Tag Archives: Sierra Nevada Mountains

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.

A Spin Around the Tahoe Rim Trail – Part 1

img_5024In the past, I have always driven to my backpacking destinations. Dealing with getting from the airport to the trail, picking up stove fuel and the like always seemed like more hassle than the drive. Last year, after driving from Cincinnati to Vermont (twice) for the Long Trail and California for the JMT, I began to reconsider. The Tahoe Rim Trail, which is a 170 mile circle and an easy shuttle from the Reno, NV airport seemed like a good one to try. With some research, I found that the town of  Tahoe City has a hotel and an “outdoor” store within walking distance of the trail. The hotel, an America’s Best Value Inn, was a shuttle stop, actually wasn’t a bad value and would hold a bag of clean clothes for me while I hiked. Sold! I bought my plane ticket (about $350) for September 7. The initial plan was to hike the trail in 11 days, but I gave myself up to 13 days to hike before my return flight.

After a 2 ½ hour flight to Dallas and another 3 ½ to Reno, the plane began to drop into a dry and brown desert. I started to worry that my pack might end up heavier than the low 30s I was planning on.

My pack and I arrived in one piece at about 1 pm. I was carrying an almost new Osprey Exos 58. (Thanks to Osprey for replacing my old one, which began to deteriorate after about 1,500 trail miles, under warranty.) After an hour-long shuttle I was checked in at the hotel with the afternoon free to make final preparations and explore.

This label on nearly every can in town made me glad I was using my bear canister.

This label on nearly every can in town made me glad I was using my bear canister.

My first stop was Alpenglow outdoor store, right down the street. There I got some stove fuel, friendly service and a big load of concern. The guy at the counter said he thought the trail was dry for 50 miles past Watson Lake (my first night stop). Crap! Fifty miles is a helluva long way to carry water. That much weight in my pack could be a backbreaker for me. (In case you’re wondering, long sections of the TRT are nowhere near Lake Tahoe. It’s not like I would be able to dip a cup in the lake whenever I got thirsty.)

I made a phone call to the Tahoe Rim Trail Association and they confirmed that their website was correct; the trail was dry, but not that dry. There would be water where I was planning on it. Whew. It was definitely time to head to the Tahoe Mountain Brewing Company to settle my nerves and have a late lunch.

Not being a huge fan of heavy, craft beers, I asked the barmaid what they had that was close to Bud Light. Her reply was, “We have water,” but she gave me a sample of a brew that worked. The TRT website warned that sweat bees were thick around the northern part of the trail. Perhaps it was not a good omen that I got stung in the back while sitting at the bar.

Lake Tahoe was low, but beautiful as always.

Lake Tahoe was low, but beautiful as always.

I spent the rest of the day checking out the beautiful lake, walking to the trail (1/2 mile) and repacking the pack. Dropping off a small case of clean clothes at the front desk and a Mexican dinner next door at the Blue Agave completed all my tasks. There was nothing left to do but wait until morning and start walking.

Unusual decor at the Blue Agave

Unusual décor at the Blue Agave

What’s next?

Back to the Beginning

It was about 50 miles of slow driving from my tent cabin in Curry Village to Tuolumne Meadows. The sun was just hinting at rising as I climbed into my truck and headed out. Arriving at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead nearly 2 hours later I parked alongside the road. Everyone else was using windshield covers (fool bears?) so I did too. Hiking began about 8:30. In case you were wondering, I took my truck instead of the free bus because I was worried about running out of daylight. The Trail from Cathedral Lakes Trailhead started with a consistent, though not steep ascent. Surface was a sand and dirt mix. In some spots it was almost like beach sand. One thing I noticed right away was the complete lack of blazes. Metal signs were at intersections, but that was it. However, the signage seemed to be plenty as the trail was very obvious. I was starting at 8,600 feet and felt a little short of breath due to the altitude. Just carrying a day pack there was no problem climbing though.

Cathedral Peak

Cathedral Peak

Hiking through open woods, it didn’t take long for the scenery to start getting spectacular. Heading toward Cathedral Peak the views just kept getting better. Near Cathedral Lake every direction was a postcard. Over five miles the trail climbed to 10,000 feet and repetitively named Cathedral Pass. Met a couple high school aged guys that had begun hiking the JMT at Happy Isles. They looked pretty happy when I told them they were done climbing for a while. I continued on through another meadow with new gorgeous views.

