Tahoe Rim Trail: Echo Chalet to Spooner Lake

TRT Day 7: 20 miles

We got woken up around 10pm when a large group of people showed by at the lake.  Flashlights kept penetrating our tent, and I kept hearing someone shout “there are tents RIGHT there!”  We had to listen to them for probably an hour as they set up camp, made dinner and talked loudly.

We all woke up in the morning very grumpy, and being the considerate human beings that we are, we didn’t make a racket while we packed up, and left fairly quickly.  We did notice, however that an empty bottle of wine was sitting next to one of our neighbor’s tents, and their “bear bag” was hanging about 4 feet off the groud, leaning on the trunk of a tree.   I would call that a bear piñata.

We hiked though a pretty meadow called Big Meadow, and lots of day hikers were out.  That’s what happens on a Saturday close to a road.

Once we crossed the road, and started climbing again, we lost most of the day hikers.  Donner wasn’t feeling great, so we took a long break and I offered him some electrolytes.  We were probably all dehydrated, and the lack of sleep didn’t help.

We had a long and steady uphill, which seemed to go on forever.  I felt completley sleep deprived.  Half way up I started closing my eyes for several steps at a time until I realized that was probably dangerous, and I was on the verge of falling asleep while walking.

We wanted to camp as close to Freel Peak as possible to make a side trip tomorrow morning to reach the top, since it is the tallest peak in the Tahoe Basin.

Luckily, right at the intersection of the Freel Peak trail, we were able to find a couple of small spots to camp. 

We all made ramen for dinner and Donner complimented it with an uncooked, day-old hot dog.  Our diets are pretty disgusting, I’ll have to admit.

This will be the highest elevation we’re camping at – around 9,700ft roughly.  It’s a bit breezy, but hopefully we’ll sleep OK.  The sunset was gorgeous, but I was so tired I just wanted to fall asleep.

TRT Day 8:  22 miles

Our alarms were set for 5AM so we could climb Freel Peak (10,881ft) for sunrise.  Our intention was to get going by about 5:10AM, leaving our camp set up at the bottom, and hike up the one mile trail to the summit.  Unfortunately, that was slightly ambitious, and we didn’t get going till about 5:25AM.  Sunrise is right about 6AM these days, so we still had more than half an hour to get to the top.

We headed out with our headlamps shining the way.  The summit was nearly a thousand feet up, and having not had breakfast, and being at around 10,000ft already, I quickly lost all steam.  I pushed myself to continue as quickly as possible, against the will of my aching legs, and wheezing lungs.  The trail was much steeper than almost any part of either the Tahoe Rim Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, with many steps and steep sections of deep sand that allowed each step to slide half way back down again.   I let John and Donner pass me so that they could maybe make it to the top for sunrise, since I could tell I was unlikely to make it at my pace.

I made the mistake of blowing my nose, and even though it was still dark, I could tell I had just created a massive nose bleed.  I kept wiping my nose on my bandana as I huffed and puffed up the mountain.

I saw John waiting for me close to the summit, and he shouted words of encouragement.  Donner was already at the top and also shouted that sunrise was moments away.  I pushed harder, but I could tell by my wheezing breath that I was having an asthma attack.  Normally I would stop, but I didn’t and pushed to the top seconds before the sun crested over the ridge.  I gasped for air, and John tried to get me to breath deeply, but until I calmed down, it was almost pointless.

When I had my wits about me again, I admired where we were: on top of the world with the most beautiful lighting.  It was windy and my bandana looked like I had killed a small animal on the way up, but at least my nose bleed had mostly stopped.

We spent about 20 minutes watching the sunlight touch distant mountains, and the mountain we were on was casting a giant shadow down the valley.  Although the climb had been the hardest part of this trail so far, the reward was also the greatest.

Eventually, we climbed down, and once back at the gap, we packed up camp and hiked on.  We descended to Star Lake where we met the first other counter clockwise TRT hiker, named Amethyst.  She was on day 17 and taking it very slow.  We chatted for a while, and while we were chatting, a group of runners stopped to collect water.  One of them was in the middle of trying to run the entire trail in 4 days.  So on one side of us was someone completing the trail in double the number of das we were, and on the another was someone who was completing it in half.  Funny.

I decided to have Ramen for breakfast since I thought I probably needed the salt.

We continued to descend, and the day grew very warm.  We stopped by streams and got our shirts wet, and John decided the Ramen was a good idea, and soaked some for himself.  Donner quickly followed suit.

We eventually got to the last water source for the next 17 miles, and decided to take a very very long break.  It was unbearably hot.  The stream was at the bottom of the downhill and we didn’t want to start climbing again until it cooled off.  We sat by the creek and drank water, slapping the occasional mosquito.  Along came several other hikers – one of which was a clockwise hiker named Song and Dance, and another was a counter clockwise hiker named Dog Man, along with his dog.  Another counter clockwise hiker!!!  The second one today, and only the second one of the whole trip.

