Tahoe Rim Trail: Day 3

I’m hiking by 6:35AM, which is an accomplishment since I feel impossibly slow packing up camp in the mornings. The trail wanders up and down a ridgeline and then switchbacks up to increasingly jaw-dropping views. More and more of Lake Tahoe becomes visible to the south as the trail rises above the basin’s rim and then over Relay Peak and the highest point on the TRT, at 10,290′.

The views are truly spectacular, in all directions—hills leading to the Central Valley to the east, hazy Nevada to the west, and landmarks to the north including Donner Lake and even the Sierra Buttes off in the distance. I take the new(ish) hiker-only route, which avoids a gravel road and makes a lovely loop around the northern side of Tamarack Peak, past Galena Falls, and eventually down to the Mount Rose Trailhead.

I have the views and the trail entirely to myself until I start down towards the highway. And then there are day hikers. Lots and lots and lots of day hikers, in an endless stream of groups and couples and dogs and children and trail runners and maybe four backpackers and people wearing flip-flops and jeans. Some stop to chat, many have terrible trail etiquette, and a few look like they’re regretting all the life decisions that brought them to this moment of huffing and puffing up a thousand feet of mountain. For once, I’m relieved not to be wearing my PCT hat—too much danger of having to stop for questions, when all I want to do is bomb down the trail to the Mount Rose campground where there are bathrooms, trash cans, and—most enticingly—water spigots.

After a dash across Highway 431 and a nice long break at the campground to drink a few liters of water and sponge away a layer of dust, I’m off on a sunny meadow walk below the highway. This 8.8-mile section of TRT from the Tahoe Meadows Trailhead to Tunnel Creek Road is off-limits to mountain bikes on odd days, but since this is an even day I see maybe a dozen bikers—all of whom are friendly and courteous. I stop for lunch in the woods and mix water into a little baggy of PB2 powder to spread on my tortilla, but NOPE it is not an improvement over carrying packets of peanut butter.

This section of trail feels like a Yosemite landscape. As the TRT turns around the northeast corner of Lake Tahoe, the mountains have changed from soft dirt and thickly forested to granite and pale gravelly hillsides.

I stop at a small creek at Mile 44 to fill up for another night of dry camping and to decide what my next water source will be. Water is definitely still a concern in this section of the TRT: the next reliable water source is a pump at Marlette Peak Campground, 10.4 miles from the creek I’m sitting at, BUT the pump is currently broken, with no word on when it will be repaired. The next water after that is off-trail at Spooner Lake, over 20 miles away. Twin Lakes are only 6.3 miles from where I am, but Guthook’s description has dire warnings about how early they can go dry and to not depend on them for water. This year there’s a debate in the Guthook comments about how plentiful and how drinkable the water in Twin Lakes is (“plenty of water” vs “just grassy puddles” vs “No idea what guy below is talking about. Largest of twin lakes is FULL of water!”)… and so I decide to risk it. I figure I’d rather squish through mud for brown water than carry 6 liters.

Another logistical challenge is the 16-mile no camping zone on either side of Marlette Peak and North Canyon campgrounds. Marlette doesn’t have water because of the broken pump, and North Canyon is 1.5 miles (and 700 feet down) off-trail, so my plan is to camp as close to the no camping zone as possible on both the near side and the far side, committing to a 16+ mile day tomorrow.

By 4:30PM I’m exhausted, kinda sunburned, dehydrated, nursing two blisters on my left foot, and I’ve been passing up camping spots in hopes of finding something right outside the no camping zone. The trail is following the top of a pretty narrow ridge with through-the-trees views of Washoe Valley to the east and Lake Tahoe to the west, so my options are limited. I end up on top of the ridge between granite boulders, make dinner, and after watching a neon orange sunset over the lake, I call it a night.

Trail company: About a dozen bikes, one ailing chipmunk 🙁 and all the day hikers who have ever lived.
Lesson learned: My “I only got one blister on the PCT” hubris (mis)led me to bring blister prevention supplies but no real blister treatments… now that the edge of my insole has rubbed blisters onto both sides of my left heel, I’m regretting that choice. My four-year-old Bushnell SolarWrap Mini charger is underperforming and should have been left at home—the Anker PowerCore 10000 battery pack I’m also carrying would have been enough.  Also: I should put more freeze-dried meat in my meals!

