Walking the Tahoe Rim Trail
By Julie Snyder
Far below our perch at South Camp Peak (8,866 feet), Lake Tahoe shimmers like liquid sapphire. Forests of pine and aspen and a host of peaks—some snow-frosted even in summer—cradle the meandering 72-mile shoreline of North America’s highest and largest subalpine lake. With this sumptuous picnic panorama, our peanut butter-and-jelly could be caviar.
Straddling the California-Nevada border, Lake Tahoe is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide. Its depth—averaging some 900 feet and plunging to over 1,600 feet at its deepest point—accounts for the mesmerizing jewel tones.
In recent decades, the lake’s famous clarity has been threatened by increased algae growth—a by-product of increased urbanization in the Tahoe Basin. Keeping Tahoe blue endures as a contentious issue among environmentalists, developers and regional residents; the League to Save Lake Tahoe has been at the forefront of advocacy efforts since 1957.
But back at South Camp Peak, we’re far above the political fray on a stretch of the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), a 165-mile footpath that circumnavigates this jewel of a lake via surrounding mountain peaks and slopes. The multi-use trail is open to hikers and horseback riders in its entirety, and to mountain bikers on about 100 miles of its length.
Besides traveling in two states, the TRT meanders through six counties, one state park, three National Forests and three Wilderness areas. Forty-nine miles of the TRT overlap the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail that zigzags from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington.
The Tahoe Rim Trail was envisioned in the 1970s by Glenn Hampton, Recreation Officer for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service, Nevada state parks and a newly created volunteer organization—the Tahoe Rim Trail Fund (now known as the Tahoe Rim Trail Association) —all got on board to undertake the ambitious project. Construction began in 1984 and with the help of more than 10,000 volunteers over 18 years, the Tahoe Rim Trail opened in 2001.
Step onto the Tahoe Rim Trail and nature immediately begins to put on a show. Wind whispers through the tops of Ponderosa pine and Western Hemlock. Marmots squeak and pikas peep. Streams gurgle and pristine lakes invite a cool dip. Mule deer dash through the manzanita. Mariposa lilies, fiery paintbrush and a fiesta of wildflowers unfold in colorful carpets. Raucous Stellar’s jays and entertaining Clark’s nutcrackers flit among the trees. There’s a wealth of history along the way, too, as the trail leads through one-time hunting grounds of the Washoe tribe, long-vanished game trails and former grazing lands of some the West’s first Basque sheepherders.
The Tahoe Rim Trail Association (TRTA) is a Rim Trail hiker’s best friend. Maps, books and other resources to guide users on safe trail experiences are available on its website. The organization hosts special events year-round—from full-moon snowshoeing to wildflower walks and trail talks. Outdoor leadership and backcountry skills training are offered as are programs for youth and families. Volunteers are recruited and trained to help with trail building and maintenance.
For those hardy and fit souls who aspire to hike the entire Tahoe Rim Trail, TRTA makes it easy—or at least as easy as hiking 165 miles can be. The route has been divided in seven segments of 12-23 miles from point to point, plus a three-day, two-night trek through Desolation Wilderness. The guided Segment Hiking Program covers one segment per week, while the Annual Thru-Hike covers the entire trail over two weeks.
Those who successfully cover the entire trail—in short spurts or one grand gasp, as part of an organized group or on their own—are invited to become members of the 165 Mile Club. At the time of this writing, just 1,275 had accomplished this feat on foot (or horseback or mountain bike).
Were he still alive, renowned naturalist John Muir would surely have been among the charter members of the 165 Mile Club. Muir was a big fan of Lake Tahoe and its bounty of hiking opportunities, first visiting in 1873. He wrote to a friend that he “sauntered through the piney woods, pausing countless times to absorb the blue glimpses of the lake, all so heavenly clean, so terrestrial yet so openly spiritual.” In 1899, the founder of the Sierra Club lobbied to designate Lake Tahoe a national park and preserve it from development—but Muir’s efforts fell apart in Congress at the last minute!
Fortunately the Lake Tahoe region has had other environmental champions over the years—and we thank them every time we venture out on a stretch of the spectacular Tahoe Rim Trail.