The 270 km long Tahoe Rim Trail is the heart of Lake Tahoe’s extensive trail system. It crosses two states and three wilderness areas and takes you through a wide variety of ecosystems. There are deep forests of red fir covered in wolf lichen, smooth granite peaks rising above shimmering lakes, and soft volcanic rock covered in mullet ears. And there are miles and miles of spectacular views of Lake Tahoe from atop the ridges that give the trail its name. It is a beautiful place, and in recent years it has also become a very popular place.
Traveling the trail in sections, I completed the Tahoe Rim Trail in 1999. The trail would not be fully completed until two years later. On the Tahoe Meadows to Brockway Summit section, we followed the stakes which gave a general idea of where the trail would eventually be west of Relay Peak. At one point we very slowly traversed a precarious section of loose rock and embankment at the top of Rose Knob Peak, taking maybe an hour to cross the rock fields. A year later, it took ten minutes to hike the newly created trail miraculously created by my heroes, the trail builders.
It was not uncommon in those early days to see almost no one on the trail. Eight years later when I first hiked through the TRT it was a little busier, but I still camped at Marlette Peak Campground one weekend in July and had the remote campground at the edge of the trail all to myself. Eleven years later, we stayed at this same campground on a weekday in September, and the place was nearly full. In other words, there are a lot more people on the trail, whether it’s short hikes from all eight trailheads or hiking the entire trail. And all these people don’t understand how to use a trail without ruining the experience of those who follow.
The TRT has been a part of my life since before it ended, and in fact he was writing the first trail guide in 2002, which started my writing career (so you can blame the TRT for that). I love this trail, and while it’s hard to see how exposed it is these days, it’s still an amazing place worth protecting. Thought I’d pass on some tips on how to enjoy this trail, while leaving it “as good as you found it”. Or maybe even better. As the trail has become busier, we all need to do our part to not only protect the trail, but also protect the trail user experience, which hopefully can still be a journey through nature. rather than a walk in a city park.
First, while the TRT is an unmotorized, multi-use trail and where permitted, mountain biking is a popular use of the trail, I’ll focus on hiking this time. But a lot of the advice I pass on could also be useful for mountain bikers and riders.
The first step before taking your first step on the TRT is to follow Principle #1 of Leave No Trace. Plan ahead and be prepared.
Check the weather before you go, then bring the appropriate layers for those weather conditions. Usually, layers mean synthetic or wool, so you can add and subtract for cold mornings and warm afternoons.
Make sure you have comfortable hiking shoes.
Trekking poles are also a nice addition, as they help with balance and climbing.
Assess the difficulty of your hike: How far? How much elevation? And do you have a realistic understanding of your own abilities? If the years have passed and you have a tarnished AARP card, you may not be able to walk as far as 30 years ago. Hey, I understand. I’m in the same boat.
Bring enough food and water for your hike. For most people that means at least 2 liters if you’re hiking for more than half a day. I can’t count the number of times I’ve encountered very thirsty hikers five miles from a trail carrying a small, nearly empty plastic water bottle.
Bring a first aid kit and know how to use it. There are great little first aid kits designed for wilderness travel.
On the track
Never leave anything on the trails: litter, food and, worst of all, toilet paper flags. Take them out. And wait, worse than toilet paper flags are your dog’s poop bags. There are no poo fairies. No one wants poop from your dog except you because once you take a dog out on the trail, their poop becomes your responsibility. To alleviate the stench, bring a bag with baking soda or have your dog carry a bag to put it in.
Do not shorten the trails. It causes erosion and if you do it, the next one thinks it’s good.
Share trails with other users. Also known as being nice. Remember one rule of trail use that I told my kids over and over again when trying to get them moving was: lead, follow, or get out of the way. You just need to do one of these three.
Many people head to the woods to enjoy the peace and quiet of the wilderness. (That would be me!) When the trails are busy, they also get louder. Sound travels through quiet woods and especially through water, if you reduce the noise you and everyone else within a mile of you can enjoy much better sound: the birds and the wind.
Hike alone: When people give advice on how to be safe while hiking, a frequently heard refrain is to not hike alone. Although I tend to have more than my fair share of fear of bad things happening, I always felt there was a lot to be said for hiking alone. We tend to experience nature differently and more intensely when we are not walking while talking to someone. The sights and sounds are more intense and we can truly appreciate nature in all its glory. So I won’t tell you not to go there alone. That would be a bit hypocritical since I’ve done it so much that I’ve written a book about it which will be out in August, “Going it Alone: Ramblings and reflections from the trail”.
If you’re hiking alone, however, there are a few additional steps you should take to stay safe:
Tell someone you trust where you’ll be going and when you’ll be back (then remember to let them know you’re back when you get back). Don’t forget the first aid kit. Bring a cell phone, it might not work, but on most sections of the TRT you can at least text. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, be careful there. Hiking alone is not the time to venture off the beaten path somewhere you’ve never been, or do something that at the time seems daring, but for rescuers, that seems like it. simply stupid.
Where to hike on the TRT
If you want to escape the crowds on the Tahoe Rim Trail, you have to hike early in the morning, off season and on weekdays. The trail will always be busiest where the views are the best and the trail access the easiest. For example, Tahoe Meadows and Mt. Rose Trailheads are the closest TRT trailheads to Reno. Tahoe Meadows takes you to Chickadee Ridge about two miles down a gentle incline to a spectacular view of the lake. The TRT Mt. Rose trail takes you about 2.5 miles of easy hiking to a waterfall… guess what, these trails are going to be very busy. They are still a good place to go, but don’t expect to be alone.
One of the lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is that if you want to avoid the crowds, you have to go where it’s not as “pretty” as big-name places like Emerald Bay. You need to go to less traveled places, which means skipping mountain lakes, being prepared to walk further and following the mantra given above (weekdays/off season/early in the day).
The good news is that there are plenty of great sections of TRT that aren’t Instagram stars like Emerald Bay. Find your piece of quiet TRT nirvana in a more remote location off the beaten track. Then, when you find those spots, keep them to yourself and let Instagram focus on the celebrities instead.
Tim Hauserman is an almost permanent resident of North Lake Tahoe. He wrote the official guide to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the recently released 4th edition. He also wrote Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children and writes frequently on a variety of topics. In the winter, he runs the Strider Glider afterschool program at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area. Support Tim’s work in the Alliance.
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