50 Wilderness Sites Across America
With Desolation Wilderness's Crystal Range in the background, a woman hikes with her dog through a field of wildflowers (© Rachid Dahnoun/Aurora Open/Corbis)
Sunset over a lake in Desolation Wilderness (© 167/Josh Humbert/Ocean/Corbis)
"Lake Fontanelles, Desolation Wilderness, California" by Beau Rogers (Courtesy of Beau Rogers via Flickr)
Horsetail Fall is a seasonal waterfall that flows in the winter and early spring (© Jeffrey Murray/Aurora Photos/Corbis)
"Micro Island Isolation | Middle Velma Lake" by Christian Arballo (Courtesy of Christian Arballo via Flickr)

Desolation Wilderness

Glacially smooth, expansive, Pacific Crest Trail

smithsonian.com

Location: California
Size: 63,475 acres

Year Designated: 1969
Fast Fact: Desolation Wilderness is one of the most popular wilderness areas in the country and home to Horsetail Falls, a nearly 500-foot waterfall.


Lying directly west of Lake Tahoe, Desolation Wilderness’ unique alpine and subalpine forests and jagged granite landscape were shaped over centuries by glaciers, which carved the 130 lakes that dot the wilderness area before disappearing some 10,000 years ago. Some of these lakes are absolutely massive, spanning as much as 900 acres. Desolation Wilderness sits on either side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and averages 12.5 miles in length and 8 miles in width. The Pacific Crest Trail cuts through 17 miles of Desolation Wilderness; the trail’s highest pass within the wilderness area is Dicks Pass at an altitude of 9,380 feet—those hiking the trail toward Canada won’t find a higher pass.

Beyond its lakes, Desolation Wilderness is also home to numerous waterfalls, perhaps the most famous being Horsetail Falls, which covers a total of 500 feet. Although the wilderness is one of the most popular wilderness areas in the country, it still supports a diverse ecosystem, with animals like deer and marmot depending on the area for survival. In order to limit the impact of visitors to the area, all visitors, day or night, must apply for a permit.

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