One of my goals for the summer was to hike or fastpack the Tahoe Rim Trail. After looking at my calendar, I found a 7-day window in mid-August, between my Lake Aloha camping trip and my NOLS Wilderness Medicine course (WUMP). I figured I could average about 30-miles a day which would schedule me to complete the 170-mile trail in about 5.5 to 6 days. That would be perfect, I thought, because it would give me 1 day to drive home and prepare to begin my NOLS course in San Francisco. The reality of the trail would not be so perfect.
Admittedly, I did little research on the Tahoe Rim Trail, weather, hiking conditions, etc, before starting. I was confident in my fitness level, not too concerned about bad weather in August, and I imagined my days full of beautiful alpine trails and cold alpine lakes. I did see on my map that there were a few sections with limited water, so I was prepared to carry up to 3 liters if needed. I was excited about the physical and mental challenge of this big adventure and wanted to complete the loop as fast as possible.
If you don’t care about the dirty details of the trip, but want to find out the lessons learned, scroll way down to the bottom of the post. Enjoy!
Day 1: Tahoe City to Mt Baldy, 27.6 miles
Monday, August 12th was my first day on the trail. I left the trailhead in Tahoe City at about 8:00 am and started hiking clockwise around the Lake Tahoe. By 10:00 am it was hot. My phone began buzzing with excessive heat warning notifications from The National Weather Service. The warnings indicated that the interior Northern California area was expecting mid-to-high triple-digit temperatures for the rest of the week. I knew I wouldn’t be feeling triple-digit temperatures at this altitude, near Lake Tahoe, but I was feeling the heat and it was still concerning.
I was not really impressed by the first section of the trail. It was steep, through thick forests with little to no views, and no water for the first 15 miles. As I hiked onward and upward, many mountain bikers cruised past, looking like they were having a lot more fun.
I was out of water by the time I reached Watson Lake and excited to take a break to refill my water bottles, but the stagnant, warm, brown water did not provide the psychological relief I wanted. I filtered three liters of water, dropped in extra iodine tablets just in case, and continued on my way.
The rest of the afternoon was spent hiking through more dense forest, large logging operations, and thick swarms of mosquitos. I had almost no appetite all day and was beginning to have a hard time keeping water down. I decided to take a break around 5:00 pm to cook a backpacking dinner and try to replenish my body. After waiting the 30 minutes or so for the food to rehydrate, I attempted eating and could only manage about 4 bites. I decided to pack it up and try eating again when I settled down for the night.
I continued on up the trail for a few more miles until I found a nice little exposed section on a ridgeline near Mt Baldy. I knew it would be dark soon and wanted to give myself time to patch up my blisters, eat my dinner, and hang my backpack in a tree to keep it away from the bears. My feet were in surprisingly bad shape. They didn’t feel bad while hiking, but I had large blisters on both heels, the balls of both feet, and the entire small toe on my left foot. I made sure to patch them up with KT Tape and Moleskin. I forced myself to gag down the rest of my dinner. I had strategically packed a large ziploc bag with the food and snacks for each day so I would be able to eat enough food each day. By the time I was packing up my gear for the night, I noticed that I had hardly touched my snacks for the day. The sugary GUs and Shot Blocks had zero appeal.
Since I was “Cowboy Camping” out under the stars this trip to save weight, I was exposed to the mosquitos. They were constantly swarming over the opening in my sleeping bag, waiting to latch onto my face or any other exposed patch of skin. This forced me to zip my bag up all the way and sleep in a beanie with a Buff pulled over my face. It was a warm night with no wind, so I was uncomfortable and sweating for hours. These conditions were terrible for sleeping. I spent the next 6 hours awake, tossing and turning, and counting the minutes until I could get up and start walking again.
Day 2: Mt Baldy to Marlette Peak Campground, 28.8 miles
At 3:00 am I had had enough and got up and started prepping my gear for the day. I was relieved to have the first day under my belt and was looking forward to new and more scenic terrain. My goal was to hit the high point of the TRT, Relay Peak, at or a little after sunrise.
The first 2.5 hours of the day were spent hiking in the dark at a snail’s pace. My feet were throbbing with every step and I was stumbling around in a fatigue-induced stupor. Things improved as the sun began to peek over the eastern mountains and light up the wildflowers along this beautiful stretch of the trail.
