Hike to the Velma Lakes in Desolation Wilderness

Rate this Adventure Bayview Trailhead

Our map took us off the path, past the bears, to where the fish had never seen a hook before. Phones don't work in Desolation Wilderness, so make sure to bring your map/ GPS or load it up ahead of time.

The hike starts at Bayview Trailhead (Latitude: 38.938619 | Longitude: -120.14197). A wooden sign points right to "Desolation" and left to Cascade Falls. Follow the sign towards Desolation. The first 3/4 mile is comprised of switch-backs that lead to a high point with a spectacular view of Lake Tahoe. This point is easily reached (without packs), and a draw to the visitors of the campgrounds below in the parking lot area.

Many of the trees have subsequently been removed making this less than a pristine area, however, the health of the forest in this area has improved dramatically in the last few years. The trail passes a small creek that flows out of Granite Lake. Just after this crossing, the trail levels out some and bends sharply back toward the east. Large granite boulders at this turn provide seating for a well deserved rest stop with panoramic views of Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay. The trail continues to climb for another 1/2 - 3/4 mile to Granite Lake. The total elevation gain for this part of the hike is about 880'.

After Granite Lake, the trail again gets steep for the next mile or so as you continue to switch-back towards the saddle between Maggie's Peaks. At the saddle, you have climbed 700' above Granite Lake. The trail flattens and continues east along the sparsely forested ridge for another mile or so until it intersects the Eagle Lake trail coming out of Emerald Bay.

From the intersection where the two trails merge, the trail continues east back into Desolation. The trail in this area meanders across open slopes with views of Tallac and the prominent ridge that overshadows Azure and Snow Lakes. After a bit, the trail splits again with the left fork heading back towards Dicks and Fontanillis Lakes while the right fork continues on toward Velma Lake. After this split the trail descends through a series of swale's some 300 feet. The first of the lakes to come into view is Upper Velma. Although very beautiful, with its shores covered with marshy reeds, Upper Velma is the least appealing as a camping destination. Just a few minutes further, Middle Velma, the largest of the three lakes, opens before the hiker. The rocky shores of Middle Velma Lake invite the hiker/backpacker to sit and ponder the alpine beauty presented before him or her. Small islands with stunted trees clinging to the bare rock attest to the harshness of this alpine environment. The waters, ice cold from the spring run-off, beg the hot and dusty traveler to shed his clothes and take a swim. Many fine camp spots can be found around the shores of this lake.

For the more adventurous who are comfortable with map, compass and posses some back-country skills, the off trail hike to Lower Velma Lake is well rewarded with fewer people and pristine alpine beauty. Heading mostly west from Middle Velma across barren granite, Lower Velma is hard to miss. If you come across the stream bubbling between Upper and Lower Velma, follow its course down slope until the calm waters of Lower Velma come into view. Camping sites are more limited along the shores of this lake, but then fewer people visit it as well.

Some info on overnight camping and permits:

Visitors must obtain a permit, here, for overnight camping and should be aware that throughout the summer months, a quota system is in place for the 45 destination zones within the wilderness. The system helps to disperse visitors throughout the area, providing an opportunity for solitude and reflection. Seventy percent of the available permits are available for advanced reservation. The remaining quota is available on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Camping within the wilderness area is permitted, but campsites must be on hard surfaces at least 100 feet from water and trails. Maximum group size is limited to 12 people who will be together at any given time during the trip. A signed permit must be carried at all times by a group leader. Campfires are not allowed within the area and haven't been since 1990. Camp stoves for cooking are permissible. Overnight parking may require a pass in some areas, or may be subject to an additional fee.

Pack List

  • Hiking shoes
  • Backpack
  • Portable water purifier
  • Map
  • Rope for hanging your food in trees. (There are bears around)
  • Camera
  • Guitar
  • Tent
  • Food
Show More
RT Distance 4.5 Miles
Elevation Gain 880 Feet
Activities Chillin, Camping, Fishing, Photography, Backpacking, Hiking
Skill Level Intermediate
Season Spring, Summer, Autumn
Trail Type Out-and-Back
Features
Forest
Lake
Swimming Hole

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