• Taylor Kim

Tahoe Rim Trail Thru-Hiking: One Woman's Journey Cut Short by Wildfire

Thru-Hikers Across the Country are being impacted by a wildfire season run rampant


Raging wildfires nearby cause smoke to fill the air over the pine trees surrounding Lake Tahoe, totally obscuring the sun from shining down on the Tahoe Rim Trail

Tahoe Rim Trail, CA - Photo Credit: Taylor Kim

 

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As I headed out on the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) for Day 1 of my 10-day thru-hike, I knew I would be in for 170 miles of long treks, beautiful views, and meeting fantastic people. I also was well aware that I had to “expect the unexpected.” In fact, I had already done so on the way to the trailhead - my start time for the hike had been delayed by an hour because the lady who was kind enough to shuttle me around the lake to my starting point that morning had to take a detour to drop off another hiker. No matter - I had plenty of hours left in the day to get my planned 18 miles done and still save time to stop to enjoy all the views!


The first few days were smooth sailing through the waterless eastern section of the trail. This part of the trip runs through the Carson Range in Nevada, and because of how dry of a year it has been, there were no natural water sources for 40 miles. I filled up twice during this section, once at a road crossing where hikers often drop jugs of water for themselves before they start the trail (which is what I had done), and second at a hand pump in a primitive campground that the trail passes through. Pumping the water turned out to be a fun team effort with the other hikers who stopped there, and it was interesting to compare trips and trail information with them.


Lake Tahoe, glistening under clear blue skies in the distance, as seen from a ridgeline on the Tahoe Rim Trail

Tahoe Rim Trail, CA - Photo Credit: Taylor Kim


Despite the long water carries, the views from 3000 feet above Lake Tahoe and the satisfaction of completing so many miles each day made the first three days of this trip one of the best backpacking experiences I’ve had! Several times, I would also weave in and out of the ridgeline, getting alternating views of the lake and Nevada’s Carson Valley. This was already the longest I had ever been out on a solo trip, and though I had to get used to not having conversation partners throughout the day, being able to go at my own pace and be completely in charge of my own itinerary was both thrilling and rewarding.


The fourth morning, I woke up ready to get on trail again. With a stop in town and only a 13 mile day ahead of me, I was pleased to get a later start and have a real breakfast at a cafe. The start of the trail was immediately steep, but I was motivated. I pumped the tunes, paused frequently for water breaks, and said a friendly “Howdy!” to each hiker I encountered.


A small white tent pitched at a dispersed campsite along the Tahoe Rim Trail

Tahoe Rim Trail, CA - Photo Credit: Taylor Kim


About an hour into the morning’s hike, the smoke started to roll in. As I mentioned in my gear prep blog, I was well aware of the early fire season and had been dodging smoke from the nearby Tamarack Fire that sprung up to the south right before I had set out. Up until this morning, however, the more northern Dixie Fire hadn’t been a concern for the Tahoe area - until winds shifted unexpectedly and pushed the smoke into the basin. Within an hour, I couldn’t see across the lake, and barely even a few ridgelines over. The hikers I passed became fewer and farther between, and I was worried about spending the night in the worsening air quality.


After a phone call with my ground team (aka Mom and Dad), who had been watching smoke and air quality reports, we determined it was best for me to backtrack about three miles into town for the night. I had friends coming the next day, and wanted to be ready to meet up with them for the portion of the trail that they had planned to come meet up and hike with me! Even going downhill on the way back it felt like I was hiking through a smoke cloud, and when I reached town the opposite shore of the lake wasn’t visible at all. I looked back up at the treeline I had come from and saw the smoke hanging thickly, which on the one hand validated my decision to backtrack, but on the other was still frustrating.


Somewhat defeated, I called the hotel and waited at the local beach for my room to be ready. As I was sitting there, a young lady came up to me and asked me if I was hiking the TRT. She was clearly a fellow backpacker and she invited me to hang out with her and her boyfriend, who she was traveling the trail with. I spent an hour getting to know them - hostel owners on the Appalachian Trail who came to California in the AT off-season to hike some of our long-distance trails and summit Mt. Whitney. However, with the smoke they had decided to lay up in town for the foreseeable future and spend their days floating the river, kayaking, and exploring restaurants. I was sad to leave them when my hotel room was ready, but had it not been for the unexpected shift in smoke patterns I wouldn’t have gotten to meet two of the coolest people I’ve ever encountered!


