Hike the Tahoe Rim Trail: Insider Tips on Planning a Trip

The Tahoe Rim Trail passes through jaw-dropping terrain in Desolation Wilderness.
The Tahoe Rim Trail passes through jaw-dropping terrain in Desolation Wilderness. Aaron Hussmann
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The 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail is arguably one of the most scenic and accessible thru-hikes in the country. From volcanic rock formations and glacially carved valleys, to lush meadows packed with wildflowers and dense forests of hemlock, not to mention beautiful alpine lakes, the sheer number of landscapes and microclimates makes the trail one of the most stunning in Northern California—and the West, for that matter.

This circumnavigation of the Lake Tahoe basin will challenge expert backpackers and new hikers alike. For those who have always been curious about the slightly dirtbag lifestyle of long-distance hiking, the Tahoe Rim Trail offers a well-balanced introductory course. This 10-to-15-day backpacking trip offers enough time to become immersed in the thru hiking mentality while still being short enough to accomplish with some planning for first-time long distance hikers.

In the summer of 2013, I shrugged off the grind of a full-time job to spend a summer exploring the nooks and crannies of Lake Tahoe and its surrounding wilderness area. A highlight was an 11-day thru-hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail. (I suppose the hike was technically 13 days if you include the 30 consecutive hours sitting in a tent waiting out torrential June thunderstorms.) But even with that setback, the experience was epic—and well worth the effort for an extended outdoor trek.

Here, insider tips to help plan your own adventure to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail.

Where to Camp

Marlette Lake as seen from the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Marlette Lake as seen from the Tahoe Rim Trail. Aaron Hussmann

When planning your multi-day trip on the Tahoe Rim Trail, it’s helpful to plan out ideal camp destinations in advance. These destinations give you a goal for the day’s hike and a good excuse to stop and unlace the boots. However, part of any through-hike is also becoming comfortable with ditching all plans in exchange for Plan B when plans inevitably take a different tack (which is part of the adventure). In my case in 2013, a 17-mile segment turned to 24 miles after the irresistible allure of pizza and beer drew me to Tahoe City. The carb-loaded feast was well worth the extra seven miles and new blisters.

Here are a few recommended favorite camps along the TRT:

  • Watson Lake: It's a popular destination for trailers and car campers. The tradeoff for less solitude is that you might luck out and score some grilled cheese and whiskey from friendly neighbors.

  • Marlette Peak backcountry camp: The Hilton equivalent of backcountry travel. This camp features picnic tables, fire rings, a vault toilet, and the coldest groundwater pump imaginable.

  • Star Lake: At 9,100 feet, this high-altitude sleeping spot dazzles with views of towering Jobs Sister over the reflective lake.

Plan Your Water Stops

Vast swaths of Mule's Ear blanket the backcountry hillsides of Lake Tahoe along the TRT.
Vast swaths of Mule's Ear blanket the backcountry hillsides of Lake Tahoe along the TRT. Aaron Hussmann

It seems a bit counterintuitive that water sources would be a concern on a trail that traverses its way around 39 trillion gallons of the stuff. Yet, Tahoe’s east shore suffers from the brutal effects of the rain shadow, which yields a significantly drier climate than the rest of the basin. Reliable water sources can be few and far between, and mapped seasonal streams should not be counted on for water. Reliable sources on the east shore include Mt. Rose (Ophir Creek), Marlette Peak backcountry camp with fresh groundwater pumps, Spooner Summit with a detour down to Spooner Lake, and Star Lake.

Tahoe’s west shore and Desolation Wilderness offers a different story altogether, with water sources in abundance. The concern on this side of the loop comes in the way of frozen water. Snow can often blanket the north-facing sections of trail well into early summer and caution should be used when traversing snow fields. Hikers are strongly encouraged to filter their water for the duration of the Tahoe Rim Trail.

Don't Neglect Proper Food Storage

First-time backpackers might do well to opt for the convenience of freeze dried, cook-in-bag meals to save time and cut down on trip logistics. Or, you can try your hand at campfire cooking with the help of our handy guide on menu planning for long-distance backpacking trips.

Whatever you're digging into, keep in mind that all food should be stored properly while on the Tahoe Rim Trail to minimize interactions with black bears. (Food should be hung following approved bear bag methods from our friends at Leave No Trace.) However, the diversity of terrain in Tahoe doesn’t always allow for ideal bear hang situations. One recommendation is to sacrifice some pack weight and opt for a bear-proof canister like the Bear Vault or Backpackers Cache. Pro tip: These bear vaults also make kick-ass camp stools.

Where to Resupply on the Trail

Unless you are a superhuman, 120-pound-pack-carrying champion, you will most likely need to resupply on the trail. Here, three strategic resupply points for your trek around Tahoe:

  • Tahoe City post office: Most post offices accept general delivery packages. Send your food, fuel, or other supplies ahead of time to the post office under your name marked for general delivery.

  • Spooner Summit: A resupply here requires the good deeds of a friend to bring your package, but is the perfect opportunity to resupply on water midway through the parched east shore.

Any Tahoe Rim Trail hike is bound to be a success when you plan well and keep an open mind. For more detailed information about specific segments, a recommended read is the Tahoe Rim Trail guide by Tim Hauserman.

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