing guide that layout some of the fishing hot spots in the wilderness.

Desolation Wilderness Permits and Quotas

Because of its beauty and accessibility, Desolation Wilderness is one of the most heavily used wilderness areas in the United States. In order to protect its unique beauty and wilderness character, human access is limited and certain activities are restricted in the Desolation.


Group size is limited to 12 people per party who will be hiking or camping together.


  • Day Use Permits are required in Desolation wilderness. They are free at many of the Trailhead locations or at the Ranger Stations in Placerville or Lake Tahoe Basin. The use of day Permits helps not only report traffic volume for the grants that help fund wilderness projects, but also for supporting rangers when searching for lost hikers.
  • 2021 Season: The decision was made to continue the same operation as 2020. The use of paper day use permits is temporarily suspended in Desolation Wilderness for the 2021 season, due to the current COVID-19 situation. Signs are posted at trailheads with information and regulations.  All other regulations still apply
  • Normal Season: Day users may obtain a free permit from the Placerville Ranger Station, or may issue themselves a permit at most major trailheads in the summer. During the winter, day permits are available at the Placerville Ranger Station. Day use is not subject to fees nor limited by quota at any time of the year. Permits are required year-round.


Permits are required year-round for overnight use.

  • 2021 Season: 100% of quota is reservable online in advance at www.recreation.gov.  Permits must be booked at least one day in advance. This means there are NO permits available to book on the day of your visit, as there have been in the past. Within the quota season (May 28 to Sept. 30, 2021), 100% of the daily quota for overnight permits is reservable online from 6 months to 1 day in advance of your date of entry at www.recreation.gov . A phone app is available for booking permits via recreation.gov.
  • Normal SeasonHow to Obtain a Permit (pdf)


There are fees associated with the Desolation Program. Refer to the Fee page


There is a quota on overnight use from the Friday before Memorial Day through September 30 of each year. The overnight quota is based upon the number of people entering the wilderness each day, and their first night’s destination zone.

  • There are 45 zones which may be accessed by any of 15 trailhead entry points. 
  • You must enter on the date specified on your permit and must spend your first night in the zone which you have chosen. The rest of your stay is not subject to zone requirements and you can change locations for the remainder of your trip.
  • Note: Some zones have small quotas, as few as two people, so please check to determine if your destination allows enough people for your party size.

For more information of Reserving your Desolation wilderness Permits click here

Tahoe Bear
Photo by Michelle Tems - Black bea rin the rain near Lake Tahoe

Are there Bears in Desolation Wilderness?

Black bears are very active in desolation wilderness. In recent years bear encounters with guests have increased. Bear Proof Food canisters are highly recommended in desolation wilderness. At this time bear bags are allowed, but in the past few years we have seen many hikers leaving the wilderness early because the bears had stolen their food form a bear hang. 

Bear canisters are heavier to carry but because of increased activity and bravery of theses bears the canister is Required.

Black bears by nature mean no harm to most guests in the wilderness, they simply follow their nose. A good leave no trace campsite is the best practice  in bear country. Bears have extremely keen noses and are attracted to food smells as well as to the scents of personal products such as toothpaste and deodorant.

What to do if a black bear approaches you?

Stand and face the bear directly. Never run away from or approach him. Make yourself look as big as possible by spreading your arms or, better yet, a coat. Make as much noise as possible by yelling, banging pots and pans or using other noisemaking devices.

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