We all decided to all have more Ramen and call it dinner.

At 5PM, we finally moved on.  I was full of energy, having eaten quite a lot of food at our breaks (mostly Ramen).  We headed uphill and hiked at quite a decent pace until we found a place to camp, only 10 or so miles out from Spooner Summit where we started this whole thing.

Dirty hiker feet (with dirty girl gaiters!)

Day 9: 10 miles

I woke up excited to get to town.  Mostly for a shower, but also for some food that wasn’t Ramen.

We only had 10 miles to hike, and we got going quite quickly.  The trail climbed up to some magnificent views of Lake Tahoe and right at the top of the hill there was a wooden bench that trail maintainers either built or carried up to this spot.  Not many benches have a view this good!

Not far from the bench we saw Dog Man with his dog “Fox” (Fox was the dog’s trail name, his real name was Pepper).  I asked if I could get a picture of him, and he posed proudly with his dog on his shoulders.

                                                        
Before we knew it, we got down to Spooner Summit Trail head where we started just 8 days and a few hours ago.  175 miles done, and another amazing thru-hike ticked off the list!

We sat by some smelly toilets that weren’t open due to COVID and assessed the situation.  We definitely smelled objectionable, and we needed a ride into Carson City.  We contemplated changing into other clothes, but all in all we didn’t have many other clothes to change into.  I found a small bottle of tea tree oil in my pack, which carries a strong smell, and Donner got very excited and started spreading it around himself like perfume.  That seemed to be a good way of masking our scent. 

We considered trying to hitchhike, but decided that trying to get an Uber was probably a safer bet, and so 15 minutes later we were in a car with a teacher who was lamenting about having to return to school with a bunch of kids.   He was a Physical Education teacher, and had no idea how he was supposed to conduct such a class safely.  I certainly can understand that parents, especially those who work full time, need to get their kids out of the house.  But teachers, especially in high risk groups are having to put themselves in quite a hazardous position.  I certainly didn’t have the answers.

We got dropped off in town, and wandered into a nearby McDonalds and got ice cream.  It was nice to eat something cold in the heat of the day.  As we savored our first taste of civilization, I went about calling hotels to find the cheapest one in Carson City.  Trust me, hikers don’t need anything fancy.  When you’ve been calling any flat spot in the dirt home each night, anything with running water feels like a luxury.

Soon we checked into this crummy hotel I found and started getting excited for taking showers.  I washed layer after layer of dirt off of my body.  When I got out of the shower, Donner pointed out that there were was buck shot embedded in the wall next to our bed.

We then climbed into the grubby hotel pool, which was roughly the size of a large hot tub, situated right next to a dumpster.  We watched the occasional piece of trash blow out of the dumpster and float towards the pool.  Beyond the dumpster, a barbed-wire fence caught the remaining flying garbage.

“I’m not sure we actually needed to shower first”  I said, admiring the peeling paint, and dirt floating in the pool. 

Somebody had made the effort to spray-paint the fence around the pool with black paint, but in the process, they had spray-painted a tree and part of the dumpster as well.  I guessed this was probably the response to a bad online review.

Once we were completely pruney, we headed back inside, and dealt with our laundry, food and packing for the next couple of days.  Our plan is to check out Donner Summit and attempt to climb Donner Peak.  Donner got his trail name out East on the Appalachian Trail, and had never made the pilgrimage to the area where the Donner Party famously resorted to cannibalism while getting stranded during a particularly brutal winter storm.

We heard a rattling sound outside in the parking lot.

“Do you think that’s a broken down car, or just an empty can rolling down the parking lot?” John asked.

Donner cracked open the door.  “It’s a can rolling down the parking lot.”  He answered.

Days 10-11 (PCT Side Trips)

I slept like a baby and woke up the next morning ready for the next adventure.

Looking at the map, Donner Peak does not have a trail to the summit, but the Mount Judah trail, which creates a short loop with the Pacific Crest Trail comes quite close, so we figured we would just hike off-trail to the summit.

We met up with Jenna, who works for Big City Mountaineers, the organization we raised money for as part of this hike.  She wanted to take some video footage of us, since she lived nearby so that they could help promote similar fundraising events to what we did.  We were glad to help.

We didn’t tell her in advance that we’d be scrambling to the top of Donner Peak, not knowing if there was a social-trail to the summit, but we figured that if she worked in the outdoor industry, she’d probably be up for it.

We met Jenna at the trail head.  She was young, and the type of California girl who says things like “rad” and “stoked” a lot.  We chatted about the outdoor industry and the work that she was doing with Big City Mountaineers.

Once we got close to Donner Peak, the scramble up was well worn, and quite fun.  Nothing like bushwhacking to summits on the East Coast.  From the top, we got views of Donner Lake along with nearby ski resorts.

