The Tahoe Rim Trail is a ~170 mile loop trail around Lake Tahoe. I hiked the whole trail in eight full days in mid-June, 2021. Here’s the story.
Day One: South Lake Tahoe to Heavenly (12 miles / half-day)
I ❤️ Lake Tahoe.
I’ve lived here (specifically: South Lake Tahoe, California) more than anywhere else in my adult life, and I’ve already explored many sections of the Tahoe Rim Trail.
But now it was time to fulfill a long-held goal: to do the whole trail at once.
So I walked out the front door of my friend Lauren’s house and headed for the hills.
The first 6.5 miles of my hike weren’t technically on the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT)—they followed Cold Creek, a favorite running trail of mine. This brought me to the TRT at Monument Pass, where the thru-hike truly began.
Roughly one-third of the Tahoe Rim Trail is in Nevada; the rest is in California. My day started in California and ended in Nevada.
Hiking north, the trail offered sweeping views of Nevada’s Carson Valley.
I passed the backside of Heavenly Ski Resort.
Because this was a half-day that began at 12:30pm, I made it just 12 miles before calling it quits. I found a sweet little stealth campsite at one of the TRT “vista” detours.
Day Two: Heavenly to Spooner Pass (24 miles)
Typically I go backpacking in August and September. But this was an extraordinarily dry year, and I had free time in June, so June it was.
The cool thing about June is that the days are really long. I started hiking at 6:15am this morning; other mornings I began around 5:30am.
Long days are a mixed blessing, because I’m not very good at not walking when it’s still light out. Sun’s up, guns up… if guns = calves. (Okay, that’s a stretch.)
With long days I end up hiking long miles, even when I should be taking it easy. This habit leads to fun side-effects like crotch chafing, sore feet, and the occasional blister, all of which I enjoyed by the end of Day Two.
Today’s section followed high ridgelines with epic lake views.
At one overlook, I ran into fellow TRT hiker Emilie and her one-eyed dog, Addie. Emilie had previously contacted me online (through a bike touring website, no less) and asked me to help hold a resupply box for her in South Lake Tahoe, which I did.
Another hiker I met was an older woman named Pat who was doing short, slow days—as I zipped past she said Ahhhh-dios. That made me smile. As did this Forest Service sign:
I took a little siesta at Spooner Lake, which added another 2 miles to my day—but who’s counting? On the backside of the Spooner Lake Interpretative Loop, I spotted this commemorative plaque. My first thought was: How tragic, I’m sorry for your loss. My second thought: Really, did no one spell-check “to” versus “too” here?
That evening I shuffled a few more miles uphill from Spooner Summit and crashed on the side of the trail.
Day Three: Spooner to Mt. Rose Summit (21 miles)
This morning’s stretch was fun, because I previously did much of it during a 34-mile run in 2016, the longest of my life. Snow Valley Peak is an especially epic spot:
I met many other TRT thru-hikers today, including Vivian (a 22-year-old with hopes of doing the Pacific Crest Trail—she enjoyed hearing that I started and quit the PCT at age 22) and Ricky & Molly (whose names I remembered by virtue of their similarity to Rick & Morty).
Virtually every hiker was going in the opposite direction as me. For some reason, most TRT hikers go clockwise; I never figured out why.
Goats, these other hikers whispered to me. There are goats ahead of you. This got me excited. And then I saw the hoofprints. And then I saw them:
My feet were killing me today. I took my shoes off and soaked my poor soles multiple times.
The previous night was cold, and I’d opted to take my “light” (a.k.a. old AF) sleeping bag. Tonight I dreamed of wrapping myself in my ground sheet to stay warm—and that’s exactly what I did, and it worked.
Day Four: Mt. Rose Summit to Brockway Summit (22 miles)
The Tahoe Rim Trail is a multi-use trail: hikers, bikers, and horses. I never encountered a horse, but I did encounter many mountain bikers. And while they were all very nice and courteous, I must admit, I was quite happy on the few occasions when we hikers had the trail to ourselves.
Today’s hike was high-elevation and packed with epic views. I passed Relay Peak, the highest point on the TRT at 10,338′ (3151 meters).
After encountering a lovely little spring that didn’t appear on the official Tahoe Rim Trail Association water sources page, I left a note for fellow hikers that might help them avoid an unnecessary down-and-up detour to refill bottles on this dry stretch.
I savored the “million dollar mile” views on this stretch of the trail. Highly recommended.
But the true highlight of the day was a visit from a former student, Kate, who was part of a teen trip to Southeast Asia I ran in 2017. She brought me water, fresh fruit, and loads of enthusiasm. She’s a prolific traveler and adventurer herself (who’s seen far more of the world than I did at her age), and we had a fun time catching up.
