After reading We’re Off To See The Wilderness, The Wonderful Wilderness Of Awes I was jonesing for camaraderie, aw-inspiring landscape, and badass status – three things that come with a big thru-hike. Three months later we were hiking all 168 miles of the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT)! Here’s our 12-day itinerary, plus a few lessons learned along the way.
Day 1: Kingsbury North Trailhead to Star Lake (15.6 miles)
I’m glad we acclimated overnight before this high-mileage first day. We began our epic journey at Kingsbury North for a number of reasons: proximity to friend’s house, hopes of secure parking (truck was unscathed after 12 days!), and breaking up the drier east side of the trail. From the trailhead to Highway 207 there were an absurd amount of TRT signs so don’t worry about finding your way. Once we survived our first road crossing we headed into the Heavenly ski area, we heard it was a confusing area but we managed to stay on the trail. When we arrived at Star Lake the wind started to pick up and didn’t let down until the rain started to fall in the middle of the night. I wish we’d been able to spend more time on the shores of Star Lake because it was gorgeous!
Day 2: Star Lake to Round Lake (17.3 miles)
“Rain, rain go away, don’t come back for 12 more days.” That was my mantra until early afternoon and thankfully Mother Nature listened. I hear the view from Freel Pass is delightful, but at that point we were still in a cloud. We quickly hiked on to Armstrong Pass, where the trail started meandering. Maybe one day the trail will meander so much it will rejoin and become straight again, creating oxbow trails – ha! This is where my head goes while hiking long distances… We arrived at Round Lake after a relatively quick climb out of Big Meadow; this lake had awesome rock formations towering above the southwest shore. In the morning Basil spotted a porcupine just outside of our camp; while this was the best wildlife sighting of the trip, I’m glad Aspen was still in the tent.
Day 3: Round Lake to Tamarack Lake (16 miles)
To pick up our resupply at the Echo Lake Post Office we had 14 miles to hike before 2 pm, which made for an early morning. We still took the time to soak in Meiss Meadow, which I could have walked through all day. After that we climbed to 9,000 feet only to quickly descend to around 7,200 – I was glad I had my trekking poles to take some of the impact off my knees. Then we came to the most terrifying road crossing of the whole trip – Highway 50 where a passing lane opens up just in time for road-raged drivers to speed past the RV they’ve been stuck behind for a half hour. How about some signage warning drivers of possible foot traffic on the road folks?! Anyway, we made it to the post office with a half hour to spare and then relaxed at the thru-hiker picnic table outside the general store. I rewarded myself for the early morning with a sandwich and a Summerfest – delightful! However, a dark cloud was gathering over us in the form of achilles tendinitis. Yoshi, Toad, and their two dogs were forced off the trail due to Toad’s injury. With a tough decision made, our diminished group boarded the Echo Lake water taxi to make up for lost time and give our tired feet a 2.5-mile rest. After a quick hike from the boat dock to Tamarack Lake we set up camp for the night.
Day 4: Tamarack Lake to Middle Velma Lake (14.1 miles)
Day four was our only full day in Desolation Wilderness and we enjoyed the non-stop granite views and abundant lakes. However, with this amazing scenery comes tricky footing on rock-strewn trails and a long hot stair-master of a climb over Dicks Pass. I always enjoy the view of lake-filled Desolation Valley backed by the Crystal Range, so don’t forget to stop for a photo opportunity as you crest the pass! Then we headed north for a tiring hike to Middle Velma Lake, but first we had to hike the length of the gorgeous, but never-ending, Fontanillis Lake. Seriously, this lake is the false summits of lakes – every bend in the trail unveiled more water! Which would have been nice on the northeast side of this hike… anyway! We ended up finding a tent site on the west end of Middle Velma Lake, which was surrounded by little mosquito ponds; I recommend finding a site on the south shore to try and avoid some of the mosquito clouds.
