In September 2017 my partner Willzer and I took a trip to Lake Tahoe. We spent 8 days and 7 nights section hiking approximately ¼ of the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT). We camped at 5 lakes, hiked through rain, hail, and thunderstorms, swam in ice cold waters, met a bear, and found our way home.
Tahoe City to Watson Lake
The first day of our trip we thought we were going to do it all. The day began with a breathtaking sunrise above Lake Tahoe, and we planned to hike all 165 miles in two weeks. However, we soon realized that because we were hiking later in the season and water sources were more spread out, this wasn’t a realistic goal for us. In all honesty, we were not physically prepared for the weight of 4 liters of water, 7 days of food, and the elevation gain and altitude that met us in Tahoe City.
The first day we set off for our 14 mile journey. We saw stunning views, trees striped with horizontal lime green moss, and enjoyed occasional goose berries. About 8 miles in, after hauling our robust packs, we became more acutely aware of our developing blisters, bruised joints, and old injuries. Thunderstorms along the ridgeline made us nervous and stung us with hail. Willzer learned on that hike how stubborn I can be if I put my mind to something, so finally after limping my last few miles I was more than relieved to find we had reached Watson Lake.
Our first camp site was gentle and bear lockers were provided. We soon learned that chipmunks were the real problem however, as they constantly attempted to lend a hand during meal time. It was hard to sleep with the full moon, but the lake was so serene at dawn. When we woke up we re-evaluated our plans, and decided it would be best if we continued our journey on Tahoe’s south side where more water was available. We asked another young couple at the campground where they were heading, and they kindly gave us a ride back to Tahoe City. We slept in a hotel bed that night, surrounded by our maps and notes, deciding our next trailhead.
Big Meadow Trailhead to Scotts Lake
The next morning we decided we were going to need a new Desolation Wilderness Permit for a much sooner time frame and drove down to the Ranger Station. The ranger told us that the soonest one would be available Monday (it was Friday). Then just as the ranger was inputting my credit card information, the power went out. There was nothing she could do so she wrote over our previously acquired permit (waiving the fee we would have to pay a second time as there was no way she could take my credit card), and extended the days so that we could head into desolation sooner than planned! It was a split second moment of trail magic and kindness, she told us to have fun and we were so grateful! We still had an extra day to work with so that we entered Desolation Wilderness at the correct time, so we decided to visit Scotts Lake first.
We parked at the trailhead and hiked 3.1 miles to Scotts Lake. We set our hammocks on the shore, sunbathed naked and made shiro-hummus wraps with sun-dried tomatoes and trail sprouts. We listened to thunder roll in the distance, saw a rainbow, and built a campfire.
Scotts Lake to Big Meadow Trailhead to Dardanelles Lake
After waking up to an intensely colored sunrise we hiked 3.1 miles back to the car and proceeded to load up on 6 days worth of food. We hiked back up the trail to the fork, and set off for Dardanelles Lake. Already I began to notice a difference as we climbed; my breathing was better and my pace faster. We collected water in streams, walked through beautiful meadows and after 7 miles that day, arrived at the lake. The first thing we saw was a huge granite mountain that jutted out to the west, the lake itself was crisp and framed by a peninsula of flat golden stone and gnarly dwarfed trees. We set our camp right on the bank of the lake, claiming our own personal boulder on the water, and we rested in our hammocks as we watched lightening strike snowy mountains in the distance.
Dardanelles Lake to Showers Lake
We stayed at Dardanelles till around noon, taking in the morning air, enjoying ourselves, and being adored by butterflies . Once we broke down camp we headed to Round Lake, the more popular turquoise cousin of Dardanelles. During our hike the rest of the day we enjoyed wildflowers and eventually found ourselves connecting the TRT with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The PCT was beautiful yet much more popular. We rested at Truckee River for a while as we purified our drinking water. Then finally after a long climb at 8,700 feet we arrived at Showers Lake. Immediately I jumped in the icy water and observed the snowy ridgelines framing the lake, a peaceful end to a 6.3 mile day.
