What: thru-hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT).
Where: northern Sierra Nevada Range, California and Nevada.
When: October 5-14, 2018 (10 days).
Distance: about 170 miles.
Highlights: a well designed, documented and maintained trail; vibrant fall colors; clear, cool weather; great views; easy logistics.
The Tahoe Rim Trail Association has an excellent website with most of the detailed information needed to organize a trip. They offer eight printable maps; these are sometimes available at trailhead USFS kiosks, but print the maps yourself to ensure you have them. National Geographic and Tom Harrison publish maps which are a good complement to the simple TRT Association maps.
The Guthook smartphone app is worth purchasing. This is a well-designed app that includes the track, access trails, and many points of interest. It includes crowd-sourced data about the status of water sources, which is very useful for a late season hike when some of the seasonal sources have dried up.
Weatherspark is our favorite source of climate information.
As for all our trips, we used our two favorite mapping tools: CalTopo.com to prepare gpx data and printed maps, and Gaia GPS while hiking. The TRT Association has downloadable gpx data which can be imported into either of those tools.
Why we went
We had taken two long overseas backpacking trips this year: a spring trip in Japan and a summer trip in Wales.
We wanted to take a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada, but the earliest we could go was early October, when the possibility of an early winter storm makes it a bit risky to take an extended trip in the southern Sierra wilderness, our favorite part of the range.
The TRT has been sitting in our inventory of possible hikes for a long time. Previously, we had walked the PCT portion of the route and wondered what the rest of the TRT might be like. We decided it would be a good choice for us this year because there are many bail-out options in case the weather turned bad, and because the logistics and available information made it a very simple trip to plan and execute.
I thoroughly enjoyed this hike. It was straight-forward and relaxing, the scenery was consistently good, and the trail has great integrity.
Our two previous trips (Italy’s GTA and Japan’s Tokai Nature Trail) were both quite demanding, with roughly twice the elevation gain per mile as this trip. I am not embarrassed to admit that it is pretty fun to take a trip that is not exhausting! We are rapidly approaching the day when the the sum of our ages is 130 years and I’ll use that as my excuse for enjoying an easy hike on a well-maintained trail.
To my eyes, nothing on this route comes close to the scenic grandeur of the southern Sierra Nevada (for example on the Big SEKI Loop). But the entire route is pleasing, with lots of long views and no boring or unpleasant parts. Although there is no remaining old-growth forest, there are no boring monoculture tree plantations. There is enough elevation change to provide good diversity of spruce, fir, pine, and aspen forests.
I was surprised and pleased that the whole route is on single track path and nothing is shared with motorized vehicles. I had expected it to include USFS roads and jeep track as is the case on the Colorado Trail and Arizona Trail. Although there are about 15 ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe region, the TRT is masterfully routed to avoid them.
The ~15 mile section of the TRT which passes through Desolation Wilderness is extremely popular and crowded, yet so many backpackers miss out on the remaining 155 miles of delightful trail.
This walk was much more interesting and rewarding that I expected. Other than the Desolation Wilderness area, I knew we would not be walking in the glorious open alpine terrain of the southern Sierra. However, there was a surprising amount of habitat diversity so the walk never felt repetitive. And the more developed aspects of the Tahoe Basin never really intruded into the trip.
Yes, we crossed an occasional paved road and could see mostly distant ski areas and other tourist facilities, but the TRT is routed so that these never really impinge on the route. The TRT Association deserves great credit for creating such a satisfying trail. Trail maintenance was as good as I have ever experienced on any long hike, making the actual walking easy and pleasurable.
I can highly recommend the TRT to anyone who wants a simple to organize and easy to execute trip into the Sierra Nevada.
Notes for Potential Hikers
The TRT is a 171 mile continuous loop that circumambulates Lake Tahoe in the northern Sierra Nevada in California and Nevada. It has been designed, constructed and maintained by the Tahoe Rim Trail Association in conjunction with the USFS and the IMBA and was first opened in 2001. Since then, the Association has been making routing improvements to the TRT on a regular basis.
The trail integrates portions of other existing trails, including approximately 50 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. The TRT stays high above the lake, only touching it at the Truckee River outlet in Tahoe City.
We carried paper maps we made using CalTopo and Adobe illustrator. We used Gaia GPS with several map sources, the track, and water source data James had prepared prior to the trip. We also carried the Guthook app with TRT data. Although these were more than sufficient for navigation purposes, in hindsight we wish we had also printed the TRT Association PDF maps as they were clear and easy to use and not always available at the trailheads.
