There are few feelings that beat those that come at the end of a long backpacking trip when you get a chance to sit down, draw a deep breath, take off your boots and just enjoy the scenery.
That's how Patricia Lopez, 56, felt when she completed the 165-mile loop around Lake Tahoe in August along with the nine other Tahoe Rim Trail Association Thru-Hike participants.
"It was great. I was happy. I thought 'Thank God, I can sleep in a bed, I don't have to hike today,'" Lopez said.
The seasonal Tahoe City resident had hiked portions of the trail before the trip, but didn't have much experience on long backpacking expeditions. When she saw that TRTA offered a 15-day thru-hike that circled the whole lake, she decided to sign up.
TRTA, a nonprofit established in 1981 to plan, construct and maintain the Tahoe Rim Trail, started the annual thru-hikes 11 years ago. The trips continue not as a fundraiser but rather as a powerful way to connect basin residents and visitors with the natural beauty of the area, TRTA Director of Trail Use Jaime Souza said.
"It's one of the most unique programs we do. Not everyone will want to hike the whole trail in one shot, but for the ones that do it's a huge experience. It helps people see that they can achieve so much through hiking and backpacking," Souza said.
On Aug. 4, Lopez and her fellow hikers left the first trailhead around 11 a.m., the start of relatively short day as the group headed south toward Star Lake. Excited and enthusiastic, Lopez said the team burned up the miles. And as they did so, there was a collective realization of just how many feet of trail still lay ahead.
"After that first day, myself and everyone else realized that it was going to be a lot tougher than we all thought. We were all too enthusiastic and we started off too fast," Lopez said.
The 165-mile hike is not for the faint of heart. Hikers looking to complete the loop in 15 days will average about 11 miles of hiking a day. According to TRTA elevation profiles, there's more than 24,000 feet of climbing over the entire hike - almost 5,000 feet higher than Mount Kilimanjaro - and the highest point sits at 10,338 feet above sea level.
"It's hard. What we were realizing was that people weren't taking the hike seriously enough in terms of the physical challenge," Souza said.
Luckily for the hikers, the association provides ample support on the trips. TRTA guides, certified in CPR and wilderness first aid, lead the daily routes. They also act as coaches for the participants, helping them through the pre-hike training and preparation. TRTA provides breakfast and dinner each day, as well as free gear rental, wilderness permits, cooking fuel and a Rim Trail guide book.
And of course, there are the trail angels. The angels drive a TRTA trailer packed with fresh food, water and extra gear to various meeting points along the trail where hikers can resupply and load up on some needed calories.
"We can run errands for them too. Whatever they want, we're there to help them out and ease the trip," August trail angel Nancy Cline said.
Cline said she's brought anything from the traditional moleskin to a bottle of scotch up to the camps. An aptly named role, hikers are always overjoyed to see the angels, she said.
Cline and her husband, Jim, volunteered to help with the thru-hike because she said they wanted to give back to an association that devotes so many resources to maintaining the Rim Trail.
Volunteering is part of TRTA's legacy. Volunteers built long sections of the trail's backbone, finally completed in September 2001, and most of the thru-hike staff are unpaid.
Since 2001, more than 1,200 people have joined the exclusive TRTA 165-mile club. To join, a member must have traversed the entire loop either on foot, on horseback or on a bike. Some members might have done the whole route in one go, while others might have taken years to complete it.
On Aug. 18, Lopez and her fellow thru-hikers became 165-milers. Everyone who started the route ended the route, a first in TRTA Thru-Hike history. After more than two weeks on the trail, the hikers got a chance to take off their boots and enjoy the view.
"It was great. To me, it was a real accomplishment to get back out there and do a two-week backpacking trip. Getting out there everyday, I'd never done anything like that. It was kind of spiritual in that I saw that the active person I was before I married and had kids is still there. That girl is still in me," Lopez said.