I still hadn’t seen a fresh water source since Watson Lake, the day before, or about 17 miles back on the trail, so I took the detour off of the trail, down to Gray Lake, to top off the tank.
There was still a lot of snow covering the trail on the north slopes down to Gray Lake. The area had a very remote and eerily quiet feel to it. I noticed several of the trees around the lake had been used by bears to mark their scent. There were bite and claw marks in the bark. I also found some bear poop next to the trail. After refilling my water bottles, making myself some coffee (which I instantly threw up), and having a small snack for breakfast, I continued on the trail back up to the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Around 8:00 am I had to sit down and to some self-care. My feet were trashed and really slowing me down. I almost never get blisters, so this was a new problem for me. The heat, sweaty feet, and high mileage with a pack were all wreaking havoc. I had also still not really been able to eat more than 100 calories in my 5 hours of hiking that morning. During my stop, I bandaged up my feet again, washed my face, drank some water, and focused on eating some food. I threw up most of the water I drank and felt increasing nausea as I ate, but forced myself to rest and keep trying. Gradually, I was able to get some more calories down with a half-liter of water. Because the sun was now up high overhead, I packed up the camera and buckled down for another 10 hours of hiking.
The rest of the day passed like a blur. My feet felt slightly better, but the temperature only increased as the hours passed. As I entered the section of trails on the eastern side of Lake Tahoe, the trees thinned out, offering little respite from the sun. This whole area between Tahoe Meadows and Marlette Peak Campground was really beautiful and heavily trafficked by mountain bikers. Again, I found myself longing for a mountain bike.
Once again, I was forced to hike all afternoon without a source of water. I found a flat spot and set up camp around 6:30 pm, a little earlier than expected, but I was done. Hiking all day in the heat after a sleepless night and unable to hold down any food left me on empty, and in a negative headspace. I sent out a satellite text to Justine from my Garmin InReach Explorer, notifying her that I was stopping for the night. As I sat there in the dirt, I had zero interest in food even though I had eaten less than 500 calories all day. I was also feeling dehydrated and only had about 250 ml of water left to get me through the night. Despite being in the woods and having an incredible view of the lake at sunset, I was ready to quit. While assessing my day, I realized that the majority of it was hot and miserable. My feet hurt with every step and I felt like I was being cooked alive in the heat. I crawled in my bag with an empty spirit and fell asleep before 7:30 pm.
Day 3: Marlette Peak Campground to South Lake Tahoe, 30.0 miles
After waking up on day three at 5:00 am, I walked down to well at the campground to get some water. I disappointed to find a sign indicating that the well was out of water. Luckily, I had noticed a tiny trickle of snow runoff crossing the trail in the area and was able to sit there and slowly fill up my water bottles. As I sat there, another hiker arrived and began filling up her water bottles too. She lived in Reno and was taking two weeks off to hike a section of the TRT. While talking about blisters and the heat, she said, “I hear you get your hiking legs after day 3.” This sounded good and I got excited at the hope that things might improve after today. Anything to provide a little hope after the miserable day 2.
My feet were still hurting with every step, but the pain was manageable. The cool morning air was a relief and I enjoyed hiking along the bald peaks with incredible views of the lake and surrounding areas.
Again, around 9:00 am, the sun was high in the sky making for bad photos and the temperature was starting to climb. I packed up the camera and buckled down the goal of completing some fast miles today. Around 11:00 am I arrived at the Spooner Lake Trailhead. I grudgingly took the 2-mile roundtrip detour to Spooner Lake to refill my water. Water, or the lack of it, was a constant concern and source of stress on this trip.
While at Spooner Lake, I found a shady spot to rest, refilled my water bottles, cooked a dinner early and forced myself to eat half of it. Again, I threw up some water and felt sick after eating. I knew that I had a long climb ahead of me and would likely not find any water again until around 8:00 pm, so I forced myself to rest and rehydrate while I was at the lake.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur as I trudged up and over mountains in the sun. When I arrived at South Camp Peak, I was envious of the nice campsites I was passing up. It was too early in the afternoon to stop if I was going to complete my 30 miles for the day. I had to keep going, I kept telling myself. After studying the map, I concluded that I could push it to the Kingsbury Grade or a little further to the Edgewood Creek. It would be nice to finally be able to top off on water before falling asleep for the night. This was a trade-off: bad camping location for water and more miles instead of stopping early and enjoying a primo campsite. Must keep walking.
