Hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail

Trail Overview

The great bulk of trail miles is along the Tahoe Rim Trail. Because this"TRT" has been constructed mostly along ridge crests and on steep slopes beneath them, much of the trail is waterless once the snow melts. In mid- and late summer, you may walk 5 or more miles between water sources, although even in many waterless stretches, water is relatively close at hand. But to obtain it, you may have to drop 200-500 feet below the trail, going as much as 1/2+ mile out of your way.

Old trails, which dominate in the Tahoe Sierra, often were built as steep as horses and other stock animals could safely manage. The horses struggled, not their riders. The TRT, in contrast, is a modern trail with a minimal amount of steep, usually short, sections. These mostly occur where the topography has prevented the construction of a more reasonably graded section. Overall, the TRT is a joy to hike because it generally is level or has only a gentle or moderate gradient. Therefore, it attracts not only hikers, but also joggers.

Residents or visitors in the most densely built-up part of the Lake Tahoe Basin, Stateline and South Lake Tahoe, can drive east up Highway 207 to Daggett Pass, and jog either south or north along several generally easy miles of the TRT. It hard to say which stretch of the trail is the most scenic, although the one between Highways 50 (Spooner Summit) and 431 (Mt. Rose Summit) arguably contains the best views of Lake Tahoe. That judgment may have to be revised when the stretch west from Highway 431 is completed, for it will have a multi-mile stretch of nearly continuous lake views. Westward and southwestward along the descending north rim of the Lake Tahoe Basin, the lands are mostly forested, and views fewer and inferior. Consequently, the TRT along it is not that rewarding. Mountain bikers are likely to be the primary users.

The idea of the TRT originated with Glenn Hampton, a Forest Service recreation officer who was transferred to the Tahoe area in 1977. Hiking the trails back then, he wondered why there was no single, continuous trail following the rim above the lake. In 1980 he attended Utah State University to study public-recreation management, and the major project he chose was"The Tahoe Rim Trail A Hiking Adventure." From this seminal work came the start of actual TRT construction in 1983. The west rim was already completed, for the TRT was aligned along the existing Pacific Crest Trail. In the early and mid '80s, the trail was being built by hikers and equestrians, who had intended their kind to be the trail's sole users. Little could they realize that by the '90s the main users on the new trail segments constructed in the Carson Range and across the north-rim lands would be mountain bikers. Just as the trail has proven to be well suited for joggers, it has proven to be almost optimal for mountain bikers, who today are the principal users.

Officers of the Tahoe Rim Trail organization see 2001 as the year of completion. While I hope this 150-mile-long trail will come to pass, I can remember that when working on the trail back in 1984, some of us optimistically believed it would be completed in 1990. The trail still needs all the volunteers it can get, and perhaps a hike along a part of it will motivate you to join a work crew. For information on how you can help (with time and/or money), contact the Tahoe Rim Trail, Inc. at P.O. Box 4647, Stateline, NV 89449 (phone: 702-588-0686).

The following material includes descriptions from five trail segments:

Highway 89 north to Armstrong Pass

Although the views along this route aren't too frequent or spectacular (except perhaps at the Hell Hole view), the well-graded trail is a pleasant hiking or riding experience. You can camp in the Freel Meadows environs, which is a good place for an isolated base camp from which you can explore the adjacent crest, its plants and animals, and its views.

This segment of Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), one of the first to be constructed, was completed in 1987. It began at what is now the alternate trailhead, which back in the early '80s was the start of the now abandoned Tucker Flat Trail. Back then, TRT volunteers expected to build an entirely new trail segment from the Pacific Crest Trail in the Upper Truckee River drainage, traversing north along the west slopes of Red Lake, Stevens, and Waterhouse peaks to this trailhead. However, with trail construction on all TRT segments going slower than expected, this time-consuming route was rejected in favor of a connecting trail that would unite the existing Big Meadow Trail with the revamped Tucker Flat Trail. Today, if you hike the TRT in its entirety in a clockwise direction, then from the Big Meadow Trailhead you first take the Big Meadow Trail south up to the Pacific Crest Trail, then head north on it for about 50 miles before leaving it at Twin Peaks.

Armstrong Pass north to Freel Peak, Jobs Sister, and Star Lake

In the past, access to Star Lake was difficult due to private lands lying in the way. However, with a road system constructed close to Armstrong Pass, coupled with the 1993 completion of the Tahoe Rim Trail between Highways 89 and 207, this subalpine lake at 9100 feet, the highest trout-inhabited lake within the Lake Tahoe basin has become as accessible as most Desolation Wilderness lakes. Another bonus of the trail is that its highest point comes to within about 1200 vertical feet of the Tahoe Sierra's highest summit, Freel Peak. Strong hikers can make the mile-long cross-country ascent up to it in about an hour, can head over to the areas second highest summit, Jobs Sister, and then can descend to the trail for a mile or less traverse on it over to Star Lake. Peak baggers can also climb Jobs Peak, the fourth highest summit in the Carson Range. Finally, rock climbers can test their leading skills on the Fountain Face, a half-hour's walk from the trailhead. Alternatively, they can head south from Armstrong Pass for a similar distance to one or more challenging cliffs (near end of previous hike) that are best done with a top rope.

Highway 207 south to Star Lake

Of all the sections of Tahoe Rim Trail, this may be my favorite, even though it does not have the dramatic views found along the segment of TRT between Highways 50 and 431. This hike abounds with inspiring, although not superlative, views, equally divided between those of the Carson Valley, in the first half of the hike, and those of the Lake Tahoe basin in the second half. And except for two short, unavoidably steep stretches, the trail is amazingly well engineered an absolute pleasure to hike.

Highway 207 north to South Camp and Genoa Peaks

The Tahoe Rim Trail north from Daggett Pass is mostly viewless, and generally where views exist, they are only fair. The two exceptions are along the trail's mile-long traverse of South Camp Peak, which is a high plateau with excellent views of Lake Tahoe, and on the summit of Genoa Peak, which offers 360-degree views that include the lake, the Carson Range, and desert lands to the east.

Highway 50 South to South Camp and Genoa Peaks

This route is shorter than the previous one to South Camp Peak, and one need not hike all the way to its actual summit. About a 5-mile walk south up to the northwest edge of the plateau-like peak offers Lake Tahoe views that rival those from Snow Valley Peak, a farther destination mentioned in the next two routes. This route usually is waterless, so be sure you carry enough. In the past, water has been unavailable in the rest area, so don't count on filling water bottles there.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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