Hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail

Highway 89 to Armstrong Pass
Gorp.com

The entrance to the Tahoe Rim Trail's Big Meadow Trailhead facility is just off an old road, former Highway 89, and from this entrance you pace off 100 yards along that road, curving first right, then left. At the left curve is the actual TRT trailhead for your hike, and the above mileages are measured from it. You begin along an abandoned road, which in 90 yards yields to trail tread. Your winding, ascending trail parallels unseen but definitely heard Highway 89 northeast about 0.4 mile up to another abandoned road, on which you turn left and ascend briefly up it to the resumption of trail tread. To get away from the highway's traffic noise, this connecting segment of the TRT now switchbacks, climbing about 250 feet, then making a 0.6-mile traverse through a forest of white firs and Jeffrey pines almost to a creek. The TRT again switchbacks and climbs up the creek an additional 250 feet to the Tahoe Rim lateral trail, which from the opposite creek bank makes a rather direct, 10% average-gradient descent to the TRT's alternate trailhead. If you start from it, you can subtract 1.4 miles from all but the first of the above distances.

From the junction the TRT heads briefly up along the creek, then veers west to wind 200 feet higher to a mule-ears meadow before starting an ascending traverse north. This takes you 1/4 mile to a creeklet that flows beneath giant boulders. Here and just above you have views southeast through Luther Pass to 10,023' Hawkins Peak, 7 1/2 miles distant. Its steep-sided summit, and that of Pickett Peak below it and 2 miles closer, are volcanic plugs. These plugs were formed in conduits through which former volcanoes had expelled their lava. When the action finally subsided, these conduits became choked with andesitic lava. Over a few million years much of each volcano was dissected by erosion, exposing the resistant plugs.

From the creeklet you climb briefly but steeply northeast up to a small flat, on the left, upon which you could camp. For water, continue about 100 yards north along the TRT to an aspen-lined, spring-fed creeklet, which flows below a row of giant boulders. From this reliable creeklet, 3/4 mile above the lateral trail junction, you climb past red firs, with the creeklet's meadow on your left, and cross a nearby secondary ridge. Just 200 yards beyond it you reach a viewless saddle on a major ridge. Here, about 3.2 miles from the main trailhead, you could set up a dry camp, although snow should be available on nearby north-facing slopes until August.

Staying just southeast of the actual crest, you climb 0.3 mile northeast up gravelly slopes that support clusters of pinemat manzanitas. Their lowly stature belies the extent of their impressive root system, as my wife and I found out while constructing a short segment of the trail through here back on August 25, 1984. From a broad, very shallow gap on the crest, the trail climbs up and around peak 9078's southern slopes, offering some views before descending shortly to a saddle and a junction with the Saxon Creek Trail, beginning northeast. This trail was passing into oblivion before the construction of the TRT, but now it is resurrected, and sees use primarily by macho mountain bikers, who labor south several miles up it to our junction. Beginning southwest, the Tucker Flat Trail once plunged directly down slopes to Highway 89. Although you may see a faint tread at the saddle, be forewarned that the tread fades away, and then you face a rugged, knee-knocking descent.

Once again we climb, first winding southeast and then heading east to a ridge near western Freel Meadow. Here we have our first glimpse of Freel Peak, above the meadow, and of Lake Tahoe, beyond Saxon Creek canyon. Rather than head over to the meadow, which has a creek flowing through its lower part, our trail climbs east above it, ducks into a wildflowered cove cut into a patch of volcanic rock, then winds eastward to a broad, forested, almost level divide between the western and eastern Freel Meadows.

