Exploring Snow Lake in Desolation Wilderness

The Perfect Off Trail Adventure Day Hike in Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe – Desolation wilderness Trails – For the adventurers that don’t mind discovering the hidden secrets of Desolation wilderness without a marked trail, Snow Lake is the perfect Day hike adventure in the South Lake Tahoe region. A short 2.5 mile x-country route that follows the Cascade creek drainage up the canyon from the Bayview Trailhead near Emerald Bay.

Trail Facts:

  • Bayview trailhead – To Cascade Falls
  • From Cascade Falls follow Creek West up the canyon
  • Elevation Gain: 600 Feet from Hwy 89 Parking area.
  • Map Skills, Bushwhacking, Combination Granite and River Crossings
  • Wildlife: Bears Active in the Area
  • Bayview Parking area is a paved parking area but does require 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

Snow Lake Trail Experience

Parking at Bayview trailhead in Lake Tahoe is a challenge during the peak summer season. Arriving Early is recommended. Lucky for most early visitors the Sunrise from Cascade Waterfall is one of the perfect vista views of Lake Tahoe basin and should be considered a must visit. The Bayview trailhead has two paths, the south Path leads to Cascade Creek Waterfall and the Northern Path climbs to Granite Lake, Maggie’s Peak and on into popular lakes such as Dicks Lake or the Velma lakes. Both paths quickly enter into Desolation Wilderness which requires a Free Day Pass or a inexpensive $5 or $10 Backpacking permit which can be reserved online.

Taking the Southern route down to Cascade waterfall will walk you along a granite and tree lined ridge above Cascade Lake giving hikers great views over the lake and back into Lake Tahoe. At the Creek you should walk down to the fall and take a peak, but the watch the sunset we recommend climbing up the creek a couple hundred yards and find a plateau of granite to enjoy the show.

From the Cascade Waterfall it is two miles off trail experience. Hikers should follow the creek for a bit before starting to find the routes over the granite domes easier to maneuver since the area has plenty of undergrowth bushes to travel through. I find staying on the Southside of the creek and climbing one level above the creek on the granite the easiest route for the first mile (Don’t climb too high however as the granite will take you way above the need route to Snow Lake. You will find several over grown areas that if look closely you will find well traveled routes cutting through the trees and brush.

If you follow the creek the entire way there is a creek junction where one creek comes from Azure Lake Above and the other Snow lake to the South. Follow the Southernly route.

Snow lake canyon will start to appear tot the South around the Northern Base of Tallac. It is fairly easy to see where the lake is tucked in the mountainside.

Note: I have seen bears or had experiences with bears on this route each time i have visited. If traveling alone, do make some noise to help the bears be aware you are around and avoid unexpected visits to their home. If traveling with your Dogs keep your pets under control and watch out for bear sightings especially int he underbrush.

snow lake Desolation wilderness
Snow lake Desolation wilderness

Snow Lake Escape

Snow lake is a smaller bowl shaped lake with a Tallas and manzanita shoreline on the South of the lake and Granite, tree and grass line shores on the West and North edges of the lake. Backpackers can find several well defined camping areas around the lake. This is a very nice swimmable lake that is snow filled and cold most of the summer, with a Granite island and several Granite inlet perfect for launching a Packed in Paddleboard. The surrounding area is very quiet most of the time, so we find this to be a great place to hang a hammock, or layout on a granite rock and enjoy the day in peace.

There are fish in Snow Lake however we don’t have any reports as to the size or easy of catching fish here. There are plenty of birds and wildlife int he area so keep an ear out and enjoy wilderness life at it finest.

Many day hike visitors to Snow lake add a continuation of this route up to Azure Lake which sits another 500 feet up the granite canyon. Snow lake is a shallower and smaller lake than Azure, but has easier shorelines to enjoy the lake.

Snow Lake desolation wilderness, granite cliffs Mt tallac
Snow Lake Backpacking Views

Backpacking Tips Snow Lake

Backpackers are required to have a permit for Snow Lake. For less surprising visits to your campsite we would suggest that Camping on the Far west side of the lake would provide better solitude. Backpacking camps on the North side of the Lake tend to have many surprises visitors as the natural slopes from the creek drainage seem to lead right into camp.

Backpacking Permits can be reserved at Reservations.gov under Zone 24. Desolation requires that you stay in a specific Zone on your first nights visit. Snow Lake is part of the Mt Tallac Zone. Note that Lake Azure is actually in the next Zone 17 and Velma’s Zone.

Campfire are Strictly Prohibited in Desolation wilderness. California Fire Permit is required for your Camp stoves. As a Volunteer in Desolation Wilderness it is always disheartening to see the number of Illegal Fire pits created each year in desolation wilderness. Fires in desolation are not only Dangerous but rob the wilderness of much needed resources for it wildlife and soil restoration. Please be considerate to the future and experience wilderness with out a campfire.

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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