EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Summer 2016 edition of Tahoe Magazine. It was first published on this website in August 2018 and is presented in its original form.
A few years ago, San Francisco resident Mike Mullen began photographing the small lakes around Lake Tahoe, particularly the lakes of Desolation Wilderness.
He counted close to 90 named lakes and has now collected images of almost all of them on his website, lakesofdesolation.com.
Almost every lake in Desolation is worth the hike out, Mullen says.
“Somebody asked me, ‘If you could do anything, what would you do?’ I said I’d photograph all the lakes of the Sierra,” Mullen recalls. “That wasn’t really feasible. So I narrowed it down to Desolation Wilderness.”
From Desolation Wilderness (located off Lake Tahoe’s South Shore) to the Carson Range, there are hundreds of tiny bodies of water. These hidden gems are great for swimming, fishing, camping and exploring. Some are less than a hundred yards across with sharp granite shores. Others are ringed by grassy marshes and quiet, hidden bays. Every one is picturesque and each is different.
Below are a few lakes that will might make you rethink what you want to do when you come to Lake Tahoe.
One of the easier lakes in Desolation Wilderness to access, Eagle Lake is everything you hope for in a mountain lake. There’s good swimming from a beach on the East Shore, though the water is fairly cold until late summer. High peaks and a single island create a Instagram-worthy landscape. The 1-mile hike is steep, but beautiful. The trail crosses a bridge over Eagle Falls, which thunders with water in the spring. Due to the lake’s proximity, it can get crowded on weekends.
Directions: Park at the Eagle Falls Trailhead, near Emerald Bay. Take the Eagle Falls Trail west approximately 1 mile. Make sure to stay right at the fork near the lake or you’ll continue into Desolation Wilderness.
The tiny body of water just to the east of Lake Tahoe is a fun spot to poke around when the summer crowds are overwhelming at Tahoe’s popular beaches. You can drive and park (for a small fee) close to the lake. Miles of trails entertain mountain bikers and hikers. Spooner has plenty of small trout for fisherman, who often use float tubes to get to deeper waters. Aramark, which runs the concession, offers mountain bike rentals as well as cabin rentals for those who’d like to stay the night.
Directions: From South Lake Tahoe, take Highway 50 to Spooner Summit. Turn onto Nevada State Route 28 toward Incline Village. After half mile, turn right into the Spooner Lake parking area. From Incline Village, take Nevada State Route 28 south towards Spooner Summit. Turn left into the Spooner Lake parking area.
If you have a day or two to explore Desolation Wilderness, there are dozens of options for an all-day hike or a quick overnight backpack. Tamarack Lake is a great destination because it’s not too far, but the trip out feels like journey. Intrepid lake-goers can jump on the Echo Lakes water taxi, which, for $12, will zip you into Desolation Wilderness in minutes and cut miles off the hike. From the dock on Upper Echo Lake, it’s a short jaunt along the Pacific Crest Trail to the Tamarack Lake turnoff.
Directions: Though you can reach Tamarack Lake from many trails in Desolation Wilderness, the easiest is from Echo Lakes. From Highway 50, take Johnson Pass Road to Echo Lakes Road. From the Echo Lake parking area, either take the water taxi or the Pacific Crest Trail north. A sign will direct hikers to Tamarack Lake.
A favorite among Desolation hikers, the Velma Lakes are those iconic granite-bound crystal blue dreams that you’ve been searching for. Though it’s possible to reach and return from any of the three Velma Lakes in a day, once there, you’ll want to stay longer. The hills surrounding the lakes are dotted with perfect backpacker campsites. If you’ve got a few days, the Velma Lakes makes a great base camp for trekking around northern Desolation and visiting many of the other beautiful lakes of the area.
Directions: Velma Lakes can be reached from many trails. The shortest hike is to take the steep Eagle Falls Trailhead from Emerald Bay. Follow the signs to Lower Velma, Middle Velma or Upper Velma. If camping, make sure to grab a wilderness permit from the U.S. Forest Service office and follow all regulations.