Day 5: Middle Velma Lake to north of Bear Creek (8.3 miles)
Speaking of mosquito clouds, I think day five’s first two miles were the fastest miles hiked during our Tahoe Rim trip. We didn’t dare stop or even slow down until we arrived at the safe haven of a granite slab just past Phipps Creek – which would make a nice campsite. Once we doused ourselves in bug spray we continued our run through the dense woods. The day warmed up just in time for us to take a break at a nice overlook down to Rockbound Valley and three of its main lakes. We continued on to Richardson Lake to soak our tired feet before hiking on to Bear Creek where we filled our water to try our hand at dry camping a mile or so down the trail. This wasn’t necessary since we ended up camping next to a no-name stream, however I would recommend continuing on. This site had the trifecta of annoying insects: mosquitoes, biting flies, and ants. I would recommend filling water at Bear Creek, a more reliable water source, and hiking on a half mile or so past Barker Pass to a few nice flat tent sites on the side of a hill with a great view down to Lake Tahoe.
Day 6: North of Bear Creek to Truckee River (17.5 miles)
We got another early start on this morning, packing up all of our things hoping to be on our way before the mosquitoes realized we were up. We hiked the 1.5 miles to Barker Pass and then took a break for breakfast. From there we kept climbing toward Twin Peaks, which had great views all along the hike. Plus we even visited a new wilderness, Granite Chief, for about 20 minutes. The hike down to Ward Creek was pleasant, but then the hike on toward Tahoe City seemed to last forever. Finally we popped out of the woods along the Truckee River next to an awesome little beach and a flat spot, it was within 300 feet of the trail corridor so we decided to call it home for the night. However, we waited until after all of the locals and their dogs headed home to avoid looking like a hobo camp…
Day 7: Truckee River to Watson Lake (13.2 miles)
From our site it was a quick walk into Tahoe City where we took care of a few essential stops. After breakfast, mailing postcards, picking up our resupply, and visiting a great local gear shop – Alpenglow Sports we started the rough climb out of Tahoe City at 10:30 a.m. The day was hotter than usual, so an earlier start would have helped with the strenuous first mile of this climb. After that the climb becomes more gradual, but the temperature kept rising. The trail surface became so hot I had to put Aspen’s booties on so she wouldn’t burn her pads. Thankfully there were plenty of shady overlooks to enjoy views of Lake Tahoe or down to the Truckee River where the whoops of rafters made us jealous. We arrived at Watson Lake to find tent sites limited and a parking lot of cars camping across the lake. Also, I believe this lake is the true start to the downfall of my water filter. It was incredibly silty with shallow shores, we ended up wading out to filter water. With all of that said, at least we didn’t have to pack enough water to dry camp out of Tahoe City! However, if you’re up for carrying water, there are great camping options near Painted Rock a few miles before Watson Lake.
Day 8: Watson Lake to east of Mud Lake (18.2 miles)
This was our longest day, but also the day with a true rim hike experience. After climbing up from Brockway Summit the views of Lake Tahoe were nonstop! We were running a bit late, but I would have loved to rest my feet at Mount Baldy. Just past Mount Baldy we entered another new wilderness area – Mount Rose. Hiking the stretch around Rose Knob and Rose Knob Peak were hazardous because we had to watch our footing while trying not to stare at the inviting waters of Tahoe far below. To refill our water we took the “trail” down to Mud Lake, by “trail” I mean talus slope. From above, the water looked algae-filled, but it was actually grass growing in the lake. I doubt this would be an option for water later in the season, an alternative would be to cache water near the Martis Peak parking area. My filter was having trouble handling this extremely silty and shallow lake as well so we ended up treating the water with iodine tablets. After scrambling back up to the trail we were spent and strapped our packs on to find the next remotely flat spot, which ended up being perched above the east side of Mud Lake on a ridge where the breeze kept the bugs away!
Day 9: East of Mud Lake to Mount Rose Campground (8.4 miles)
We climbed to the highest point of the TRT on day nine, thankfully we had a nice early start to finish the climb over Relay Peak. The views did not disappoint! Plus we nabbed the Relay Peak geocache during our hike. Once we started the descent we could pick from sticking with the trail or Relay Peak Road to get to the Mount Rose Trailhead. Our original plan was to camp near Galena Falls so we headed down the trail. Galena Falls was the best waterfall on the trail, which is why throngs of day-hikers were in the area. We decided to power hike out in hopes of nabbing a campsite at the Mount Rose Campground on the Thursday before July 4th weekend – luck was in our favor! While the campground was full of noisy children running around enjoying nature and adults yelling, “shot, shot, shot” late into the night; it also had everything a girl could ask for after nine days on the trail – piped water, vault toilet, picnic table, and a level tent site! Plus it made for an easy stroll to meet our resupply at Tahoe Meadows Trailhead in the morning.
