Upper, Middle, and Lower Velma Lakes from Bayview Trailhead

I camped out at Middle Velma Lake for my first trip to any of the three lakes, and it did not disappoint!  The Desolation Wilderness is the most popular wilderness area in the United States, due to its proximity to Lake Tahoe and its amazing granite moonscape pocked with dozens of small lakes.  These three lakes are some of the most popular destinations in this wilderness area.

  • top trails tahoeTrailhead: Bayview Trailhead, across from Inspiration Point, Emerald Bay, CA89  – Open in Google Maps.
  • Length: 10.2 miles round trip; 5-6 hours.
  • Difficulty: Moderate; the climb in the first two miles seems to never end but mellows out afterwards.
  • Usage: Hikers, dogs.  Free day-use permits are available at the trailhead; backpackers must get an overnight permit from the Forest Service at $5/person.
  • Best Time for Photography: These lakes have the best light during the Golden Hour – which one varies depending on your location around any of the lakes.  There aren’t many wildflowers or fall colors here.
  • Are Drones Allowed: No, lies within Desolation Wilderness.
  • Trail Info Current: Sep 4, 2016
  • Further Reading: Top Trails: Lake Tahoe: Must-Do Hikes For Everyone
  • Go back to Lake Tahoe Hikes map

velma lakes hiking map

middle velma lake

Sunset at Middle Velma Lake

 Hiking to Upper, Middle, and Lower Velma Lake from the Bayview Trailhead

I was going to meet up with my sister and her boyfriend at Kalmia Lake, a small, remote lake in the already remote Desolation Wilderness.  I thought I could get a walk-in permit the morning of, but it was Saturday of Labor Day weekend.  Rookie!  I arrived 15 minutes after the ranger station opened at 8 and stood in line for two hours!  Needless to say I couldn’t get a permit for Kalmia, but there was one permit left for Middle Velma Lake – a lake at the top of my destination list that I haven’t been to yet.

You can usually get overnight permits for the Desolation Wilderness at recreation.gov.  There’s a quota system in place from May thru October; 14 people are allowed to stay at Middle Velma (zone 16) each night during the season.  Zone 17, encompassing Granite Lake, Azure Lake, Upper Velma, and Lower Velma, has a daily quota of 28 people.

This makes a fine, slightly strenuous day hike as well and you can get permits at the Bayview Trailhead for free at the self-serve kiosk.

The Bayview Trailhead gets absolutely overwhelmed with visitors during the peak season and during weekends.  If you don’t get there early, expect to have to park along the side of Highway 89 and hoof it to the trailhead (you shouldn’t get a parking ticket as long as you’re completely on the shoulder).

The trailhead itself is at the southwest side of the Bayview Campground; you’ll see the kiosk and right after you walk past it you’ll see a sign pointing to Cascade Lake to the left and Desolation to the right.  You’re going right and will soon be presented with some steep, dusty switchbacks!

emerald bay

After about a mile of climbing you’ll get to a point overlooking Emerald Bay with some fantastic views of the bay and Fannette Island.  You almost seem to be situated directly above the bay!  Ohhhh, that’s why they call it the Bayview Trail.  Keep on the climb; it mellows out a bit up to Granite Lake.

The climb up to Granite Lake seems to shallow out a bit but you’re more or less on the same grade.  You’re shaded by pines and follow a lush creek that’s usually dried up by the end of the summer.  You’ll see Granite Lake coming over a hill; if you continue on you’ll get to a point where the trail skirts the lake and you can find a number of spots to stop for lunch or a swim.  You’ll want the break for the next climb.

hiking granite lake

The next part of the climb is steep and dusty with multiple switchbacks.  It’ll take you into the saddle between Maggie’s Peaks; the south peak, which most people climb, is the one directly overlooking Granite Lake.  There are many spots along these switchbacks to stop and take in views of Tahoe, Emerald Bay, Cascade Lake, Granite Lake, and even Fallen Leaf Lake.

You’ll climb 700 feet in less than a mile and find yourself on the south end of the saddle.  This is a good stopping point, and if you peek over the granite cliffs to the northwest you can get some great views of Eagle Lake, and even get a sliver of Lake Tahoe.  From here you can follow an unmarked trail to south Maggie’s Peak or continue on the trail to the Velmas.

eagle lake

Views of Eagle Lake and Tahoe from the saddle between Maggies Peaks

The next part of the trail undulates, losing a few hundred feet of altitude over the next mile until you get to a trail junction for Eagle Lake.  Keep straight and start a climb back up to the Velma Lakes trail junction.  You’ll be mostly exposed from here on out, hiking along the granite and getting some great views of Dick’s Peak and the surrounding peaks.  It’s another mile to the Velma Lakes trail junction.

A small signpost will tell you to turn right for Velma Lakes; keeping straight will take you to Dick’s Pass.  After turning right towards the Velmas, you’ll start another descent over granite slabs and small boulders, weaving through sparse forest until reaching Upper Velma Lake one mile later.  The trail skirts along the east side of Upper Velma Lake.  If you’ll be camping at Upper Velma, you’ll need to continue another few tenths of a mile from here and follow the signpost on a trail spur to the left where you can find camping spots.

upper velma lake

Upper Velma Lake

To get to Lower Velma, follow the creek that drains out of Upper Velma to the northeast for about a half mile.

Middle Velma is another few tenths of a mile from here, slightly climbing to a point where you can get some great views of Middle Velma Lake.  From here the lake is yours, there’s really no dedicated trails that run down to the lake, so you can go cross-country across the granite to find a camp spot.  This is a big lake and camping spots are spread throughout.  There’s no reason for 14 people to be crowded in one spot.

middle velma lake

Middle Velma Lake

upper velma lake

Upper Velma Lake

middle velma lake

Dusk at Middle Velma Lake

Tips for hiking to the Velma Lakes

  • Get your permit early, especially if it’s during the high season.  And I’m not talking early in the morning – I mean weeks in advance!
  • Don’t be afraid to go cross-country to find some camping spots.  This is wilderness and you’ll be surprised what you can find with a little exploring.  Don’t cram around everyone else.  It’s called Desolation for a reason!

Corrections, suggestions, or questions?  Please leave a comment below!

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