How to Hike the Tahoe Rim Trail: The COMPLETE Guide - Greenbelly Meals

How to Hike the Tahoe Rim Trail: The COMPLETE Guide


Tahoe rim trail


Trail Overview


Length: 173.6 miles

Elevation Gain: 28,052.8 feet

Time to hike: typically 10-15 days

Start and endpoints: The Tahoe Rim Trail is a loop. Popular start points include:

  • Tahoe City
  • South Lake Tahoe (Big Meadow Trailhead)
  • Echo Lake
  • Kingsbury Grade
  • Incline Village (Mt Rose Summit Trailhead)

Highest Elevation: 10,285 feet (Relay Peak in Nevada)

Lowest Elevation: 6,231 feet (Tahoe City)

The Tahoe Rim Trail was first envisioned in 1981 by USFS Recreation Officer Glen Hampton. Construction of the trail began in 1984 and in 2001 the loop was completed! The Tahoe Rim Trail is a great introductory thru-hike with very easy logistics and relatively gentle elevation changes. The TRT is characterized by pleasant weather and sweeping views of Lake Tahoe from all sides.


Planning Your Thru Hike


WHEN TO GO

The TRT is best hiked from late June through mid-September, but with proper gear and preparation (and/or a low snow year) can be started as early as May. If the snow holds off and you have cold weather backpacking gear, you can hike up until the first big snowstorm of the year (which sometimes isn’t until January!).

Certain sections of the Tahoe Rim Trail are very crowded, especially Desolation Wilderness and the area around Relay Peak/Tahoe meadows. Desolation Wilderness is especially popular with backpackers, but both areas are extremely popular with day hikers so if you don’t enjoy crowds, you may want to try to time your hike to avoid these areas on weekends.

Tahoe Rim Trail overview and map


GETTING THERE

The best way to get to the Tahoe Rim Trail will of course depend on where you are coming from and what you have chosen as your starting point. If you are coming in by plane or train, you will most likely need to either hitch or take a rideshare to get to your trailhead.

A. FLYING

Many people choose to fly into Reno-Tahoe International airport. There are shuttles and buses from the airport to Incline Village, Tahoe City, and South Lake Tahoe, and from there you can hitch, rideshare, or maybe take a bus (see below) to your starting point.

You can also take a rideshare or taxi from the airport directly to your desired trailhead. Other viable airport options include San Francisco or Oakland, but they are over twice as far from Tahoe as Reno.

If you don’t mind spending the extra money, there are smaller airports in Truckee, CA (Truckee Airport) and South Lake Tahoe, CA (Lake Tahoe Airport).

B. DRIVING

Many people who drive choose to start their hike at Echo Lake in the Desolation Wilderness. Parking is abundant there and it means doing Desolation Wilderness (the section many people feel is the most beautiful) either first or last.

It is extremely important to note that if you will be parking your car long term at Echo Lake, your car must be cleared of all traces of food, including wrappers and other trash. Bears breaking into cars is extremely common at this location.

Big Meadow Trailhead in South Lake Tahoe is another popular option, as well as Tahoe City or Kingsbury Grade (Nevada).

Please note that the Tahoe Rim Trail Association does not recommend long term parking at trailheads.

Click here for more information on parking.

C. TRAIN

There is an Amtrak station in the town of Truckee. This train line is easily accessible from any major west coast city (except San Francisco—you will have to go to Oakland for an Amtrak station), and Sacramento. From the east, major stops include Reno, Provo, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, and Chicago.

The only trailheads outside Tahoe City that can be directly accessed via public transit are in the Kingsbury Grade/Heavenly Boulder Resort area (in the southeastern section of the trail).

Click here for more info.

    Tahoe Rim Trail scenic shot


    PERMITS

    Only one permit is required (The TRT thru-hiker permit for the Desolation Wilderness). To obtain this permit, you will need to call the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit within 21 days of when you will enter the Desolation Wilderness and ask for a TRT Thru-Hiker Permit.

    You will need to know roughly what day you will be entering the Desolation Wilderness. It’s ok if you end up entering slightly before or after the date on your permit. This permit allows thru-hikers to bypass the quota system that is in place for backpackers in the DW.