  • August 22, 2018
  • 16.3 miles / ~ 2,000′ ascent,  3,100′ descent
  • Mile 31.6 to Mile 47.9, just before No Camping Zone

Tahoe Rim Trail: Day 2

I eat a predawn breakfast on my campsite balcony, enjoying the spectacular view.

Today’s trail is mostly one long climb, dipping down below 7000′ before going back up to 9500′. I get to the Brockway Summit road crossing at 9AM, where trail angels have left jugs of water and someone else has left baggies of dog poo. I’m already carrying about four liters of water for the next 11.5 miles, but I’m happy to pause and pour myself a liter for electrolyte mix and drink it while sitting in the dirt next to the trailhead parking.

I pass one solo woman backpacker going counter-clockwise and lots of day hikers out with dogs—which makes sense, since the trail is close to lots of dirt roads with easy access to spectacular Lake Tahoe views. At one point I pause to listen to what sounds like some sort of weird, single-note bird call—before realizing that, nope, it’s actually just 4×4 brakes whistling nearby. My deep trail thoughts include making up a palindrome (“Emo trail, liar to me!”) and wondering what the SPF of dirt is.

I eat lunch right before the California-Nevada border (regretting my failure to bring mustard, mayo, and sweet relish packets for my tuna-in-tortillas), but disappointingly there’s no sign to mark the third state that I’ve walked into via trail. (The first two were Oregon and Washington on the PCT—and I guess it’s the fourth if you count British Columbia.)

But boy howdy, Nevada is in it to win it. Suddenly the trail is snaking along ridgetops and cruising through fields of rustling mule’s ears with huge views of Lake Tahoe stretching out below. Rounding a corner I surprise a coyote, who whips around and disappears down the trail. THIS is hiking.

I’m headed for a “Reliable Spring” at Mile 31.3, which hiker comments in the Guthook app said was still flowing—as of two weeks ago. I’m passing up other water options including a side trail down to Grey Lake (minuses: elevation loss/gain, people, bugs) and the enticingly named Mud Lake. I’m placing my bets on “reliable.” The next water source after that isn’t for another 6.3 miles, with over 1100 feet of climbing, so I really want to find water there.

Water planning is a tricky thing out here: you always want to be carrying exactly as much water as you need. At 2.2 pounds per liter, carrying too much is a real pain in the pack, but carrying too little can be anything from annoying to seriously dangerous. On the PCT I had a pretty good sense of how much water I needed to carry, averaging about 4 or 5 miles per liter depending on elevation gain and temperature. But so far on the TRT I’ve been blowing through my water supply and still feeling thirsty—probably because of sweaty uphill hiking and extremely dry air.

Calculating how much water to carry involves mileage, elevation, and the often imprecise art of interpreting water reports: look for recent comments; decide how to parse “trickle” or “grassy puddles” (Would I drink from grassy puddles? Do I care how brown my water is?); and if there are no recent comments, then what were the reports at this time last year or the year before?

I reach the spring and have a brief oh-shit moment when the only thing visible from the trail is wet mud, but sure enough a few yards downhill there’s a little rivulet with a leaf already in place to channel the water. I collect enough for dry camping and 6 miles of hiking the next morning (about three liters) and head up the ridge to find a campsite.

Speaking of water, one of my gear innovations this trip is a homemade adapter to secure my inline/gravity filter to my water bottle. I drilled a hole through a Smart Water bottle top and connected a Sawyer Squeeze hydration pack adapter to it. When hiking, the water bladder is in my pack with a drinking tube connected to the inline filter; when I stop to treat water I replace the drinking tube with this adapter, hang the whole thing from a tree with the water bottle sitting on the ground, and let gravity do the work. Is the adapter necessary? I mean, not really—previously I used quick connect adapters in the drinking tube and just let the drinking tube dangle into the water bottle. But this is definitely more satisfying.

Trail company: 1 coyote, 1 backpacker, 0 bikes, lots of day hikers, and 1 fighter jet.
Lessons learned: It takes two days and 31.6 miles of hiking for me to start fantasizing about hamburgers. My Ziploc brand quart freezer bags have some sort of micro-holes in them that ooze precious buttery fluids when I add boiling water to my dinners (frowny face). And camping 2000′ feet higher than the previous night means it’s gonna be colder!

  • August 21, 2018
  • 16.3 miles / ~3,700′ ascent,  1,700′ descent
  • Mile 15.3 to Mile 31.6, camped on a ridge

Tahoe Rim Trail: Day 1

Let’s do this thing!

