Island & Twin Lakes Trail In California’s Desolation Wilderness

Lake Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness is one of the most popular protected areas among backpackers in the USA. Here sub-alpine and alpine forests, granite peaks and glacially-formed valleys and lakes take your breath away while you enjoy the solitude and peace of this deserted rocky landscape.

Though most trails are multi-day trails, we have a spectacular day hike for you that gives a taste of what it is like getting lost in the beauties of the wilderness: this is the trail to Island and Twin Lakes.

What exactly is a wilderness?

Twin Lakes, Desolation of Wilderness

First of all, have you ever heard of national wilderness areas in the US? Currently there are more than 700 in the country, and the main aim here is that they should remain wild. Surprise, hah? But when I say wild, I mean it. Wild like nature. It means that these are protected undeveloped land retaining their original character without permanent improvements or human habitation. No roads. No restrooms. No wifi, naturally. It’s just you out there in mother nature.

Only non-motorized recreation activities are allowed like backpacking, hunting, fishing or horseback riding. “Leave No Trace” policy is especially important, you’re a visitor in nature. Wilderness areas give great opportunity for solitude and recreation, and they are backpackers’ favorite because of their beautiful multi-day hiking trails.

California’s Desolation Wilderness is located west of Lake Tahoe and north of Highway 50. Permits are required for both day use and overnight camping. The day permits are easy to get though, you can take care of it at the trailhead, without any prior arrangements. As for overnight trips, a quota system is used in the summer to limit the number of visitors on any given day so that the wilderness remains wild.

Why did we love Twin Lakes Trail?

Twin Lakes, Desolation of Wilderness

Twin Lakes Trail is one of the few day hikes in California’s Desolation Wilderness. It’s quite an appealing introduction to the area, and there’s a possibility that it will whet your appetite for more exploration.

Even before you start the hike, the trailhead looks perfect: Wrights Lake – a fabulous alpine lake reflecting the surrounding granite peaks as a mirror on a calm day. And this is just the start, the trail impresses with rocky landscapes and unforgettable views of Twin Lakes and Island Lake as you carry on.

How to access the trailhead?

Twins Lake Trail, Desolations Wilderness, California, USA

Turn north from Highway 50, and head up on a very windy road for about 30 minutes to get to the main parking lot at Wrights Lake. Trailhead is at the north side of the lake. Soon the trail starts to gain some elevation while following along a small river (which can take you to Grouse Lake if you turn off by the sign). This is your last chance for a while to water your hat. We were glad we did it.

As you leave the pine forest behind, the scene becomes wilder – and harsher, too, because there’s hardly any shade. But we could marvel at huge granite peaks.

Reaching Twin Lakes and Island Lake

Twins Lake Trail, Desolations Wilderness, California, USA

Twin Lakes are relatively close and very pretty, enclosed by white granite peaks. It feels remote, and there were lots of small ponds to explore in the area. The twins are close to each other, they are on different sides of the same mountain ridge.

After chilling out on the lakeshore and cooling down our feet in the ice cold water, we ventured further towards Island Lake. It’s the most beautiful lake on this route (in our opinion, at least), because it’s so special with the tiny islands and inlets in it. We got the best view of the whole thing when we climbed up to the top of one of the bigger cliffs on the shore.

Best time to do this hike

Twin Lakes Trail In The Desolation Of Wilderness: Island Lake

The official hiking season at Lake Tahoe lasts from late May until early September, and the weather is usually sunny and hot (very hot) during the day in this period. There’s not much shade on this trail, so sunscreen and a cap will be your best friends. And water, lots of water!

Where to stay

Twins Lake Trail, Desolations Wilderness, California, USA

Of course, there’s no accommodation in the wilderness (other than wild camping – with permit!), but Wrights Lake Campground is right at the trailhead. South Lake Tahoe is also not so far if you prefer hostels/hotels. Just book your place in advance, because Lake Tahoe is popular!

Summary of all the details

Twin Lakes Trail In The Desolation Of Wilderness: Island Lake

  • Trailhead: Twin Lakes Trailhead at the north side of Wrights Lake
  • Parking: Wrights Lake Campground is only for campers, but there’s a lot of space for parking before the campground (it’s about 5 minutes extra walk)
  • Permit: free and available at the trailhead for the day hike (overnight camping requires a different permit)
  • Route: Twin Lakes Trailhead toward Twin Lakes, then continue to Island Lake
  • Length: 6.6 miles round-trip (with the extension to Island Lake)
  • Difficulty: moderate

Have you been to any of the US wilderness areas? Which is your favorite?


Twin Lakes Trail In The Desolation Of Wilderness

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By Beata Urmos

Bea is the co-founder of Our Wanders. She’s the writer and the trip organizer, and she’d love to help you plan your own amazing trips! She likes hiking, good novels and chocolate, as well. Her motto is: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” (John A. Shedd)

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