    If you wish to use a stove on your thru-hike, you will also need to obtain a California Campfire Permit. It is available online for free. You should also carry this permit on the Nevada section of the TRT.

    Please note that actual campfires are prohibited on most of the TRT.

      Tahoe Rim Trail sections


      NAVIGATION

      While it is always a good idea to carry a paper map and compass in case technology fails, most people navigate using the Guthook App. It has a wealth of information including campsite locations, water availability, and notable landmarks, as well as the option for users to leave comments (which is very helpful for water sources in the later season).

      For additional resources, check out the Tahoe Rim Trail website, which has free downloadable PDF maps, current conditions, and info on water resources, as well as several maps and a guidebook by Tim Hauserman for sale.

      They also have large and small GPX files, a KMZ file, and a GIS Shapefile available for download.

      Tahoe Rim Trail lake view


      PACKING: 
      Gear and Clothing

      Noe: This section makes recommendations based on a start between late June and early September.

      Conditions on the TRT are similar to the rest of the Sierra Nevada.

      You can expect temperatures between the 60s and 80s during the day. Temperatures at night are typically in the 40s but can drop into the 30s at higher elevations. In the summer, afternoon rainstorms are common, but they tend to pass quickly; rain at night is less common.

      The TRT does not require any special gear and the weather is relatively mild, so most people should be aiming for a base weight under 15 lbs, and many will be able to go below 10 lbs.

      If you are newer to backpacking and need help figuring out what to bring, you can check out our Ultimate Backpacking Checklist for guidance.

      The United States Forest Service and Nevada Division of State Parks require all food to be stored in bear-proof containers or using bear-proof techniques.

      While bear canisters are not required, they are strongly recommended, especially in the Desolation Wilderness, as there have been many reports in the last several years of bears in that area showing no fear of humans, ripping down bear hangs, and tearing open Ursacks.

      It’s also important to note that at higher elevations (where many of these bear incidents occurred), the trees tend to have short branches and do not lend themselves well to a proper bear hang.

        Tahoe Rim Trail thru-hike guide


        WHERE TO SLEEP

        There are no shelters on the Tahoe Rim Trail.

        Dispersed camping is permitted on most of the trail, and thru-hikers should follow all Leave No Trace principles (including but not limited to camping at least 100 but no more than 300 feet away from the trail, and at least 200 feet from water sources). Camping is however prohibited at trailheads.

        Within the Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park (a section on the eastern side of the lake), camping is restricted to three established primitive campgrounds: Marlette Peak, Hobart, and North Canyon.

        For more specifics on regulations and where you can and cannot camp, the TRT official website has a very handy interactive map.

        There are no hostels directly on the trail; however, there are two in South Lake Tahoe (which is a great place to resupply). There is also a hostel in Truckee and another in Reno, which may be helpful to those that are flying or taking the train in for their thru-hike.

          Tahoe Rim Trail shelters


          HOW TO RESUPPLY

          The trail goes directly through Tahoe City and within eyeshot of a major grocery store (Save Mart). There is also a Safeway in town a bit further off the trail but still within easy walking distance—just under a mile—from the trail.

          The trail goes right in front of Echo Chalet, which is located directly on Echo Lake. There is a general store here which is not great for a full resupply but is a great place to top off your snacks and get a cold drink.

          Note that Echo Chalet does NOT accept hiker packages.

          The following trailheads are the most popular for grocery store resupply, but will require a road walk, a hitch, or a prearranged ride:

          • Brockway Summit Trailhead (5 miles to the town of King’s Beach)

          • Mount Rose Summit Trailhead (5 miles to Incline Village)

          • Kingsbury South Trailhead (.8 miles to Tramway Market and attached restaurant) (no lodging)

          • Echo Summit (5 miles to Meyers, CA) (no lodging)

            South Lake Tahoe is a bit further away from the nearest trailhead (Big Meadow), but has a great variety of amenities and a strong outdoors culture among locals, which means it may be easier to catch a hitch there.

            Those wishing to resupply via maildrop can send packages to the post offices in Tahoe City, King’s Beach, Incline Village, Zephyr Cove, and South Lake Tahoe, as well as to Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City

              Tahoe Rim Trail distance and length


              OTHER

              • DOGS: Dogs are allowed on all sections of the TRT. They must be kept on a leash in more crowded sections and should be under voice control at all times.