My day ended a mile beyond Brockway Summit, where I was treated to a nice lakeview and my first mosquitos of the whole trip.
Day Five: Brockway to Tahoe City (18 miles)
Today was not a fun day. Today was all about getting there.
I hadn’t slept well (thanks, 🦟) and the trail was utterly uninspiring (if you need to skip one section, make it this one).
More than anything else, I was looking forward to taking my full day off (a.k.a. “zero day”) in Tahoe City, California: the one town the TRT passes through.
Tahoe City is expensive. So just like Emilie (the hiker with the one-eyed dog), I had previously reached out to a kind-looking stranger online and asked if I could crash at her place for two nights. Renée, it turned out, had also hiked the TRT last year, and said she would love to host me! And because she was in the process of moving, she actually had AN ENTIRE APARTMENT for me to stay in! 😍
So, after 18 uninspiring miles of hiking, the day turned out pretty wonderful after all. Renée and I got some food at a local pub, and I crashed at 9pm on a real mattress. Heavenly.
The next day, I didn’t do much: I drank coffee, went grocery shopping, organized my food resupply (which I previously sent ahead to Renée), bought a mosquito headnet, researched new shoes (why do all trail running shoes cost $130+ now?!), and ate pizza by the Truckee River.
Later I joined Renée for her community softball game.
After another blissful night’s sleep, I felt rejuvenated and ready to hit the trail again.
Day Six: Tahoe City to Phipps Creek (29 miles)
Yeah, 29 miles—it was a big day. And it was actually 30 miles if you count the mile I walked from Renée’s place to the trailhead.
The day started with a lovely walk out of Tahoe City, following a well-signed path across the Truckee River, Lake Tahoe’s only outlet.
The trail passed through an active logging site. Fortunately, it was a Saturday, and nothing was happening.
The first trick to having an Epic Hiking Day: get lots of rest the day before. ✅
The second trick to having an Epic Hiking Day: consume an entire burrito for breakfast. ✅ (Thanks for the suggestion, Renée—and thanks for the burrito, Renée’s friend!)
The burrito powered me up to Twin Peaks, where the Tahoe Rim Trail joins forces with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). For the next two days I would pass many, many PCT hikers: something that amazed me, considering that it was only mid-June, which meant that those hikers had already spent a full month hiking north through the Sierra Nevada mountains. A drought year, indeed!
South of Barker Pass, the trail stayed at a fairly level elevation, which helped me crank out the miles.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, the real trick to hiking a big day: TRAIL MAGIC 🧙🪄
“Trail magic” describes the kind acts that strangers often perform for long-distance hikers. Perhaps a former thru-hiker returns to a particularly hot and dry spot and leaves a few gallons of water. Perhaps a local resident offers to shuttle hikers from the trail to town. Or perhaps… you’re a Sacramento family that just loves hiking and camping, and you decide to set up shop next to the PCT/TRT for the night, and you offer passing hikers free soda, beer, and snacks.
This is what happened to me, and it made my day:
This kind family didn’t just give me an ice-cold Coca Cola: they also fed me chips, a fresh-baked cookie, and an entire bratwurst sandwich. SO GOOD. (Almost as good as day 13 of the Sierra High Route.)
A small crew of hikers were hanging out at this little oasis. One guy, a fellow TRT hiker, had previously completed the PCT and AT (Appalachian Trail) and commemorated them with matching calf tattoos.
After half an hour I realized that if I don’t leave, I may never—so I hit the trail again, fueled by sugar and sausage, and hiked another six miles, finally crossing the border into Desolation Wilderness.
I have a lot of experience with Desolation Wilderness because
- I worked many summers at Deer Crossing Camp, leading campers on backpacking trips into Desolation.
- When you live in South Lake Tahoe, Desolation is essentially your backyard: an easy place to do a quick trail run or overnight trip.
Tonight I stayed in a part of the wilderness I’d never visited before, which was fun. It was also meaningful because my final destination, Phipps Creek, was once a destination for me when I was a 15-year-old camper at Deer Crossing Camp.
Beds, burritos, bratwurst, and bygone memories: that’s how you get Blake to hike 30 miles in one day.
Day Seven: Phipps Creek to Echo Pass (24 miles)
The mosquitos woke me at 5am and I was moving at 5:30am. First stop: Fontanillis Lake, one of my favorite spots in all of Desolation Wilderness. I dropped my bag and hopped in with all my hiking clothes on, a much-needed rinse after yesterday’s long, dusty hike.
Next stop was Dicks Pass, where I stopped to chat with a PCT hiker. After a few minutes we discovered that we had a mutual friend in South Lake Tahoe! Small world.
On the way down from Dicks Pass I ran into Emilie and Vivian, the TRT hikers who I’d met on Day 2 and 3. Hiking the TRT counter-clockwise is fun because you can run into other (clockwise) hikers twice!