We decided the next course of action would be going for a swim in Donner Lake.  The water was not too cold, but the breeze was chilly, and we didn’t stay in too long.

Once we parted ways with Jenna, we headed north on the Pacific Crest Trail from Interstate 80, so as to camp for the night.  We were aiming for a Sierra Club hut, which was only about 3 miles in.

Along the way we met a couple who also looked like they were planning to camp out.  I asked them what their plan was, and they told us that they were going to camp out to watch the Meteor Shower.  We hadn’t realized that there even was a Meteor shower, so it was serendipitous that I even asked.

We made plans to wake up in the middle of the night to view the show.

When we got to the hut there was a single man who was camped in the loft of the hut and we decided to camp out.  The hut was quite nice, somewhat similar to the hut we saw at Richardson Lake, but maybe even nicer.

The night was cold, and at 1AM I woke up to pee, and decided to wake up John and Donner.  We dragged our sleeping bags out and laid down on some rocks with a clear view of the sky.  We spent about an hour staring at the sky watching shooting stars whiz by every minute or so.

In the morning, we headed back to I-80, and the gentleman who had stayed in the hut asked us if we could give him a ride to Truckee.  We agreed based on the fact that he had a mask, and we could roll the windows down for the short drive into town.

Before we headed back to the airpot, we made one final stop at In N’ Out Burger, our favorite fast-food joint on the West Coast.  We don’t have anything like it back home, and soon we will have no excuses for eating fast-food.

Just to solidify our Ramen obsession on this trip, we decided to eat a Ramen dinner in the airport between flights.

Do you think Top Ramen will sponsor our next thru-hike?

I’m finishing up this blog on the flight home, but I’m planning to write another blog soon about my final thoughts on the Tahoe Rim Trail with some advice, some thoughts on starting/ending points and direction.  Stay tuned!                         

Tahoe Rim Trail: Tahoe City to Echo Chalet

TRT Day 4: 23 miles

I heard Donner get up to go pee around 5AM, and John was tossing and turning.  I hadn’t slept well because of the bed – soft and the covers got totally messed up.

We managed to leave the hotel just after 6AM, and although I was tired, I was thankful that we were getting an early start because I knew we had a lot of climbing to do and I wanted to get as much of it done as possible before it got hot.

I also wanted to carry as little water as possible, so I decided to chug two liters of water before leaving the hotel and only carry 1 liter for the next 4 or 5 miles uphill.

The trail was nice and cool, and because of all the water I drank, I had to pee every 10 minutes.  That got old really quickly when I realized that there were quite an abundance of mosquitos around.  I remember these mosquitoes from the PCT.  They were most similar to the Oregon variety, which could land on you regardless of how quickly you were trying to run through them.

Luckily the mosquitos were not a constant.  They were only really present in spots where we were going through a meadow, in the forest or near a stream.  This side of Tahoe is definitely much more wet than the other side.  Water sources are plentiful.

Early on we passed an active logging site, and repeatedly heard chain saws followed by trees falling and crashing onto the forest floor nearby as loggers cut them down.  Although we weren’t close enough for it to be dangerous, we jumped every time a tree fell.

Donner made the mistake of showing an interest in lichens, when the topic somehow came up, and John spent the next hour or two regaling us with every detail on lichens he could possibly remember – which, given that he has a book on the topic, and the brain of a sponge, was a lot.

I decided to steer the topic away from lichens and onto quantum mechanics.  Donner was a physics major, so between us we tried to remember details of our physics and chemistry courses.

There were tons of hikers – both day hikers and backpackers.  We intersected the Pacific Crest Trail, and that brought a few PCT hikers into the mix too.  We were constantly pulling our buffs over our faces as we jumped off the trail to let folks pass.  I’ve been really impressed with how many hikers have pulled out masks to pass us.

At lunch we cracked open a gigantic jar of Nutella, and also made tuna wraps.  Once we finished, John and I packed up and John was standing there with his pack on ready to go 20 minutes after we sat down to eat.

“God, you guys really just like to hike, don’t you?!”  Donner said.

It’s at that point that we realized that we had been such in thru-hiker mode that we hadn’t really taken a really long break just to sit and admire a view or take an extra long lunch just to relax in nature.  Our style has always been to just keep walking.  It’s not that we don’t admire views, but usually not for more than 5 minutes or so.  Donner was more used to taking half hour or hour long breaks to enjoy the scenery.

Since we got such an early start, we got done with quite a few miles early on in the day.  We realized that there was no point in rushing or completing more miles than we needed to, since that would just mean that we finish the hike before we had planned.  We made plans to attempt to slow down a bit and take more breaks during the next section

We decided to camp at Richardson Lake, a popular camp spot – there are dozens of other people here, but really pretty.  The lake was very warm, and I soaked my feet.  I would have gotten in if it wasn’t so breezy and getting a bit chilly as evening descended.