              • GROUPS: The maximum allowed group size is 12 people in Desolation and Granite Chief Wildernesses, and 15 in the Mount Rose Wilderness.

              • WATER: The eastern half of the TRT can be extremely dry, so you will need more water capacity than you might for your average Sierra trip. The longest stretch with no 100% reliable water on the trail is 37 miles, although there are places off-trail in those stretches where one can obtain water and some seasonal streams in that stretch that will be flowing earlier in the hiking season. Some people choose to cache water for themselves at some trailheads; make sure you can return to pick up any bottles you may leave behind. For more info on water sources, go here.

              • SEASONAL CLOSURES: With California’s wildfires growing worse each year, hikers planning to start after mid-august should be aware of the possibility of having to reroute or call off a hike completely. Even if the fire isn’t nearby, poor air quality can lead to a myriad of long-lasting respiratory issues.

              • TRAIL ETIQUETTE: The Tahoe Rim Trail sees a lot of use! Please help preserve it for future generations by following the Leave No Trace Guidelines.  

                Tahoe Rim Trail photos


                Sectional Overview


                These sections will match the sections listed on the Tahoe Rim Trail website to facilitate ease of planning.

                SECTION 1: TAHOE CITY TO BROCKWAY SUMMIT

                Length: 20.2 miles (miles 0 to 20.2)

                The trail climbs through a forest of fir, cedar, and aspen to Brockway Summit, with cinder cones and ancient lava flows in view. The terrain flattens for a while before dropping down to Watson Lake.

                SECTION 2: BROCKWAY SUMMIT TO MT. ROSE SUMMIT / TAHOE MEADOWS

                Length: 20.2 miles (miles 20.2 to 40.4)

                Includes Relay Peak (the highest point on the TRT) and sweeping views of Lake Tahoe, the Sierra, and the Carson Range.

                Tahoe Rim Trail guide and map

                SECTION 3: MT ROSE SUMMIT / TAHOE MEADOWS TO SPOONER SUMMIT

                Length: 24.1 miles (miles 40.4 to 64.5)

                The first section features stunning views of Lake Tahoe and Marlette Lake, and the ranges of the Great Basin. As the trail nears Spooner Summit, the pine forest shrouds most views but allows the occasional glimpse of the Lake and Valley.

                SECTION 4: SPOONER SUMMIT TO KINGSBURY CONNECTOR

                Length: 19 miles (miles 64.5 to 83.5)

                More views of the entire Tahoe Basin and Carson Valley. Pine, fir, and aspen forests rule this section.

                SECTION 5: KINGSBURY SOUTH CONNECTOR TO BIG MEADOW

                Length: 22.9 miles (miles 83.5 to 106.4)

                Features Star Lake, a lesser-known alpine lake beneath Freel Peak (the highest peak in the Tahoe Basin at 10,881 feet).

                how to hike the tahoe rim trail

                SECTION 6: BIG MEADOW TO ECHO LAKES

                Length: 18.3 miles (miles 106.4 to 124.7)

                In this section the TRT merges with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The first half wanders through wildflower-filled meadows, and then the landscape becomes more rugged and dry, and drops over a granite ridge.

                SECTION 7: ECHO LAKES TO BARKER PASS

                Length: 32.5 miles (miles 124.7 to 157.2)

                Characterized by sparkling alpine lakes and towering granite mountains, often considered to be the most stunning section of the TRT. The trail goes over two high Sierra passes in this section (Dick’s Pass and Barker Pass).

                SECTION 8: BARKER PASS TO TAHOE CITY

                Length: 16.4 miles (miles 157.2 to 173.6)

                After Barker Pass the TRT and the PCT split once again, with the PCT headed up to Truckee and the TRT staying east, closer to the lake. The trail drops into Ward Canyon before climbing back up, and then down again for the descent into Tahoe City.

                Tahoe Rim Trail hiking guide


                Resources




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                By Rebecca Cook (aka “Pepper”): Becca is a nomad(ish) with a penchant for spending large chunks of time in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has completed the AT, JMT, TRT and LT amongst other several thru-hikes.
                About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.

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