Backpacking: Velma Lakes, Desolation Wilderness

A little over a year ago I saw an amazing picture on Instagram-a pristine Alpine lake scattered with little granite islands that had pine trees adorned on top of each. The backdrop was a towering granite mountain and beautiful blue sky that Sierra Nevada is known so well for. One of the tags under the picture was #desolationwilderness, but I wanted to know where. I had to go here. After asking the photographer, he simply replied back with, “I’ll give you a hint. It is a Scooby Doo character.” I did my diligent Google research and put two and two together. It was one of the Velma Lakes.

There are three Velma Lakes in total – Upper Velma, Middle Velma, and Lower Velma, each with their own unique characteristics. This past weekend, we hiked in and setup camp at Middle Velma, but did a little exploring of Upper and Lower while we were out there.

We decided that we would hike in from the Bayview Trailhead off of Highway 89. There are several other ways to reach these lakes (Eagle Lake, Echo Lake, etc.) and they might be a little easier! The Bayview Trailhead is located at the top of Emerald Bay, directly across from the popular turnout, Inspiration Point. Turn into the trailhead, which is also a campground, and drive a quarter of a mile until you reach the end of the road and parking area. Parking here in the summer months can be extremely difficult. Make sure to get here early, or come on a weekday. We were there at about 10:30 on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. It was nuts and we were lucky to find one of the last spots on the road.

This trail is pretty popular for day hikers, and we saw a few other backpackers, too, but it is definitely not for the faint of heart! Once you are at the trailhead, follow the signs for Desolation Wilderness to the right. You can also go to the left and reach Cascade Falls, but that is for another post. As soon as you start on the trail, you will be going up, up, and up for about 2 miles straight. This is also the way that you get to Maggie’s Peaks.

After a little more than 1/2 mile on the trail, you will see one of the best views of Emerald Bay. Make sure to stop and take it in.


View of Emerald Bay from the Bayview Trail about 1/2 mile up

In another 1/2 mile, you will reach Granite Lake. Although you have only gone a little over a mile at this point, you have climbed almost 1,000′ vertical. It is a good place to stop, take a drink of water (or Fireball), and eat a quick snack. You still have quite a bit of work cut out at this point to get to Maggie’s Saddle.


Taking a break at Granite Lake on the way up the Bayview Trail

Continue up the switchbacks and you will reach the saddle after about another 1/2 mile. I know all these 1/2 mile sections don’t sound daunting, but when you are carrying a heavy pack on your back, they definitely make you work for it. Even if you aren’t carrying a heavy pack, I can guarantee you will still be sucking wind.


Switchbacks on the Bayview Trail up to Maggie’s Saddle

Once we got to the saddle, we took another break and looked down into Desolation. From here, you can see a great view of Eagle Lake and Lake Tahoe.

The trail mellows a bit from here and you will eventually start going down into Desolation. It is pretty straight forward and well-marked. Just follow the signs for Velma Lakes.


Post marking the way to Middle Velma Lake

After a couple of splits in the trail, you will see another marker and take a right down toward Velma Lakes. There are some switchbacks that lead you down to the first lake you will come upon, Upper Velma Lake.


Yum. Eating grass at Upper Velma Lake

Skirt around the shore of Upper Velma and you will come to a creek crossing that will take you to Middle Velama. You can also follow this same creek all the way down to Lower Velma,  which is what we did on a day hike the next day. It is a little off the beaten path and the trail comes and goes, but if you follow the creek all the way, you will get there. I would highly recommend it!


Following the creek and waterfalls down to Lower Velma Lake


Lower Velma Lake


Lower Velma Lake swim break

After 4 1/2 hours since we left the trailhead and a little over five miles, we made it to Middle Velma Lake. It was seriously love at first sight. I couldn’t believe how beautiful this lake was. The pictures that I had seen on Instagram a year before, definitely didn’t do this lake justice after I set eyes on it.


Evening at Middle Velma Lake

We continued on the trail for a bit down to the far end of the lake and found a nice spot for a couple of tents within a little over a hundred feet of the water. We set up camp for a couple nights, explored, swam (yes, it was freezing), and had an amazing time.

I can’t wait to come back here again next summer when it is a little warmer and I can float from island to island. I am pretty sure next time, we will also look for an easier way in. This was a challenging hike for a backpacker, but the juice was definitely worth the squeeze.

9 Comments on “Backpacking: Velma Lakes, Desolation Wilderness

    • Hi Alli, My advice on getting permits for Desolation – get them as far in advance as possible! The Velma Lakes are a very popular destination and there are only so many permits available. If you are trying to go on a weekend, make sure to plan well in advance. There are always a handful of day-of permits available, but it is still better to make sure you secure them in advance. Also, this trail is still buried under a lot of snow. Unless you are willing to do some snow hiking, I would save this for mid-July and later. Let me know if you go. Have fun and happy backpacking!


  1. Pingback: Backpacking: Stony Ridge Lake, Desolation Wilderness | Forever Adventuring

  2. We did this hike back in the 70s. An unforgettable experience. And hiked many routes between Tahoe and just north of Yosemite. Never saw or heard of a bear back then. Apparently they extended their range north. Love the Sierra Nevada.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bears have definitely extended their range into Desolation and beyond. We were backpacking in Desolation last year, and we passed a girl running down the trail that was going to get more food supplies. Apparently they didn’t hang their bags or have bear cans, and a bear ate ALL their food in the middle of the night. 🤦🏻‍♀️


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