 

We decided to take a little stroll around the lake to check out a Sierra Club hut that was listed on the map.  It turned out to be quite a quirky little hut, built in 1955, and obviously designed for use during the winter, when snow would pile up to the second level, so the leave a door unlocked at the top of the hut, which gained us entrance.  The inside was warm and there was a register, which I signed, which had many recent hiker’s signatures in it as well.  Outside the hut was a double decker outhouse, which we did not investigate as thoroughly.

Tomorrow we will be entering the Desolation Wilderness, which is probably the most scenic stretch of this trail.  We are all very excited, and anticipate enjoying some breaks near lakes along the way.

TRT Day 5: 21 miles

We woke up in the morning refreshed from an only slightly interrupted sleep. An animal repeatedly hissed for an hour in the middle of the night. Maybe a fox?  Who knows.

The trail was noticeably moist compared to the dry Carson Range on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. At points it seemed like someone had been spraying the trail with water and other times it was even slightly overgrown with vegetation around dry creek beds (on the dryer side, there was much less vegetation).

Today was the day that John and I have been looking forward to since booking this trip. We entered the Desolation Wilderness, one of our many favorite spots from our Pacific Crest Trail hike. A few steps past the Wilderness boundary sign John said, “We really are in the Desolation Wilderness look at all the granite rocks!”

Slowly the damp trail became more rocky. We came upon the first lake of the day and took a long break to swim.  I was nervous to get into the cold water, but John and Donner convinced me to jump in from a rock.  It was nice to go for a swim.  Four years ago when we were here it was too cold to even think about swimming here.

We continued onto Dicks Pass which presented us with an absolutely gorgeous view. We could see the chain of lakes we passed as well as many others that were out of view.

Dick’s Pass

Moments after we arrived, another a hiker arrived and gasped at the scenery. It was wonderful to watch her reaction.  We spoke with her for a bit, and found out that her name was Rose. We also found out she hiked from the Washington/Oregon Border along the PCT and was finishing her section tomorrow.  As we walked away we noticed that there would be an even better view a few steps further along and John said, “It will be great to see her reaction over there.” Predictably, Rose gasped again.

Rose

Rose had wanted to hike the whole PCT this year, but changes her plans when COVID hit.

“I hope you get to hike it in 2021,” I suggested

“If there IS a 2021….”. She retorted.

There was a small patch of snow at the top and Donner attempted a snow angel and threw a couple of snowballs at us. 

As we descended my hip started to hurt and we slowed down.  Donner and John both offered to carry some of my weight, and I took them up on their offer since John always accuses me of being too stubborn.  I was pretty upset that my hips were not cooperating, and I silently wondered if my thru-hiking days weren’t over.

The temperature seemed really warm with all the granite reflecting the sun back at us. When we got to Susie Lake we decided it was worth taking another swim.

Donner: “Did I miss a spot?”

We debated spending the night there but it was still early so we moved onto Aloha Lake, where we found a perfect spot with a spectacular view.

Can you tell which way the wind blows?

As we watched the sun set and the moon rise, we noticed that little tufts of pink clouds passed by.

“Hmmm, clouds”  John commented.  I knew what he was thinking.  We hadn’t seen clouds in almost a week.  Out here clouds usually mean weather.

TRT Day 6: 17 miles

We took our time packing up in the morning – no need to rush since we had only 6 or so miles to Echo Chalet, where there is a small store where we planned to resupply, and we knew they didn’t open until 10AM.  The clouds were strangely gone after a quiet night, and we had a perfectly blue sky.

We descended from Aloha Lake to Echo Lake through huge boulder fields.  The trail was mostly pointed rocks, which was slightly hard on the feet.  It was in one of these rocky areas that we heard some little squeaks, and found that they were coming from a pika!  Pikas are only the cutest alpine rodent.  They’re actually closely related to rabbits, I believe, but they look kind of like big fat fluffy mice with big ears.  I attempted to take its picture, but it was in a hurry to get somewhere with the tuft of grass in its mouth.

Pika

I’m assuming that this area is normally quite crowded, but today being a Friday, it seemed especially busy.  We passed group after group after group of hikers walking up from Echo Lake.

I remembered this section quite vividly from the PCT.  Once you exit the wilderness, Echo Lake has quite a few cute little houses and huts along it, with no access besides either the trail or the lake.

When we made it to Echo Chalet, we immediately bought a half gallon of ice cream to share along with chips and guacamole, soda, and potato salad. 

“Growing up, my dad used to microwave the whole tub of ice cream so he could eat it melted, and then put it back in the freezer so all we ever had was freezer burnt ice cream,” Donner griped.

“That sounds awful!”  I replied

“And then my mother would dig all the good bits out of the ice cream, like if we got chocolate chip cookie dough, there was never any bits of cookie dough left.  That was pretty much the extent of my horrible childhood.  Maybe I’ll write a book about it.”  He said, shoving spoonfuls of ice cream into his mouth.

