Take a hike: The continuing evolution of the Tahoe Rim Trail
Lake Tahoe has become one of the most sought after places in the world to not only live at, but to explore. With rich history and immersion into the wilderness, backcountry trails in the Tahoe Basin give an up-close experience with nature like none other. Imagine a world where it was impossible to reach and explore hidden gems within the basin. Glenn Hampton thought about this potential future in 1981, and decided to get to work to create a way for anyone to hike or ride the entire circumference around Lake Tahoe.
STARTED AS AN IDEA
“Glen Hampton worked for the Forest Service and had a dream of a trail that circled Lake Tahoe,” said the Tahoe Rim Trail’s Developmental Director Veronica Long. “It was established back in the early eighties and construction started in the mid-eighties after they got permitting and approval.” Although the trail was originally proposed to be 150 miles, the trail eventually grew larger and is now a 200 mile-long trail system.
“The process took a lot longer than they thought to complete the trail. I think they were envisioning it was only going to take a few years, but it ended up taking 20 years to complete the trails,” said Long. “The final loop wasn’t completed until 2001.”
The trail, which would take a total of 10 to 12 days to hike in total, is broken up into nine major segments. The first segment begins in Tahoe City and spans to Brockway Summit, totalling 20.2 miles. The segment features beautiful views of Watson Lake, along with the Truckee River Canyon. The segments are divided where the highways cross through the trailheads. This allows hikers to trek an individual trail in a day, or spend multiple days completing the entire loop. Trails within the TRT include Brockway Summit to Mt. Rose and Tahoe Meadows, which is also 20.2 miles long, and brings explorers to the highest point on the trail at Relay Peak. From there, the next segment spans to Spooner Summit, with views of Christopher Loop and Marlette Lake View available to all.
From Spooner Summit to the Kingsbury South Connector, hikers can enjoy 19 miles of ancient fir trees and panoramic views of both the Tahoe Basin and Carson Valley. From the South Connector to Big Meadow, there is a pass under the highest peak in the Lake Tahoe Basin, while also giving campers the opportunity to visit and even camp out at Star Lake. From Big Meadow to Echo Lakes, the trail merges into the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, and for 18.3 miles, there’s opportunity to enjoy alpine lakes and wildflower displays, before reaching the longest segment of the trail: Echo Lakes to Barker Pass.
The 32.5 miles of the segment passes several more alpine lakes, including Lake Aloha, before bringing hikers back to the first segment in Tahoe City. In the last segment of the trail, an abundance of wildlife can be seen, along with creeks and wildflowers that eventually lead into Page Meadows.
“By providing a path around the trail, we have given people a place they can experience nature and everyone can be on the same path and use that same sacrifice to the wilderness,” said Long. “By consolidating people on the one trail, they’re not going out exploring everywhere and trampling everything. They’re all on the same path.”
COMMUNITY OF VOLUNTEERS
The trail was initially pitched in 1981 by Hampton before the Tahoe Rim Trail Fund was formed in 1982 and granted nonprofit status. Construction initially began in 1984 at Luther Pass.
The first trailhead was completed in 1990 at Big Meadow in California and then 17 years later, the entire loop was completed at Stateline on the north shore. The work was done by volunteers, amounting to over 200,000 hours dedicated by members of the community. There’s plenty that goes into planning for a trail including what the optimal route for the paths would be, where water is going to be traveling, erosion, as well as the type of users that will be on the trail. Long explained that although there is a small team at the top of the association to organize, volunteer work on the trail is what truly allows it to keep functioning.
“We organize volunteers to build and maintain everything,” said Long. “Building reroutes and new trails is a very important part of what we do. But with 200 miles of trail, you have to put a lot of focus on the maintenance as well. There’s a lot of big pieces of what we do that people don’t necessarily think about; just because the trail is there doesn’t mean it’s good to go forever.”
Volunteers spend countless hours on the trail, clearing brush, rebuilding drainage areas, removing logs and other obstructions in the way of the path or any rebuilding, and taking care of erosion that might have happened due to continued use of the trail.
Long noted that the work of the volunteers and the association is what allows locals and visitors alike to continue recreating safely in Tahoe.
