Category Archives: Trail Report

Trail Report: Tahoe Rim Trail

Hiked: September, 2016  (This report first appeared at TheTrek.co)

Length: 170 Miles
Location: Encircling Lake Tahoe through the Sierras in both California and Nevada.
Trail Type: Loop
Scenery: The trail has daily mountain views, numerous small alpine lakes and countless views of the largest alpine lake in North America. The path often passes through open forests consisting mainly of various pines, firs and occasional aspen. Much of the trail is in National Forest or one of three Wilderness Areas. Desolation Wilderness is aptly named as a glacier once scraped most of the soil from the area and left the terrain beautifully stark.

Aloha Lake in the Desolation Wilderness

Terrain: The hiking would be considered moderate. You are walking through the Sierras, so there’s some considerable up and down. However, unlike the more famous John Muir Trail in the same range to the south, the elevation change is less dramatic. Tahoe’s shoreline is around 6,300 feet and the high point on the trail tops out at 10,330 feet. The tread is well constructed with switchbacks and even steps on the steeper sections.
Navagation: The trail is extremely well marked, easy to navigate and rarely confusing. Signage is ample and well located. On the trail I used the Tahoe Rim Trail Pocket Atlas link by Blackwoods Press and the TRT phone App by Guthook. Both appeared to be accurate and contained all needed intel.

Near Twin Peaks

Getting There: There are two cities on the trail, Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe. The closest major city is Reno, NV. From there to Tahoe City take I-80 West to CA-89 South. Traveling from Reno to South Lake Tahoe, the best route is US-395 South to US-50 West. In addition, there are regularly scheduled shuttles to either town straight from the Reno airport.

Why Hike This Trail

On every trail I hike, I end up with a song playing over and over in my head. On the TRT, the obvious choice was “Roundabout,” released by the English rock group Yes in 1971. This could be the official tune of the trail. Not only did the title match the route, but the lyrics did too. As I hiked, “In and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky and they stand there.” Multiple times I passed, “In and out the valley.”
Regardless of your musical tastes though, this is a great shorter “long” trail; especially for a first time thru-hiker. Logistics are simple; you finish where you start. The two best resupply options, Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe are close to equidistant and easy to reach. Permits are simple. The California Campfire Permit needed to operate a stove on the trail is free and can be had by passing a straightforward Internet quiz. (Don’t plan on an actual campfire though.) For thru-hikers, there is no quota for Desolation Wilderness Permits. I got mine with a phone call and $10. (Call two weeks out.) On top of that, it’s just a beautiful hike on an easy to follow trail.

Climate

John Muir described the Sierra Nevada as the “gentle wilderness” and the summer weather can be just that. Generally the trail is hiked Mid-July through September and the area averages about 2 inches of rain total during that entire period. I walked the trail over ten days in September and there was no rain and maybe 20 minutes of cloud cover during my entire hike. Bring sunscreen. At the elevations on the trail, the temperature is likely to go below freezing during any month of the year. I carried a 23-degree bag and was glad I did.
One note of caution for 2017. This past winter the area had the highest snowfall total in 35 years. As I write this, significant parts of the trail are covered with 10 feet or more of snow. The hiking season will most likely start late.

Camping

One of the interesting rules about the TRT is that camping somewhat near the trail isn’t discouraged, it’s actually required. All camping must be done within 300 feet of the trail corridor. That doesn’t mean there is a shortage of sites however. The Guthook Guide lists well over 100 spots to set up one or more tents. With that many options, finding a spot to camp was not an issue. On my trip, only once did I set up within sight of another tent; and they were on the opposite side of Dick’s Lake.
One issue is that within Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park (Mile 48-63.5) hikers may only camp at one of three park camp areas. I avoided the situation by hiking through the park in one day.

Water Sources

Despite the fact that the trail circles a Big Ol’ lake, don’t expect to be able to dip a cup in it whenever you want. You are rarely that close. The east side of the lake is significantly drier than the west side, but no dry stretch was extraordinarily long. By making use of a campround hydrant and going off trail for water a couple times, I never went over 14 miles between water stops. The west side of the lake had several small lakes and even some snowmelt; despite being Mid-September during the drought. Other than the hydrants, I did filter all my water. I consider it cheap insurance.

Resupply Options

While there are additional options, the simplest plan is to start/finish at either Tahoe City or South Lake Tahoe and resupply at the other. You then have either 80 or 90 miles to cover between stops. Both towns have post offices handy to hold a package. Or, in my case, I planned a zero in South Lake Tahoe and made a reservation at a hotel which also held a package for me (and had a laundry and a $2 happy hour!) Tahoe City is on the trail and South Lake Tahoe can be reached by either a steep walk on a busy road or a $2 bus. Take the bus. By starting at a trailhead between towns, one of the walks between resupplies could be cut into two.
A word of caution. Bears are in the area and good spots to “bear bag” your food can be few and far between. I solved that issue by using a bear canister.

