This is a series of articles, photos and videos I produced for the Sierra Sun back in 2007 as part of a 2-week thru-hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail. Still my longest backpacking trip to date, I was part of a ~15 person group as part of a lead counter-clockwise thru-hike organized by the Tahoe Rim Trail Association. The associated later recognized this series with an award.
Getting ready for my big walk
Salomon XA pro 3d trail runners, instead of big-ol’ boots, are lighter and more breathable, and offer enough support when carrying an ultralight pack.And REI Peak UL trekking poles (you know, the things that look suspiciously like ski poles), take some of the strain off my legs and feet, after a few trips with them, I’m hooked. Lastly, with the mostly reliable summer weather of the Sierra, I’ll be leaving the full-blown rain suit at home, instead bringing a Golite Poncho, which ways a scant 10 ounces, and will also cover my pack in that freak afternoon thunderstorm. If I can convince my trail companions, I’ll even leave my tent at home and turn the poncho into a one-man tarp to call home at night.This will be my longest hike to date, and my first big hike with ultralight gear, so check back in the Sierra Sun and Tahoe World over the next few weeks to see how the gear, and I, do.
Notes from the Tahoe Rim Trail — first steps
Looking forward on the trail
The Tahoe Rim Trail Association is always looking for volunteers, so contact them at (775) 298-0012, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those interested in spending time in the backcountry while pitching in, the association is planning two camps, one on Aug. 10-12, and the other Aug. 31-Sept 3 with hikes, maintenance projects and camping.
Notes from the Tahoe Rim Trail — getting along
“Those three user groups are notorious for pointing fingers at each other for all sorts of things, but it’s a lot more hyperbole than anything based on fact,” Fitzpatrick said. “But I’m a glass-half-full guy, I think we can all co-exist peaceably on the trail.”
Fitzpatrick said mountain bicyclists are more often the target of pointed fingers than other groups because of their relatively high speeds, and accusations by some that they cause more erosion.
“Erosion is more about the quality of the trail than any user groups,” Fitzpatrick said.
Aside from what erosion may or may not be caused by pedal-powered users, bicyclists are banned from parts of the Tahoe Rim Trail to preserve its wilderness character. The Tahoe Rim Trail borrows about 50 miles of improved path from the Pacific Crest Trail, which travels 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. Mountain bicyclists are not allowed on that section, as decreed in an act of congress, Casey said.
The Pacific Crest Trail, along with federally designated wilderness areas along the Tahoe Rim Trail like Desolation Wilderness and the Mount Rose Wilderness, preclude bicycles as part of a character issue. Recreation Forester Don Lane of the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, said the ban on bikes came with the 1964 Wilderness Act.
“It is not a debate of who does more impact; it is a clear intent in the country trying to preserve certain land from mechanization and urbanization,” Lane said.
* I wrote this article before leaving on the trail and I was an advocate among the hikers for the multi-use nature of the trail, but some still disliked mountain bikers. The final nail in my case for mountain bikers as far as my fellow hikers were concerned came on day 2 when a group of bikers, in the Mount Rose Wilderness Area that prohibits bikes, came flying down the trail and clipped a hiker in our group.
Notes from the Tahoe Rim Trail — fire in the forest
Rounding the southern end of Lake Tahoe on the rim trail, one can’t help but think of one of the most pressing issues in the area — fire.After the Angora Fire destroyed more than 250 homes, and caused more than $140 million in damage starting late in June, proactive measures to reduce wildfire danger around developed areas is a given. But the woods themselves have value as well in an area that banks on its natural splendor.Generally, more remote wilderness and recreation areas receive lower fire priority, but there are some exceptions, according to Rex Norman, spokesman for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service. While treating built-up stands of trees and brush helps prevent a devastating Angora Fire, the Forest Service is also looking to prevent the way Angora started — with a runaway campfire.“Some areas are being treated because of higher fire-start potential, wherever forested areas get a lot of use and there is a greater potential for human started fire,” Norman said.That means places like campgrounds where campfires, which can escape and grow into infernos, are common. But up in the higher reaches of the Tahoe Basin natural conditions mean fire risks are lower, he said.
“Higher elevation starts are less common, the fuel loads are naturally lower and there is less potential,” Norman said.
Despite an average of 14 lightning-started fires in the high country per year, those fires rarely grow large because of the alpine conditions, he said. Lightning-sparked fires normally don’t get bigger than one-quarter acre, and normally fire crews catch them at one-10th of an acre.
Although clearly not as important as buildings and homes, the damage to a wilderness area from fire would mean the loss of another one of Tahoe’s characteristic resources. If a large section on the Tahoe Rim Trail burned, for example, fewer users would hike, ride horses or bike, said Associate Director Erin Casey of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association.
