Hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail is the thru-hike for everyone
Story and photos by Tim Hauserman
Looking south from the TRT near Wild Rose Peak, between Mt. Rose and Brockway Summit.
The Tahoe Rim Trail: It’s 165 miles of primo single-track circling Lake Tahoe via two mountain ranges, three wilderness areas and two states. Mile after mile of jaw dropping vistas of Lake Tahoe, quiet strolls through deep forest, and glacier carved lakes at the base of high granite peaks. In July, you’ll find spectacular wildflower gardens at Meiss Meadows; August is time for a refreshing swim in Dick’s Lake; and in the fall, yellow aspen leaves light up Snow Valley.
If Lake Tahoe is part of your outdoor lifestyle you’ve probably already spent time on the Tahoe Rim Trail. You’ve bombed down that sweet section of bike heaven above Tahoe City, or hiked to Star Lake before pushing to the top of Freel Peak. Perhaps you have hiked past the blaze of wildflower color along the streams north of Barker Pass, or spent a day with one foot in Lake Aloha and two eyes marveling at Pyramid Peak.
Don’t you think it’s about time to quit messing around with doing bits and pieces, and conquer the whole enchilada? Isn’t it time to thru-hike the Tahoe Rim Trail?
Why the TRT?
For the truly adventurous only the 2600-mile Pacific Crest Trail or 2100-mile Appalachian Trail will do, but most of us don’t have the time, inclination, or mental and physical strength to make that sort of commitment. The TRT is the thru-hike for ordinary humans. It provides a healthy challenge and a tremendous range of views and experiences, all in a nicely manageable size that can be handily completed in a two-week summer vacation.
Not only is the distance just right, but the TRT is user friendly in a variety of other ways as well. First, the trail is broken into eight segments providing plenty of road crossings and access to amenities that make trip planning easier. Second, it’s at Lake Tahoe, which dishes out nearly perfect summer weather. Other than the occasional thunderstorm you can count on sunny days, blue skies and temperatures that would make Goldilocks happy: Not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
And finally, the real selling point is that the TRT is a circle. You start walking and 165 miles later end up right where you began. This means you don’t have to mess around with shuttles; you just park your car and start hiking. But what the loop really means is that almost every day you can look across the gorgeous body of water that is Lake Tahoe and see where you have been and where you are going. It makes thru-hiking the TRT an awesome experience.
When I solo thru-hiked the TRT in 2007, I started in Ward Canyon. I walked out the door of my house, caught a use trail from my driveway and in a mile I was on the TRT. In fact, many Tahoe area neighborhoods lie within a few miles of the TRT, so many locals can literally begin a trip at their door. Before departing I took a glance at Twin Peaks, towering above Ward and Blackwood Canyon. In the next few days I hiked past Tahoe City, Watson Lake and over Brockway Summit, and Twin Peaks kept getting smaller as the miles accumulated.
By day seven I sat on the bench of South Camp Peak, with almost all of Lake Tahoe unfolded before me, and there was Twin Peaks, just a little blip along the Pacific Crest, barely visible some 80 trail miles away (although only about 20 air miles). It was a moment of pride in my accomplishment, tinged with a sober assessment: I had covered a lot of ground, but I had a long way to go before Twin Peaks once again dominated the view.
At the south end of the trail as I headed into Desolation Wilderness, Twin Peaks disappeared for a few days and then like a light at the end of the tunnel it reappeared again, looking impressively close … a sign that my trip was nearing its end. On the last day, I walked just a few hundred feet below Twin Peaks’ summit before crossing from Blackwood into Ward Canyon, and on to home.
Solitude at Night
For those of you who have spent a crowded summer weekend day hiking or riding the Tahoe Rim Trail, backpacking provides a new discovery: The TRT is primarily a day-use trail. Hike from Tahoe Meadows to Hobart Road on a weekend day and it is not unusual to see over 100 mountain bikes on the trail, but when you get to Marlette Campground, it is likely you will have the campground to yourself. The next morning, since your day begins in the middle of a long segment, you are many miles from the trailheads on each end, which will translate into many hours of solitude before encountering your first day user.
Except for Desolation Wilderness, there are not a lot of backpackers on the TRT. On my thru-hike, except for busy Tamarack Lake just within the borders of Desolation Wilderness, I camped alone every night. In fact, on one midweek day I set up camp early in the afternoon at Star Lake, and didn’t see another person until late in the afternoon of the following day.
On my 14 days on the trail, I only ran into three other TRT thru-hikers. Where you will see other backpackers, especially if you are hiking in July, is on the 50-mile stretch where the TRT and the Pacific Crest Trail are combined. As a TRT thru-hiker, when you start talking to the hearty breed of folks that are 1000 miles into hiking the whole PCT, you start to feel like you are a three-mile walker in a local charity event talking to an Ironman competitor.
Sure, thru-hiking the TRT is almost as easy as parking your car and starting to hike, but not quite. First, you need to arrange for food pick up. You can send packages to the Tramway Market on Kingsbury Grade, or to the Echo Chalet on Echo Lake. Another alternative is to make Tahoe City a stop, where a supermarket and Alpenglow, an excellent outdoor gear shop, are less than a half mile from the trail.
Your biggest challenge with thru-hiking the TRT is finding adequate water. There are long stretches along the north and east shore where water is not available. In several places you will want to cache water ahead of time, in other locations you will need to carry extra water to make it through a dry spot.
Perhaps the best way to hike the TRT is to let someone else do the planning and take care of all those water and food issues for you. Become a participant in the Tahoe Rim Trail Association’s annual thru-hike.
Tim Hauserman is the author of, “Tahoe Rim Trail: The official guide for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians,” published by Wilderness Press, as well as “Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children” and “Cross-Country Skiing in the Sierra Nevada.” He is a professional hiking guide and teaches skiing at Tahoe Cross-Country ski area. He is scheduled to lead the TRT thru-hike leaving July 25th.