Closing Thoughts

The TRT is a great hike for newer long distance hiker, someone trying solo hiking for the first time or anyone that wants a great scenic hike with a minimum of logistical issues The bureaucratic hoops were relatively easy to deal with as well. The folks at the Tahoe Rim Trail Association were very helpful and their website is a great planning resource.
For those that want to hike the John Muir Trail, but have been unable to get a permit, this would be a great replacement hike for you.

Looking for more details? My entire journey starts here.

Trail Report: Burr Oak State Park Backpack Trail

“Look at all the !$%#*& cars!” I exclaimed as we arrived at Zaleski State Forest Backpack Trail. Despite the great weather forecast, neither Bill nor I thought there would be such a crowd. It was, after all, November 7 and nearly all the leaves were off the trees. Whether we foresaw it or not though, the parking lot was full, the lot across the street was full and several vehicles were in the grass near the lot. It was obvious that any decent campsite would be taken and any dead wood nearby already scavenged and burned.

OK, the first choice for a (relatively) easy overnight backpacking trip was out. What’s the fallback plan? “How about Burr Oak?” Bill stated. “It’s not too far from here.” That sounded like a plan to me, so I pointed the truck north towards Nelsonville, Glouster and eventually Burr Oak State Park.

Entering the park from State Route 78 we parked at the Ranger Station. Though the station was closed, maps were available and the trail was just a few steps away. Since it is a 23 mile loop and one camping option appeared to be about ten miles if we started south, that’s the direction we took.

Most of the trail is well designed with gentle grades

Most of the trail is well designed with gentle grades

Almost immediately, the Park’s lodge is visible. As we were getting a late start, the option of staying with civilization for lunch was discussed. I had the choice of a couple Cliff Bars and Gatorade, or a burger and a beer at the lodge. Hmmm. What to do?

Once we finished off the drafts it was time to start hiking. After a couple initial hills, the trail generally held a fairly constant elevation; benched into the hillside overlooking the lake. In addition, the trail was well constructed and the nearly constant lake views were impressive.

After about 2 ½ miles we reached the first official camping area, alongside Dock #2. There are a couple newer latrines and several campsites located alongside a gravel spur. As there is a road to the area, don’t expect a wilderness experience. Fees are $17 off season and $19 in the warmer months. While you might end up next to another tent, or possibly a large RV, all the sites were empty on this day.

After a short stretch that might become swampy in wetter weather, the trail resumed its pattern of being reasonably level with nice lake views. After three more miles the trail leaves State Park Property onto US Army Corps of Engineers Property. As the lake is a flood control reservoir, The Corps manages the level of the lake. On the Corps property, we crossed the emergency spillway, passed through a grove of evergreens and walked the length of the dam. In this area are great views, a modern restroom and a very scenic picnic spot.

Lake view near the dam

Lake view near the dam

For the next several miles, the map shows the trail staying very close to the lakeshore. However, as Robert Ruchhoft states in his book, Backpack Loops and Long Day Trail Hikes in Southern Ohio, “Unfortunately the vagueness and inaccuracies on this ..(map)..are frequent enough to lead to some colossal misinterpretations.” When the trail leaves the lake, don’t panic. It is the map that’s wrong.

Eventually the trail returns to the lake near Dock #4. There is a short section of road walking after that, then an extremely steep climb up to the Park’s main campground. Like many state park campgrounds, here you will find plenty of water faucets, heated restroom and shower buildings and a small store (closed). The pop machine was working though. Only a few of the 100 or so sites were occupied so we picked one of the flatter ones with an hour of daylight left. There was a drop slot for the $19 camping fee. Between scavenging the nearby woods and the generosity of a fellow camper, we had an ample supply of firewood for the evening.

The sky stayed clear and the temperature dropped down to below freezing overnight. I awoke to a cold fog coming off the lake. My tent fly was covered with water and ice, but I stayed dry and warm in my 23 degree down bag. Bill’s single wall tent did what single walls do best in those circumstances, concentrate the moisture to the point that he was practically rained on. His 15 degree bag did keep him warm despite the localized rain shower though.

After breakfast and mopping up the tents it was back to the trail. We dropped down near the lake for less than a mile, had a pretty significant climb then stayed on the ridge for several miles, traveling by some interesting small caves and steep valleys. After a very steep drop down we walked into one of the more bizarre trail intersections I have ever seen. The yellow blazed trail split into two directions, both of which were very well marked with yellow blazes.