I approached South Lake Tahoe and the Kingsbury Grade around sunset and my mind ran wild with the possibility of catching a ride into the city for a night in a hotel. However, when I crossed the road I just kept walking. The voice in my head said that water is probably just around the corner and I can make it a few more miles.
I eventually found Edgewood Creek around 8:30 pm. It was dark and the hot air was filled with mosquitoes. There was also not good spot to sleep in the immediate area. I am usually a little particular about my bivy locations… I want to find a place where I don’t think animals or people will stumble through in the middle of the night. I also don’t like mosquitos and bugs, so try to move away from water and to more open, windy locations. I hiked up the trail about a mile before finding a suitable place. As I was rolling out my sleeping pad I noticed a scorpion on the ground near my feet. That was an unexpected surprise. Needless to say, I packed up and continued up the trail until I found another spot. This time the ground was covered in large black ants, but I figured I could deal with that. Once again, it was a warm night, but I was forced to zip up my sleeping bag completely and bundle up to protect myself from bug bites. I was really starting to regret not packing my backpacking tent.
Day 4: South Lake Tahoe to Big Meadow 26.8 miles
Another restless night and the knowledge of a long day with lots of climbing ahead forced me out of bed at 3:30 am. I wanted to gain as much elevation before lunch so I didn’t have to do it during the hottest time of the day. The National Weather Service excessive heat warning was still in effect and I had been feeling it.
Since I started hiking at 4:00 am, I was high up in the Heavenly Resort at sunrise. The views were amazing and I was starting to see more signs of water on the trail. Things seemed to be looking up! I was feeling like I had made it past the hump. More than halfway done and the best trails were ahead. Maybe the hiker wisdom is true… you get your legs after the third day.
After three days and nights in the heat and dirt without a good opportunity to wash off, I was really looking forward to a swim in Star Lake. I was not disappointed. I soaked, swam, and dried off in the sun for over an hour. This place was like heaven after the last three days on the trail. A part of me was really wishing I could relax here for the rest of the day and night, but the other part of me was reminding me that I had to cover another 20 miles before stopping for the night if I wanted to finish on schedule. The masochist in me won and I headed on up the trail in the afternoon heat.
As the hours ticked by, my left knee became increasingly sore. It reminded me of an overuse injury I had in the same knee several years ago that sidelined me from running for almost 6 months. I couldn’t stop thinking about how nice it was swimming in that lake. My mind kept trying to calculate the miles and hours it would take before reaching Lake Aloha in the Desolation Wilderness because I knew that would be my next spot to swim. After more map math I realized that I probably wouldn’t have more than an hour to spend at Lake Aloha because I would be arriving there mid-afternoon, about 48 hours from this point, and would have to keep hiking to another spot to keep my miles up. The thought of this really dragged me down. I had been hot and miserable all week, for over 100 miles, and now I was coming to the realization that I would have to forfeit my lake time to keep hiking… to meet an arbitrary and self-imposed deadline. I kept hiking. I kept ruminating.
By 5:00 pm that afternoon, I concluded that I needed to stop the madness. I was not having fun and there was really no point in pushing on. There was nothing to prove. There was no reason I had to finish this whole trail in 6 days, or ever. My knee was hurting and I have been chronically dehydrated for several days. Time to throw in the towel. I called Justine when I had cell service and told her I was going to be at Big Meadow by Luther Pass this evening and I would love a ride home. As soon as I hung up the phone I felt a huge sense of relief. It felt good to know that I could stop when I realized I wasn’t having fun, despite how strongly I wanted to complete the whole TRT in 6 days.
What I learned from 4 days and 115 miles on the Tahoe Rim Trail
- Through-hiking might not be my thing and that’s okay.
- Hiking 30 miles with a backpack is harder and takes a lot longer than covering that distance running. Don’t calculate a hiking schedule ahead of time based on running data.
- “Fast and light” is not always better.
- Bring more savory food and less sugary snacks on multi-day trips.
- There is nothing to prove. Don’t bring an ego to the trail, it will just make you miserable.
- Stop and smell the roses… or swim in the lakes. It’s not a race.
- Pick your campsites based on desire, not numbers (miles, hours, etc.).
- Recognize when it is time to stop. It is okay to leave some things unfinished.
- Bring a tent.
- Whether you recognize it or not, this is a process. There will be highs and lows, ebbs and flows. Try to recognize this fact and work with the flows of nature and your body, not against them.