Next we climb above the eastern meadow's north edge, soon crossing a sloping meadow rich in mule ears, lupines, and paintbrushes. The mule ears in particular are very abundant, growing in volcanic soil, their favorite substrate. The patch of volcanic rock here is the second along our route. After crossing the meadow's wisp of a creek, we're back on granitic terrain, traversing southeast. From where the trail bends northeast across bouldery slopes, we have our best view so far. The snowy south end of the Carson Range, capped by Stevens and Red Lake peaks, lies to the south-southwest, while a cluster of 10,000+' peaks lies to the southeast. Hawkins Peak, seen earlier, is the closest to us, followed to the right by distant Silver and Highland peaks, each appearing as a double summit and both near Highway 4's Ebbetts Pass, then intermediate range, pyramidal Raymond Peak. In the foreground about 200 feet below your trail is a meadow, near which you can establish an isolated camp. Obtain water near the meadow's lower end.

A totally different panorama awaits you after you climb 1/3 mile northeast to a crest saddle. Here, just a few yards north of the trail at the Hell Hole viewpoint, you have the hikes best view, which includes deep, glaciated Hell Hole canyon in the foreground, Lake Tahoe beyond it, and the Tahoe Sierra's highest summit, 10,881' Freel Peak, above the canyon's east wall. Flanking Freel is the second highest peak, 10,823' Jobs Sister, which is separated by a fairly deep saddle from the fourth highest peak, 10,633' Jobs Peak.

You traverse 100 yards east to another, nearly identical Hell Hole viewpoint on the crest saddle, then veer southeast and traverse across volcanic slopes, the third patch along our route, these vegetated with sagebrush, mule ears, angelica, and lupine. These slopes quickly yield to granitic ones as our ridge and trail veer from east to northeast, and we find ourselves very high above the floor of northern Hope Valley. From our vantage point the vehicles on Highway 89 are mere specks. The slopes ahead become increasingly bouldery, so the trail keeps low while swinging north around peak 9587. Vegetation now consists of lodgepole, whitebark, and western white pines, the forest open enough to offer dramatic views to the east and southeast.

Soon we regain the crest and from it see 10,381' Round Top, to the south above the Carson Pass environs, plus the distant 10,000+' peaks to the south-southeast above unseen Highway 4. From Round Top and the highlands south of it mammoth glaciers periodically flowed north toward us, the last two so thick that they spilled west over Luther Pass. A lobe from each of these glaciers flowed east down the West Fork Carson River canyon, but another lobe flowed north, directly ahead through Hope Valley, ascending 400 feet in 1 1/2 miles before finally coming to a halt directly below us.

Along the nearly level crest we stroll northeast for 1/4 mile, our shoes squishing into the deep gruss (granitic gravel) as we pass occasional bedrock outcrops. The crest then begins to descend, taking us with it, though soon we curve north, kicking up the deep gruss as we descend through an open forest to a crest saddle. The TRT actually traverses east of the very broad saddle, descending north along the east side of a low knoll to immediately reach the upper end of a northeast-draining gully. The trail then makes a well-graded descent 1/4 mile north to a switchback, above which is a small cliff that makes rock climbers drool. It is quite fractured, thereby offering multiple routes, but more important, it is peppered with dark inclusions, which being resistant, offer dozens of holds. The cliff is easily top-roped, and can be reached by trail in about 1.3 miles from the next hike's trailhead, below Armstrong Pass.

With that goal in mind, we first switchback 230 yards south down the TRT then descend moderately northeast across forested slopes to the west edge of the broad pass. The pass and the lands just north of it are a typical glacial landscape: broad-floored and steep-walled. However, there is no evidence that it was ever glaciated. Contrary to popular belief, especially among Sierra geologists, the Sierra Nevada has quite a number of unglaciated canyons that are U-shaped in cross profile.

We start east across a ridge and quickly meet Trail 18EO9, descending northward toward the Fountain Place. The lowest part of this locally indistinct trail and the upper part of the road to its trailhead are on private land, so the trail should be avoided. About 150 yards farther east on the ridge, we reach Armstrong Pass proper, from which a lateral trail descends 0.4 mile to the next hike's trailhead. If you are backpacking and want to camp near Armstrong Pass, consider doing so down at the trailhead, since there is both space and water.


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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