Thru Hiking Around North America’s Largest Alpine Lake

Hey everyone! I’m PJ! As an avid hiker and outdoorsman who loves to travel, I’ve been fortunate to explore trails in some incredible places around the globe: Machu Picchu, Snowdonia National Park, the Grand Canyon, Half Dome (twice, solo both times), and countless other trails across West Coast and especially in the Pacific Northwest and California, which I’ve called home most of my adult life.

In summer of 2022, I was thrilled to be selected as a Thru Hike Syndicate Ambassador, alongside a very diverse group of thru-hikers, for my planned thru-hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) with my black lab, Major. Today, I want to tell you not only about my experiences—both good and bad—on the TRT itself, but also some of the preparation that went into completing the journey and what I learned along the way. My hike on this trail is going to stay with me for the rest of my life and I hope this inspires you to get on the trail, whatever that might look like for you!

Before we dive in, I probably should talk a little bit about how I got here and chose the TRT.

A man wearing backpacking gear with his black lab

Finding the Right Moment

In 2014, during one of my stints living in California, my friends and I found ourselves living in a ski lease at Lake Tahoe for the winter. I was instantly drawn to the beauty of the area. That winter, which was relatively mild, I was not only able to get some great skiing in, but also explore some of the trails around Tahoe. There, I learned about the TRT and it immediately became a bucket list hike for me—being a hike around North America’s largest Alpine Lake—but it was certainly not something that I was going to tackle while there was still snow.

As the season came to an end, I found myself living on a houseboat and volunteering to teach disabled students how to ski in Seattle, some 13 hours away from Lake Tahoe. Even with the distance, my desire to hike the TRT never faded. I hadn’t completed any thru-hikes even remotely near its distance—roughly 170 miles—but I was confident I’d return to Tahoe to take on the challenge.

A man in backpacking gear posing with his black lab along the Tahoe Rim Trail

Fast forward to 2020 and life changed drastically for everyone. I had just fostered/foster failed/adopted my second black lab, Major, from Forever Home Dog Rescue in Edmonds, Washington, before I sold my houseboat and we began living in my camper van. With the world shut down around us, van life wasn’t the most ideal situation. I thought back to my 2014 time in a ski lease and knew Tahoe could provide a good option for that winter with many ski resorts, availability of short-term furnished housing and plenty of outdoor dining options already established. By November of 2020, I had secured another ski lease and Major and I were living in a great little cabin again in South Lake Tahoe for the winter.

As it turns out, I ended up staying in Tahoe longer than expected and, as summer 2021 came around, I decided to seize the opportunity to hike the TRT. The trail had never faded from my mind. I had all the gear, and I was determined it was going to happen.

I didn’t yet grasp the drastic weather shift Lake Tahoe endures every summer.

The beginning of the 2021 summer season was unseasonably hot—well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit—and not ideal for carrying a heavy pack for long durations on a trail that is well known for being very dry. I delayed my trip and planned to get on the trail later in the summer.  I was disappointed, but didn’t think it would be a big deal to wait until the end of the summer. I knew people hiked the TRT all summer long, and living in Tahoe offered me some flexibility.

I couldn’t have known, but there was one more surprise in store for me: the Caldor Fire. One of the worst fires California has seen, this fire evacuated Lake Tahoe and closed parts of the trail well beyond summer’s end. It burned only a few miles from my cabin in Lake Tahoe and scorched a big portion of the TRT itself.

On its own, witnessing this fire destroy such an incredible area was traumatizing enough, and it was all the more traumatic experiencing my first evacuation. I already had strong feelings about climate change and how it’s impacting the outdoors, and this fire really elevated them.  It probably goes without saying that the trail was off limits for that summer, and I wasn’t intending to stay in Lake Tahoe until the next summer. My initial disappointment turned to dismay when it became clear that it might not be time for my bucket list hike just yet.

As time went on, however, the TRT held me there in the Tahoe area. I had unfinished business. I decided I couldn’t leave without giving the trail a proper attempt, and I wasn’t going to chance a delay until the end of summer the next time around—Major and I were getting on the trail as early as possible.

While I waited for my opportunity, I met the team at Tahoe Rim Trail Association(Opens in a new window) at a few events I’d attended. Committed to the stewardship and preservation of the TRT, I wanted to help fundraise for their “Raise the Rim” program, raising over $500 (just over $3 per mile) for them as they planned for their busy summer season.

A stormy day over Lake Tahoe

I didn’t know then how much they deserve it. I found that out just how invaluable their service is while on the trail, especially seeing the restoration they were already able to accomplish a single season after the Caldor Fire had taken out parts of the trail.

