Tahoe Rim Trail

Building a 150 Mile Loop for Hiker, Horse, and Skier
  |  Gorp.com
Lake Tahoe

If you sit quietly, nature comes out to greet you.
Clark nutcrackers and slate-colored nuthatches flit among Sierracedars. A cloud of yellow butterflies drifts past a clump of brilliant redsnow plant. The dainty hoof prints of white-tail deer crisscross the trail surface. A storm-felled white fir displays the scratch marks of a brown bear digging for his favorite delicacy—a pawful of ants. The Tahoe Rim Trail is an exquisitely beautiful route that wanders through fragrant pines more than 3,000 feet above the sapphire shimmer of Lake Tahoe, the nation's largest and deepest alpine lake.

Location: Along the California/Nevada border 200 miles east of San Francisco.
Distance: 150 mile route when completed in 1999.
Features: Pine and fir forest, spectacular views of Lake Tahoe.
Uses: Hiking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing.

Working a Trail Crew
The Tahoe Rim Trail Project is a national volunteer effort to plan, build and maintain an environmentally conforming trail for hikers, horseback riders and cross-country skiers around the crests that form the Lake Tahoe Basin. Motorized vehicles aren't allowed. The first half, on Lake Tahoe's South Shore, is open for use. When the North Shore trail is completed sometime in 1999, the two segments will form a complete 150-mile loop along the ridgeline of the Lake Tahoe Basin, opening up spectacular virgin back country accessible from multiple trailheads along the route.

My interest in the trail was piqued when a friend encouraged me to volunteer. "You'll love it," he said. "You'll be outdoors all day, and you'll see the best that nature has to offer."

I hooked up with the crew leader and a handful of other volunteers, all packing lunches and water, to begin an hour's hike into territory that bore no traces of civilization. The pure crisp September air at 6,000-plus feet was as heady as any bottled fragrance. I realized that as a volunteer I was among the first to experience the trail's rugged beauty.

Before building begins, trail segments are established by volunteers who walk an area and flag the most accessible route. Then, members of the Trails Committee along with a skier, hiker, horseman, archaeologist, anthropologist and botanist walk it. Each evaluates the route from his particular perspective.

The botanist may advise an alternate route to avoid an area of sensitive plants. The archaeologist is concerned with Indian ruins. Even a dump is protected until experts can determine whether it contains something of value. Volunteers have come across arrowheads and hunting blinds by the Washoe Indians hundreds of years ago.

We were handed hard hats and safety goggles, and directed to the yellow-flagged route. During the day I trimmed low-hanging branches with a small hand saw while others grubbed out manzanita and tobacco brush with a combination axe and hoe called a McLeod. The idea was to form a safe, level trail bed that held no hidden hazards, while leaving a minimal mark on nature.

By four p.m. it seemed we hadn't made much progress. I looked back at about 500 feet of brush-free newly-leveled earth. "You've done great!" said the crew leader. "When it's all boulders and brush like this the work goes very slowly. And anyway, we measure progress by how good you feel at the end of the day."

Dayhiking Spooner South to Kingsbury Grade
Walking the Tahoe Rim Trail today reinforces that feel-good sensation. A 12-mile easy-to-moderate segment, Spooner South to Kingsbury Grade, offers tears-in-the-eyes vistas and a satisfying bonding with nature.

A bulletin board marks the Spooner Summit trailhead, about a 20-minute drive from either South Shore or Incline Village, the two closest places to stay. There are no services, springs or streams on this stretch, so you must bring your own water. Restrooms and porta-potties are at the trailhead.

I started out on the soft, sandy trail and immediately blessed the planners who had decreed a 10 percent maximum grade, except for short stretches. At an elevation of 7,200 feet it isn't just the view that takes your breath away.

Within fifteen minutes, around a steep switchback, Spooner Lakesprang into view far below. I leaned against a Jeffrey pine, admiring the view, inhaling the characteristic vanilla smell given off from its bark. I gently scratched the bark to make the aroma more intense. I'd learned during my trail-building trip that these "Gentle Jeffreys" can be distinguished from the similar "Prickly Ponderosas" because their pinecones have no sharp stickers, while the ponderosas cones can hurtfully spear a tender palm.

