Hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail

Highway 207 to Star Lake
Gorp.com


Because the lands of the Daggett Pass area are private, not governmental, the construction of a continuous trail through it became impossible. For those taking the trail entirely through the Carson Range, they will walk on about 3 1/2 miles of roads between this hike's trailhead and that of the next hike. The southbound Tahoe Rim Trail begins among private land, and is constrained by it to make a steep, direct, 0.3-mile climb up a ski-lift gully to a road-traversed saddle. Now just within the Toiyabe National Forest, you walk about 80 yards south on a road to the trail's resumption. It immediately curves east to begin a well-graded climb through a forest of western white pines and red firs to a switchback. Here, 3/4 mile into your hike, you have views Of Carson Valley to the east, the Kingsbury Grade to the northeast, the crest lands of the Carson Range to the north, and a bit of Lake Tahoe to the northwest. Today's grade is a modem version of a more challenging route constructed by David Kingsbury and John McDonald back in 1858-1860.

In just over 1/2 mile, the TRT climbs west, then south, offering us glimpses of Lake Tahoe before reaching a second saddle. Then, over the next 1/2 mile, it descends slightly to step-across South Fork Daggett Creek, encountered just beyond a ski lift. Next, we traverse briefly to a nearly level area on a broad, northeast-descending ridge, suitable for camping. (Northbound trekkers should be aware that the TRT between Highways 207 and 50 lacks reliable water.) Just south of the possible camping area, the TRT passes within 20 yards of granitic boulders, from which you have a fine view of Carson Valley. The trail next climbs gently 0.4 mile south to a switchback, then switchbacks moderately up to an east-descending ridge. This it crosses, and westbound, the vegetation changes, fairly shady eastern slopes of red firs and western white pines give way to fairly open, steeper, southern slopes of Jeffrey pines. Early on this new tack, you have your first view of steepfaced Jobs Sister and spreading Freel Peak, while closer by you confront the enormous mass of Monument Peak.

After 1/2 mile the trail resumes its southern course, soon reaching a saddle on a minor ridge. Here is our only other steep stretch, and steep it is: you descend a ski-lift maintenance road having a 20% gradient. Thankfully, the descent is short, and 85 yards past a switchback, we leave the east-dropping road for traversing trail tread. In about 150 yards we arrive at step-across Mott Canyon creek. This is just before a ski lift, and on a forested flat by its base you could set up a fine camp.

From the creek the trail traverses 1/4 mile eastward through the amphitheater of upper Mott Canyon, then climbs briefly south to enter a smaller bowl. At that bend, you have both a view southwest across openly forested slopes to the summit area of 10,067' Monument Peak and a view east across a broad swath of the Carson Valley. The granitic rock of the peak and adjacent lands solidified within the earth's crust about 90 million years ago, and at the time of the Sierra's last uplift, about 75-65 million years ago, at least part of the upper rock would have been exposed through erosion. A granitic landscape then evolved over 30-40 million years of warm, wet climate, achieving a look similar to today's landscape some 33 million years ago, when the climate changed. Carson Valley, a downfaulted trough already existed at the time of uplift, but in the last few million years renewed faulting has caused the western part of the valley to sink, placing it within a rain shadow and thus in a high-desert climate. This western tilting of the Carson Valley block has caused the north-flowing Carson River to migrate laterally westward. Consequently, today the river does not flow through the center of the valley, but rather flows close to its down-faulted western edge.

High-desert vegetation exists at our viewpoint, the most prominent species being the drab-colored curl-leaf mountain-mahogany. However, it exists up here not due to a prominent rain shadow, but because the local soils are very thin, and once the snow melts, very little water is available for use almost half the year. Well below us lies the site of a 1990s burn. The trees were sufficiently plentiful to provide enough fuel for a widespread fire, one hot enough to cause thin layers of granitic bedrock to exfoliate. It may be surprising for many to discover that fire may be the most effective process at slowly very slowly! dismantling the Carson Range.

Progressing toward Star Lake, you traverse in and out of the smaller bowl, carpeted with pinemat manzanitas, climb gently south through an open forest, then soon curve westward to enter Monument Creek canyon, easily recognized by the powerlines ascending it. The trail quickly curves south and equally quickly reaches a short switchback, and your grade up to the head of Monument Creek canyon switches to moderate. In about 200 yards the trail reaches another short switchback. Midway between the two you reach the stateline, and climb south from Nevada into California. Approaching (but not reaching) 9000 feet elevation, you can get quite breathless in this rarefied air. Fortunately, the climb to the broad, rather amorphous powerline saddle is not long. Views from it are not great, but they are after a brief walk south to a bedrock outcrop, immediately west of the trail. Standing on it, you can follow the powerlines down to the northern edge of High Meadows, over 1000 feet below you. You can also hurl a rock southwest over to the invisible Von Schmidt state-boundary line of 1873.

With Tahoe and rim on our minds, it is time to continue south along the Tahoe Rim Trail. Views of the Carson Valley now are gone, but ones of looming Jobs Sister and Freel Peak urge us onward. Our hike is very easy, and unless you survey it, you won't be sure, after 1.4 miles from the powerline saddle, if you've gained or lost a few feet in elevation (you've dropped slightly along a 1% gradient). Although you traverse to this point across amorphous, variably forested slopes it nevertheless is easy to recognize. At it you look in a line of sight directly along a 2-7-mile stretch of westward-oriented powerlines. Beyond it rises much of the highland mass comprising Desolation Wilderness. To get our first glimpse of Lake Tahoe, so far blocked by Monument Peak, a minor summit on a major ridge, we contour about 0.2 mile south to a conspicuous large-block gully, then an equal distance beyond it. Red firs and western white pines generally prevent panoramic views, and these species persist for almost 1/2 mile, to where, on a broad, west-descending ridge, we meet an impressive western juniper. Now we climb gently southeast across open terrain to a diminutive Cold Creek tributary, which nevertheless flows throughout most of summer. By its south bank lies a small camp.

Virtually everyone would pass this up for ones at Star Lake, which lies 1.1 miles ahead. Most of the distance is along a moderate ascent, one well forested, but nevertheless still offering views of Lake Tahoe. Once again the trail veers southeast for a climb across relatively open slopes, and you'll see. This descends to the private lands of High Meadows. From the junction the Tahoe Rim Trail descends in 90 yards to the outlet creek of Star Lake.


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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