Of course, I also felt fortunate as a newly minted Thru Hike Syndicate Ambassador. I’d get to hike the trail I’d been waiting nearly a decade for with great new gear from companies which care about building inclusive communities outdoors—something I am deeply passionate about. I believe the outdoors are for everyone.

And so, the plan was finally coming together. I’d embark on a 10-day journey, hiking the TRT counter-clockwise around North America’s largest alpine lake beginning June 3, 2022.

A man in backpacking gear posing with a landscape view of Lake Tahoe in the background

Getting on a big trail in a mountain town in early June, I knew I might hit some challenges with weather and leftover snow, but I had no idea exactly how brutal some of these challenges would prove to be. There are never going to be ideal conditions when you’re planning something 10 days out. You have to put a stake in the ground and start in order to achieve your goal, and then be prepared to adapt the plan as necessary.

Doing so is well worth the reward.

My trip was full of highlights, like never-ending views of Lake Tahoe from directions I had only ever looked up at, the section of the trail that intersected with the PCT and the people I got to meet along the way.

I was also lucky to get to do most of it with Major by my side. Since I was based in Tahoe, I was able to have friends meet me at some of the trailheads for resupply and to take Major off trail for a break while I continued on. He ended up hiking over 100 miles of the TRT with me.

A man in backpacking gear kneeling next to his black lab on the Tahoe Rim Trail

Embarking on the TRT

For the first two days of our trek, Major and I were joined by a friend of mine who hiked over 40 miles with us. We crossed Freel Peak, known as one of the highest points of the trail, where we were met with deep snow. At one point, I accidentally slid some 15 feet on slick snow, confirming how risky the trail can be so early in the year.

On day three, I was onto the segment infamously known as one of the hottest, driest stretches of the trail, with no water for over 22 miles. I was very grateful that I had sent Major off trail for this segment, knowing I would meet up with him again in two days, when my friends met me for a resupply day in Tahoe City, a little town on the Northwest corner of the lake.

That day, I met another group of early season thru-hikers, including a 66-year-old grandmother  of five who had just started backpacking last year with a completion of the Appalachian Trail (AT). We started chatting because I had a pride flag attached to my Exos bag for pride month, and it turned out she has two trans adult children—it was a safe space and great way to establish community while on the trail.

A blue backpack, with an orange sleeping pad and a pride flag strapped to the outside

I was completely inspired by her and her story: undertaking her first big hike—the AT—as a solo woman trying to make it back in time for the birth of her fifth grandchild last summer. It was refreshing to see. Again, the outdoors are for everyone.

That night, I found a campsite featuring wide open views of Lake Tahoe, which not all segments of the trail provide, as well as an expansive granite campsite. It was my favorite of the entire trip.

A man standing overlooking the lake, with camp set up in the foreground

The next morning, I met another friend at the next trailhead. The plan was to enjoy a quick lunch before I was back on trail to hike the detour road that bypasses the highest segment around Mount Rose and Relay Peak, which the TRT Association had recommended as closed due to conditions.

Unfortunately, that morning, I’d woken up to news that two hikers had to be rescued along the detour road via snowmobile the previous night, just a few miles from my next trailhead. It was decision time. I was a solo hiker and even the detour road would be a challenge. As a local, it would be easy to get back later and complete the section via the trail, and I knew I wasn’t ready for conditions that could require snowmobile rescue missions.

Deciding to bypass the detour road, I hitched a ride through the refuel town of Incline Village and hiked up as far as I could from the next trail head. It all worked out and I found a really great camp spot to reset and regroup for the night. After having to change plans, it can be hard to mentally reset enough to keep going.

To bring myself back, I reminded myself why I wanted to hike this trail in particular. It was a loop around North America’s largest alpine lake. I was living in Tahoe as a local and had already been delayed a season due to the Caldor Fire. I also thought of the story of my new friend, the grandmother, and how she was out here pushing it with me in the early season. I wanted to keep going.

A man and his dog backpacking along the Tahoe Rim Trail

The next day I hiked 20 miles filled with fields of spectacular wildflowers, vast meadows, creeks and streams. My journey took me down to Tahoe City at lake level, where I’d again meet my friends, change out some of my used clothing and get Major back on trail with me!

To my relief, the weather turned for the better that day. Heading back down towards lake level, I was even able to change into my shorts for the first time! It was especially nice to have a “calmer” trail day as well after I had to reset my plans and expectations the day before.

In Tahoe City, I also caught up with my new trail friends again, who advised me that I made the right choice skipping the road detour of Mount Rose and Relay Peak and outlined their struggles post-holing through deep snow. We were kind of playing leapfrog at this point and it was nice to have a little trail family, even though we weren’t on the same exact schedule.