I check out of my motel in Tahoe City and am parked in the 64 Acres lot (Guthook Mile 170.6, a.k.a. Mile -0.4) by 7AM—where I promptly begin my hike with some bonus miles by cheerily going the wrong way on the bike path detour. Whoops. Back on track, I get shade from a construction worker before even leaving Tahoe City—walking past a gas station with my fully-loaded pack I hear “That looks heavy!” and silently grumble back, “Yeah, dude. Five days of food and five liters of water. Mind yer own business.”

But unsolicited commentary isn’t going to get me down: I’m starting my hike! I’m charging uphill! I can see the lake! I’m going to walk all the way around it!!

I’m back in hiking mode: Snack. Water. Pee break. How are my feet feeling? Looking at tiny areas of bare ground thinking, I could sleep there if I had to.

I play leapfrog with another solo female hiker for a few miles and then stop to chat. This is her first big hike, inspired by a friend who just completed the Pacific Crest Trail. She also just started from Tahoe City but has a longer itinerary planned, so we probably won’t see each other again after this first day. But it’s nice to feel some immediate solidarity.

The trail climbs, looping up towards the ridgelines around the lake. At 11AM I’ve already hiked 8 miles—about as far as I had scheduled for my entire first day, thinking I’d ease into the hike. So much for that. I stop for lunch with a view of the lake as day hikers and mountain bikers pass by. One biker stops to chat—he’s got an electric-assist bike and is retired. Every morning he starts his day at 6:30AM with three hours of waterskiing on Lake Tahoe and then three hours of mountain biking. Retirement sounds great.

The views continue to dazzle, both looking out at the mountains to the west and with glimpses of the lake to the east.

I continue towards Watson Lake, which has car-accessible designated campsites. There’s a four-mile No Camping zone around the lake, so my choices are either to stay at the campground (plusses: water, flat tent spots; possible minuses: loud people, bugs) or to hike past Mile 15 to legal camping (plusses: solitude, possible views; minuses: hunting for a spot, carrying water to dry camp). Reaching Watson Lake at 2:30PM, I fill up on water, snack, and try to get iPhone-through-monocular shots of a noisy, sociable woodpecker.

It still feels too early to stop for the day, so I keep walking, committing to making it past Mile 15 before camping. I take a side trail at Mile 14.7 to a creek that runs under Forest Service roads so I can fill up for the night—and the next 16+ miles. The northern and eastern sides of the lake are definitely dry. The trail is in the woods right now, but looking at the topo map I can tell there are views, most likely of Lake Tahoe, just a tiny bit off-trail. So, once I’ve passed the No Camping mark, I head into the trees towards what I hope will be stunning cliffside views. I am not disappointed.

Trail company: 12 hikers, 13 bikers, 1 fighter jet.
Lessons learned: I’m missing some of the “luxury” items I left out of my pack, like a foam sit pad and camp shoes. I also miss my nerdtastic Digital Dangler, which has both a clock and a thermometer—I chose not to wear a watch but haven’t liked having to pull my phone out every time I want to check the time. One thing I am loving, however, is hiking with a hip (butt/fanny/whatevs) pack instead of my backpack’s hip belt pockets! I got a cheap Dakine hip pack and am hanging it over my pack’s hip belt in front to hold phone, snacks, chapstick, etc. Five stars.

  • August 20, 2018
  • 15.7 miles / ~2,800′ ascent, 1,670′ descent
  • Tahoe City/64 Acres Park to Mile 15.3, just past the No Camping Zone

Tahoe Rim Trail Thru-hike: Planning and Logistics

The Tahoe Rim Trail circles Lake Tahoe for 171 miles, passing through two states, three wilderness areas, and overlapping with 50 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.  The TRT is a National Recreation Trail open to hikers, equestrians, and (in some places) mountain bikers.

Since thru-hiking the PCT in 2015 I’ve been itching to get out on another long trail—I’ve considered the Colorado Trail, but that would require a five-week, 500ish-mile commitment with a lot of logistics. The Tahoe Rim Trail was a perfect solution: it’s close to the Bay Area where I live and do-able in under two weeks—but still provides the satisfaction of a thru-hike. It’s also gorgeous.

