Camping in the Desolation Wilderness is one of the most popular things to do in Lake Tahoe. It is the busiest wilderness area in the country, and if you’ve ever been there you’ll know why.
About Desolation Wilderness
Desolation Wilderness contains 100 square miles (63,960 acres) of gorgeous mountainous terrain on the southwest side of Lake Tahoe, above Emerald Bay.
The Wilderness is made up of fascinating glacially-carved granite, close to one hundred small crystal clear lakes, dozens of waterfalls, and hundreds of miles of hiking trails.
During the shoulder season, you can camp at one of these many lakes and not see another person for days.
Desolation Wilderness Permits
Permits are required for the Desolation Wilderness year-round because of the popularity. Day hikers may self-register at the trailhead but overnighters will need to pay for a permit ahead of time.
Desolation Wilderness permits are available online at Recreation.gov and at the ranger stations listed below.
A quota system is in place from Memorial Day through September. The quotas serve to spread out campers and preserve the namesake of Desolation Wilderness. Advance reservations are available for 70% of the permits; the other 30% of the permits are reserved for walk-up registration.
Permits are still required in the winter when the Desolation Wilderness takes on a whole other beauty and danger, but there are no quotas.
You can print out your permit at home or pick it up at one of the two offices in South Lake Tahoe. You must carry your signed permit during your visit.
- Lake Tahoe Basin Management Supervisors Office, 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM Monday thru Friday.
- Taylor Creek Visitor Center, open 7 days a week May through October from 8:00 AM to 5:30 PM in peak summer months (otherwise closing at 4:30 PM). The line to get permits forms well before this office opens so get there early if you want a walk-up permit.
Desolation Wilderness Fees
- One night: $5 per person.
- Two to fourteen nights: $10 total per person. The maximum stay is 14 nights.
- Children under 12 may camp for free.
For more information visit the National Forest Service site.
Desolation Wilderness Map & Zone System
The Desolation Wilderness is split into 45 zones. Each zone has a quota. Some zones encompass multiple lakes, while the more popular lakes may have their own zone.
This is the Desolation Wilderness zone map from Recreation.gov. When you reserve your permits you’ll have to reserve them for a certain zone.
There are links for purchasing Desolation Wilderness maps & trail guides at the bottom of the page. We recommend the Tom Harrison maps.
Rules for Camping in Desolation Wilderness
- Dogs are allowed in Desolation Wilderness but must be kept in control at all times. Always have a leash ready.
- El Dorado County does have a leash law and it’s enforced when people or wildlife are harassed.
- Fires are not allowed anywhere in the Desolation Wilderness.
- Camp stoves are permitted.
- Maximum group size is 12 people.
- Some zone quotas may be less than 12.
- You must store all food in a bear-proof container. There are plenty of black bears in the area and they will steal your food if not stored properly.
- Storage containers are available for rent from the ranger office.
- Store your food and anything with a scent, in the container, at least 100 yards from camp.
- Set up camp greater than 100 feet from water. This is to preserve the cleanliness of water sources.
- Some lakes have designated campsites (Eagle Lake, Lake of the Woods, Grouse Lake, Hemlock Lake).
- Human waste must be buried in a 6”-8” deep hole at least 200’ from water.
Desolation Wilderness Weather
Here’s the weather forecast for South Lake Tahoe. Please note that Desolation Wilderness weather can be quite different. The mountain range west of South Lake Tahoe can produce strong winds, lightning, hail, and snow while it’s sunny and warm in South Lake Tahoe. Storms typically occur in spring & early summer.