Hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail

Loving it without wrecking it

The 170-mile-long Tahoe Rim Trail is the heart of Lake Tahoe’s extensive trail system. It travels through two states, and three wilderness areas, and takes you through a wide variety of ecosystems. There are deep forests of red fir covered in wolf lichen, smooth granite peaks rising above shimmering lakes, and soft volcanic rock covered with mules ears. And there is mile upon mile of spectacular views of Lake Tahoe from atop the ridges that give the trail its name. It is a beautiful place, and in recent years, it has also become a very popular place. 

Hiking the trail in sections, I completed the Tahoe Rim Trail in 1999. The trail would not be fully completed until two years later. On the Tahoe Meadows to Brockway Summit section, we followed the stakes that gave a general sense of where the trail would eventually be located west of Relay Peak. At one point we very slowly made our way across a precarious section of loose rocks and talus atop Rose Knob Peak, taking perhaps an hour to get across the rock fields. A year later it took ten minutes to skip across the newly created trail miraculously created by my heroes the trail builders.  

It was not uncommon in those early days to see almost no one on the trail. Eight years later when I did my first thru-hike of the TRT it was a little busier, but I still camped at the Marlette Peak Campground on a weekend in July and had the remote trailside campground to myself. Eleven years after that we stayed at that same campground on a weekday in September, and the place was nearly full. In other words, there are a lot more people on the trail, both out for short hikes from the eight trailheads, or doing the entire trail. And not all of those folks understand how to use a trail without wrecking the experience for those who follow. 

Tahoe Rim Trail – image: courtesy of Tim Hauserman

The TRT has been a part of my life since before it was finished, and in fact it was writing the first guidebook to the trail in 2002, that began my career as a writer (So you can blame the TRT for that). I love this trail, and while it is tough seeing how much use it is exposed to these days, it is still an amazing place that deserves our protection. I thought I’d pass on some tips on how to enjoy this trail, while leaving it “as good as you found it.” Or perhaps even better.  As the trail has become busier, we all need to do our part not only to protect the trail but to protect the trail user experience, which hopefully can still remain a trip through wilderness as opposed to a walk in a city park. 

First, while the TRT is a non-motorized, multi-use trail, and where allowed, mountain biking is a popular use of the trail, I’m going to focus on hiking this time. But a good portion of the tips I’m passing on might also be useful for mountain bikers and equestrians. 

Trail Etiquette 

The first step before taking your first step on the TRT is to follow the Leave No Trace Principle #1. Plan ahead and prepare. 

Check the weather before you go and then bring the appropriate layers for those weather conditions. Usually layers mean synthetic or wool so you can add and subtract for those cold mornings and warm afternoons. 

Make sure you have comfortable hiking shoes. 

Hiking poles are also a nice addition, because they help with balance and going uphill. 

Appreciate the difficulty of your hike: How far? How much elevation gain? And do you have a realistic understanding of your own abilities? If the years have flown by and you have a tarnished AARP card, you might not be able to hike as far as you could 30 years ago. Hey, I get it. I’m in the same boat. 

Bring enough food and water for your hike. For most folks, that means at least 2 liters if you are hiking for more than a half day. I can’t count the number of times I’ve run into very thirsty looking hikers five miles from a trailhead carrying a small plastic nearly empty bottle of water. 

Bring a first aid kit and know how to use it. There are some great small first aid kits designed for wilderness travel. 

On the Trail

Never ever leave anything on the trails: Litter, food, and worst of all toilet paper flags. Bring them out. And wait, worse than toilet paper flags are your dog’s poop bags. There are no poop fairies. No one wants your dog poop, well except you, because once you take a dog onto the trail their poop becomes your responsibility. To lighten the stench, bring along a bag with baking soda in it or have your dog carry a pack to put it in.  

Don’t shortcut the trails. It causes erosion and if you do it, the next guy thinks it’s ok. 

Share the trails with fellow users. Also known as being nice. Remember a rule of trail usage that I told my kids over and over again when I was trying to get them moving was:  Lead, follow or get out of the way. You just need to be doing one of those three. 

Many folks head into the woods to enjoy the peace and quiet of the wilderness. (That would be me!) When the trails get busy, they also get noisier. Sound travels in the quiet woods and especially across water, if you keep the noise down, you and everyone else within a mile of you, can appreciate a much better sound: Birds and wind.   

Hiking Alone: When folks pass out advice for how to be safe while hiking, a frequently heard refrain is to not hike alone. While I tend to have more than my share of fear of bad stuff happening, I’ve always thought there was a lot to be said for hiking alone. We tend to experience nature differently and more intensely when we are not walking along talking to someone. The sights and sounds are more intense and we get to truly appreciate nature in all it’s glory.  So I won’t tell you not to go it alone. That would be a bit hypocritical since I’ve done it so much I wrote a book about it that is coming out in August, “Going it Alone: Ramblings and reflections from the trail.” 

Tahoe Rim Trail – image: courtesy of Tim Hauserman

If you are hiking alone, however, you need to take a few extra steps to stay safe: 

Tell a trustworthy person where you will be going and when you will be back (Then don’t forget to let them know you have returned when you get back). Don’t forget the first aid kit. Bring a cell phone, it might not work, but on most sections of the TRT you can at least get a text out. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, be careful out there. Hiking alone is not the time to venture off trail somewhere you have never been, or doing something that at the time appears daring, but to the rescuers just looks stupid. 

Where to hike on the TRT

If you want to escape the crowds on the Tahoe Rim Trail you need to hike early in the morning, off-season, and weekdays. The trail will always be busiest where the views are the best and the access to the trail is easiest. For example, Tahoe Meadows and Mt. Rose Trailheads are the closest TRT trailheads to Reno. Tahoe Meadows takes you to Chickadee Ridge in just about two miles on a gentle grade to a spectacular lakeview. The TRT Mt. Rose trail takes you in about 2.5 miles of easy hiking to a waterfall…guess what, these trails are going to be busy. They are still a nice place to go, but don’t expect to be alone. 

One of the lessons I have learned in the last few years is that If you want to avoid the crowds you have to go where it isn’t quite as “pretty” as the marquee places like Emerald Bay. You have to go to the less traveled places, which means skipping mountain lakes, be willing to hike further and follow the mantra stated above (weekdays/off-season/early in the day). 

The good news is that there are lots of great sections of the TRT that are not Instagram stars like Emerald Bay. Find your piece of quiet TRT nirvana in a more remote spot off the beaten path. Then when you find these spots, keep them to yourselves, and let Instagram focus on celebrities instead. 

Tim Hauserman is a nearly life-long resident of North Lake Tahoe. He wrote the official guide to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the recently published 4th edition. He also wrote Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children and writes frequently on a variety of topics. In the winter, he runs the Strider Glider after-school program at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area. Support Tim’s work in the Ally.

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