Rockbound Pass: Desolation’s Desolate Side

Desolation Wilderness is one of the most heavily used wilderness areas in the country. It can be difficult to find solitude, especially if you’re hiking to Lake Aloha or up Pyramid Peak on a summer weekend. The hike over Rockbound Pass is far less crowded than many of the trails on the eastern side of the wilderness. This 24-mile loop offers some of Desolation’s best scenery with numerous alpine lakes and stunning views of the Crystal Range.

Hike Basics
Distance: 24 miles, lollipop loop
Elevation: 4800 ft
Red Tape: Permits are required. Day hikers can self-issue permits at the trailhead. For overnight permits, visit and reserve in Zone 10 (for the halfway point) or Zones 25, 26, 21, 14, 11 or 22. Quotas apply in the summer. Parking at the trailhead is free, but check with the USFS to make sure Wrights Lake Road is open for the season.

Directions to Trailhead
From Highway 50, turn north on to Wrights Lake Road (approximately 5 miles east of Kyburz). Follow the road 8 miles to the Wrights Lake Campground, then follow signs for the Rockbound trail. Google Map link to trailhead.

Download file: Rockbound.gpx

Hike Description
Weekends are always too short, but after finishing some projects around the house, we both felt like spending our entire weekend outside, away from the house. I wanted to cram as much trail as possible in to our two whole days off from work and I had heard good things about Rockbound Pass. With good weather in the forecast, I reserved permits and planned out a 20+ mile loop.

Saturday morning came and we were out the door around 7. We made it to the trailhead by 9, and soon we were on our way up the pass.

The trail actually stays flat for a few miles before gaining any significant elevation. We passed Beauty Lake (probably the least beautiful lake on this trail) and soon we were hiking on wide open slabs of granite, following little rock cairns to stay on the correct path. We passed Maude Lake and spotted a few people camped on the lake’s shore. As we neared Rockbound Pass, it didn’t look like the trail continued up. The trail is rocky, and it’s well camouflaged in its rocky surroundings.

Beauty Lake

Rockbound Pass in the distance.
Nearing the top of Rockbound Pass.

It was windy when we reached the top. We just kept going. We passed Lake Doris and Lake Lois – both beautiful alpine lakes. About 8 miles in, we reached Lake Schmidell and took our first real break. I wasn’t terribly hungry, but I consumed a large amount of Starbursts and a granola bar.

Lake Doris
Lake Lois

Lake Schmidell

From Lake Schmidell, the trail becomes a little more challenging. This section is considered impassible for stock. It’s much steeper and difficult to follow, even with a map in hand. We climbed the steep grade to Leland Lakes. From there, the trail leveled off, but we still had to concentrate in order to stay on the right path.

Leland Lakes

We passed McConnell Lake and Horseshoe Lake. Somewhere after Horseshoe Lake I started to get lightheaded. Perhaps candy wasn’t the best lunch choice. We were descending a vast granitic slope below Horseshoe Lake when I spotted a flat tent site. I suggested we camp. Rob agreed and we set up our tent. When I left to go find water, I realized we were basically camped on the trail. The trail really isn’t obvious in this section, and we hadn’t seen anyone all afternoon (nor would we until late the following day), so we didn’t bother finding a new site.

The moon was bright and the temperatures dropped into the 30’s. Rob spotted a mouse dashing past our tent, but otherwise, all was quiet. We slept nearly 12 hours.

After a breakfast of coffee and cereal, we packed up and finished our descent into the canyon. Upon reaching the bottom, we hiked upstream to the 4-Q’s Lakes. The trail meanders between these lakes before heading east toward Camper Flat and the Rubicon River. Somewhere around Camper Flat, we once again picked up a more developed trail.

One of the 4-Q’s Lakes.
The trail actually crosses through one of the lakes.

As soon as we were back on a main trail, we stopped focusing on navigation and picked up our pace. We followed the Rubicon River for a couple of miles. Somewhere before China Flat, we turned right on a trail that took us back up to Lake Doris and Rockbound Pass.

We discovered this old, abandonned cabin near China Flat.

The descent from Rockbound Pass went quickly, but the last few miles felt very long. The drive home through Apple Hill traffic felt even longer. Despite our tiredness and the horrible traffic, spending the weekend outside was well worth it.

22 thoughts on “Rockbound Pass: Desolation’s Desolate Side”

  1. Hi there! Thanks for the info and the pictures. I am planning on backpacking this loop in September. I am relatively new to backpacking, and my main concern is navigation. Do you have any tips for making sure we stay on the correct trail/ how do we know the correct trail?

    1. Hi! The Rockbound Pass trail is easy to follow. The trail gets a little faint and less maintained in a few spots past Lake Schmidell, but if you walk in the right direction, it always picks up again. The terrain is open and it’s relatively easy recognize features on the map. All the junctions are well signed, even on the lesser used trails. I would recommend bringing Tom Harrison’s map of Desolation Wilderness. Have a wonderful trip!