My plan was to squeeze a solo hike into 11 days in August between PCTA trail crew work and Labor Day weekend with friends at a USFS lookout tower. Unfortunately, the trail work was postponed after the Donnell Fire closed the PCT section where we would have been working. I considered adding some days to the start of my hike, but since I already had motel reservations I figured I’d just stick with the original schedule.

  • Planning: I googled for trip reports, read through the TRTA’s website, purchased Tim Hauserman’s TRT guidebook, and of course bought the TRT guide in Guthook’s app. After my PCT hike I feel confident in my ability to create a solid daily plan via spreadsheet and then adapt once I’m actually on the trail.
  • Permits: Two permits are required (one if you’re going stoveless): a California Campfire Permit for operating a stove (available online), and a thru-hiker permit for the Desolation Wilderness (which you can get for $20 by calling 530-543-2694 within 14 calendar days of the day you’ll enter Desolation—it’s either mailed to you or you can pick it up in person in South Lake Tahoe).
  • Starting/ending point: clockwise from Tahoe City, California. I chose this for several reasons. Tahoe City has motel and restaurant options, trailhead parking, and splits the trail fairly evenly with the Kingsbury Grade—a good option for a halfway resupply and rest stop. I also liked the idea of saving the Desolation Wilderness and all its beautiful lakes—along with my PCT mini-victory-lap—for the end of my hike. And, I’ll be honest, the precise and ceremonious parts of me liked starting from (close to) Mile 0 in Guthook’s guide.
  • Parking: 64 Acres Park, Tahoe City. Since I would be hiking in between two car-required activities, I needed a place to leave my car for eleven days. It’s surprisingly hard to find clear info on longterm parking for a TRT hike.  The Tahoe Rim Trail Association parking page has a map showing trailheads with parking, but nothing makes it clear where overnight parking is allowed or recommended. I called a few different offices in Tahoe City and got conflicting information, but I settled on parking my car at the 64 Acres trailhead lot, Guthook Mile 170.6. (Spoiler alert: success! My car was un-towed, un-ticketed, and un-broken-into when I returned.)
  • Schedule: 11 days total, with 10 days hiking and one full rest day. The full “zero day” in Stateline (two nights in an Airbnb) ended up feeling a bit unnecessary—I could have done two “neroes” (“near-zero” days) instead and chipped some daily mileage off the second half of the trip. But it sure was nice to have a whole day off. No regrets.
  • Food: As on the PCT, I ate tortilla-based lunches, home-constructed dinners (a just-add-boiling-water carbohydrate base with freeze-dried veggies, meat, and lots of butter powder), and a ton of snacks. I aimed for 3000+ calories a day but wasn’t too strict about it since it’s a relatively short hike. Being unwilling to wean myself off caffeine like I did for the PCT, I carried Starbucks Via packets (meh) and heated water in the mornings for my caffeine fix. I prepared 95% of my food ahead of time and then bought essentials like Doritos and a block of cheddar cheese right before and during my hike.
  • Resupply: Stateline, Nevada. I broke my hike into two five-day segments, starting at Tahoe City with my first five days of food and pausing at the Kingsbury Grade (Highway 207, Guthook Mile 78.1) to pick up my resupply for the next five days in Stateline, Nevada. My Airbnb host graciously agreed to receive/hold both my resupply box and my Desolation Wilderness permit for me.
  • Gear merits its own post, but the short version is: Nemo 2P Hornet Elite tent, Zpacks quilt, NeoAir XLite mattress, Zpacks Arc Blast backpack, Gossamer Gear hiking poles, Hoka One One running shoes, and Ursack + Opsaks for food protection. I carried an inline Sawyer water filter fitted to my Platypus water bladder and had the capacity to carry 6 liters of water—which was necessary for some long water carries and dry camping on the eastern side of the lake. I didn’t cache water anywhere along the trail ahead of time, though many people do.

My carefully calculated mileage plan didn’t even last through the first day, so I just tried to hit my mileage goal for each day—15.6 miles/day for the first five days and 18.6 miles/day for the last five days.

Everything went pretty much to plan, and there’s not much I would change other than a few minor gear tweaks, some preplanned water caches to reduce the amount of water I had to carry in the first half of the hike, and an extra day in the second half to bring my daily mileage down.

The Tahoe Rim Trail is exquisitely maintained, extremely well-signed, and deservedly popular—it’s a truly beautiful hike with spectacular views, accessible to all types of hiking and riding. I thoroughly enjoyed it! My day-by-day trip report with photos is coming soon.