Hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail

Armstrong Pass to Star Lake
Star Lake
Star Lake

Your route to nearby Armstrong Pass is a no-nonsense, steep lateral trail, which averages a 15% gradient as it climbs, with the aid of a few short switchbacks, generally northwest to the Tahoe Rim Trail at 8310' Armstrong Pass. Northbound, the trail mildly rollercoasters for 3/4 mile, dipping in and out of gullies and passing scattered junipers before commencing a serious climb toward the northwest ridge of Freel Peak. Ascending slopes dominated by sagebrush and drought-resistant wildflowers, the trail quickly offers views. They include one of Desolation Wilderness' Crystal Range, topped in the south by 9983' Pyramid Peak, lying almost due west. Directly ahead, you see a looming cliff, the Fountain Face, whose base the trail skirts. It has several prominent crack routes plus many potential face routes. The cracks, while good for jamming, are relatively poor for protection; consequently, use pitons or a top rope.

Views improve as your trail climbs past the cliff, and you see, about 1100 feet below you, a lush meadow near unseen Fountain Place. In 1859 silver was discovered in Virginia Towns (today's City) Comstock Lode. In that year Garret Fountain started grazing beef cattle and milk cows along the headwaters of Trout Creek, including in the meadow, and he thought that Armstrong Pass might provide a faster route for the miners who were leaving California's Mother Lode in droves and scrambling east, via Luther Pass, to the Comstock Lode. In 1860 he built a way station, Fountain Place, hoping to profit from the passing traffic. Armstrong Pass, however, never became a popular route, for the Comstock Lode mine operators financed the construction of a road over Daggett Pass, 8 1/4 air miles north of Freel Peak. No buildings remain standing at the Fountain Place today, but the cattle remain.

As the TRT curves from north-northwest to north, it enters a very open forest, sagebrush and views both abounding. About 1.6 miles from Armstrong Pass we encounter the first of several reliable, flower-lined creeklets, just within a denser forest. These creeklets offer the first trailside water since the Saxon Creek headwaters, in western Freel Meadow, about 5.7 miles earlier.

From the first creeklet the trail climbs 1/2 mile to a switchback with an unobstructed view across your side canyon toward some imposing cliffs. These are highly broken up, making them unappealing to climbers, as also would be the approach to them.

After a 0.3-mile climb south, the TRT resumes its northward course, climbing 0.7 mile to a high, minor saddle with nearby, windswept whitebark pines. You are at 9730 feet, the Tahoe Rim Trail's highest point. Indeed, you are above all but a handful of the highest summits in Desolation Wilderness. Within that wilderness, just one trail climbs this high, the one to the summit of Mt. Tallac, seen in the west-northwest, above the southwestern part of Lake Tahoe. Although you are quite high, you can nevertheless be intimidated by the hulking mass of Freel Peak rising about 1150 feet above you. A far better view of the lake awaits you at its summit.

To attain the summit, leave the trail here, or just a bit earlier, heading over to the base of a steep, though reasonably safe, north-descending ridge. For the first half of your ascent, you generally stay just west of the actual ridgecrest, switchbacking as often as necessary to ease its atrocious average grade of about 45% (25'). After about 400 vertical feet of ascent, the gradient abates, and soon you can head east across the ridgecrest to gentler, but nonetheless steep, gravelly slopes, often snowy in early summer, which lie above treacherously steep ones of a cirque. The remaining route to the summit is obvious. Of course, if the weather is looking threatening, don't even attempt this ascent, for there is no place to hide, should a lightning storm break loose. Along this rigorous ascent, which is breathtaking due both to a surplus of views and to a shortage of oxygen, you'll note that the whitebark pines have been getting progressively shorter and bushier in stature, dwindling eventually to knee-high specimens. This dwarfed form of trees is called krummholz, which is German for"twisted wood." The ascent is also breathtaking because you have to slog upward through deep, coarse sand, known as gruss. This is abundant in the Freel Peak massif due to intense freeze and thaw of water at these high elevations. The process pries chunky quartz and feldspar crystals from the granitic bedrock.

