Trails in Northern California

Trails in Northern California

Leave No Trace!

Visit for more information about Desolation Wilderness. Visit or call 1- 877-444-6777 to make park reservations. Visit Campfire Permits to get a permit online. More about Leave No Trace principles.

August 24, 2014

McConnell Lake Loop ~ Primitive Trail ~ in Desolation Wilderness

Unmaintained, "PRIMITIVE",
marked only with cairns*,
the McConnell Lake Trail helps you find
 numerous lakes hidden in the 
depths of Desolation Wilderness.  

We walked 15 miles hiking to (and searching for) the
rugged McConnell Lake Trail and visited 9 lakes.

This link has an interactive topo map of the lakes you will travel by on this reportedly 8 1/2 mile loop. The trail it shows appears to be hand drawn and is not an exact representation of the trail. We hiked about 15 miles following cairns* across granite, across streams, through woods, and hiking through vegetation with a barely visible, or invisible, trail. If you go now, I do not recommend you follow ANY cairns! According to information taken from my Tom Harrison topo map the trail is closer to 10.5 miles. This is a snapshot of the online interactive map, but please use the link to use the interactive version of this map.

Location:  Desolation Wilderness near Wrights Lake Recreation Area, CA, USA.
Distance:  It can be done in less than 30 miles round trip including the hike from the TH and back.  It is recommended backpackers first hike in to Lois or Schmidell Lake, via Rockbound Trail, then get a fresh start the next day. Schmidell Lake is 8.5 miles, depending on your rest stops and side trips along the way.  From there it will be no less than 8.5 miles to do the loop, conservatively since every hiker we met reported having trouble keeping on the trail and spent extra time and miles finding it.  Cross country side trips are available over to Zitella and Highland Lakes (which we didn't opt for).  We recommend allowing at least two or three days, and to backpack the loop rather than day hiking it unless you are traveling with someone who is familiar with the trail.
Difficulty:  Strenuous and difficult.  It requires fitness, skills in using maps, confidence in back country hiking, having exceptional trail finding skills, being comfortable doing cross country hiking, and being prepared for rapidly changing weather conditions common to this area. The terrain varies from loose rocks, giant slabs of steep granite, thick vegetation, creek crossings, (one easy log crossing) through forest, through mountain meadows, and steep "rock stairs" down into Leland Lakes (or up if you do the loop counter clockwise).  It is also recommended you be prepared for a workout at elevation where the air is thinner, and more tiring.
Driving directions will be posted at the bottom of this post.

View of Schmidell Lake from the trail to Leland lakes.

Leaving the Schmidell Lake basin to Lois Lake.

View of inclement weather that set in when we were at Doris Lakes.

Warning that the trail is difficult, and stock are not able to travel it.

McConnell Lake itself is small and grassy.

We paused here searching for the trail down to the junction with Blakely Trail to get back to Schmidell Lake.

Granite slopes between Horseshoe Lake and the 4-Q Lakes.  I wish you could see the
granite in 3-D for a better understanding of the steep hike down it.

Areas with vegetation are not maintained so they are overgrown and look like deer paths. 

Another view of the steep granite we had to negotiate to get down to 4 Q Lakes.

A 4-Q Lake

A 4 Q Lake, nice swimming hole, the first going clockwise around the loop.

Horseshoe Lake was grassy and we opted not to even filter water here.

In Nov. 2015 I came across this discussion: "... I'm one of the USFS Desolation Wilderness managers and recently hiked the McConnell Loop this summer and removed every cairn that I came across on the trail. Wilderness for most visitors is about discovering and exploring, not only the challenges and beauty our wild land has to offer, but about how we as visitors travel in it. Seeing sign of other people's passing is not enjoyable or acceptable. We as Wilderness rangers enforce the code of federal regulations and there is a CFR for removing or disturbing any natural feature in a federaly protected Wildernes area. Placing rock cairns along system trails is unnecessary and a blight on the land and against the CFR's .
Our trails are maintained to their designated standard as detailed in our Wilderness plan. The McDonnell loop is a remote trail that is in one of the more isolated areas of the Wilderness and is maintained accordingly to preserve it's Wilderness character.
Rock cairns are finding their way into camping and vista areas in the Wilderness and are becoming an increasing problem.
The stacking and placing of these rocks can become a safety issue when they are used to create shortcuts off of our trails.
Take the time when hiking and look ahead of you, there are subtle signs of where the trail is.
Enjoy your hike!

Jon Erickson
Desation Wilderness Manager

With cairns this trail was a challenge and took us hours to follow.  Your map finding skills ARE ESSENTIAL!  This edit was made in November of 2015.  Happy Trails!

  • Early in the season (May- June, please check out road conditions before you go.  In June 2016 there are snow drifts crossing the road before the intersection with Ice House Road.)

Driving directions:  Take Highway 50 to Wrights (Lake) Road north from the Kyburz area. The Wrights Lake Road will be between Tract 36  and Tract 39 along Highway 50.  Follow the signs to Wrights Lake Recreational area.  When you get to the Wrights Lake Welcome Cabin and parking lot on your left, go straight ahead following signs to Rockbound Trailhead.  There is ample parking and a restroom there.  (The trailhead is near the restroom.)
Notes: For backpacking you can get permits online or at a Tahoe or El Dorado National Forest Ranger Station, for a fee.  There are no campfires allowed inside the wilderness boundaries and if you fish, be sure to have your regular fishing license with you.  Fire permits are still required to use camp stoves.

Happy Trails!

Related Posts you might be interested in for nearby trails:

Desolation Wilderness
10+ miles
30 miles
Moderate to Strenuous/Difficult
18 miles
12+ miles
Moderate to Strenuous
13+ miles
Moderate to Strenuous
Umpa Lake & Enchanted Pools
8+ miles
Cross country ~ Moderate
Horsetail Falls via Pyramid Creek TH
Aprox.  10 miles to lakes at the top of the falls
"Difficult, and potentially dangerous" miles
10 miles
8 miles
Lyons Lake via Lyons Creek Trail
10+ miles
9.2 miles
6+ miles
Lyons Creek Trail with melting snow
9+ miles
3.8 miles
2010-09 We hiked 12 days.
167 total
Moderate to Strenuous

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Added updated links and Table of Contents 06-2016