“Trails really do protect the wilderness and let people engage with it in a way that will protect the forest for years to come. People don’t want to protect something that they’ve never experienced,” said Long. “By giving people an opportunity to go out into the wilderness and fall in love with it, then hopefully they will think about that in the future and protect nature in general.”
MORE VISITORS HIT THE TRAIL
Lake Tahoe has had an influx of visitors since the pandemic started in 2020. This heavily impacted the dynamic of hiking and outdoor recreation.
“More people were hitting the trail who had never hiked before,” said Long. “We found a lot more heavy use impacts from all of those people. We realized we need to educate the public on the proper way to sustainably recreate on the trail.”
A program called Taskforce Trailhead was launched in 2021 to address the concerns of sustainability. Volunteers were trained to go to trailheads on busy weekends and educate people about the “Leave No Trace” slogan in the basin. The volunteers are equipped with wilderness ethics which include reminding visitors to pick up their trash, carry enough water, and the prohibition of campfires in the basin.
“Tahoe is booming and we are seeing millions of visitors each year. The visitors are not going away,” said Long. “They’re coming more and more, and our biggest challenge is to create an infrastructure that can handle all of those people and this vision of how that can scale up. Focusing on improving the trail, maintaining quality and maintenance, and investing in infrastructure to accommodate more people will help.”
TAHOE RIM TRAIL ASSOCIATION
Currently, the TRTA offers different guided hikes to visitors and locals, with a variety of difficulty levels. There are public themed tours with guides that offer educational components that are typically one day, with around ten people per group. The Taste of Tahoe program separates the segments of the trail into 11 different weeks. By the end of the summer, the same group will have completed the entire trail together. For those who’d like to complete the trail in one trip, there are guided two week programs that offer the experience of backpacking with guides.
“We realized that not everyone can commit to two weeks out on the trail to complete the whole thing in one go so we offered small four to five day backpacking trips to do a large segment,” said Long. “We’re offering different segments throughout the summer to cover the whole Rim Trail in smaller bites.”
Andrew Santos, a local who has been riding the trails for over ten years, has done most of the segments himself, but has never done a continuous loop, although it’s definitely a part of his plan.
“I’m looking forward to doing a loop hike in the next year or two,” said Santos. “I’m hoping it will take around ten days to complete.” Santos has plenty of memories he’s made on the trail, including making the small trek from his house to the Brockway Summit, or catching his favorite view of Marlette Lake at Snow Valley Peak. But any experienced traveler is prepared.
“I try to be fairly minimalist whether hiking or on my bike,” said Santos. “But my top essentials would be water, a small amount of food, tools for my bike, and quality gear and clothing. The right gear is important; there’s nothing worse than taking away from the beautiful experience of the Tahoe Rim Trail because of a blister or broken bike.”
Although some trips have been harder than others, Santos is confident that anyone could hike the trail segments.
“The Rim Trail is an easy hike for anyone to see Tahoe since the trail information and marking is thorough,” said Santos. “One of my favorite memories is my backpacking trip from Tahoe Meadows to Spooner Summit last year, when my girlfriend, parents, and I were all able to enjoy my favorite view together.”
TAHOE RIM TRAIL CHALLENGE
In 2013, the Tahoe Rim Trail Challenge kicked off. In the past, the objective of the challenge was a self-guided tour with information from the TRTA. This year, they will still offer the same information, including a full map with directions, where to park, which signs will be seen and so forth. But there will be a new component that will raise the stakes and the excitement. In a program called Raise the Rim, the challenge will be upgraded with a fundraising element that would support the maintenance of the entire trail. Those who participate can set a goal for the summer of how much they’d like to hike, bike, or ride the trail, and people in their network will be able to sponsor them.
“We’re encouraging people to go out, compete against one another, and hike the miles and raise money that would all go back to support the Tahoe Rim Trail itself,” said Long.
With so many new additions added to the Tahoe Rim Trail every year, it’s safe to say that it will never truly be complete; rather, an evolving trail for an evolving place. With shoulder seasons drifting away, the trails are seeing more traffic than ever, but with the correct care and awareness, it can continue to be a lasting landmark in Lake Tahoe. The theory of trails is that through their creation, there is a consolidation of human impact on the wilderness.
“We’re seeing more visitors every year, and those people want the wilderness experience,” said Long. “They want to experience nature and the Tahoe Rim Trail provides them a path to do that.”
Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2022 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine.
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