The sun stayed strong and I took a break to put on sunblock. After a little over nine miles of hiking, the trail topped out again near 10,000 feet and started the long drop to Yosemite Valley. Trees around me started getting huge. A deer walked behind one and was completely hidden. A little while later a coyote strolled by seemingly unconcerned with my presence. The downslope was steep, but a liberal use of switchbacks helped. 

When I was almost exactly halfway on the day’s hike I came across two couples taking a break. They asked if I knew how far it was to Tuolumne Meadows. Checking the GPS app on my phone (Guthook), I let them know they had 10 1/2 miles to Cathedral Peak Trailhead and that’s the same distance they’d walked from Happy Isles. One member of the group told me that as the crow flies, they’d gone 8 miles and the standard trail multiplier was 1.5 so they’d gone 12 miles. I replied that as the crow walked, they’d gone 10.5. Once he pulled his map out, I politely taught him how to read it and how my walking crow was more accurate than his crow. 

A short time later the trail passed through a burn area (fire in 2014) and dropped down through desolation of charred standing tree trunks for about 2 miles. With the drought, nothing had even started growing back except right along a small creek. There were a couple tents set up near the creek. What a depressing place to camp. 

Eventually I was back into a live forest and getting views of Half Done. A large firefighting plane flew over towards an area of smoke. Once to the Half Dome Trail, things got crowded and steep switchbacks returned till I reached a flat stretch through Little Yosemite Valley. The trail crossed over Nevada Falls then circled back to get some great views of the falls.

Nevada Falls

Nevada Falls

Thus began an unrelenting 3 mile drop to the valley floor with the JMT chiseled into the wall of the valley.  The trail surface eventually transitioned to asphalt as it headed steeply down, losing a final 2,000 feet in altitude. My knees and feet, already tired from the previous 18 miles were complaining loudly about the pounding. However, it would have had to be much tougher going up with a full pack. I’m sure that tough start has ended more than a few JMT dreams. I silently thanked my bad luck in not being able to score a permit from the trail’s official beginning. 

It was about 6 pm when I reached Happy Isles and the end of the day’s hike. In a lucky break, a shuttle bus pulled up just as I stepped off the trail, walking within 10 feet of a deer that grazed unconcerned by the bus stop. And so I finished my first day’s hike where many start, but had covered the miles nonetheless.

After another good night’s sleep in the tent cabin, my task for the day was to pick up my wilderness permit and retrieve my vehicle. To get back to the truck, I could retrace my 21 mile hike of the day before or ride the free shuttle bus back to Tuolumne. The bus was pretty nice and even had plugs to charge my phone had I brought a cord. I was on the first bus of the day, leaving Curry Village at 7:45 am. Why didn’t I take the bus yesterday you ask? If it were summer you’d have a point, but I really didn’t want to finish the hike by headlamp and driving myself bought me more daylight. The bus didn’t roll by my truck until nearly 10:30. I’d have been walking in the dark. Two more stops and I got off at the Wilderness Permit Station. There I picked up my permit for next day complete with the standard lecture about bear canisters, running off bears, picking campsites, soap, fires and packing out toilet paper. I was also presented with a “wag bag” in case I need to poop on Mt Whitney. Although the bag didn’t appear to require much of a learning curve, rest assured I intended to avoid that situation if at all possible. 

Lunch was at the nearby Tuolumne Meadows Grill and then I enjoyed a leisurely stroll back to the truck. The trail was a bit confusing in the area, so be careful if you’re a purist about walking the trail correctly. Of course, if you feel that way, you’re probably not parked at Cathedral Lakes Trailhead. The drive back was interesting as a bear ran right in front of me. Back by Curry Village I spotted my first bobcat in “the wild” as it walked right past my tent cabin. 

That's a lot of cat

That’s a lot of cat

Dinner in the village was a pizza and a beer. It tasted so good I had another pizza and more beer. Spent the rest of the evening getting everything ready and feeling like I might explode from all the food and drink. Out of an abundance of caution I kept the wag bag handy, but it was not required.