Day 10: Mount Rose Campground to Marlette Peak Campground (15.7 miles)
This stretch of trail contains the section most popular with mountain bikes, which warrants a special regulation – from Mount Rose Summit to Tunnel Creek Road mountain bikes are only allowed on even days. Our resuppliers were joining us for the rest of the trip, one hiking and three biking so we had to time it so we were hiking this section on an even day. If you don’t have bikers in your group you may want to time this for an odd day. After the long hike to the Tunnel Creek Jct and the climb up from there, we reached Christopher’s Loop or the Sand Harbor Overlook as it is labeled on the trail. We stashed our packs and went up the spur trail to see the view – amazing! I suppose we had similar views along the north stretch of the trail and on our last night, but I thought it was still worth the side trip. I wouldn’t recommend bikes on the trail though, the sign at the bottom says to walk your bike to the top. Then there’s a sign at the top saying walk your bike to the bottom. Ha, what a dirty trick! I suppose you could ride the loop, but I’m not sure that’s worth all that bike walking. After the side trip it was an easy hike to the campground where there is a bathroom, water pump, picnic tables, and bear boxes. A site is not guaranteed, but backpackers tend to be a friendly group and I bet you could sweet talk your way into some bear box space if needed. This was our campsite for July 4th, so we hiked the Martlette Peak loop at night and watched the fireworks go off around the lake. We didn’t have a spectacular view of any particular show, but it was worth staying up past my trail bedtime.
Day 11: Marlette Peak Campground to west of South Camp Peak (16.8 miles)
I really enjoyed hiking the section between Marlette Peak Campground and the North Canyon Camp Trail, it was high dessert in all of its glory but with a huge body of water added in! However the lovely morning turned into a pain in the trekking pole! We had to fill our water at Spooner Lake, which was the siltiest and swampiest water so far and the piped water at the main parking area was broken. Thankfully we added a water filter to our stock at the resupply because mine was down for the silty count. Plus even after filtering, the water still tasted incredibly swampy. I would recommend caching water at the Spooner Summit Trailhead. There was a trash can on the north side of the highway for sure, maybe one on the south too for disposing of caching containers. Climbing up from Spooner Summit was rough, but our camp with a fantastic view was worth it.
A note for mountain bikers: Mountain bikes are not allowed on the TRT between Hobart Road and Spooner Summit. Our bikers actually headed north from Marlette Peak Campground and picked up the Flume Trail, then met up with North Canyon Road, and finally circled Spooner Lake to meet us at Spooner Summit. I was a bit confused because from the TRT side there are signs saying no bikes down the Spooner Lake trail. However, I confirmed this route with a Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park employee and there were no signs of the sort coming from the Spooner Lake area. Maybe bikes just aren’t supposed to enter the park from Spooner Summit.
Day 12: West of South Camp Peak back to Kingsbury North Trailhead! (7 miles)
Our last day was a relatively quick seven miles to complete our loop. Our 168-mile loop that is… After cleaning up and a fresh change of clothes we were somewhat presentable to celebrate at The Brewery at Lake Tahoe with a beer, burger, and fries!
A quick note about permits, there are only two permits you need while thru-hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail. The first is a Campfire Permit, which can be obtained at any California Forest Service office. This is needed to operate your stove, not just to have a campfire. Check with the Tahoe Basin Forest Service for information on campfire restrictions before your hike. The second permit is for Desolation Wilderness, which is easy to obtain as a thru-hiker. Thru-hikers don’t have to go through the quota system so you can visit a Tahoe Basin Forest Service office, pay the $10 per person fee, and they’ll give you a permit – no quota, no reservations.
Whether you’re hiking, biking, or riding the Tahoe Rim Trail all at once or in sections it’s an epic adventure – enjoy!
(and tired) Trails
P.S. There are more Tahoe Rim Trail blogs to come – stay tuned! Plus you can check out Basil’s TRT blogs on Beaut-Tree!