Destination – Desolation Wilderness

Desolation Wilderness, Creative Commons photo by Abby Swann

When I talked to people about leading beginners to go backpacking, one of the destinations that often came up was the Desolation Wilderness.  All the joking about the name aside, the pictures I saw so far all suggested that this is a “desolation” well worth visiting!

Desolation Wilderness is situated in the southwest corner of Lake Tahoe and contains places such as Mt Tallac, Dicks Peak, Lake Aloha, Lake of the Woods, etc.

Desolation Wilderness, Creative Commons photo by Jan Gosmann

From what I read, the heart of this place is Lake Aloha. On the map this is the largest body of water in this area.

Lake Aloha, Creative Commons photo by Abby Swann

Middle Velma Lake (DSC_9965), Creative Commons photo by Ilya Katsnelson

Echo Lake Paradise, Creative Commons photo by Christian Arballo


The scenery is quite excellent!  Because of that, this area could get heavily used and use of this area for backpacking purposes is managed with a quota system by the Eldorado National Forest district (from Friday before Memorial Day to 9/30).  70% of the quota is reservable through, and the other 30% are first-come first-serve on the day of starting at 8AM.  The key information for both method is the destination zone (see below).

For in-person reservation, you also need to decide which trailhead to take.  Depends on which side of the wilderness the trailhead is, the in-person locations are different (links take you to creating a direction using Google Map).

West side entry (Buck Island, Look Lake, Van Vleck, Wrights Lake, Lyons Lake)

  1. Pacific Ranger Station (Tel: 530-647-5415)

East side entry (Ralston, Echo Lakes, Aloha Lakes, Glen Alpine, Cathedral, Mt Tallac, Bayview, Eagle Lake, Meeks Bay, General Creek)

  1. Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Supervisor’s Office (Tel: 530-543-2600)
  2. Lake Tahoe Visitor Center (Tel: 530-543-2674)

The trailhead and zone system probably need some explanation.  There are a total of 15 trailheads with which you can access the Desolation Wilderness, divided into East and West side entries (marked as TH below).


Map of Zones, pdf available here at Eldorado National Forest site

Apart from deciding which trailhead to take, you also need to decide on where to camp overnight.  These locations are designated as “zones”.  These are numbered below.  For example, popular locations such as Lake Aloha are surrounded by zone 27, 33, 38, 39, etc. and Velma Lakes will be 16 and 17.  These are the zone number you will need to reserve your backcountry permits.  Each zone has an overnight quota, and you can see that information here.


Map of Zones in Desolation Wilderness Trip Planning Guide

The zone system is only in effect for the first night.  From second night onward within the same trip, there is no restriction.

Apart from the quota, there are also the usual restrictions for backpacking in the Sierras, such as no campfire (stove cooking only), bear canister, and maximum party size of 12.


  1. Bayview – Velma Lakes (zone 16 & 17): I came across this itinerary here.  The backpacker started from Bayview trailhead, camped at Velma Lakes, and exited through Eagle Lake trailhead.
  2. Echo Lake – Lake Aloha (zone 33, 38, 39): This seems to be a very popular itinerary.  I came across this itinerary here and here.  From Echo Lake to Lake Aloha is a 6.8 mile (one way) hike with a 700 ft elevation gain. Echo to Aloha
  3. Glen Alpine – Lake Aloha: An excellent write-up with pictures here.


Useful Links:

  1. Eldorado National Forest information on Desolation Wilderness Permits
  2. search results for Desolation Wilderness
  3. Tom Harrison map on Desolation Wilderness via Amazon



Destination – Saddlebag Lake/20 Lakes Basin

Total distance: ~ 8 miles (loop)
Elevation changes: +/- 1300 feet (approx.)
Entry Trailhead: Saddlebag Lake
Exit Trailhead: Saddlebag Lake

One big challenge about backpacking in Yosemite is the permit system.  Either you put in the request months in advance but didn’t get what you want, or you want to go on an overnighter but the trailhead you want is booked solid.

That is why Saddleback Lake (also known as 20 Lakes Basin) is such a gem.  It is right outside of the Tioga entrance and part of the Hoover Wilderness, managed by Inyo National Forest.  It does not see as much traffic as other locations and therefore there is no quota on the trailhead.  All you need is to get to the Mono Lake Visitor Center for a free permit, and you are good to go.  Therefore it is much easier to come here on the spur of the moment.

And the scenery is quite good!

There are alpine lakes, meadows, snowy peaks…

The hike starts at the dam of the Saddleback Lake. There are three ways to start: (i) hike the more rugged but shorter west side, (ii) the more smooth but longer east side, or (iii) pay $10 to take the cross-lake ferry.

The lakes in the basin are linked together by a loop trail. Because of snowmelt, the trail is not often visible. There are also a few places where you have to cross the creek that could be dangerous depending on the water-flow.

We find that a good map for the area is not necessarily the Tom Harrison, but a topo map you could buy at the Visitor Center for $10.

Because of the scenery and the ease of planning, I would wholeheartedly recommend this trip. We in fact went there in June 2016, so stay tuned for the trip report!



  • Click here to generate direction to Mono Lake Visitor Center via Google Map.
  • Click here to generate direction to the dam of the Saddleback Lake

Topo created with Garmin Basecamp, note that the trail crosses Lundy Pass:

Elevation Profile:

Further Reading:

  1. Greg’s Hiking Adventure write-up, pictures and GPX
  2. USDA National Forest page for the Saddleback Trail

Destination: Young Lakes

Total distance: 12.5 miles (loop)
Elevation changes: +2669 ft / -2728 ft
Entry Trailhead: Young Lakes via Glen Aulin
Exit Trailhead: Young Lakes via Dog Lake


Young Lakes, Creative Commons photo by 2tsohghost5

While I was researching backpacking trails this time around, this trip to Young Lakes caught my attention.  Right next to the Young Lakes is the Ragged Peak that rises about 2300 feet above the lake surface.  It also faces the East which should make for good sunrise shots.

