Exploring Azure Lake Desolation Wilderness

Discover the Scenic Azure Lake Backcountry Experience in Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe – Desolation Wilderness – Lake Azure was once a well-kept secret in Lake Tahoe Basin but has been one of those lakes that have become more visited since the Instagram generation took over. That being said, this remote backcountry trail experience still provides visitors a wonderful blue clear water lake experience with few visitors compared to popular destinations like Lake Aloha, Granite Lake and the Velma lakes. Azure lake, located west of Maggie’s Peak in Desolation wilderness, is accessed view the Bayview Trailhead near Emerald Bay.

Trail Facts:

  •  Trail Distance: Approximately 3 miles from Bayview trailhead – Two different trail experiences available to get to Azure. This trial is a non- signed official trail experience requiring map navigation and cross-country terrain experience.
  •  Most Authentic Route is to Follow Cascade Creek Trail and enjoy Snow Lake and Azure Lake as a Backcountry off-trail experience.
  •  The easiest travel route is to Climb the Maggie’s Peak trail and cut down to Lake Azure. After clearing Maggie’s peak, the trail is not signed but is cleared, dropping 500 feet to the Lake in approximately 1 mile.
  •  Elevation Gain: Approximately 1100 feet from the trailhead. If you choose the Maggie’s Peak route, you will climb 1477 feet in elevation before dropping down to the Lake.
  •  Map Skills, Bushwhacking, Combination Granite and River Crossings
  •  Wildlife: Bears Active in the Area
  •  Bayview Parking is a paved parking area but requires you to clean your car of all smelling objects, including sunscreen, ChapSticks and all food items, as bears frequently try to break into cars at this location.
Cascade Lake Trees Lake Tahoe sunrise
Views from Desolation Wilderness Above Cascade Creek

The Azure Lake Trail Experience

The most authentic route to Azure Lake is the backcountry off-trail experience that follows Cascade Creek up from Cascade Waterfall. We recommend that you take this route and visit Snow lake on your path into the wilderness. From Bayview Trailhead, head South towards Cascade Creek Waterfall over Cascade Lake. The granite-carved trail gives hikers great views of the region early in the morning around sunset and gets much warmer as the sun bakes the shelf during the mid-summer afternoon.

Once at the Waterfall, enjoy the sights of Cascade Waterfall and Lake Tahoe basin. Cascade Waterfall is an exceptional place to watch a Sunrise in Lake Tahoe.

After enjoying the Waterfall, proceed West up the canyon, following the creek over Granite domes, Manzanita, and tree-filled valleys. The 2.5-mile trek will have several creek crossings and will test your navigation skills as you search for routes through the terrain and Shrub growth areas. As you get towards the back end of the canyon, Snow Lake is located in the South Pocket of the canyon and is an excellent place for a snack and break before ethe final climb to Azure Lake.

Whether you choose a stop at Snow Lake or not, the trail up to Azure Lake requires granite navigation on a steeper slope from here. Near the Azure wing of the creek, you can travel up a variety of rock crevasse that can be challenging but not overly technical for travel. This keeps you coming in at lake level versus other routes that climb higher and drop you into the Lake, but involve more Talas field traverse.

I have never traveled this region without experiencing an encounter with a bear, so please note this is an active bear country, and you should be aware, especially when traveling through the bush.

The Alternative route to Azure is to travel the trail from Bayview up to Maggie’s Peak above Granite Lake. After Maggie’s Peak the trail starts to drop down towards the Velma Basins and a small user trail can be seen to the left that will drop you into Azure lake in approximately 1 mile. This route involves more elevation gain but does provide a easier trail experience.

The Azure Lake Experience

From our perspective, Azure Lake might just be the prettiest Lake in Desolation Wilderness. Azure Lake is crystal clear and tends to shine blue, reflecting the Tahoe Basin sky in the water. The surrounding granite towers above the water and is lined with Manzanita and trees, adding that sparkle of green to the landscape that makes a perfect Desolation Wilderness scene.

Azure lake is a deeper lake, with granite islands and granite shelves submerged just below the surface in several areas, inviting guest who like a cold water swim to venture out into is blue lagoon-like atmosphere. In like some Desolation Lakes, the one challenge for Azure is that it does not provide many easy-access beaches or rock cropping’s to lay around on at the water level. Access to the steep banks of the Lake are not tricky but spreading out and lazing around the lake shore is complicated.

Some visitors brave packing in Water float devices and occasionally you will see a Paddleboarder who braved the climb and packed in their ride. There are fish in Azure Lake so shoreline fishing is also a possibility here. Personally, I find Azure to be a great place for a short swim then a restful nap on a granite rock above the Lake just about perfect. That is why I designated Azure Lake as one of my Top 50 destinations the entire Sierra.

Backpacking is an option at Azure lake. A Desolation Wilderness Backpacking Permit is required for Zone 17 (Velma Lakes Zone) . Permits are required and Fires are not Allowed,

Desolation Zone Map
Zone Map Desolation

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 Reservations.gov, 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 Recreation.gov 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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