When at last you reach the summit of Freel Peak, you have all the Tahoe Sierra lands lying below you, and can make a 360' survey to the tune of an incessant hum from our summit's microwave tower. Like many high peaks outside wilderness areas, this one now serves modern civilization. In the south is a ribbon of Highway 88; in the west-southwest beyond Echo Summit is the South Fork American River canyon. Unmistakable Pyramid Peak, seen many times earlier on, looms above the Echo Lakes to your west. In the northwest the slopes of dark, metamorphic-capped Mt. Tallac descend to Lake Tahoe's shoreline. Above the lake's northeast comer stands volcanic-capped Mt. Rose, whose summit, at 10,766 feet, is third highest in the Tahoe basin, ranking below only Freel Peak and Jobs Sister. Viewing the latter, you can identify two parallel, massive quartz veins that paint its west slope white with rocky "snow." To the right of this summit and 2 air miles from us stands Jobs Peak, at 10,633 feet a bit shorter in stature than his sister, and ranking fourth among the area's highest peaks. Lake Tahoe, of course, is the main feature that captures the eye. This deep, blue gem seems to be too large to be in so high a basin; one almost expects it to overflow into the lower, dry desert to the east.

Atop the summit grow small clumps of whitebark pines, here only knee-high, and in this vicinity one sometimes sees mountain bluebirds and rosy finches. The bluebirds dart swiftly after insects wafted up here by updrafts, while the finches pursue ground insects and spiders as well as seeds of alpine plants.

You can return the way you came, but with Jobs Sister a tempting, easy mile away, you might as well bag its summit. Past a minor ridge summit, skirted on either side, is a long, broad, barren ridgecrest saddle, about 10,500 feet in elevation, from which one could head cross-country east for about 0.6 mile, diagonalling down across grussy openly forested slopes to another broad saddle, about 650 feet lower, which separates Jobs Sister from Jobs Peak. Then from the saddle, you climb about 1.4 miles to the peak. For most, this route is not worth the effort, and hence is not mentioned under"Distances," but for peak baggers, it is. You cross the saddle and climb up a relatively easy ridgecrest almost to peak 10505. (If you go too low, you'll have to diagonal up some slopes of very loose gruss.) You then curve northeast and stay close to the crest all the way to the windswept summit. Although the topo map shows your whole route to be through a forest, this "forest" is so low that you stand above it, for the whitebark pines are wind-cropped shrubs. The summit views overall are inferior to those of Jobs Sister.

With that goal in mind and if the weather still is not threatening, head up an open, obvious route to the summit of Jobs Sister. It rewards you with views to the east equal to those of Jobs Peak; views to the north, west, and south equal to those of Freel Peak; and a view down its north face, which is far higher and steeper than those of Jobs and Freel peaks. And it has on the floor of its deep cirque the liquid gem of Star Lake. To reach it, return to the Tahoe Rim Trail. This you do by descending cross-country west, then northwest, to broad gentler slopes. The preferred, though longer, way is to continue northwest, staying fairly close to the edge of a canyon between Freel Peak and Jobs Sister. Alternatively, you can head north across the gentler slopes to a ridge that descends north to the outlet of Star Lake. This descent, a real knee-knocker, is as steep as your initial ascent toward Freel Peak.

Those not climbing any summit start a descent from the high, minor saddle, the TRT's highest point. You drop to an adjacent, minor saddle, and from this vicinity see High Meadows, almost 2000 feet below you, and above it, the ponderous mass of 10,067' Monument Peak. After a nearby switchback, you head east toward Jobs Sister, descending almost to the floor of a Freel Peak cirque. This contains a pond, waist-deep when full, which provides a very uninviting, bleak, camping environment. After a brief traverse northward, you descend moderately northeast to a brisk creeklet, jumping across it just above its audible cascades. Just beyond it the TRT crosses a small flat suitable for camping. Up here, almost 4 miles from Armstrong Pass, you are still sufficiently high that the forest is quite open, offering no protection when the wind blows. From it you traverse briefly north (those descending from Jobs Sister meet us here), then make a long, counter-clockwise traverse across the bowl of the Cold Creek headwaters. Along it you will encounter numerous chunks of vein quartz that have weathered from the western slopes of Jobs Sister and have, over time, traveled via soil creep downslope to their present locations.

After 1/2 mile, the trail reaches the ridge descending north from Jobs Sister (the alternate descent route), and follows it down to the outlet of Star Lake. You can find tiny, poor campsites along this last stretch, but they are greatly inferior to those above the lakes north shore. These not only are roomier and have better lake access, they offer a lake setting backdropped by the imposing north face of Jobs Sister. Being the highest lake within the Tahoe basin, the lake is not warm. Under optimal conditions, it warms to the low 60s at best. Lakes lying in high, granitic basins are supposed to be crystal clear, but Star Lake is mysteriously murky. You can see about 5 feet down through the water, which is sufficient to spy a trout or two. Star Lake, at 9100' elevation, is not quite the highest one in the Lake Tahoe basin. Mud Lake, in the Mt. Rose vicinity in the northern part of the Carson Range, is, at 9239'. It, however, is more the size of a lakelet, and as its name implies, it is not attractive, nor does it harbor fish.

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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