Showers Lake to Benwood Meadows
We left Showers Lake early while the water still resembled the glass on a mirror. We spent the morning hiking up wildflower covered hillsides and collecting snow runoff. Water straight from the snowmelt tasted better than any of the alpine lakes or streams along the trail. We were hiking at about 9,000 feet when we spotted two marmots sunning themselves on the rocks, such fat and patient creatures! At lunch we rested on a granite cliffside overlooking Lake Tahoe and after a 6.4 mile day we arrived at our camp, which had an amazing view of Lake Tahoe. Looking out from the cliff we were able to see all the city lights as well as the boats on the water. We witnessed two big thunderstorms that evening that were very startling, yet despite the weather, we tried our best to get some sleep.
Benwood Meadows to Lake Aloha
The next morning we collected water and hiked to Echo Lake. On the way we had to take off our shoes and cross a river about 9 feet wide. Echo Lake was a beautiful emerald color where it was shallow and had so many quaint little cabins along the shoreline that could only be stocked by boat. We stopped for lunch at the top of Upper Echo Lake and were forced to finish our food under a tree to avoid being pelted by hail, that’s when the weather began to turn sour. The next three hours of our journey became the most brutal. Lightning drew closer as we began to reach Echo Summit. With only a few seconds of delay, thunder hit our ears like a gunshot. At the top, everything seemed to be covered in snow, but it was only a thick layer of hail. After quickening our pace in between trees and strikes of lightning, at the summit we found ourselves drenched, our shoes full of water, our hands and feet numb, and the temperature continuing to drop.
We arrived at camp shivering and knew we had to work quickly. Without much room for talk we managed to set up our rain fly, a single hammock, and an underquilt. We stripped to nothing and huddled for warmth, the hail continuing to pelt our little shelter. We ate trail mix to bring our blood sugar back up, I took off my bandages and we brought warmth back into fingers and toes. We then found our base layers and sleeping bags and spent the next few hours regaining warmth until supper. After the fact, we both agreed that was the closest either of us had come to risking hypothermia, fortunately we knew what to do and acted quickly, but had anything gone wrong we realized we would have been flirting with a bad situation. That evening we added a second rainfly to deflect rain coming in from the side, and an extra underquilt for added warmth. Despite these modifications, we decided to stay in the one hammock as the temperatures were still critically low.
9 miles in the pouring rain and hail, while the lightning constantly fueled our adrenaline was enough to wear us out, but that evening the sunset brought us back to life. I noticed myself in an absolute state of tranquility as I sat on a rock and watched the sun’s glare sink behind the mountain. Instantly all of the salt and pepper within the granite became the focus of my vision and I was able to breath in the day and accept all that came with it. Everything in that moment seemed so calm, so surreal, yet at the same time, fiercely beautiful.
We took a zero day-no hiking, just enjoying the sun’s warmth and the beautiful scenery. We laid every article of day clothing, both of our packs, all of our rain gear, and especially our shoes out on warm rocks and let them dry before the 12pm thunder and hail storm. The morning was so tranquil, and it was so nice to feel dry packs on our shoulders dry socks on our feet, and fall asleep to the lull of the rain.
Lake Aloha to Fallen Leaf Lake
Our last day we woke up early, packed our gear and were ready to head out. The morning greeted us with clear skies and sunshine, our first day without a storm. We hiked past Heather Lake, Susie Lake, and collected water in streams. We stepped in between flooded trails and down many granite steps. We even saw a patch of snow that I couldn’t resist taking a bite of. Then on our way to Glen Alpine Springs we saw a black bear cross our path about 30 feet ahead. He stopped and looked at us, we made some noise and after a moment he continued on his way. I held my breath. It was incredible to see the bear so close, and for us each to have a moment to observe each other. 8 miles later we arrived at Fallen Leaf Lake. Kombucha in hand we waited for our ride both feeling content with the journey now behind us.
In total we hiked approximately 54.1 miles, 41.6 of those on the official TRT. Once the snow melts next year I hope to come back and do more sections of this trail. I realize now that I didn’t know what to expect when I first came out here, yet I was thankful for the research I had done and the Wilderness First Aid course I had completed. It’s truly hard to anticipate something so simultaneously rugged, beautiful, and raw, but at the same time, the urge to be present in those elements is essentially the reason you step onto the trail.