Despite there being eight blazes visible from this one spot, we were not going the right way

Despite there being eight blazes visible from this one spot, this was not the right way

Trying to fit the map to what was on site, we picked the direction that appeared to stay near the lake. After a quarter mile it was obvious that this trail was taking us in the wrong direction. Perhaps it was a long bridle trail that bypassed the steep drop. I could never figure it out. Taking the other option from the intersection, which per the map should be a bridle trail, ended up being the right move. Eventually this trail took us out near County Rd 58 where we crossed the upper reaches of Burr Oak Lake and started down the other side.

If you have an interest in extending this hike, it is a short walk on the road to the trailhead of Wildcat Hollow Backpack Trail. This 13 mile loop travels through Wayne National Forest. There are several established campsites, but no facilities on that stretch.

Back in the State Park, The trail generally remains close to the shallow, upper reaches of the lake, though there is a short road walk.

Trees along the upper reaches

Trees along the upper reaches

After 3 miles without much grade change we reached Dock #3 and another camp area. The spots are right by the lake, sport a pit toilet and again, are accessible through a public road. The lake view is nice, but the campsites are adjacent to asphalt and exposed. One site had been taken by someone obviously car camping.

Immediately after leaving the campsites, the trail heads straight up the steep hill behind them. This is one of the sections that Ruchhoft was surely thinking about when he said the trail, “…must have been engineered by someone who hated hikers.”

At the top of the hill there is another decision. You can continue with lake overlooks or take the Buckeye Loop which leaves the lake for a more direct path towards the starting point. As it appears to be part of the official backpack loop, provides a change of scenery, and is the shorter option, Buckeye Loop got both votes.

Buckeye Loop

Buckeye Loop

After some forest hiking through some beautiful, and steep, valleys, we were back to the truck by midafternoon. That just left us with the opportunity to head back to the lodge for their Sunday buffet. Stick with the burger. You won’t be disappointed.

Oh, and by the way, we did not see another backpacker on the entire hike. They must have all been at Zaleski.

Trail Report: Shawnee State Forest South Loop

While taking long hikes is a good way to get in shape for a long backpacking trip, nothing gets you in shape for backpacking better than actually backpacking. As I have a trip coming up soon, it was definitely time to see how my “backpacking” fitness was doing. In addition, I’d picked up some new equipment that needed testing “in the field.” The question became, where to go?

Recent heavy rains had flooded portions of Kentucky and eastern Ohio, but I was looking for a challenging hike, hopefully with a shorter drive than down to Great Smoky National Park. With the wet summer, local trails had become fairly overgrown and not that pleasant to hike. I then thought of Shawnee State Forest, also known as the “Little Smokies” due to the rugged topography of the area. In addition, the trail is only about two hours east of Cincinnati. Since I had last hiked there, much of the trail system had been “improved” through the use of a bulldozer so I was also interested to see how that turned out.

One of several expansive views

One of several expansive views

Not knowing if the recent storms had impacted the trails there, I called the forestry office to see if I could get an update on their condition. After a little phone tag I was told, “We got 3 ½ inches of rain and high winds the other night. No one has been on the trails yet because we’re still trying to get the roads clear. I’m sure the creeks will be up, but it’s supposed to be nice weather for the next two days.”

That settled it, Shawnee would be the destination. The main trail can be walked as a 40 mile long loop, or split into a 23 mile North Loop and 28 mile South Loop. I was shooting for a strenuous 2 day trip and decided on the South Loop. (A review of the North Loop can be found here.)

I arrived late morning on a sunny humid day. Starting at the Backpack Trail parking lot and heading counterclockwise it’s a short walk along Turkey Creek Lake before the trail begins a steep incline at the edge of the woods. It’s obvious there was a recent storm with the trail littered with leaves and small branches. The path was a narrow single track of dirt and what I took to be sandstone. Hiking poles came in handy, not only due to the steepness of the climb, but to break through all the spider webs crossing the trail. Since the parking lot only had one other vehicle in it, I wasn’t counting on anyone clearing the webs off the trail in front of me; but a guy can hope. Of course, people in Hell hope for ice water too.

It had been great weather for mushrooms

It had been great weather for mushrooms

Before very long, the trail widened to the width of a small bulldozer and it would have been easy to walk side by side with another hiker. The “natural” feel was somewhat lost however, more like walking on an old dirt or gravel road. In addition, the dozer driver was obviously talented as the new trail was often blazed straight up or down some extremely steep slopes. The path had previously been generally devoid of switchbacks, but it seemed like the new route even more directly attacked the hills, if that was possible.

The dozer must be about this wide

The dozer must be about this wide

On the plus side, the wider trail made it a little tougher for spiders to bridge the distance with webs. Tougher, but not impossible. On most long solo hikes I eventually end up singing or humming the same tune over and over again. On this day the words, “Friendly neighborhood Spiderman” were sung more than a few times. Mostly it was hummed in an effort to keep the webs (and stray arachnids) out of my mouth though.

