04 Jun Southwest Spirit: Take A Hike
Get away from your frazzles day-to-day on the Tahoe Rim Trail, where 20 years of backcountry labor have created wilds that rival Yosemite .
By Elaine Glusac
From my high picnic post on the Tahoe Rim Trail, wake crescents nick Lake Tahoe ‘s sky-mirror surface. An eagle cries throughout our lunch, contrapuntal to a speedboat’s distant whine. For the afternoon, Tahoe’s famed kitschy casinos, pine-log motels, and funky diners disappear in the wilderness panorama like dots of pigment converging in a pointillist painting from 20 paces. Or, in this case, 2,000 paces, the distance between the giant blue dot below and the measure of mighty Tahoe, mountain frame and all.
Thanks to the soon-to-be-completed Tahoe Rim Trail, a 150-mile path that rings the lake at the surrounding Sierra peaks on the California-Nevada border, those of unmotorized means gain the God’s-eye view of Tahoe from points north, south, east, and west. Skirting snow-packed summits and desertlike gorges, bridging blooming mountain meadows and mossy pine forests, the circle girding North America’s largest Alpine lake takes travelers into backcountry wilds that rival Yosemite to the south. I’m surveying Tahoe in human steps, a striding yardstick against a mighty lake that somehow demands I pace it out to appreciate it. But the trail’s only there after 20 years of hard-earned and soon-to-end volunteer sweat.
Between the trail on paper and the trail on Earth stood ranchers, logging interests, Native-American claims, sensitive plants, and even owls. Threading the path through six counties, three national forests, and two states proved a bureaucratic challenge. Meanwhile, infighting embroiled user groups, pitting hikers against horsemen (hikers hate poop), horsemen against mountain bikers (bikers scare horses), and hikers versus bikers (see “poop” prior). Given the obstacles, 20 years to construct the trail seems a sprint. But done it will be, come September.
“I became a grandmother in the [trail-building] process,” says Tahoe Rim Trail executive director Lynda McDowell, taking her own personal measure of the project her non-profit group oversees. “I’d like to, please, finish the task before I’m dead.”
McDowell and associate Shannon Raborn along with seasonal staffers have coordinated more than 10,000 volunteers and meted out the annual budget of $147,000 to buy tools, stage fund-raisers, transport laborers, and generally push for trail progress.
But now volunteers are completing the last six miles of trail, a day hike for some, sure, but only after workers have cleared the boulders , uprooted the trees, and fortified erosion zones, all by hand in an eco-sensitive area that bans power tools. Crews manning shovels, pickaxes, hoes, rock bars, and loppers work seven days a week toward the finish-line celebration September 22. “We’re like horses to the barn,” laughs McDowell. “We can smell the hay.”
Cheating our way into the backcountry, my husband Dave, our son Seth, and I bounce along FS 051 in our trusty-so-far rental Jeep headed for a shortcut to Armstrong Pass and then a march toward the 10,881-foot Freel Peak , southeast of the lake. From the official trail head, Freel, 12 miles on, exceeds most day-hikers’ limits. Thus the shortcut, which puts us on a mountain ridge with tumbledown boulders anchoring grassy slopes below. Except for marmots sunning themselves on the rocks, we are utterly, eerily, and blissfully alone for the five hours we spend here. And, of course, there’s no one to hail our return to the phony trail head.
Placing people, cheaters welcome, in the middle of nowhere is the whole idea behind the trail. Back in 1981 — when Forest Service ranger Glenn Hampton hatched the plan to ring the lake with one enormous, peak-top trail — Desolation Wilderness Area, southwest of Lake Tahoe , drew the majority of users while the balance of public lands surrounding the lake remained largely untrammeled. The new trail aimed to ease overflow.
“People were loving Desolation to death,” explains McDowell. “Tahoe Rim Trail created another place to move them. Most of the wilderness was never seen, yet it was so diversified.”
Construction began in 1984, joining 48 miles of existing route, mostly along the Pacific Crest Trail west of Tahoe. Funds raised via grants, donations, and mile adoptions (at $5,000 each) helped the TRT buy back land owned by loggers. Planner jogged routes to avoid grazing cattle that ranchers feared would tempt poaching hikers. (“How a hiker could drag a cow off a mountain, I have no idea,” says McDowell.) But then the real trouble ¯ securing environmental approval ¯ began.