Donner noticed that Rose was in the parking lot, having met her family who were there to pick her up.  He came back with a bag of cherries that she gave us.  So sweet!!  We went over to say goodbye and gave her our website to look us up when she got home.

It took us another hour or two to buy and sort through all the food we needed for the rest of the trail, which should take us about three and a half days.  The store was two or three times more expensive than a normal grocery store and with limited selection, so we wanted to choose our food wisely.  We managed to buy a few things that we could split between the three of us, plus a ton of Ramen noodles.

Echo Chalet

When we started hiking again, it was brutally hot.

“East Coast heat melts you, and West Coast heat bakes you”  Donner remarked.  It’s true – I felt baked, and my legs were cracking because of the dry heat.  In fact, right at the front of my ankles, my skin is so cracked that it is bleeding.

We got to a cold stream where we collected water and I took my shirt off and dunked it in the cold water and put it back on again.  That felt divine.

“What’s for dinner?”  I asked Donner

“I’m pretty sure all my meals involve Ramen somehow”  he replied.

“I think we’re going to have instant stuffing mix and hot dogs”  John said.

“Oh, then I’ll have Ramen with hot dogs!”  Donner said with excitement.

We noticed that clouds were beginning to form, and quite quickly.  These were not cute little clouds like last night, these were very obviously thunder heads.

Soon enough we are shaken with a sudden “KABOOOM!!”  A thunderstorm was upon us.  I started hiking faster, since we were headed up a hill, and we scurried over the top of it.  The rain soon started, and we made sure everything in our packs was in something waterproof.  I was glad I brought my rain jacket and rain pants, because the temperature dropped quite quickly.  Luckily my shirt was almost dry.

Now instead of holding our umbrellas up for sun, we had them open for the rain.  It didn’t rain hard, but it rained enough to bring life to the hillsides, and as we continued we passed many meadows and drainages absolutely packed with wildflowers.  Views of nearby mountains were incredible.

The rain subsided, and the flowers and views continued to take our breath away.  We could hardly stop taking pictures.

Eventually we got to the lake where we wanted to spend the night, called Showers Lake.  Funny that we came through on a day with showers…

We ate dinner by the lake, and enjoyed the last lake that we will have along this trail.

Tahoe Rim Trail: Spooner Lake to Tahoe City

TRT Day 0

Well, here we are!!  We’re currently in Carson City, NV, the day before we begin the Tahoe Rim Trail.  We’ve thought about this trip for many weeks now, not only because we were raising money for Big City Mountaineers, but also because of our fear of COVID-19.

By the way, we reached our goal of raising $5000 for Big City Mountaineers!  This will effectively breakdown some barriers in order to get kids into nature.  The $5000 will outfit an entire week-long expedition of kids from dis-invested communities who would otherwise not have the means to go backpacking.  Thank you so much to everyone who donated, we had at least 85 people who contributed to this effort!

We’re doing this trip with an Appalachian Trail friend of ours, whose trail name is Donner.  We drove to his house in Nashville so that we could all be on the same flights to Reno. 

We’ve spent the entire day traveling, wearing KN-95 masks.  The flights were somewhat terrifying because people just can’t seem to understand how to wear masks correctly, and Donner and I witnessed a girl in the row next to ours wipe her exposed nose with her fingers.  She then looked at her dirty fingers like she wasn’t quite sure what to do with them next.  Donner and I looked at each other wide eyed and I whispered, “get me out of here!!!”  We were so grateful to have bought KN-95 masks (the Chinese equivalent to N-95 masks).

Southwest is currently keeping middle seats empty unless you’re in a group traveling together, so even when the flight was completely full (which our second flight was), there was still a feeling of space on the plane.  I did find it funny that although you apparently have to wear your face mask for the entire flight, they also hand out water and snacks.  We all decided not to eat or drink on the airplane, so I stuffed the packet of pretzels in my bag for later.

We decided for the sake of logistics to spend one night in Carson City before hitting the trail early in the morning.  We arrived basically famished, and the first thing we did after dropping our bags at the hotel was order Chinese take-out.   We brought the food back into the hotel room and for a good 15 minutes we acted like we had been hiking for weeks.  There was a long period of silence while we stuffed our faces.

As we packed our backpacks, and I realized that I forgot my p-style (the device I use to pee standing up), and Donner suggested I try cutting a small plastic water bottle in half as a substitute.  I found one to attempt to engineer into the right shape, and then practiced in the bathroom, and found that the new set up may actually work.  Gross or genius – you decide, but it will allow me to pee in a gatorade bottle inside my tent at night.  Yay!

Hotel room gear explosion

Now jet lag has started to set in, and although it’s only about 8PM, it feels like midnight.  I have a feeling we’ll have no trouble getting an early start tomorrow to get a full day’s hike in.