Raging wildfires nearby cause smoke to fill the air over Lake Tahoe, totally obscuring the sun from shining down on the boats near shore

Tahoe Rim Trail, CA - Photo Credit: Taylor Kim


I was rejuvenated by the time my friends showed up the next day, and the smoke had cleared enough to proceed with our group hike as planned. After a night of takeout food and a real bed, I was ready to get back on trail and this time, with company! Even though I knew at this point I wouldn’t be able to finish the whole trail in one go because of the section I’d skipped for smoke, it was also somewhat freeing to not feel the pressure of having to finish it all this time around. As rewarding as it was to cover so much ground the first few days, I also knew I had been pushing right until sunset every night to make my planned miles. Even though I probably could have kept doing that through the smoke, my night in town had made me realize that I also wanted to make sure I was enjoying all the trail had to offer; as my mom had texted me: “Remember that this should still be a vacation for you!” Though my idea of vacation was indeed backpacking for days on end, it was also seeing all the views of the trail, having time to detour to cool vistas, and maybe even taking a day in town to actually touch the lake I was staring at from above so often. With that shift in mindset, I was more than ready to hop back on trail with the added support system of my friends.


We only had five miles to trek before getting to our target camping area, so we took a leisurely pace and still found a lovely campsite with plenty of time for dinner. It was much more enjoyable to joke around with familiar faces before crawling into my sleeping bag for the night, and I was especially grateful to have others near me since we had entered the more bear-prevalent sections of the trail.


Smoke and haze batter the lungs of backpackers along the Tahoe Rim Trail

Tahoe Rim Trail, CA - Photo Credit: Taylor Kim


Despite our hopes that the skies would remain clear, we woke up to an AQI of 400 the next morning (on a scale that goes from 0-500, that’s a pretty bad rating). The sky was pinkish-orange, we could barely see the treeline one mountain ridge over, and we could smell a faint campfire scent as we cooked our breakfast. Our mantra of the day was “No new thoughts until…” We decided we wouldn’t make any decisions about air quality until after we’d eaten breakfast - “Well, we’ve got to eat no matter what we decide,” stated one of my co-hikers. There was no point stressing over bigger decisions until the smaller tasks had been done, which is how we motivated ourselves throughout the day.


After breakfast the AQI had dropped to 200, which was still certainly at unhealthy levels, but the downward trend was promising and so we decided to hike on for 12 miles until we reached the road crossing at Barker Pass, where we could get a ride into town if the air hadn’t improved. Therefore: “No new thoughts until Barker Pass”. I would be lying if the three of us weren’t each secretly counting down the miles until the road crossing; each crest over a ridge that led to a smoke-blocked view was somewhat disheartening, and the steep uphill climb right out of our camp certainly didn’t help matters. We all remained positive however, and pushed out the 12 miles at a quick pace.


The shoreline of Lake Tahoe stretches for miles

Tahoe Rim Trail, CA - Photo Credit: Taylor Kim



We only passed a few backpackers and a couple day-hiking women the entire time, which was also a sign that perhaps it wasn’t a great day to be on trail. Finally, the Barker Pass trailhead came into view! We all happily plopped down our packs and pulled out lunch food (“No new thoughts about moving onward until we’ve had lunch”). As I sat with my can of Trader Joe’s Dolmas, the two women we had passed on the trail also emerged. They pointed to their pristine white Audi and offered us a ride back to town if we wanted. My friends and I quickly looked at each other and at the very apparent lack of other cars at the trailhead, none of us wanting to be the one to make the final call on our hike. We all almost immediately stood up and told the ladies we would love a ride, apologizing for our grimy packs and selves. On the way back to town, we learned that one of the ladies lived right behind the cabin that my friends and I had parked our cars at- small world! She dropped us off and the three of us took a minute to finish lunch before texting our friend who owned the cabin to ask if we could spend the night there. He graciously agreed and we let ourselves in, rushing to be the first to shower off all of the sweat, smoke, and dirt.


We ended up spending two days at the cabin hanging out, watching tv, and playing board games before going back home. The smoke had cleared up a bit, but I had decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my trip dodging smoke and missing beautiful views. I flew home to Washington State to spend my last few days of vacation time hiking in smoke-free mountains and hanging out with family. While it hadn’t been close to the trip I had planned for, I felt so lucky to have had such a variety of experiences on trail and to have met so many amazing people. I am excited to have a project to work on too - I plotted out the remainder of the trail into three shorter trips that I hope to finish within the next year! I learned what I enjoyed in a long hike - some long mileage days, some time with friends - and I learned that I don’t need to finish the trail in one shot to feel like it was a successful trip. I really got the entire Lake Tahoe experience rolled into one trip: backpacking, lake time, exploring the local towns, and hanging out at a cabin! This was definitely not the trip I thought I’d have, but certainly one I have no regrets about and will never forget!



 

Pathloom marketing super-intern Taylor Kim is entering her Senior year at Santa Clara University. An experienced outdoor enthusiast, Taylor tackled the Tahoe Rim Trail as part of her preparations to one day hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail! Look for more of Taylor's content on the Pathloom blog and on our social media channels!

 

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