Take Mount Rose, the last stretch currently under construction. Washoe Indians objected to hikers traveling through sites they consider sacred in the designated Wilderness Area. The forestry folks fretted about sensitive plants. Then one of those folks spotted a spotted owl, an endangered species that immediately halted trail progress while rangers studied the rare breed.
“A Forest Service specialist had to hoot for owls at night two times a year for three years to learn about their activity,” says McDowell. “We were almost afraid to hear an area was an animal habitat because that automatically put us back three years.”
Negotiating to reroute the path alongside a meadow bearing Washoe remains and determining that owls and plants and man could cohabit the wilderness took a full 10 years to green light. But if patience is a virtue McDowell found tried by nature, diplomacy was a man-made tool forged in the bike wars.
In the trail’s infancy, only fringe, fat-wheel inventors, and sprocket nerds cycled off-road. But when mountain biking went mainstream, off-roaders pressured the TRT to open to bikes. The not-for-profit group, hungry for dues-paying members, had already lost a one-third contingent when horses were permitted on the trail. Now hikers and horse people balked at bikers, renown for ripping down trails with sneers and swipes for anything in their way. Even if the opposing interests could learn to get along, one bike wheel veering off-path to avoid a rock could cause erosion, the greatest danger of the trail to its environment. A battle and eventual arbitration ensued.
Affable bike-shop owner Gary Bell and his wife, Becky, look tremendously chipper for having biked 45 miles of the trail the day before we meet at Dixon ‘s, a South Shore locals’ beer joint. By contrast, I’m whipped after walking seven miles of it. The mellow Bell helped make the bikers’ case in the trail arbitration.
“Generally bikes and people coexist peacefully, but we were paying for the one bad apple who blows you away and leaves you in the dust,” says Bell , whose team won their case. “The trail was originally built before the age of mountain bikes, but now we’re the biggest users.”
In the aftermath, tempers cooled appreciably, and the youthful mountain-bike community contributed fresh blood to the trail-building crews, many of which rebuilt existing paths to fortify potential erosion areas. “There’s a few irritated older people who can’t stand change, but it’s less than one percent, not very significant,” says 76-year-old hiker and trail volunteer John Daegling. “It’s an outstanding success as far as multiple use.”
We climb up a fire-ranger tower on Mardis Peak near Mount Rose to spot the TRT crew. We know the crew and Daegling are out there; we’ve passed their van on a Forest Service road nearby. I later learn the work site is a good hour’s hike into the woods from here, already five miles from the trail head. But we’re riveted by the panorama, the best on the trail, exposing every glorious peak we’ve visited from Freel on the south to Twin Peaks on the west. Tahoe shimmers, abstractly patterned by wind currents. It’s a view to fall in love with.
Ask Daegling. The retired teacher, cross-country ski racer, and naturalist instructor puts in more than 100 hours building the trail per season for the past 12 years. This summer he plans to take a pack animal and hike the entire trail in one two-week journey. Did I mention he’s 76?
“You get inspired out there,” says Daegling, chuckling. “Of course, sometimes you fall asleep at the dinner table when you’re done.”
For thousands of volunteers, like Daegling, carving trails through the woods is a passion — and a cause. “People come here and bring the city with them,” he says. “They stay in South Lake Tahoe and Stateline and never get out of the city and see the wilderness. They fail to see the beauty, the peace and quiet, and inspiration all around them. We want people to see Tahoe as they would a national park. It’s beautiful enough for it, but logging destined it otherwise.”
Tahoe’s environmental renown and the pristine condition of the trail concur with him. In a week of hiking, I pick up only one piece of trash, a tissue. The only major trail mess belonged to a bear that raided a nearby dumpster leaving 10 trash-bag loads for the clean-up crew.
I ask Daegling how he’ll feel once the trail is finished this fall. “A little at a loss,” he states thoughtfully. “One of the great values is in the process of building it.”
The journey to Aloha Lake along the TRT begins with a water taxi down Lower and Upper Echo Lakes , where the loose-granite trail then climbs about 1,000 arid and unshaded feet before descending to Aloha. Stark and stunning, the Alpine pool reminds me of the moon ¯ if it were sunny there, ringed by snowy peaks, and had a few trees. A local Boy Scout troop returning from a fishing outing on nearby Tamarack Lake behave like model scouts when they shove over to make room for a dehydrated hiker on our return taxi ride. We all pass her our water bottles, the bonding of the newly exhilarated to revive our ailing passenger and to toast our high-country high.
Tahoe-area residents, Boy Scouts included, largely support the TRT. Still, many have little explored it. Only 17 people have joined the organization’s elite 150 Mile Club, certifying they covered the entire trail on foot, horse, or bike.
“You have to understand,” one local confided over a beer at, again, Dixon ‘s, “it’s just another trail. It’s a great trail, sure, but there’s a million great trails around here.”
Undoubtedly. But beware what locals take for granted. They have the luxury of endless opportunity. A time-pressed tourist, I have a week, a lake, and, at week’s end, one big picture capturing every glimmering feature in my view from the perimeter.
Bio: Elaine Glusac has contributed to National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure and Shape.
Between the lake and the mountaintop trail that surrounds it, the full Tahoe requires zigging in for a close-up of man-made shore delights and zagging back to the heights for the natural spectacle. All major roads leading into the Tahoe basin also access the Tahoe Rim Trail’s nine trail-head parking areas at near-peak elevations.
SOUTH SHORE Zig: Stateline , Nevada , boasts the big casinos: Caesars, Harrah’s, and Harvey’s. The MS Dixie II paddle-wheel boat embarks from nearby Zephyr Cove for lake tours that feature don’t-miss views and informative narration (775) 588-3508.
Stateline borders the California settlement of South Lake Tahoe, home to Camp Richardson, a rustic 1920s cabin resort with a public beach and lively beach bar [800-544-1801]. Beyond it, heading west along the shore, lies the gemlike, glacier-carved Emerald Bay State Park , surrounding a copy of the Scandinavian castle Vikingsholm mansion [530-525-7277].
Inn by the Lake (800-877-1466) rents comfortable rooms in South Lake Tahoe across the street from the beach. For rustic charm, book a log cabin at Sorenson’s (530-694-2203), a trek south to Hope Valley but worth the effort. Before hitting the trail, tank up on huevos rancheros at the popular Ernie’s Coffee Shop (530-541-2161) or waffles at Red Hut (530-541-9024). Afterward grab a beer from Dixon ‘s (530-542-3389) and go down the road to The Cantina (530-544-1233) for fine, fresh Mexican fare. Take the Heavenly Ski Resort tram to Monument Peak Restaurant for Tahoe’s top dining views (530-544-6263).
SOUTH SHORE Zag: Peak trail heads accessible from this shore include the closest-to-town Kingsbury (walk north for sweeping lake views); Big Meadow, which will inspire a chorus of The Sound of Music; Echo Lake (phone 530-659-7207 and ask if the water taxi is running); and, provided you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the shortcut trail head, Armstrong Pass.
NORTH SHORE Zig: On the California-crunchy North Shore, stroll quaint Tahoe City for shops and restaurants. Try Rosie’s Cafe (530-583-8504) for hearty breakfasts, The Bridgetender (530-583-3342) for beers and burgers outdoors, and Wolfdale’s (530-583-5700) for elegant dinners. Down the shore, dine on a social lakeside patio at the Gar Woods Grill & Pier (530-546-3366) in Carnelian Bay , and breakfast in King’s Beach at the Log Cabin Caffe (530-546-7109).
If you must swim, dip your toes into Sand Harbor, a gemlike cove in Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park (775-831-0494), or raft the warmer, shallow waters of the Truckee River (many outfitters, but try Tributary Whitewater Tours, 530-346-6812).
The North Shore touts its share of nightlife, none more compelling than the vintage CalNeva Resort & Casino (800-225-6382). Once Frank Sinatra-owned and Rat Pack-patronized, the casino-hotel straddles the state line indicated by a silver and gold stripe separating Nevada gaming from California lodging. Overnight in a cozy motel cabin at the Cedar Glen Lodge (530-546-4281) in Tahoe Vista, where the owners light a bonfire for guests each night, marshmallows included. Or try the individually decorated cabins at The Cottage Inn (530-581-4073) in Sunnyside. The River Ranch Lodge (530-583-4264) offers rooms and a handsome, woody restaurant on the Truckee River near Tahoe City .
NORTH SHORE ZAG: A North Shore residence puts you near the west-side trail head at Barker Pass (walk north to Twin Peaks for peeks into Desolation Wilderness). Trek the north leg from Brockway (visit the lookout tower on Mardis Peak ), and Mount Rose , which includes a 1.3-mile handicap-accessible loop. A Tahoe City spur LEADS from town straight out, and up, onto the trail.