Best Base Camps
There's good reason why the Desolation Wilderness is one of the most popular in America. Unlike the famed but ruggedly inaccessible High Sierra to the south, the Desolation doesn't require multi-day hikes to reach the best parts. Indeed, it offers a landscape very much like the inner heart of the High Sierra—but only a few miles from a trailhead. Nowhere else is such high-country wilderness beauty so accessible. Only a few miles from South Lake Tahoe, the Wilderness is also an easy weekend trip from San Francisco and Sacramento.
To deal with the inevitable crowds, Eldorado National Forest has a carefully planned permit and quota system that allows both for preplanning (half the permits for the year are available on April 15) and for last-minute adventure (the rest are up for grabs on a same-day first-come, first-served basis).
The best way into the upland rock-and-lake country is to take the Pacific Crest Trail from the Echo Lake Trailhead. For base-camping, you'll want to veer off this hiker highway onto one of the many side trails, virtually all of which lead to rocky upcountry tarns. Due to the fragile nature and popularity of this region, we're hesitant to recommend any one particular lake as a "best spot" (not to mention the fact that to do so is meaningless: they're all stunning). Whichever you choose, note that minimum camping regulations are in effect so you must place your tent at least 100 feet away from any lake. Also note that some places are off limits for camping; the restrictions are in effect to help previously overused sites recover.
Once you've pitched your tent, you're free to explore this wonderland of craggy outcroppings and jewel-like tarns. Fishing and photography are two obvious pastimes. More energetic hikers might check out the out-and-back hike to Dick's Pass (figure most of a leisurely day to get there and back). Note, if you leave your tent, proper food storage is a must.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication