Tahoe Rim Trail Hiked: June 24th – July 3rd, 2016
Note: From the early season into July the mosquitos are ferocious on the SW & W portion of the Tahoe Rim Trail. Bring DEET bug spray and a tent with netting rather than a tarp. There are also long stretches without water: the longest on our trip, at 17 miles, was from Watson Lake to the spring at the old Western States Trail junction just East of Mud Lake.
The Tahoe Rim Trail, like the Wonderland Trail, is a circumnavigation around a popular point of interest. At 165 miles in length and a little under 62,000 ft of cumulative elevation change it’s a bit less rigorous than the John Muir Trail or Wonderland Trail, but still an excellent challenge with incredible views.1
When first hearing about and visualizing the TRT I was near the shore of Lake Tahoe and simply looked around, imagining a trail atop all the ridges in sight. While a common assumption, this is not the case. Instead the trail meanders around the lake to and fro, reasonably far at times in the south and north, with at least one full day in Desolation Wilderness without a view of Lake Tahoe. Of course those who have been to Desolation know that this is an incredibly beautiful section and that some of the best views end up being of lakes and vistas other than Lake Tahoe, such as Lake Aloha featured in the header image. The larger diameter of the Tahoe Rim Trail was likely chosen, at least in part, to keep a reasonable distance from the well developed shores and towns surrounding the lake. While there are certainly times when homes are near the trail, given what’s nearby, very little is visible, which helps suspend the disbelief of a trip into the “wilderness”.
The trail is maintained by the Tahoe Rim Trail Association and traverses various state parks in both California and Nevada, as well as three wilderness areas: Desolation Wilderness, Granite Chief Wilderness, and Mount Rose Wilderness.
The footing varies from powdery dust to rooty forest, swampy mud, packed scree, fire roads, to, if it’s early to mid-season, snow. The scenery surrounding these trails is also constantly in a state of flux, ranging from sparse grand forests, to scrubby brush, to meadow, to large exposed hillsides covered in the flowers of alpine shooting stars and woolly mules ears. Notable fauna include: a six-point buck, a black bear, many marmots and chipmunks, black-billed magpies, western tanagers, robins, and many other birds names unknown. Surprisingly we saw very few birds of prey, which may have been due to the unusually calm days and the Trailhead Forest Fire that began halfway through our trip and at times significantly impacted visibility in the basin.
Many portions of the trail are open to mountain biking and horseback riding, so be alert in popular areas such as near Mr. Toads Wild Ride in the southern section and near Painted Rock and Mt. Baldy in the north. Our favorite section of the trail was the north eastern area around Mt Baldy and Relay Peak, which has some of the best views of Lake Tahoe with hardly any mosquitos.
Summary: Call 530.543.2694 for your Desolation Wilderness TRT Permit & print your passing of this Campfire Permit Quiz. Buy this map and download this app (iOS & Android). Have enough capacity to carry 3-4 liters of water (depending on your size) and use the app to determine when this will be necessary. Drop off your resupply at the Tahoe City Post Office and then park at the Kingsbury Grade North Trailhead, check the ten day forecast at South Lake Tahoe and Tahoe City and hike clockwise.
Photos coming in 2017!
Trip Planning & Logistics
For the majority of hikers, the Tahoe Rim Trail requires two permits: an Overnight Camping Permit for Desolation Wilderness ($20) and a Campfire Permit (free) for stove use. A permit for Desolation Wilderness typically requires interaction with the quota system to reserve a campsite on a specific day at a specific location, however those hiking the PCT or TRT can simply call the Forest Service Supervisor’s Office (530.543.2694 Monday – Friday, 8 AM – 4:30 PM) and purchase a permit that is valid for camping anywhere along the TRT/PCT in Desolation Wilderness for trips beginning in the next 14 days. Do note that it is then sent to you by USPS, so plan in advance. To obtain a Campfire Permit simply complete the online education and print it for your trip.
Planning Tools: Maps, Apps, & Guide Books
Map | Tom Harrison TRT Map. $9. Purchase.
A large single-sided, waterproof map containing the entire trail. This, like all Tom Harrison Maps, is excellent. The Tahoe Rim Trail is somewhat discontinuous, with short sections through park parking lots or other urban areas, but it marks the trail heads on both sides, so it’s easy to get to the next area. In the North East Mt. Rose Wilderness area, at Relay Peak, there is a bit of a choose your own adventure section, where multiple, parallel trails are a part of the TRT and this map shows one trail going off the map to the North, however that trail is well marked and shortly returns to the map.
This app guide’s most useful feature is indicating the location of good campsites and the location of the next reliable water source in relation to your current location. Just the locations of those two items makes it worth purchasing. In addition to these critical locations, it has Lake Tahoe vista points (where the lake is visible) and random trail facts. It’s not the most beautiful app, in fact it’s fairly ugly, but it’s functionality makes up for this shortfall.
One minor annoyance I found is that there are times on the trail where there are partial views for about a quarter mile, or a stretch of trail in which it would be possible to camp just about anywhere, though on the map it’s noted as a specific location. This isn’t always the best spot in the stretch, and was annoying when we woke up for the sunrise only .3 miles from a viewpoint, but found that where we had camped was actually superior to the marked viewpoint.
In summary, the campsite locations called out between Tahoe City and Painted Rock were noticeably better than just picking a random place to lay-down and would have been useful if I were camping in that section. Improvements to the app would include rating the campsites, to help with planning purposes (we pushed on from Painted Rock, which is a 10/10 campsite only to find the next two locations to be rather buggy and viewless in comparison) and including a feature similar to Gas Buddy for updating the water sources throughout the year. The app does have a comments section, but the only comments I read were over a year old.
Note: I only used this app for the free demo section from Tahoe City to Brockaway, so my comments and experience are exclusive to the UI/UX and this portion of the trail.
Universal Map App | Maps 3D GPS by movingworld Gmbh. $5. Purchase for iOS.
I typically only use paper maps, however after a few international adventures where quality paper maps were unattainable, I turned to apps, and now download maps for offline use in advance of trips just in case. I downloaded this app the night before beginning the Tahoe Rim Trail to replace MotionX GPS, which is feature rich, but very difficult to use. I’m happy I switched, as Maps 3D GPS is far easier to use. This app is pretty great for: finding any hiking trails in the world, following imported trails, viewing your current location, downloading maps for offline use, and creating paths that snap to the trail on your phone (with cell service). All recorded, downloaded, or planned routes include the elevation profile with broken out gain & loss metrics. There are numerous different map types, but I found, unsurprisingly, the most useful was the “hiking” map created Thunderforest & OpenStreetMap.
The 3D map is even pretty neat and was useful for showing my hiking companion, who was unfamiliar with topographic maps, the terrain ahead. I only have one complaint: waypoints are attached to individual, downloaded maps, so it’s impossible to view all the waypoints from a trip if different maps are used. This is especially confusing if you have overlapping maps, which I did on this trail (West Tahoe, North Tahoe, NE Tahoe, etc). I’d like to be able to organize the waypoints into folders independently from the downloaded maps, which would both ensure they don’t get deleted when I delete the no longer needed maps off my phone, as well as allow for easy exporting of all waypoints from a specific trip.
Guide Book | Tahoe Rim Trail by Tim Hauserman. $9. Purchase.
Unlike Elizabeth Wenk’s incredible JMT Data Book, Tim Hauserman’s Official Guide to the Tahoe Rim Trail (endorsed by the Tahoe Rim Trail Association) is nearly useless. I couldn’t have been more disappointed in the book. It’s written as a one-book-fits-all, rather than as an actual guide for those looking to hike the entire Tahoe Rim Trail and thus there is a ton of unnecessary information. In addition to that, it’s very difficult to use, with unclear mileage (“about 1 mile past the last dirt road, you cross another dirt road…” when no previous dirt road was mentioned), long winded descriptions of non-pertinant information, no mention of suitable campsites, and very difficult to piece together descriptions. It also mentions that there is no water between Lake Watson and Brockway Summit, which is true, but there is no water at Brockway Summit either, so it should really be stated that there is a ~17 mile section from Lake Watson to the spring after Mud Lake that has no water. From water source to water source makes far more sense than water source to dry trailhead.
Start/End Point & Trail Logistics
We chose the starting point of our hike based on water supplies, how we arrive to Lake Tahoe, and where our resupply would be located. We wanted to carry the most water when we had the least food in our packs, so we chose to finish the trip at Kingsbury Grade North, south of the dry sections between Tahoe Meadows, Marlette Campground, and Spooner Lake. We also stashed water in the car, in case we needed it upon completion. We chose Tahoe City for our resupply since it’s about the halfway point from Kingsbury North and it’s a location where the trail crosses a road, so we could quickly drop off and pick up our resupply. Also, since we live in Oakland, we could easily take Interstate-80 to Tahoe City first and then south around to Kingsbury North, potentially returning to Oakland via Route 50, the southern route.
Our campsites were chosen for roughly equal mileage days and rated 1-5, where a 5/5 campsite was excellent and 1/5 was terrible:
- Kingsbury North to Star Lake (5/5) | 14.6 mi
- Star Lake to Round Lake (3/5) | 17.2 mi
- Round Lake to Tamarack Lake (4/5) | 17.4 mi
- Tamarack Lake to Desolation Swamp (1/5) | 18 mi
- Desolation Swamp to Twin Peaks Ridge (5/5) | 15.1 mi
- Twin Peaks Ridge to Slope of Mt Watson (4/5) | 20 mi
- Slope of Mt Watson to Mt Baldy (5/5) | 16.6 mi
- Mt Baldy to Nook in the Boulders (5/5) | 16.1 mi
- Nook in the Boulders to Spooner Lake (2/5) | 18.4 mi
- Spooner Lake to Kingsbury North | 12 mi
Resupply location is obviously tied to starting location and is hopefully near the midpoint of the hike. I had trouble finding information about resupplying on the trail that wasn’t just “go grocery shopping in Tahoe City”. I had already purchased everything for the trip and thus wanted to stash a bag that I could quickly retrieve, rather than shopping in an unfamiliar store. As such I decided to pack a stuff sack lined with a trash compactor bag and hang it using the PCT method just outside Tahoe City. This turned out to be an arduous task as the 50′ 3mm cord I brought along had reflective material woven into the mix that increased the friction to the point that the bag could not be pulled over the branch. With a new cord I was able to hoist the bag, though the location was not ideal as it was near a heavy day use trail. I left a note with the bag and fortunately no mammals—humans nor bears—messed with it prior to our arrival. Our friends decided to take a safer route and left a package for themselves at the Tahoe City Post Office, adding two miles to their day.
If you own a vehicle, transportation is easy: drive to Lake Tahoe and park in the dirt patch next to the road at the Kingsbury Grade North Trailhead. There are two different parking areas, so unless you arrive midmorning on a Saturday there should be space. The official trailhead sign is located at the Northern lot. We parked our car here for 10 days without issue.
Gear List, Food & Training
Gear List & Food
I’m in the process of writing a stand alone gear, food, and training post that will be relevant to all three thruhikes I’ve completed, including my two other hiking guides: Ten Days on the John Muir Trail and Four Days on the Wonderland Trail. I have completed my footwear review, which is basically to get a pair of Altra Lone Peak 2.5s.
For training read Training For The New Alpinism ($24) and get the training log ($15). These two items will allow you to easily complete the TRT through proper training methodology and time proven techniques. Additionally, they’ll get you into the habit of training that’ll be applicable for far larger pursuits.
Trail & Ultralight Tips
- Yosemite National Park | Good Leave No Trace Guidelines & Yosemite Specific Bear Canister Information
- Backpacking North | Ultralight Gear Overview
- Trail’s Guide | List of TRT Resources.
- Tahoe Rim Trail Association | TRT Association Maps. Don’t trust their “Current Trail Conditions” page as they don’t include an ‘updated on’ date and the information was inaccurate during out hike.
- Blackwoods Press | A Tahoe Rim Trail specific guide book with elevation profiles and trail distances.
TRT Food Resupply Resources
- Feet of elevation change per mile is a good way to compare hikes and get an idea of trail steepness. Having hiked these three trails, I’d definitely say that their level of difficulty is directly correlated to these numbers.
- Wonderland Trail: 473 ft/mile.John Muir Trail: 410 ft/mile.Tahoe Rim Trail: 374 ft/mile.