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

As I stepped onto the Pacific Crest Trail the sun beat down and the hot air was still, but I had goose bumps.For some reason, on this short day hike, it finally hit me – I’m hiking the entire Tahoe Rim Trail, starting this Saturday. The nerves and question marks surrounding the trip melted away as I steadily ground my way up Sugarbowl. I was out to test my gear, and myself, with one week to go before starting my long walk chipping away at the 165 mile trail that will be my entire world for two weeks.But what a wonderful world to escape to, and what better way to get to know the natural surroundings of Lake Tahoe. So what kind of gear does one carry for a two week loop around the lake? I’m glad you asked.Water will be the number one concern on the trail, so a light and easy way to carry lots of liters is key. I will be using one two-liter Platypus water bladder with a hydration hose inside my pack, and two one-liter Platypus bladders outside the pack. Lets hope that’s enough… Up on ridges, the trail won’t be a shady walk in the woods. Instead of slathering on layer after layer of sunscreen for 14 days, I’ll be using a long-sleeve, button up, synthetic hiking shirt from Mountain Hardwear. It looks like a dress shirt, but offers the versatility of rolled up sleeves, flipped up collar, and buttoned down front for temperature regulation. Add an Army-surplus boonie hat with full brim, and here’s hoping I’ll keep the oily stuff to a minimum.Ten to 15 mile days are hard on your feet no matter how you cut it, so I’ll be doing what I can to keep mine happy. Injinji Tetrasoks, like gloves for your feet, separate your toes from rubbing each other – or so I’ve heard. I’ll get back to you on this one.
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

For as long as I can remember, the outdoors has been in my blood.From childhood hikes and visits to national parks, to riding with the UC Davis cycling team and scuba diving around the world, finding my way into nature is a critical part of my life.  For that reason, over the next two weeks I will not report the latest development from Truckee Town Hall or from the Sierra Sun office at all — I’ll be reporting from the Tahoe Rim Trail. Part of a 15-person Tahoe Rim Trail Association-led team, we will start from Brockway Summit and walk clockwise around the lake over 15 days, covering 165 miles of trail ranging from 6,240 to 10,338 feet in elevation — before finishing the trek at Brockway Summit again.So why the rim trail? Well, basically for the same reasons that it was made.
The trail started as an idea of a Forest Service Recreation Officer named Glenn Hampton in 1978, said Erin Casey, associate director of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association. “He thought with the beauty of the lake, utilizing the rim would be an amazing opportunity,” Casey said. “There are so many things you can see from the rim trail you couldn’t otherwise see.”She said Hampton’s idea matured as he wrote a master’s thesis about the trail, using the venerable Appalachian Trail, which stretches over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine, as a model.In 1981, Hampton started the nonprofit trail association with $25,000, beginning the long trail-building project in South Lake Tahoe, Casey said. Constructed primarily by volunteers, the route overlapped 50 miles of another of the country’s grand trails — the 2,650-mile Mexico to Canada Pacific Crest Trail along Tahoe’s western rim.The final “golden spike” section of the Tahoe Rim Trail, between Brockway Summit and Tahoe Meadows, was completed in 2001, Casey said.

Looking forward on the trail

A trail association’s work is never done, with maintenance and new work necessary year in and year out. Summer use and winter weather take a toll on the path every year, so crews must go out to maintain the trail, and the Tahoe Rim Trail Association relies on the help of volunteers to get the work done, Casey said.“We have to continue to maintain the trail; hundreds of trees fall across the trail every year,” Casey said. “But we will also be creating a new connection at Kingsbury Grade (a roughly four-mile stretch were users must take to the road), and we are planning a 15- to 18-mile Reno to Rim Trail.”
How you can help

The Tahoe Rim Trail Association is always looking for volunteers, so contact them at (775) 298-0012, or by e-mail at

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

Whether it’s a hiker dodging horse droppings, a mountain biker stuck behind a pack of oblivious walkers, or a rider whose horse is spooked by a speeding mountain bike, many trail users have witnessed first-hand the conflicts between these three groups.Here on the Tahoe Rim Trail, a number of groups from the U.S. National Forest Service to the International Mountain Bicycling Association have come together to help the Tahoe Rim Trail Association in an effort to minimize conflict. Between a unique set of restrictions and proactive education, association officials say the three groups get along particularly well while circling the lake.“The user groups actually interact really well on the rim trail,” said Associate Director Erin Casey of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association. “We actually get more compliments than complaints from equestrians and hikers or mountain bikers.”She credited the relative harmony to the education of mountain bikers by the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Executive Director Leigh Fitzpatrick of the Truckee Trails Foundation said while each user group will always have its share of bad eggs, the key is making all users care about the trail experience.

“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

The Tahoe Rim Trail passes by many beautiful and illustrious places on the 165-mile loop of the Tahoe Basin, from the popular Mount Rose Wilderness to the venerable Pacific Crest Trail.But no location the trail wanders through receives as many visitors as Desolation Wilderness, a 100-square-mile, federally designated wilderness area that straddles the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and Eldorado National Forest on the southwestern end of the Tahoe basin. While Associate Director Erin Casey of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association said the Mount Rose Wilderness stretch of the rim trail is more popular than the Desolation segment, Desolation outstrips Mount Rose — and every other wilderness area in the country — in overall number of visitors.“Desolation gets more than 130,000 people per year,” said Don Lane, recreation forester for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “I look at Desolation as a battleground of values — people want, and should want, to use public land, but we also need to preserve its wilderness character.”Lane said the area was first designated the Desolation Valley Primitive Area in 1931, and was then identified as a wilderness area in 1969. Shortly thereafter, it became clear something would have to be done to regulate the number of visitors, Lane said.

“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.

More than just numbers
The Forest Service has looked beyond the numbers of visitors in an effort to minimize impacts on Desolation Wilderness: The federal agency also evaluated what the users were doing. Lane said in the 1990s a study found the most destructive practice by backpackers was the campfire.“The lakes were just being destroyed; campfires were causing enormous resource decimation,” Lane said.Now campers are required to use portable stoves instead of campfires, Lane said. While in some high-altitude wilderness areas human waste has been a problem, Lane said as long as campers follow Leave No Trace principles, it isn’t a big problem in Desolation.“We’ve done water-quality testing in the Desolation lakes and discovered no contamination,” Lane said. “There were more problems from beaver and marmot than from people.”

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?

Daily videos

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