I soon spotted a spur trail off to the left, which led to a little knoll and another panoramic view of Spooner Lake. A troupe of half a dozen Brownies and their leader, chattering as they pulled fruit and trail mix from their backpacks, welcomed me to the scenic spot. This was their midway point, they explained, after which they'd return along the route I'd just covered. As I returned to the main trail, following light blue triangular markers, the sun ducked under a collection of passing cumulus. I pulled a windbreaker from my backpack, grateful for the pre-hike advice to be prepared for changeable weather.

Just about an hour into the hike, signs directed me to a 500-foot trail that I followed to a granite outcropping and a spectacular 360-degreeview of Lake Tahoe and Carson Valley. As I sat on sun-warmed rocks and swigged my Evian I spotted the white paddle-wheeler Tahoe Queen far below on the lake. On the other side, ribbons of roads and highways disappeared on the horizon in the direction of Carson City, Nevada.

After the initial switchback, the trail had leveled out considerably. I became aware of waxy white yarrow and bright orange California poppies flourishing among the red-barked manzanitas and tobacco brush. Squirrels darted and chattered in the branches above me. The sun returned, I shed my windbreaker and slathered some Number 15 on my nose and cheeks.

Not quite five miles in I came to an open slope with a spectacular view of Lake Tahoe and the mouth of Emerald Bay spread spectacularly below. I slowed my pace, savoring the sight, gradually coming to a flat, wooded area lower down on the ridge. It was apparent that trail-builders had done serious rock work here to establish a level tread. The mellifluous wind in the trees emphasized the absence of civilization's strident sounds. Although several four-wheel-drive roads had crossed the trail, I hadn't heard an engine's hum or human voice since I'd met the Brownie troop. I felt completely, contentedly alone.

The last few trail miles wound through wooded areas dotted with open spaces. Scenic rest spots were frequent. Near the top of Kingsbury Grade, I followed North Benjamin Drive, which became Andria Drive, which marks the trail's south access at Kingsbury North Trailhead. A small parking area accommodates just a few cars.

Although it's a jolt to return to tarmac and tourists, it's also comforting to know that the U.S. Forest Service and Nevada Division of State Parks will protect the trail. Its essence, solitude and beauty, will be there when I return.

Volunteering and Practicalities
Trail construction goes on from mid-May until early October. No special skills are required. Volunteers range from enthusiastic teens to gray-haired grandparents. The common denominators, a love of the outdoors and wanting to contribute something to the environment, help friendships form quickly. For information on volunteering call (702) 588-0686, or fax(702) 588-8737.

How to Get There:
Lake Tahoe straddles the California/Nevada border 198 miles east of San Francisco. Twelve airlines serve Reno, where you can rent a car or catch one of the Tahoe Casino Express's 14 daily trips to South Shore. The Spooner Summit South access is off Highway 50 at the rest area one mile east of Highway 50/28 junction.

When to Go:
Portions of the trail are open the year-round, but hiking is best from May to October. Summer temperatures average in the 70s.

Come prepared with water, sun screen and layered clothing for changeable weather. Lake Tahoe is at an altitude of 6,300, with trails as high as 9,400 feet. Try to arrive a day early and drink lots of liquids to help combat headaches and sleepiness that altitude may cause.

Where to Walk:
Brochures with trail information are available at trailhead bulletin boards and from the trail office at (702) 588- 0686. More than eight well-marked segments are accessible from multiple trailheads.

Where to Stay:
Historic among-the-pines Richardson's Resort, (800) 544-1801, has log cabins on the lake. For the upscale casino resort experience try Harrah's Casino Hotel (800) 648-3773. Lakeside Inn and Casino (800) 624-7980 is minutes from the trail.

Where to Eat:
The Beacon (916) 541-0630 offers outdoor dining on a lakefront deck. Fish is the specialty at Fresh Catch at Tahoe Keys. The Mandarin Garden (916) 544-8885 has multi-course Chinese meals.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 16 Jan 2013
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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