Desolation Wilderness celebrates 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964

desolation wilderness

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964 that was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964. The act established the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) within which the Desolation Valley Primitive Area established in 1931, along with more land to the north, was congressionally designated as Desolation Wilderness and included in the NWPS in 1969.

As a Desolation Wilderness volunteer, I want to encourage both past hikers on trails and new hikers who have not yet visited this land to come and experience Desolation Wilderness in celebration of this anniversary.

When you do, take a moment to ponder the importance of wilderness, examine your relationship with it and join the volunteers in partnership to protect this beautiful land that is preserved for all to enjoy.

If you have never entered Desolation Wilderness, you will find hiking here to be rewarding beyond your expectations.

As John Muir invited, “climb the mountains and get their Good Tidings.” Your soul will be soothed and your spirit renewed.

Desolation Wilderness is east of Placerville along the crest of the Crystal Range in the northern Sierra Nevada and is situated within the Eldorado National Forest and the Lake Tahoe Basin. It is a compact area of roughly 8 by 12 miles or just less than 100 square miles. Putting it into perspective, compared to Lake Tahoe’s 191 square miles of surface area, Desolation Wilderness is about half the size of the lake.

Elevations in the wilderness range from about 6,400 feet with the tops of many peaks over 9,000 feet with Pyramid Peak the highest at 9,983 ft.

Desolation Wilderness is relatively easy to access. People may hike into the Wilderness on well-established trails from 14 major trailheads. From most trailheads, it is only moderately difficult to hike up into the high backcountry.


Beautiful vistas

Once up there, though, the hiking is as strenuous as a hiker wants it to be. Stay on trails near the streams and lakes or challenge yourself to hike up to higher vantage points to enjoy broad vistas and look down on the streams and lakes in the valleys below.

Desolation Wilderness shines in its remarkable combination of rock and water. Lakes are ever-present located in ice-carved granite basins whose sides are massive granite walls rising up and away from these sapphire blue gems that dot the landscape.

These pristine lakes are linked to one another by crystal clear streams. The streams — those marvelous streams with rough and tumble cascades falling into quieter pools and ponds are particularly exciting to see in the spring as they wind their way from lake to lake continuing down and out of the Wilderness.

Desolation Wilderness boasts more than 130 streams and lakes — all joys to behold.

Beautiful forests fill the lower elevations of the Desolation; however, in the higher mountain elevations where glaciers once existed, forest settings are sparse. Single trees and modest groupings of trees grow in small patches of earth among granite slabs and boulders where just enough soil has come into existence to provide sustenance to the few that grow there along with other flora.

Desolation Wilderness has a wide variety of flowering plants that typically grow around the edges of lakes, streams and near other sources of moisture in the wilderness. However, in the higher rocky landscape, abundant plant life also exists.

To see it, look down beside your feet. Unless standing on solid granite, you immediately realize that small plants with small flowers in a harmony of colors are everywhere in the rugged rocky terrain. The spectacular flower show takes place in the Wilderness throughout most of the hiking season. Even well into late summer, it is possible to step back into springtime if you climb high enough.


Granite is the thing

Without the mention of granite, you could not have a complete portrayal of Desolation Wilderness.

Granite is everywhere from relatively flat, smooth, polished bedrock terrain easy to walk upon — creatively labeled “Sierra Sidewalk” — to the peaks, cliffs and masses of rough, jagged rocks and rounded car-sized boulders chaotically strewn around the landscape by retreating glaciers. It is truly a landscape where you may hike and climb to your heart’s content.

Adding to the imposing sights are the sounds of this mountain wonderland that fill out the wilderness experience for the hiker. The sounds of nature surround you — just listen.

Listen to the sounds of gentle breezes wafting through the pine boughs and the louder gusting winds whistling through the high rocks and peaks. Listen to the water as it tumbles along in babbling brooks or falls swiftly with roaring force down steep cascades. Listen carefully for the sounds of the birds and animals that live there.

Listen for the quiet. If it is quiet solitude you seek, you will discover it in abundance. Step away from the trail, seek secluded out-of-the-way places and you will find that you can actually hear your own thoughts.

Whether you are going to be a day hiker or a backpacker, permits are required to visit Desolation Wilderness. The day hiker can obtain a permit at any trailhead at no charge. Overnight backpackers need to get a Wilderness Permit for overnight visits that cost a small fee.

Acquiring an overnight wilderness permit is easily available on-line. In a few easy steps, hikers can do the planning, make the fee payment online and then download the permit and print it at home.

Note: you need to do your planning well ahead of the date you want to enter the Wilderness in order to assure a wilderness permit for your date and your chosen destination. Check a TOPO map to familiarize yourself with your intended location. You will be asked to select a destination zone number as you apply for your permit.

No matter whether you have reserved a permit before or are preparing to visit Desolation Wilderness for the first time, a visit to is strongly recommended.

This Website will provide expert assistance in planning and preparing for a trip into Desolation Wilderness. Under the heading “Trip Planning Central,” you will find many helpful links. Click on Trip Planning Guide to begin and then click on How to obtain an overnight permit for Desolation Wilderness for additional assistance. If you are already familiar with the system, you may go directly to apply for a permit at:

When finished, your permit confirmation will arrive via e-mail. It will instruct you to wait until 14 days prior to your entry date before going online to retrieve your permit. Then print it, read and sign it, and remember to bring it with you. Remember your obligation to Leave No Trace. Leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures to enrich lasting memories.

To learn more about Desolation Wilderness, visit the Eldorado National Forest Website at:

Have a great experience in Desolation Wilderness. Hope to see you on the trail this summer.

Special to the Democrat

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