Seven miles later after leaving Tahoe City to continue my journey, I realized it was nice to have the connection. Major and I camped with them that night, even though it wouldn’t be as intense of a segment for me (they arrived in Tahoe City after I did). The following morning they got a head start and, with only Major by my side, I pushed on to the part of the trail I was most looking forward to: Desolation Wilderness.

Desolation Wilderness is probably the most well-known area of the greater Tahoe Basin. The TRT here consists of 32 miles of pristine granite and alpine views. It’s also where I expected the most weather-related challenges.

My first day in the Desolation Wilderness was incredible, delivering on everything I had been excited for. Major and I hiked 19 miles to a great campsite near some alpine lakes and caught an amazing sunset. At this point, it had become very clear that a storm was coming in. I will forever be impressed with and grateful for how well my new tent, courtesy of the Thru Hike Syndicate, did in the high winds that night.

The next morning, there was a slight break in the weather. I skipped breakfast and broke down camp quickly in an attempt to beat the pending storm as much as possible. Just a few miles from camp, I began making my way up to some mountain passes—but that was before it all went wrong.

Facing Down the Storm

Day nine on the trail was certainly not one that I’ll ever forget anytime soon. Major and I had only gone a mile or two before torrential rain began. No big deal; my pack was covered in my new raincover and I knew I could push on in the rain. At this point, the “trail” was just tracks on deep snow. That also meant they were easily washed away with the downpour. I had lost the trail in the snow and pouring rain with no visibility. It was raining so hard I couldn’t use the GPS on my phone. Lesson learned: if you’re going to be reliant on your phone for GPS, remember to put your phone in a waterproof case first.

Down in town that day, wind gusts were reported at 60 mph. Winds were even stronger high in the mountains and my hat and sunglasses were blown off. At one point, while trying to find my way back to the trail, the wind caught me and my pack like a sail and blew me 20 feet down the hill. It was not a good situation.

The only relatively safe way I could navigate was to head back down to the lake I had just camped at to figure out a plan from there.

A man and his dog in their tent, surrounded by backpacking gear

I’m an experienced hiker but, when you’re on the trail, safety HAS to come first, regardless of plans or intentions. These kinds of days happen in a flash, and you have to know when to trust yourself enough to turn back and get to safety. Frankly, I was already thinking of heading back to the nearest trailhead for cell service where a friend could pick me up.

A couple miles later, on the trail now filled with seven inches of water, I finally crossed paths with some Pacific Crest Trail hikers going the opposite direction. They were really struggling as well, so we all decided to group up for the remaining 18 miles. Everyone was very grateful that my phone still worked enough at the trailhead to call my friend for help.

Back to safety, I headed back to my home in Tahoe, and I was able to offer my fellow hikers a dry place to crash for the night and a hot shower as well. It felt awesome to offer what I had available to me to the hiking community.

Finishing Strong

I’m not sure most people would have been excited to get back on trail, bright and early the next morning, but I was determined to finish after the storm had cleared. I may have had a night in my own bed, but I refused to take my victory shower that night.

The last section that remained was going to be one of the hardest. “Hard” here is an interesting word. It’s known as a physically “hard” section of the trail, but the part that was the hardest for me was seeing the scorched landscapes left behind by the Caldor Fire. Especially after a really bad day on the trail, it was challenging to see the direct impacts of climate change like that.

Walking through burnt trail signs and acres upon acres of scorched trees brought back all the trauma from the previous summer’s evacuation. It was completely devastating to witness firsthand impacts of the fire on the trail, knowing that it was so close to my house. All of Tahoe felt it that summer and I was experiencing the results up close and personal.

As difficult as this was, hiking this section also reinforced how much work had been done (in one off-season, no less) by the TRT Association to try to restore the trail as much as possible. I was so glad I had made the decision to raise money for their organization with my hike.

Landscape view of the Tahoe Rim Trail, with signs of a burn not long ago

The feeling of getting through this last section and finishing my hike around North America’s largest alpine lake was great! Despite some significant hardships, Major and I had achieved a pretty big goal in 10 days, and I had so many stories to tell as a result. I’m so glad I did it and felt so accomplished.

I documented a day-by-day recap that is now highlighted in my Instagram stories(Opens in a new window). I hope my journey inspires you to get on the trail, and helps you prepare for the surprises you’ll encounter along the way. I’d love the chance to answer any other questions if you’re thinking of backpacking or thru-hiking. If you’d like to connect and enjoy pictures and stories of outdoors and travel adventures—usually with a very cute and expressive black lab in tow—follow us on Instagram(Opens in a new window) or send me a DM with any follow-up questions!