Bigger wildlife also made appearances. The first of several deer was spotted within a mile of the start. I also had turkeys fly off from near me on more than one occasion. While the forest was generally pretty thick, the new bulldozed route provided several good views of the impressive hills of the region.

The hike was definitely a workout. Per my GPS, in a single mile stretch the trail climbed from 1,000 feet to 1,300 feet and dropped back down to 900 feet. This process was repeated several more times through the two days.

Most, but not all of the designated camp areas have a cistern nearby with potable water. My plan was to stay at Camp 6, about 10 miles from the parking lot. This is the one site without a clean water supply. To make sure I’d have enough water for dinner and breakfast, after 5 miles I swung down the side trail to Camp 7, a pretty significant downhill detour. After 10 minutes or so I made it to the hydrant, filled my Gatorade bottle which I had already emptied, along with 2 one liter bottles. Although the hike was becoming a sweat fest, I hoped 3 liters would be enough to get me 5 miles to camp, two meals, overnight and another 3 miles to the hydrant at Camp 5. Of course, people in Hell hope for ice water. Wait, I already used that one. Hmm.

There were a few small trees down across the trail so far. That changed when, on a steep side slope, the crown of a good sized elm had dropped square on the pathway, costing a few minutes to climb through. Through it all, the spider population stayed strong along with a large crop of gnats. Mosquitos were pleasantly absent, perhaps stopped by the gauntlet of spider webs. I can only assume the gnats were either more evasive flyers or just overwhelmed the web defense through sheer numbers.

Near 6 PM I arrived at Camp 6, the most remote campsite on the loop. All the others are near access for a water truck. I still had 2 ½ liters of water and felt that should be enough. The site is right by a very pretty little creek, and if need be, I could boil some of stream water for cooking. In fact, the best spots of the site are actually across the creek, and there was enough flow that I pulled my shoes off to wade it.

Set up on Camp 6

Set up on Camp 6

The site was complete with several flat tent areas and fire rings. A latrine was also nearby. It was not one where anyone would want to settle in with the sports section, but certainly serviceable. I had my choice of spots and set up near the creek. Rather than a typical freeze dried dinner I combined instant potatoes, Freeze dried vegetables and a cut up Slim Jim into a filling, delicious feast.

Despite the recent rains, there was enough semi-dry wood around to build a fire that I enjoyed with some fortified hot chocolate. And again, no mosquitoes. Just a great evening.

It turned out to be a great night for sleeping as well. The weather stayed dry and cooled off just enough, the brook babbled and my new Exped SynMat Hyperlite Sleeping Pad gave me a great first impression. It was quiet, comfortable and despite only weighing 12 ounces, contains insulation to provide an R value of 3.3. Plenty for three season sleeping.

Breakfast was a Mountain House bag of biscuits and gravy. It was a freeze dried trip to Bob Evans. Tasty. I was packed up and wading back to the trail by 7:30, but the sun was already up and the heat was building. By the time I started hiking there was about 8 ounces of drinking water left, certainly not an oversupply. Finishing a steep 400 foot climb about 2 miles into the day, I finished the water. I covered the next mile to Camp 3 a bit thirsty, but with a light pack.

The morning sun begins heating the trail

The morning sun begins heating the trail

There were a few more 400 foot climbs and drops through the day. The high spots had some impressive views and the low spots still contained remnants of the recent storms. I eventually gave up trying to keep my feet dry and just slogged along the path/creek bed. Lunch was alongside a scenic pond near Camp 4. Somehow I missed the hydrant at that spot and again walked while hoping for some ice water until getting to Camp 3 and a side trail back to parking.

Once you reach the side trail, it’s not like a quick jaunt back to the car though. That stretch is over 5 miles, as steep as anywhere with plenty of large, slick rocks to navigate. There is an option to cut a little of the distance through road walking the last mile or so on Rt 125. Tired of the gnats and spiders, and interested is getting a better view of Turkey Creek Lake, I dropped onto the road. Getting back to the truck at about 5:30 PM, it was close to 90 degrees, but the lake had a small beach. It wasn’t like the beach in Hawaii, but the water was cool and wet.

Some might say you can’t get in a good hiking workout in Ohio; at least not comparable to walking in the mountains. Those people would be wrong. While the hills at Shawnee State Forest aren’t tall, they are steep and they keep coming. Just a little comparison for you. The AT is approximately 2,175 miles long and, per the Interweb, has 515,000 feet of elevation gain and drop. That averages out to 236 ft/mile. The Colorado Trail has 177,000 feet of gain and drop along its 486 miles for 364 ft/mile. Per my GPS, on the 28 miles I hiked, there was 17,258 feet gained or dropped for an average of 616 ft/mile. I’m assuming the GPS was more sensitive to small changes in elevation than the methods used on the other trails. But still, the trails at Shawnee are as steep or steeper as any I’ve been on. Next time I’ll bring some ice water.