Parking will be the Dog Lakes trailhead parking lot in the Tuolumne Meadows area.  There are two trailheads that can get you to the lakes and thus you can plan to do a loop.  These are the “Young Lakes via Glen Aulin” and “Young Lakes via Dog Lake” trailheads.  By looking at the profile, neither trailhead seems to be any easier and the return route would be one big climb; therefore which one you start with will come down to trailhead availability.

This being a lake, I would also imagine the mosquitoes to be quite bad in early to mid-summer.  Bug nets and sprays are definitely recommended.

Topographic map and profile generated in Garmin Basecamp using tracks recorded here.



Young Lakes in Tuolome Meadows, Yosemite National Park, Creative Commons photo by Threat to Democracy


Peaks reflected on dog lake, Creative Commons photo by Alaskan Dude

Further reading:

  1. Trip report at
  2. Entry at

Destination – Tenaya Lake – Clouds Rest – Yosemite Valley

Total distance: 15.3 miles (one way)
Elevation changes: +3140 ft / -7552 ft
Entry Trailhead: Sunrise Lakes
Exit Trailhead: Happy Isles


Clouds Rest, Creative Commons picture by G.H. Vandoorn

One of the many famous spots we want to travel to this summer is Clouds Rest.  By itself it is already a very worthy goal for a dayhike, but combining that in a backpacking trip from Tioga Road to Yosemite Valley is just plain awesome!

For our itinerary we are planning to depart from Tenaya Lake/Clouds Rest trailhead, summit Clouds Rest, and then turn in for the night at the John Muir Trail/Clouds Rest junction.  Alternatively, we can also attempt Clouds Rest the next day instead (ascending and descending takes 5 hours total.)  Next morning we will be heading down to Happy Isle through Little Yosemite Valley, either down Nevada Falls/Vernal Falls, or JMT.  Of course we are going to be tempted to hike up Half Dome… but will have to wait till we have more time!

Topo maps and trail profile created using Garmin basecamp with tracks downloaded and modified from here and here from  Please note that the topo map is North-South reversed, roughly.




Clouds Rest Foot Trail, Creative Commons picture by David


Clouds Rest, Creative Commons picture by Sathish J


Resting at Clouds Rest, Creative Commons picture by Sathish J

Further reading:

  1. Entry at
  2. Entry at
  3. Running and Rambling: Clouds Rest Hike Report

Destination – North Dome/Yosemite Falls

Total distance (one way): ~12.17 miles

Elevation change: +1852 ft, -6052 ft
Entry trailhead: Porcupine Creek
Exit trailhead: Yosemite Falls


North Dome Yosemite NP, Creative Commons photo by Teddy Llovet

Happy to report that we just confirmed the reservation for this trail!  Last year while we were looking at possible backpacking locations, we came across North Dome but we thought that it would be an in-and-out sort of trip.  But this year upon looking at the map and also reading some more guidebooks, it dawned on me – why not hike down to the valley floor?

It turns out that there are two main routes to get to the valley floor from North Dome.  Either the Snow Creek trailhead (near Mirror Lake), or through Yosemite Point to Yosemite Falls (near Camp 4).  Since the Snow Creek trail is known to be really steep, we put in a reservation for Yosemite Falls instead.

Thus the itinerary would be:  (Day 1) Porcupine Creek – North Dome – camp near Lehamite Creek (Day 2) Lehamite Creek – Yosemite Point – Yosemite Falls – Valley.

One of the challenges will be water as most of the creeks shown on the topo map are seasonal.  Only Lehamite and Yosemite Creek seems to be reliable sources of water.  But our permit is for end of June 2013 so that might not be as big a problem had we attempt this towards late summer.

Topo map and profile generated using Garmin Basecamp with tracks modified from here and here on  Click here to generate Google map driving direction to trailhead.

ND-YF Topo

ND-YF Profile


Porcupine Creek Trail Head, Creative Commons photo by V.H.S.


Half Dome Yosemite Valley, Creative Commons photo by Dave Johnson


Vertigo (a look down Yosemite Falls), Creative Commons photo by Alan Grinberg

Destination: Lyell Canyon, Vogelsang, Rafferty Creek Loop

Total distance (loop): 22.7 miles

Elevation change: +/- 4000 ft
Entry trailhead: Lyell Canyon
Exit trailhead: Lyell Canyon


Vogelsang Lake, Creative Common photo by Doug Letterman

I came across this particular itinerary from here on the website.  Typically hikers would start from Lyell Canyon and then onward to the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp (HSC) via the Rafferty creek trail.  However this hiker opt for the Lyell Canyon trail and then ascend to the Vogelsang through the Evelyn Lake trail.  One bonus is that it will avoid the supposedly very dusty Rafferty creek trail in exchange for a 1600 feet elevation gain in 3 miles along Ireland Creek and some nice view.

I have heard of how beautiful the Vogelsang HSC area is and I am hoping that this summer this may be one of the places we can organize a backpacking trip to!



Looking Down Lyell Canyon

Looking down Lyell Canyon, Creative Commons photo by Roger Williams
Fletcher Lake, Creative Commons photo by mcbridejc


Dual Falls, Creative Commons photo by mcbridejc

Further reading:

  1. Entry at
  2. Entry at