The TRT is an extremely well maintained trail. There is no encroaching underbrush, only a few blowdowns to cross and no wet water crossings. The tread condition is excellent throughout the route. The trail is generally well marked with easy to interpret signage. While the route does gain and lose significant amounts of altitude, there are few steep sections. We calculate that overall the TRT gains about 180 feet per mile. There are no exposed or risky sections of trail.
The route avoids all pavement other than road-crossings and trivial amounts in Tahoe City and near Tahoe Meadows. The trail is all single-track excepting a few short sections on Forest Service dirt roads. Given the density of development around Tahoe, it was amazing just how little of it impinged of the TRT.
This hike is eminently suitable for beginning backpackers and a good choice for people who want to try a long trip for the first time. There are many bail out points if things do not go as planned, so the risk of getting trapped in the backcountry is very low.
We parked at a small lot on Buchanan Road, which is just off of Highway 207 (Kingsbury Grade Road). From here it is only a few hundred yards on a connector trail to join the TRT. We walked clockwise around the lake. As the trail is a loop one could start anywhere. We chose our starting point to put Tahoe City and our resupply package just over halfway into the trip, meaning that we never needed to leave the trail.
James climbed Freel Peak on the first day, but otherwise we stayed on the TRT for our entire trip.
There are only two possible resupply locations directly on the TRT. One is Tahoe City where there is an excellent supermarket, cafes, a laundromat, motels, a post office, and a couple of outdoor stores. We made arrangements in advance to ship our resupply package to Alpenglow Sports.
The other on-trail potential resupply is the Echo Lake Chalet. They have a limited grocery store and soda fountain. However, they are only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
There are numerous other towns along the Lake Tahoe shoreline where resupply would be simple, but each requires leaving the TRT on a spur trail or hitching a ride at one of the road crossings.
Both the Tahoe Rim Trail Association and the Guthook app list water sources and their reliability. There are several 12+ mile stretches with no water, so water planning is a must for TRT hikers. There had been a storm a couple of days prior to our walk, so some of the sources listed as seasonal were flowing, but mid to late summer hikers should not depend on these. There was no public water at any road crossings except Tahoe City and at Echo Lake.
There are five SPS Peaks within easy hiking distance of the TRT: Freel Peak, Pyramid Peak North, Dick’s Peak, Mt. Tallac, and Mt. Rose. They are all class 1 or 2 ascents.
We never had any issues finding a good to excellent place to set up our tent. Camping is legal so stealth camping is not necessary.
A USFS permit is required for overnight camping and travel within the Desolation Wilderness portion of the TRT.
Bear cans are not required, but it is necessary to protect food as bears are present throughout the area.
The stretch between Echo Lake and Lake Aloha is by far the most popular piece of trail, and on a beautiful Sunday afternoon we encountered many dozens of day-hikers and backpackers on these few miles of trail. On the rest of the trip, we saw between 4 and a few dozen people each day. Outside of our walk into the Desolation Wilderness, we saw only three other backpackers.
We met a number of people who were section hiking the TRT, but we met just two people thru-hiking the TRT.
98 miles of the TRT is open to bicycles and we encountered many of them. In all but one case, they were polite and we enjoyed chatting with them. Sadly, we did see evidence that a few people ride on sections of the trail that are closed to cyclists. The TRT Association has worked very closely with the IMBA and the USFS to build and manage the trail for use by cyclists and hikers; the trail is well designed to accommodate both user groups. On one nine mile stretch that is very popular with both hikers and cyclists they limit cyclists to even numbered days only.
October on the TRT is usually cool and clear. We had partly cloudy weather on a few days and trivial precipitation on a couple of nights, otherwise it was crystal clear. However, it was quite cool and sometimes cold during this walk. On two occasions, liquids in our water bottles froze. Brisk winds on exposed ridges made it feel even colder.
It was late in the season in the Sierra, so the summer visitors were gone. We saw and heard significant numbers of three species of nuthatches. We saw and heard many Townsend’s Solitaires, a few of which were still singing even though it was long past nesting season.
Amy nearly stepped on a Common Poorwill sitting in the middle of the trail; it fluttered a few feet away and provided us fine daytime views of this normally nocturnal species. We heard a Flammulated Owl tooting early in the morning near our Ward Creek campsite.
Dogs are permitted on the entire route, and many people bring their dogs on their day hikes and overnights. Fortunately we did not meet any ill-behaved dogs.
There were no biting insects at this time of the year. In the late spring and early summer mosquitoes would likely be very problematic in places.