      1. Thanks for your response! I will definitely plan on bringing Tom Harrison’s map for our trip. Your website is great! I have lived in Sac for about a year now, and I am looking forward to do doing some exploring in Tahoe, Yosemite, and other parts of the Sierras. Your website is one of the few I have found that is informative and concise, so thank you!

    2. The trail is really easy to stay on save for a few slabs on granite- make sure you’re looking for cairns. Rockbound pass is a doozy- so if you’re new to hiking make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get to the top. I would recommend hiking poles.

  2. Hi There

    Planning on bring my toddler who is 4 as well as my 2 year old (carry pack). Do you think the toddler can handle the hike to at least Lake Schmidell? Is the trail to Lake Schmidell easy to follow and how long would that take from the trail head.

    Thanks- James

    1. The trail to Lake Shmidell is pretty easy to follow. It’s a somewhat tough hike, but lots of little lakes along the way to take breaks at. There may be snow at the top of the Pass well into summer this year.

  3. We just finished hiking this exact route August 5th-7th 2019. I think this trail is best done as a 2 night 3 day backpacking trip as there are a lot of beautiful lakes and views to experience along the way. We started at about 9:00 in the morning and ended up camping at Leland Lakes our first night. We actually ran into quite a bit of snow at Schmidell pass and had to scramble down the rocks to reconnect with the trail below at Leland. Just after Horseshoe lake the cairns become confusing. We found two separate paths of them. We ended up taking the cairns to the right of the river flowing down the granite hillside. The trail going towards China Flat will actually say “Lake Aloha”. The mosquitos are terrible from Mineral Spring to China Flat, so bring plenty of bug spray. We loved this backpacking trip. Plenty of water to filter, lots of places to swim and we only saw a handful of people as we started and on our way out.

  4. Hi! planning to do this loop in late august this year. we would like to break it up into 3 days- do 10 miles the first two days and then 4 miles on the last. do you have suggestions for campsites (with correlated zones) at the 10 mile and 20 mile mark? the maps online that I have found are pretty poor. Also, thus far there hasn’t been much snow (unfortunately) this year- do you think doing the trip in August will be okay?


    1. Hi Amanda, I would recommend splitting it up as 9/9/6 miles, spending the first night at Leland Lakes and the second at Doris. You can use the mouse-over capability of the map on this page, just keep in mind not all miles are equal (due to climbing). Regardless of the snowpack, August is always a great time to hike. It can be very warm which makes swimming in these lakes appealing. In high snowpack years the mosquitos can be very bad into August, but in dry years they should taper off by July.

  5. Hi! I’m planning a 3 day 2 night trip with the first night at Leland and the second at Doris. We’re planning on going early-mid June, do you think the weather will be okay? Also, do you have any advice/directions to get from Leland Lakes back down to Doris?

  6. Hi there I’m planning a 2 night backpacking trip to Rockbound lake later on this month. I’m hoping you can help me out which trailhead would be the most ideal considering my entertainment zone is Rockbound

      1. It looks like Rockbound is Zone 1. I haven’t explored this side of Desolation, but it appears the best access would be from Loon Lake. There’s a trail along the south side of Loon Lake. It hits the Rubicon Trail which goes all the way to Rockbound Lake.

    1. Hi Andrey, Thank you for letting me know. It looks like I have now fixed the maps, but I’m not sure what I did.

  7. Hello,
    Thanks for the great description and pics of the Rockbound Pass trip. My husband and I will be camping at Wright’s Lake in July while my son and friends use this as a base camp for a backpacking trip. Is this a loop where they return to the Rockbound Pass trailhead? Sorry if I missed that somewhere. It would be great if it was a loop ending at Wright’s Lake so that we don’t have to drive somewhere else to pick them up, but I’m open to that, too. I know they want to do a loop rather than out and back on the same trail. Thank you!

    1. Hi Mari. Yes, this trip began and ended at the Rockbound Pass Trailhead (Wright’s Lake). This was done as a lollipop loop- out on one trail, a loop, then return on the same trail. Hope my description makes sense. 🙂

  8. I came across your excellent picture of the Bassi Temporary cabin near China Flat on the rockbound Trail in your discussion of your hike in October 2017. Do you by chance have a GPS location for the cabin? it is a part of history and discussed in Rood’s Thesis on the Bassi family of Lower and Upper Bassi in Union Valley and up adjacent to Desolation. I added your nice picture to my ongoing historical discussion of the El Dorado National Forest, Crystal Basin,, Upper Georgetown divide at with credit you you. If not GPS but a map showing it’s location would be of interest. Thanks. CDR Mike Brattland, USN (Ret.)

Any thoughts?