TRT Day 1:  22 miles

I woke up sometime between 5 and 6AM, and John and Donner were still asleep, so I stared at the ceiling for a little bit until the alarm went off.  I must have slept well.

We packed up, and used Uber to get a ride to the trailhead.  Our Uber driver was chatty and proclaimed that he had only started wearing a mask a couple of weeks ago when it became a mandate, because the mask was not letting him get enough oxygen because he was an asthmatic.  Then he started complaining about COVID-19 and how it’s really only a bad flu and our government should have just let it run its course instead of letting it drag on.  John and I rolled our eyes at each other and tried to change the topic.  Once again I was so grateful that we had bought KN-95 masks.

Once at the trailhead at Spooner Lake Summit, I was thrilled to be in the wide open forests of the dry mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe.  We climbed and climbed, but the trail was easy.  As usual, the trails out West are so nice because of the lack of tree roots and water erosion.

Donner stepped only a couple of feet off trail to pee and suddenly there was someone coming in the opposite direction.  Bad luck, I thought.  But moments later we passed another set of people, and then another.  I realized that this was not going to be one of those remote feeling hiking experiences.

We climbed up a few thousand feet, and started getting lovely views of Lake Tahoe.  The sun started beating down on us, and we all whipped out our umbrellas.  The trees were all pine and fir trees spaced wide apart with lots of sandy ground between them.

The air was very dry.  I could feel sweat evaporating from my lower back, and my tongue felt dry since my mouth was hanging open, panting from the lack of oxygen at this high elevation.  We climbed to over 8,000ft, and my lungs could feel it.  I haven’t been at this elevation in a while.

Cute little wildflowers dotted the side of the trail and John, who had brought his Sierra Nevada field guide book stopped intermittently to identify plants.

Ten miles into our day we reached Marlette Campground, which had a water pump that we had spent quite a bit of effort trying to figure out if it would be functional or not.  Donner had even called the Tahoe Rim Trail Association (and got a reply in the form of a voice mail!).  The pump worked, and we sat there and ate lunch, while downing at least a liter of water each in order to try to stay on top of our hydration.  The next water source wouldn’t be for another 12 miles or so.

Eventually the trail became a popular mountain biking trail, and we had to jump out of the way of dozens of mountain bikers.  Maybe 50-100 mountain bikers, I kid you not.  It definitely got old and certainly slowed our progress.  On top of that the wind picked up quite a bit, and blew more dust in our faces, while making it slightly challenging to hold up our umbrellas.  But, we were making good time, and before we knew it we were already at the next water source.  Two young men were collecting water in what looked like a dribble coming out of some rocks. 

“This is Ophir Creek!?”  Donner said looking wide eyed at our water source.

“Welcome to west coast water sources!!”  I said. It actually turned out to be the headwaters of Incline Creek, but we managed to collect plenty of water from it.

We hiked a bit further and found a somewhat sheltered spot tucked away between some rocks and some trees and called it home for the night.

TRT Day 2: 24 miles

I heard John unzip the tent, and I looked at my watch, 5:50AM.  I felt fairly well rested.  Donner emerged from his tent and told us that his thermometer read just under 40 degrees.  What a perfect temperature for sleeping in.  We were hiking by 6:30AM.

We soon hit a road leading to a campground just slightly off trail where we stoped to use the toilets and dumpsters.  They also had running water, so we filled up our bottles.  The chipmunks in the campground were fearless, and one almost stuck up behind me to grab my breakfast.

The trail then climbed up to the tallest point on the trail, 10,398ft up at Relay Peak.  On the way up there was a little waterfall with many beautiful flowers on either side of it (such as monkey flowers and lupine).  The trail was very exposed, and we were so happy to have our umbrellas to keep us from getting sunburnt.  As we climbed over 9000ft, I started to really feel the effects of the altitude.  My stomach was a bit queasy, my head slightly achey and my lungs gasping for air.

The scenery, though was so breathtaking, that I easily stopped every few hundred feet to take a picture.  That made the climb much easier.

When we got to the top of Relay Peak, it felt like we were on top of the world with 360 degree views.  I hardly knew which direction to point my camera.

Then, we started the long descent to the next water source, which was a lake that was about quarter mile off trail.  Along the way we crossed from Nevada into California.  Once we got to the lake, we sat there and collected and drank water for quite some time since we knew that the next section would be over 17 miles with no water sources.  I decided to wade into the water a bit to get my feet wet and wash my dirty legs.  The water was frigid.  Across the lake we saw a deer munching on some grass, occasionally glancing up at us.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if a cougar took that deer down in front of our eyes” Donner asked.

“Maybe the deer is waiting to see a cougar take us down.” I answered.

We realized that it was already 2:30PM and we were barely half way done with the miles we had planned for the day, so we made a move, and I tried to pick up the pace a bit.  We had a lot more downhill to go, which made it easier to go quickly, but also harder on the joints.  Soon my hip started to hurt followed by my shoulder, my ankles and my feet.

