Alpine lake at sunset in Desolation Wilderness
Outdoor Status

When and where to backpack in Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness

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Desolation Wilderness is one of the most popular places to backpack in Tahoe. Its proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area and its natural beauty make it the perfect weekend destination.

During the day, the trails are as crowded as the shores of Lake Tahoe. But at night, the lucky wilderness permit holders can enjoy incredible solitude.

However, scoring a wilderness permit is far from easy!

Some people know how important it is to book permits the moment they’re made available, six months in advance. But most of us don’t. So I created Outdoor Status, a newsletter that tracks permits releases.

Yet, should we all be booking permits six months in advance? Do permits really run out that fast? And do they run out as fast in all parts of Desolation Wilderness?

I also wanted to know because, you see, I’m terrible at planning. So I spent the last 8 months collecting data on permit availabilities. Let me share with you what I found!

Let’s go backpacking on the 4th of July

Let’s start with one of the busiest days of the year, July 4.

In Desolation Wilderness, overnight permits open six months in advance of the start date. Permits for a trip starting on July 4 are released on January 4. Technically, since July 4 was on a Sunday in 2021, most people ended up starting their trip on July 3, thus the earliest people booked was on January 3.

Let’s look at the number of permits available for trips starting on July 3, from January 3 to July 3:

Number of permits remaining for a trip starting on July 3. In 2021, ranger offices were closed and all walk-in permits were released on May 25.

It was still possible to book a permit until the very last minute. There were 3 permits left.

However, in Desolation Wilderness, a permit only gives access to a single area. There are 45 areas of varying sizes:

Desolation Wilderness is composed of 45 areas accessible from a network of trails.

The Aloha area is by far the most popular. And for a good reason. Its jagged shoreline and countless islands create a mesmerizing landscape.

Panorama of Lake Aloha
Lake Aloha, Desolation Wilderness. Courtesy of Leor Pantilat.

Here is the same chart, this time only looking at permits for the Aloha area:

Number of permits remaining for a trip in Aloha area starting on July 3.

All permits ran out on the day they were released. Clearly, Aloha permits are hard to get for the 4th of July weekend.

Which days are easier to get?

It’s easy to predict that the 4th of July weekend is going to be crowded. But for Aloha, the 4th of July weekend isn’t the exception, it’s the norm.

As expected, weekends are a lot more popular than weekdays. But from late July to late August, weekdays are just as popular as weekends! Permits run out days after they’re released.

Most of us can’t plan this far in advance. So what do we do?

Let’s camp nearby

If we can’t secure a permit for Lake Aloha, we can always try to get one for a nearby area. Looking at the map, six areas are the most accessible to Lake Aloha.

Map of Desolation Wilderness with Mt. Price, Waca, American, Lake of Woods, Aloha, and Tamarack areas highlighted
Despite any trails leading to Mt. Price, Waca, and American areas, these areas are accessible by cross-country travel from the Aloha area.

On average, here is how long it took for permits to run out for areas that border Lake Aloha:

The x-axis shows each start date of summer 2021. The y-axis shows how long it took for permits to run out from the moment they were released.

It’s a lot more reasonable! On average, you can wait until April to plan a weekday trip in August. But weekends are still very popular, and in summer, permits run out 5 to 6 months before the start date.

Desolation Wilderness is bigger than you think

Lake Aloha is certainly the jewel in the crown. But you shouldn’t dismiss the rest of Desolation Wilderness.

There are six major trailheads into Desolation Wilderness: Echo Lakes, Eagle Falls, Glen Alpine, Twin Lakes, Meeks Bay, and Loon Lake.

Map of the six major trailheads into Desolation Wilderness

When we look at weekend trips for all areas, here is how long it took for permits to run out:

The time it took for permits for trips starting on weekends to run out for each trailhead.

Even in the middle of summer, permits for trips starting from Loon Lake are still available a month ahead. Loon Lake might be harder to get to, but on the plus side, it’s your best bet if you’re looking for solitude.

Explore the data

One last thing

What if you don’t have a permit and you still want to take a trip? You can try to book a canceled permit! It turns out that people change their plans 7 to 10 days before the start date.

Average number of cancellations per day before the start date.

In practice, the number of cancellations per day is much higher. I collected the data every day at 4 AM, so it doesn’t account for permits that were rebooked within the same day.

Hopefully, you now know which permits you can book, no matter when your trip is. I was interested in exploring this data because I’ve always struggled to book backpacking permits. I knew I wanted to go outdoors more often, and the key is to plan ahead of time. So I created the Outdoor Status newsletter to remind myself and others of new permit releases! Join Outdoor Status today so you never miss a permit deadline again.

August 2021, Jordan Vincent.
Thanks to Jennifer Hwang for reviewing this article.
Photos by Dylan Tylor and Leor Pantilat.

Methodology

Data collection

The permit availability data was collected from Desolation Wilderness’ Recreation.gov page. The page was scraped every day at 4 AM PDT from December 28, 2020 to August 22, 2021. During that period, permits were released every day at 7 AM PDT.

Run-out date

For each area, the date permits run out is calculated as the earliest date after the initial release for which the number of permits fell below two. The last remaining permit takes a lot more time to get booked because few people hike alone. Note that it’s still possible to book permits after the run-out date when permits are canceled or after the second permit release on May 25 (a third of all permits were released on that date).

The run-out date for Desolation Wilderness as a whole was calculated as the average run-out date across all areas. Note that permits never ran out in Desolation Wilderness in 2021. There was always an area with availabilities.

Cancellations

Cancellations are calculated by subtracting the number of permits left on the next day from the number of permits left on the current day. Since data was collected 24h apart, it doesn’t account for canceled permits that were rebooked in between collection times.