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Long before the European settlers arrived, the region was used by Washoe Native Americans, who are known to have lived and hunted in the Great Basin (the area near Tahoe Lake) for at least 6,000 years. Due to the harsh terrain and arid conditions, the settlers nicknamed it Devil’s Valley. It was used primarily for cattle grazing for much of the 19th century. Around the turn of the century, alarmed by development creeping in, the US Forest Service began purchasing land and started the process of turning it into a federally-managed park. It was initially established as Desolation Valley Primitive Area in 1939 and later recategorized as Desolation Wilderness in 1964.
The small town of South Lake Tahoe, CA, is primarily residential with a scattering of hotel resorts. The town's counterpart, which is just across the California-Nevada state border, Stateline, NV, has several gambling casinos that are a major draw for many visitors to the area. South Lake Tahoe is best known for being the site of the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr.
As one of the most rugged terrains in California, Desolation Wilderness has earned its name. The ground is rocky and hard underfoot. Tree cover is sparse, and most of the Desolation Wilderness is laid bare to the hot California sun. The valleys and lakes were carved out by a long-gone glacier that moved north some 20,000 years ago. In contrast, its seemingly raw state, it is a quite fragile ecosystem. Several animals, some endangered, make their home in Desolation Wilderness, including wolverine, fisher, red fox, and pine marten. Large herds of mule deer are quite common, as are black bears (though they don’t roam in herds).
During the wet season, when rivers run wild, rainbow and brook trout are robust, often delighting fishermen when they haul in trophy-sized catches. Golden and brown trouts are not as common but can also be caught.
Several miles of hiking trails wind around and over granite peaks, descending into valleys where sub-alpine forests lend some welcome relief from the summer heat. Bicycles and any other motorized vehicles are prohibited on these trails, though horses and pack mules are permitted. A portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches over 2,600 miles from British Columbia, Canada, to just south of Campo, CA. The Tahoe Rim Trail also passes through Desolation Wilderness as it follows the contours of Lake Tahoe, meandering for around 165 miles. The Tahoe Rim Trail is a more manageable distance for the hikers seeking a shorter adventure. Note that all adventurers are required to obtain a free permit for day hiking and multi-day hiking.
Several state parks and national forests surround Desolation Wilderness, offering additional opportunities for recreational fun. Emerald Bay State Park looks out over picturesque Lake Tahoe, which is the site of California’s first maritime heritage underwater park. Scuba divers, and to a certain extent, snorkelers can enjoy the sights of sunken barges, boats, and other watercraft that litter the bottom of Emerald Bay.
Because of the fragile ecosystem, there is no RV camping at Desolation Wilderness. However, there are several options dotting the perimeter of the park.
RV camp in Eldorado National Forest at Wentworth Springs Campground, which is a few miles from Gilbert, CA. Wentworth Springs Campground has vault toilets and picnic tables for each site. However, be aware that because of the tight turns to access this campground, vehicles larger than 30 feet are not recommended. There are no hookups, and in the heart of the bear country, all campers are highly recommended that they lock up all their food in their vehicles or in bear-proof canisters.
Sunset Campground near Pollock Pines, CA, may also be a good option to consider. This campground, though primitive, has a dump station, vault toilets, and is close to a boat ramp.
Alternatively, a privately run campground with more amenities might be more attractive. Tahoe Valley Campground in South Lake Tahoe boasts modern amenities like wifi, restrooms with showers, and laundry facilities.
Several mountain towns dotting the Sierra Nevada region have their own flair, charm, and quirks. Rent an Airstream and explore them all in a quest to find the perfect RV camping souvenir to take home. There are also several ghost towns in the area, most of which were abandoned when the nearby mines dried up or water disappeared. Join a guided group or embark on your own self-guided tour of these abandoned towns. One of the closest is Genoa, NV, which is a few miles south of Carson City, NV. Genoa is said to be inhabited by ghosts like Snowshoe Thompson, a stubborn mailman who didn’t let a little snow stop him from making his rounds, riders of the famous Pony Express, and several settlers who once dwelled in the town.
Many small towns operate historical societies and museums that are designed to honor their heritage, culture, and history. El Dorado Historical Museum in Placerville, CA, takes a broader look at the region’s history. The exhibitions have on display several authentic clothes, tools, and maps used by the settlers. Various maps, personal letters, and other key documents are also showcased on the walls of the museum.
Find your perfect RV camping adventure in Desolation Wilderness when you book an RV in El Dorado County.