Around 6PM we stopped to make dinner and let it soak.  None of us brought a stove, so all the food we are carrying needs to cold soak.  On the menu for John and I was couscous, which takes about 20 minutes to rehydrate in cold water, and Donner had instant mashed potatoes, which are still pretty instant with cold water.  By 6:30, we sat down again and ate our dinner.  Around this time I got a bloody nose.  It’s something that happens often when I hiked in such a dry climate, especially at high altitude.  A few mosquitoes started pestering us, which helped in finishing dinner rather rapidly before picking up and continuing with a few more miles.  Not 20 minutes later, John also got a bloody nose.  Somehow Donner was spared (so far at least).

We hiked a few more miles and crossed a road.  Hoping to find some camping a ways from the loud road, we continued on.  The last mile or so of a long day always feels even longer… I hurt quite a bit at this point.   I’m definitely not in thru-hiker shape.  It didn’t help that we were carrying quite a bit of water still.

We finally found a spot slightly off the trail along and ATV route.  We set up the tents quickly and dived into them to avoid the mosquitoes.  They’re not terrible, but they’re not fun to have buzzing around your head outside the tent either.

Tomorrow we’ll wake up early and try to hike the 18 miles into Tahoe City fairly quickly so that we can resupply and still hike out of town to camp.  The hotel prices in Tahoe City are outrageous, so we’re going to skip trying to stay the night there even though it would be really nice.

As I’m writing this, darkness has set, and the moon is rising, mostly full.  I hope it doesn’t keep us up.

TRT Day 3: 18 miles

At 5:45AM I heard Donner’s voice: “GOOD MORNING!!  Town day!”

We all scurried around packing up more quickly than normal, and started hiking just after 6AM.  We had 18 miles to get into town, and I knew some of them were going to hurt, because my hip was still sore from yesterday’s effort.  As we hiked, we passed an active logging site which was making a racket chopping up trees.

We had one water source for the day, and that was at Watson Lake, and we got there in short order.  I was somehow still carrying too much from our 17 mile dry stretch, so I only collected half a liter.

We passed a sign saying 14 miles until Tahoe City.  I did some mental math on how long that would take us.  Five minutes later we passed another sign saying 12 miles until Tahoe City. 

I turned to John, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the next 12 miles go as fast as those two went!”

Not 20 minutes later, another sign:  13 miles to Tahoe City.  Huh?  The signage in this area was obviously not to be trusted.  Another mile went by, and we got another sign: 12 miles to Tahoe City.  Ha.  I figured I should stop caring about how many miles it actually was and just hike.

We were at lower elevation than we had been for quite some time, and the heat we experienced really made us appreciate the altitude of the previous section.

A few bikers and a few hikers passed us, but honestly, the most remarkable part of this section was just how hot it felt.  I felt sweat dripping from my back and quickly evaporating.  At least our sweat was working, but we were probably quickly getting dehydrated.

Finally, we made the final descent into town, and I hobbled down the road to the grocery store, my hip aching.  We sat outside the store charging our devices and trying to decide whether or not we were going to spend the night in town.  There were a couple of outlets next to the store, and we bought some soda and sat there while our phones charged, and we took turns buying our resupply food.

Finally, we made the decision to spend the night in a hotel that had a hiker discount, so wasn’t as ridiculously expensive as everything else in town.

So, as I write this, we are comfortably installed in a room with two beds, contemplating where we will pig out for dinner.  A burger sounds good to me.   I’m not sure if I’ll have the opportunity to update the blog until we finish the trail, but we’re now about a third done with it.  We’re looking forward to the Desolation Wilderness, which is supposed to be the most beautiful section.  That should be coming up in a couple of days.

Now, time for a shower and a greasy meal!!

Tahoe Rim Trail: Fundraising and preparations

This year has been crazy for pretty much every single person on the planet.  Like many other Americans, John and I have been struggling with unemployment and cabin fever since March, but as the summer has wore on, some work has been coming in the door, and we have also become slightly more ambitious with hiking goals.

So, when a fellow thru-hiker and friend, Rob (trail name Donner) asked us if we would be interested in hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail with him in August, we knew we had to seriously consider it. The Tahoe Rim Trail is 165 miles long and does a loop around Lake Tahoe in California.

The idea of getting on an airplane fills me with dread, but once in California, this particular trail seems like a reasonably good idea because we could do the whole thing without hitchhiking or shuttling vehicles.  Because this trail is a loop, and goes right through (or very close to) two towns in order to resupply, it seemed like a fairly safe option given the current global pandemic.

Rob also pitched the idea of doing this hike as a fundraiser. Hiking for me has always been a selfish endeavor, and given everything that has happened, from the pandemic to the death of George Floyd and the massive protests worldwide, we felt like running away into the woods was not exactly a productive response.

