Another summer baking beneath the southwest desert sun and studying birds along the Lower Colorado River had faded into a mirage. As John Muir said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” And so we went, to thru-hike 165 glorious miles on the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Excerpts from the trail journal:
Day 1: Kingsbury S to Star Lake 9.5 mi
After a wild day driving halfway around Lake Tahoe caching water for use on the North and East drier sections of the hike, we set trekking poles to dirt. And, we were off, ironing out the fitting of our packs and adjusting to the feeling of lugging 30-40 pounds on our backs. Star Lake greeted us with its lovely emerald depths.
Day 2: to Big Meadows 15 mi
It’s hard to sleep in past sunrise in a tent, but we did and the day was a maddening rush to get to Big Meadows, where we had water stashed, before dark. Star Lake’s filtered water tasted of duck scat and swamp monsters. As I choked down the water, I hoped not all of the water sources along the trail would be gag inducing.
Day 3: to Showers Lake 7.8 mi
The sound of a white-headed woodpecker and crackling of dehydrated eggs cooking lured me out of the tent. Meadow after meadow after meadow interspersed with Jeffery pines and red firs eventually led to Showers Lake. We sat in the tent cursing the harsh winds that night.
Day 4: to Aloha Lake 14.5 mi
A day of rocks. Lots and lots of rocks. Followed by a few hour knee-breaking hike down the granite graveyard before Echo Summit. The Echo Lake Chalet was hopping for Labor Day with family vacationers. We grabbed our supply box from the closet-sized post office and grumpily ate dehydrated mashed potatoes amidst the chaos before catching the Echo Lake ferry. More granite graveyards greeted us across the lake. My knees ached and I told them to shut and complain to one of my many blisters. Keith and I bombed into Lake Aloha, the lake of a thousand lakes, one of many subalpine lakes in Desolation Wilderness.
Day 5: to Middle Velma Lake 11.7 mi
Desolation Wilderness was lovely with its deep blue lakes dotted with rocky islands, but I had it with the hoards of weekend hikers and extremely rocky terrain. I wondered if a hiding giant secretly roamed the trails sprinkling rocks just to then laugh at the stumbling hikers. The trail led us to the torturous Dick’s Pass, 3.5 miles of uphill goodness. From the peak, the smell of fire from Kings & Sequoia Nat’l Parks filled the air and smogged the skies. For the duration of the hike, Lake Tahoe was barely visible through the hazy, fire skies.
Day 6: to Barker’s Pass 15.3 mi
Gentle rolling hills and a lack of rocks made for a fast-paced day hiking. Delicious, cold creek water surprised us a couple miles before Barker’s Pass. Another surprise awaited us at the pass, picnic tables and a pit toilet. The luxury of it had me giggling in delight. A flat surface to spread things out is not something to be taken lightly while backpacking. We met a local vagabond, Primitive Tim, spending the night in his pimped out van. And I thought, travelers don’t need my explanation as to why we fight the sound of settling for they too have felt the rush of being alive. Our transient spirits understand, accept and follow the desire to explore, to see the world with burning curiosity, to stop and do nothing.
Day 7: to the Truckee River 16.2 mi
A beautiful morning of open panoramic Twin peaks, then back into the red fir forests. The rest of the trail was dusty segments of jeep trails and a mighty sun beating down. Arriving to the Truckee River, a place I had once rafted, now stood stagnant and depleted. The drought is alive and thriving. Keith and I deliriously stealth mode camped near the river and decided to take a rest in Tahoe City the following day, woo hoo!
Day 8: to Tahoe City 1.5 mi
As much as I loved hiking with the constant chorus of mountain chickadees, a rest day was essential for the stinky duo. We picked up our re-supply at the post office, showered the multiple layers of grime away, and ate food that was NOT dehydrated beans.
Day 9: to North of Watson Lake 15.6 mi
Trying not to dwell on all the new blisters, we hiked quickly to Watson Lake where we filtered much water in preparation for the possibility of upcoming dry lakes. Hiking a few miles further until dusk crept over the skies, we set up our snuggly two-person tent along the trail and went through the nightly ritual of setting up camp, cooking some bean concoction, and then hanging the bear bag in a tree. Apparently, it was local redneck night, and we were serenaded by the sounds of shotguns into a deep slumber.
Day 10: to Gray Lake 16.1 mi
The devil himself gnawed at my feet from the belly of hell. If I could have crawled, I would have. We picked up our cache of water hidden near Brockway Summit and loaded our packs to new levels of heavy. The trail is devoid of water for most of the remaining miles. After a slow creeping ascent up Brockway with water laden packs, we gently traversed Jeffery Pine forests full of flocks of “dee dee dee”ing chickadees. A rough ascent up Mt Baldy past volcanic rock piles led to stunning dry meadows along the ridgeline peering down on Lake Tahoe. We took the off trail loop to the serene Gray Lake. The tranquil lake was all ours for the night, although the Clark’s Nutcrackers made quite a ruckus about our visit.
Day 11: to Mount Rose Campground 10.7 mi
Bidding the lovely lake farewell, we gently climbed the well-graded trail up Relay Peak, the tallest peak on the Tahoe Rim Trail at 10,336 feet. The panorama of the endless miles was obstructed by the Sequoia fires, of course. A lunch spot fit for a king and queen, we nibble on tortillas and dehydrated hummus, mmm. The trail brought us past the only waterfalls, the Golena falls, and down into the land of Saturday night folks drinking and making fires at the Mt. Rose Campground. Trying to ignore the smell of delicious food cooking on fires, we did our laundry in our bear canister and then I soaked my gnarly feet in it. Bear canisters are quite multi-functional; laundry, foot soaks, cooking tray, and even a stool.
Day 12: to Marlette Campground 14.8 mi
The smoky haze continued to create an ethereal, soft-focus landscape. Juncos exploded in all directions as we hiked through the gorgeous meadows. A man and woman stopped us in astonishment when we told them we were hiking the entire Tahoe Rim Trail. “But what do you eat, do you hunt your food?” I hobbled on past the start of runners conquering the 200-mile trail run on a race around the rim trail. I suddenly felt a little less adventurous.
Day 13: to South of South Camp Peak 15.8 mi
Trekking through Snow Valley Peak was my favorite area on the Tahoe Rim Trail. The idyllic, pastoral scenes rolling before me were reminiscent of Ireland. A long stroll downhill brought us to Spooner summit where we picked up our last cached water and ate the sad, remaining bits of food left. South Camp Peak greeted us with fierce winds and we were quickly chased down into the forest to spend a last night on the trail.
Day 14: to South Kingsbury Trailhead 11.8 mi
After our last oatmeal pack and last instant coffee, we set foot on our last day hiking. The night’s rainstorm had blown away the smoky haze, and we could finally SEE Lake Tahoe. It was breathtaking and I mourned the views we missed because of the fires. We blasted over Monument Pass, and then, just like that, we were done!
“We are now in the mountains and they are in us.” -John Muir