Backpacking: American Lake, Desolation Wilderness
This is the second year in a row that we have decided to skip the crowded beaches and head to the mountains for a very quiet Fourth of July. When we planned this trip several months ago, we thought, ‘what’s a better place than heading to American Lake in Desolation Wilderness to celebrate our country’s birthday?’
I had stumbled upon American Lake five years earlier when on a backpacking trip to nearby Lake of the Woods. I remember thinking it would be a great place to camp and made a point to return there, which is exactly what we did this weekend and it could not have been more perfect.
PREPARING FOR YOUR TRIP
Securing Your Wilderness Permit
As with most backpacking destinations, you’ll need to secure a wilderness permit for any overnight stays in Desolation Wilderness. The area is divided into 45 zones and permits are required year-round, with quotas in effect from the Friday before Memorial Day to September 30. For the permit, you must enter on the day your permit begins and your first night has to be within your designated zone. For any subsequent nights, you are allowed to move zones anywhere in Desolation.
American Lake is zone 39 and there are a total of 10 permits available during quota season for this zone, which makes it feel like you have the whole place to yourself. To reserve your permit, I’d highly suggest that you do it well in advance and up to six months from your planned trip. We reserved ours about four months prior to when we were planning on going and had no issues getting permits for the zone we wanted. To reserve your permit, click here.
What to Bring
Aside from the usual backpacking gear, there are a couple of things that I can’t stress enough: bear canisters and bug spray.
Although bear canisters aren’t required (but highly encouraged) and you can technically hang your food if you’d like, I would definitely recommend you bring one. On our way up the trail, we ran into a girl frantically coming down the trail that said, “there’s bears up there!” Ummm, yes. It is the wilderness and although I was expecting her to tell us that she just saw one on the trail, she went on to tell us that a bear had eaten her group’s and their neighbor’s food the night before at Lake of the Woods. She was coming down the trail to get as much food from the market at Lower Echo as she could so they didn’t have to end their trip early. Just a quick six mile jaunt down and then back up again with a bag full of food. Sounds awesome (not) and definitely avoidable if you had a bear canister.. anyways, apparently the bear had pulled their food out of the tree. I don’t know if they didn’t hang it properly or what the exact circumstances were, but I would highly encourage a bear canister. Not only do they serve a multiple purpose as a seat, but they give peace of mind that you won’t wake up in the morning to a ravaged bag in a tree.
As for bug spray, Desolation Wilderness is notorious for mosquitoes and I have definitely been eaten alive here before. Luckily, we didn’t have many skeeters except for 30 minutes each evening, but I would still bring the good stuff (Deet 100). If they are out in full force, you won’t want to feel like a prisoner to your tent. Good news is, you don’t have to worry too much about ticks or other creepy crawlies.
Like most lakes in Desolation Wilderness, American Lake is accessible from a variety of trailheads depending on where you want to start, desired mileage, and elevation gain/loss. We decided to enter from the Echo Lakes trailhead at Echo Summit. When there isn’t a global pandemic and it is the summer season, you can shave nearly 2.5 miles off of your hike by taking the water taxi from Lower Echo Lake to the far end of Upper Echo Lake. Since the taxi is not currently running due to COVID-19, we had to hike alongside the two lakes, which was super enjoyable and I am glad we did. We had fun looking at all the beautiful lake cabins and making goals to have one someday in our future.
To get to the trailhead, take Hwy 50 to Johnson Pass Road (turn right if coming from South Lake Tahoe) and then make a left on Echo Lakes Road. There is quite a bit of parking in the trailhead lot, but by the time we arrived at 6:55 am on the Friday before Fourth of July, the main parking lot was already completely full. We had to park close to a ½ mile from the trailhead on the side of the road, which wasn’t bad, but did add some distance to our trip. If there isn’t any room on the side of the road, there is an overflow lot where Johnson Pass Road intersects with Echo Lakes Road. I would highly recommend getting here as early as possible though.
Wherever you end up parking, following the signs for the PCT in the main overnight lot, down the hill, and over the dam to the trailhead.
When you reach the trailhead on the other side of the dam, go right and up until you reach an intersection in a short minute. From here, hang a left and you’ll soon be climbing slightly above the shoreline. You’ll be above the shoreline for most of your hike around Lower Echo Lake. The hike is very pleasant here and it was a perfect temp when we started just after 7:00 am. After a couple of miles, you’ll reach Upper Echo Lake and begin to veer away from the lakes, through some beautiful wooded trail, and then up a rocky slope. The slope is exposed and there are rocky sections to navigate, but before you know it, you’ll be at the top of some switchbacks and on a beautiful wooded trail.
Continue to follow the trail till you reach a marker for Lake Aloha that points you to the left. Follow this down for a ways until the trail goes left, but at this point to reach American Lake, you really need to be following a GPS. The trail ends and you’re route finding on your own over granite rocks, navigating around little lakes, and generally making your way west through Desolation Valley.
Note: there is very little to no water available for your hike to Desolation Valley (about 6 miles to get to Desolation Valley from the trailhead). Make sure that you have plenty of water. Since we did this early in the day and the temp was mild, I was fine with 2L of water till we got to American Lake.
Where to Camp
After about 7 miles and 1,100′ elevation gain from the trailhead, you’ll reach American Lake. Upon reaching the lake, there are numerous places to camp on the east shore. You can either go by the waterfall at the south end of the lake or travel to the northeast shore when Lake Aloha spills into American Lake. We found an amazing campsite between the south and north shores on the east side. It was fairly protected with a large granite rock and even had a private little island that we named “party island” you could swim or float to.
Wherever you decide to camp, make sure you are 100′ from the water and on a durable surface. Also note, it can get pretty windy in Desolation, so if you can find a more protected spot with trees and rocks like we did, that will definitely work in your favor.
There are so many amazing lakes to explore in Desolation! If you are here for two nights and use American Lake as your basecamp, I’d highly suggest a quick trip to Lake Aloha to see the dam and do some swimming. You can also reach various peaks in the Crystal Range like Pyramid Peak and Mt. Price (as seen in the picture below). For those looking for a longer day hike, you can reach Dick’s Peak.
If you don’t mind a little extra weight in your pack, bring a floatie! We had so much fun floating around the lake on the 4th of July. We felt like the only ones there and had an awesome time floating to the islands and other side of the lake.
Last, but not least, there are NO fires allowed in Desolation. Ever. Please make sure to abide by these rules as well as all Leave No Trace principles. Unfortunately, it just takes one bad mistake to ruin it for everyone else. We want to be able to enjoy this beautiful area for years to come! It is an incredible gift and something we should all be able to enjoy responsibly. Have you ever been to American Lake? Or, do you have a favorite place in Desolation? Leave a comment below.