The three of us have benefitted tremendously from our experiences in the outdoors and we decided to fundraise for an organization that would allow us to give those experiences to others.

The non-profit that we are fundraising for is called Big City Mountaineers, and it gets kids who would otherwise not afford to have outdoor experiences on week-long backpacking trips. These are kids that need this kind of experience the most: 85% of the kids that Big City Mountaineers take out are under the poverty line, and 15% have experienced homelessness.  Going on a backpacking trip will be a confidence boosting experience.

These expeditions will translate into life-long benefits for these children and teens! Selfishly, I also hope this creates new advocates for protecting our wilderness refuges.

We are trying to raise a lot of money, $5000 to be exact, enough to fund one whole Big City Mountaineers expedition. We have already exceeded $3,000, but we really need help to raise the rest.  Please visit the link today to learn more about the fundraising effort, this worthy organization, and our trip! Click here to donate and learn more! Even small donations are very helpful.

We will be posting updates on our trip on this blog, so feel free to follow along.   In preparation for our trip, we’ve purchased KN-95 masks (to make the plane flight less risky) and this weekend the three of us will be going on a shakedown backpacking trip locally to make sure we have everything we need, and to discuss logistics.

Please donate and support our cause! Thank you 🙂

Taking on the Pisgah 400 Hiking Challenge to Stay Sane During COVID-19

This piece originally appeared on Gossamer Gear’s blog, Light Feet

In mid-March, my husband John and I attended our annual guide training for Blue Ridge Hiking Company. Typically, we spend spring through fall guiding hikes and backpacking trips across western North Carolina. At this point, there was chatter of COVID-19 amongst the guides, but none of us quite knew the extent of what would face us next. We didn’t know this training would be the last time any of us would do anything guide-related for months.

The stay at home order came shortly thereafter, and before we knew it, everything on our calendar got deleted or postponed. We filed for unemployment, and struggled with what to do next.

With nothing else to do, people began flocking to trails. Some of the most popular hikes were seeing more visitors than on holiday weekends in the summer. Soon enough, national and state parks started closing, trailheads in the forest started closing, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy issued a statement urging thru-hikers to call it quits on their hikes. Even our local trail clubs issued statements urging people to stay off trails. I can’t tell you how torn we were during this period of time.

We decided to go for a day hike in a very remote area of Pisgah National Forest that was still open. We went on a rainy mid-week day to check out some spring ephemerals, and as we hiked, we talked about how we could stay sane during this period. We also didn’t see a single other person during our trek.

If we didn’t hike, we knew we would go crazy. We needed a COVID-19 friendly project to keep us motivated, and in the quiet of the surrounding forest, it didn’t take us long to figure one out. It would be the Pisgah 400 challenge.

The Pisgah 400 challenge involves hiking all of the trails in the Pisgah Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest. Most of the forest was actually still open during the height of the pandemic shutdowns, though many didn’t realize this because the most well-known trails were closed. We had hiked all of those trails many times anyway, so we didn’t need to cover them again in order to complete this challenge. The challenge is called Pisgah 400 because there are roughly 400 miles of trail to cover, although many of them you have to hike “out and back,” so you wind up doing a lot of them twice.

In order to reduce our impact, we mostly went hiking on rainy days mid-week. We rarely saw anyone, and when we did, we would do our best to scramble at least sex feet out of the way, and pull a buff over our faces. We also never stopped anywhere along the way for food or gas to minimize carrying any germs outside of our immediate neighborhood in Asheville. We also became much more diligent about safety since we knew that the rescue teams were stretched thin at this point. We always told someone our plans, and checked back in with them when we returned. We carried extra gear and food, so we could survive for longer if one of us got injured, and we could more easily self-rescue.

The challenge was genius for keeping us sane during coronavirus. The Forest Service never closed most of the trails we needed to cover, and as time went on and North Carolina started opening back up, most of the roads and trailheads in Pisgah opened, as well.

At the time of this writing, we are dangerously close to finishing our goal. When we do, we will be the 34th and 35th people to claim to have hiked all of these trails. Originally, I thought a good timeline would be to try to finish by the end of the year, but at this rate, we will likely finish before the end of the summer. That is, if we can finally tackle my arch enemy of trails right now, which is South Mills River Trail.

This trail crosses South Mills River dozens of times, and, of course, we chose a rainy day to attempt it. You would think we would have enough experience fording rivers at this point to realize it was a bad idea to attempt this trail during a downpour, but in our defense, we didn’t realize quite how much it was going to rain (the weatherman should really lose his job). We had to turn around halfway through this 12-mile trail at a point where the river was simply too fast and too deep to cross. It was the safest thing to do, and I would make that same decision a hundred times over. No hike is worth the risk of getting swept away in a river.

I hope that someday things will go back to normal, but in the meantime, covering remote, unpopular trails seems to be a pretty rewarding way of staying sane during COVID-19. I highly recommend it.