Norman said a fire would have to be of catastrophic proportions to affect the revenue for the Forest Service, but the public’s perception of the Angora Fire has impacted the level of use as well.
“Angora has had a significant perception effect. The perception from people out of the area is that Tahoe is all black, or that they can’t get here, even though the Angora Fire only affected 1.5 percent of the land area in the basin,” Norman said.
Although people on backcountry trails like the Tahoe Rim Trail represent a risk of a fire started by a campfire, they also exercise a positive effect, Casey said.
“We have people report smoldering fires from the trail,” Casey said. “Having people out there is really great and helpful in that way.”
Notes from the Tahoe Rim Trail – beautiful Desolation not so desolate
“Starting in 1971 we implemented a permit system; we were getting over 2,000 visitors per day in the summer,” Lane said. “This wasn’t wilderness; it was like a city park.”Permits were free, and were simply a tool to make people stop and think before heading into the wilderness, he said. Later the Forest Service adopted a reservation system, but its personnel discovered from the reservations that campers all tended to occupy the same spots, Lane said, leading to a quota system of 700 daily campers in 1976.“We started the first restrictive protective step on campers — wilderness was at stake,” Lane said.Five years ago, Hall said the Forest Service once again looked at the quota system, trying to find a way to spread users out from the usual areas of concentration near lakes.“We realized we couldn’t just control the total numbers,” Hall said. “We divided the area into 45 zones, each with their own quotas to spread people out more.”
The quota goes into effect on the Friday before Memorial Day, and lasts through the end of September, according to the Forest Service Web site.
The quotas vary by zone, with some as limited as two people per night, according to the Web site.
Notes from the Tahoe Rim Trail – why we walked
Two weeks on the trail is difficult – you walk long distances, eat bad food, sleep on hard ground, and are generally very, very dirty – but it’s completely worth it.Within the first few hours of the first day of our 165 mile, 15 day hike around the Tahoe Rim Trail, one member of our group, Ross Franke, was already fighting through blisters that would have turned most people around before spending one night in the woods.Another member of our team, Barbara Oquendo, who had never been backpacking before in her 60-odd years of life, was contending with an exploding backpack that would periodically spread all her belongings across the trail and into the bushes.Nobody in the group escaped hardship, from bruised and blistered feet, to cold, sleepless nights, I doubt if a single person didn’t question at one point or another, “what am I doing here?”But here’s the thing — nobody gave up.
Yes, we lost one of our team, Robert Peebles, who’s infected foot had gotten so bad our guides had to decide to take him off the trail, but he had soldiered on with an excruciatingly painful toe for days before, and showed no sign of slowing.
So why did we do it? It’s hard to explain, really.
Sure, there were amazing views the whole way round the lake, beautiful wildlife, a sense of accomplishment and the added bonus of a more trim, fit figure when we finished.
And walking with a Tahoe Rim Trail Association group hike, we had the added bonus of getting to know and befriending a whole new group of people, and the luxury of support and fresh food (and beer) whenever we resupplied our packs.But the real reason we walked is because doing something like the Tahoe Rim Trail changes you.It takes you, almost against your will, and while at first your body protests against the hard work, the strange dehydrated food, the unfamiliar sleeping situation, and even the self-dug bathroom breaks — you soon adjust to your new way of life, and find it strangely suites you better than you would ever imagine possible.Near the half way point when we joined the Pacific Crest Trail, one of our guides, Justin Wallace, turned to me and said “We only go north from now on, no more going south!” with an excited smile.I replied sarcastically “What about switch-backs,” but I felt what he was feeling, and when it came time to turn off the PCT days later to head towards Tahoe City and the end of our trip, a small voice inside begged “Keep going north, you can keep walking on the Pacific Crest Trail for months.”
A long hike redefines what a person can and can’t do, and we were all amazed at how much we adapted to life on the trail.
Twelve-mile days that sounded daunting before the trip began were done just after noon, and dismal campgrounds next to highway parking lots quickly hosted boisterous and cheery cooking circles and good night’s rest.
We came to depend on — and support — our fellow hikers more than we expected, and became closer, faster than any situation back in the real world would ever allow.
We were swimming in our underwear, talking about burying our poop in the woods, and telling stories to each other that we wouldn’t tell our own relatives, all with people that were complete strangers only days before.
All this brought us to the finish line, in spite of ailment and injury, discomfort and self-doubt, for an experience no one on the hike would trade for anything.
That, and if you happen to be a reporter who announced your intentions to thru-hike the Tahoe Rim Trail to the world (or the five people who read my column anyway), you can’t very well give up half way, now can you?