Passing Lake Aloha, the largest and most iconic lake in Desolation, I stopped to take a nap under a tiny tree.
Between Lake Aloha and Echo Lakes, I passed a group of three young guys with snowboards. I asked them what they were doing. They said they’d just climbed up the side of Pyramid Peak (the left-most peak in the above photo) to ride down one of the lingering snow patches and skim across a pond called The Fountain of Youth. “If you can do it then you know you’re still young!” one of them enthusiastically told me, aftering showing me a video to prove they actually did it.
I departed Desolation Wilderness at the far end of Echo Lakes, where I devoured a grapefruit, a bag of jalapeño chips, and an IPA from the Echo Lakes Chalet. I took advantage of the cell service to message a few friends, which just ended up making me feel lonely—so I pressed on a few more miles past Highway 50 / Echo Summit.
A nice thing about long-distance hiking is that no matter what you’re feeling or dealing with, the solution is almost always the same: keep walking.
Day Eight: Echo Pass to Star Lake (28 miles)
Home was close—I could feel it. So I pushed hard.
Another reason that I enjoy early-morning hiking: the temperatures are deliciously low. This motivates me to hike fast. Also: if you don’t stop moving, the mosquitos are less likely to land on you.
I reached the Big Meadow trailhead at 10:30am, having already put 13 miles underfoot.
Along the way I met Sam, another TRT hiker I’d first encountered on the other end of the lake. When she learned that I was living in the area, she said something that sounded like a foreign language:
Alibi has a cucumber gose.
She broke it down for me:
Alibi [a beer brewery in North Lake Tahoe] has a cucumber [🥒] gose [a type of salty beer I’d never heard of].
So she was just suggesting that I try a unique beer… but the words really did sound like an alien language when they came out of her mouth.
Pressing on, I climbed uphill on flat, sandy trails toward a familiar mountain range: the same one where I started my hike.
The wildflowers were going off: a perk of June hiking.
By the time I reached Armstrong Pass, I’d walked 23 miles, and my legs were yelling at me. But there was hours of daylight left, and only five miles to my hopeful destination—so I plugged in my earbuds, loaded up some podcasts, and kept going.
I ran into more TRT clockwise hikers from a week ago, and finally landed at beautiful Star Lake, where I washed my soot-black feet and set up my final camp.
Camped across from me was Al, a brand-new TRT hiker from Santa Cruz, who extolled the virtues of cold-soaked couscous: “you just soak it, then you’re cruising, and then you scarf it before you bonk.” His quintessentially bro lingo made me smile as I crawled into my sleeping bag.
Day Nine: Star Lake to South Lake Tahoe (10 miles / half-day)
Hiking my final four TRT miles in the early morning light, I savored the views. It’s really, really pretty up here.
And just like that—I was back where I started.
By 9:30am, I was back at my front door—soon to enjoy a hot shower, double espresso, six tacos, and the company of many friends.
Seven full days of hiking + two half-days = eight days around Lake Tahoe. (That includes the 13-mile roundtrip approach from town.)
Where did you get water?
Some parts of the trail had ample water (Desolation Wilderness) while others had long dry patches (the east side), so it was worth planning ahead. I used TRTA data to create my own Caltopo water map for the trail. (Red dots indicated official TRTA water sources, black dots indicate TRTA water sources that didn’t exist or I couldn’t find, and purple dots indicate sources that were not mentioned by the TRTA.)
What did you eat?
For “breakfast” and “lunch” (I almost never stopped for an official “meal”), I grazed on Kind Bars, fig bars, cheese, salami, and fun-sized Butterfinger and Baby Ruth bars.
For dinners I created Blake’s famous backcountry mac with fresh broccoli, Thai-flavored tuna packets, and nutritional yeast. (Yes, I ate this every night… because it’s perfect.)
What gear did you bring?
Note that I didn’t bring any rain protection or tent; if there was a freak rainstorm, I would have wrapped myself in my (waterproof) Tyvek ground sheet. I also acquired a mosquito headnet in Tahoe City, which kept the mosquitos off my face while I slept.
I never weighed my pack. I assume it wasn’t ultralight… but pretty light.
Note: As with all wilderness voyages, you’ve got to be careful. I chose my gear based on my many seasons of experience in Lake Tahoe + the Sierra Nevada in general. That being said, the Tahoe Rim Trail is pretty forgiving. There are lots of places to bail, and there’s quite a bit of cell phone coverage (I had a signal about half the time), so I felt like I could get away with bringing minimal gear.
Who maintains this incredible trail?
The fabulous TRTA—if you love this trail, throw them some $$! (I do.)
I have another question!
Sure thing—just get in touch. Happy trails!