Located in South Lake Tahoe, Desolation Wilderness is well known for its nearly 64,000 acres of granite beauty and more than 130 alpine lakes. In 1969, Congress recognized its value and added it to the National Wilderness Preservation System. This is a special place where nature and nature's forces are to remain unimpaired for future generations. Its 123 miles of trails offer both a place of beauty and a place that people can visit and enjoy as long as the wilderness character is preserved.
The granitic mountains of the Desolation Wilderness are part of the massive Sierra batholith, the combined masses of granitic rock that have been uplifted by tectonic action to form the 400 mile long Sierra Nevada range. Extensive glaciation has shaped the surface of the Desolation Wilderness. Ice sheets over 1,000 feet deep covered the western slopes and all but the highest peaks of the Tahoe Basin during the last ice age over 200,000 years ago.
The sheer mass and grinding action of the ice packs scoured out the basins where Emerald Bay, Cascade Lake, Fallen Leaf Lake, Echo Lakes, and nearly 130 other smaller lakes formed throughout the Desolation area. When the glaciers receded 10,000 years ago, they left behind massive deposits of unconsolidated rock and sediment. Glacial features of special interest include glacial polish, erratics, and roche mountonnee. In the last 10,000 years, some areas have grown over with forests and meadows, but most of the Desolation clearly shows its icy heritage.
Native Americans used the area now known as Desolation Wilderness. There is evidence of temporary Washoe Indian encampments at Wright's Lake and other areas, made as groups moved through the area on their summer migration from the Carson Valley. Artifacts such as obsidian arrow points and other evidence, while not abundant, have been documented throughout the area. It is illegal to collect or remove any historic artifact. These artifacts are critical pieces in solving the puzzles of the past. Remember to leave any artifacts you find, record the specific location, and report your find to the nearest Ranger District's archaeologist.
Desolation has a history of European American use dating back to the 1800's. Gold miners explored the granite mountains of the wilderness, but found only a few low-grade ore deposits. From the 1850's to the 1930's cattle were grazed in the Haypress Meadows area and in many other locations in the wilderness. In 1875, the first dam was built on what is now known as "Lake Aloha". From 1934 to 1955 other dams were constructed to stabilize seasonal water flows and provide better year round fish habitat. These "non-conforming" activities were incorporated into the wilderness area when Congress designated it in 1969.
In the earliest days, the area was known as the "Devil's Basin," or "Devil's Valley." Most of the land area that is now wilderness was originally protected from development in 1899 when the General Land Office set the area aside as a Forest Reserve. In 1910, this area became part of the Eldorado National Forest. In 1931, the area was formally designated by Congress as a roadless "Primitive Area" and was called the "Desolation Valley Primitive Area." Finally, in 1969,the 63,690 acres of the Desolation was incorporated into the National Wilderness Preservation System and became Desolation Wilderness.