Crisp alpine lakes, sprawling pine forests, and looming mountain peaks surround you in every direction; the quiet air is filled with the sporadic chirping of nearby birds while a sense of serenity settles across the land; and you feel at peace as you set out on the hiking trails of South Lake Tahoe.
The Tahoe Rim Trail surrounds Lake Tahoe and can be thru-hiked or broken down into 14 day hikes ranging from 6 to 22 miles each way. These journeys include easy South Lake Tahoe excursions, strenuous North Lake Tahoe treks, and everything in between.
While most thru-hikers spend around two weeks taking in the scenery, runner Kilian Jornet set the quickest supported thru-hike record in 2009 by completing the Tahoe Rim Trail in under 39 hours. However you prefer to experience the region, we’ve compiled everything you need to know in order to tackle these South Lake Tahoe hikes.
The Length of the Tahoe Rim Trail
The Tahoe Rim Trail spans 165 miles, approximately 100 of which lie within the borders of California. This pathway loops around the Lake Tahoe Basin, winding through warm valleys, running past snowy peaks, and—should you choose to travel the 60-plus miles along the Tahoe Meadows Trail and Spooner Summit—leading into Nevada.
Tahoe Rim Trail Permits
California Campfire Permit
Though campfires are prohibited along the TRT, this free permit allows thru-hikers to use camp stoves. Permits can be obtained here and expire on the last day of the year in which they are issued.
Desolation Wilderness is the only location on the TRT that requires a day-use permit. These free permits are self-issued and available at all trailheads that enter the region.
Desolation Wilderness Permit
Thru-hikers can bypass the Desolation Wilderness camping permits—which are based on a quota system—by obtaining a wilderness permit for the Desolation Wilderness region. This area is located on the southwestern stretch of the TRT and is comprised of 63,960 acres of forests, rocky granite peaks, icy lakes, and valleys formed by glaciers. Due to its remote location and a desire to protect the untamed wilderness, travelers can only access the area on horseback or on foot, resulting in a solitary experience that can prove to be challenging.
The wilderness permit costs $10 per person (and there’s a $10 processing fee) and must be obtained within two weeks of the planned entrance into Desolation Wilderness. To get the process started, contact the U.S. Forest Service Supervisor’s Office or visit the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Supervisor’s Office in South Lake Tahoe.
What You Need to Know before Hitting the TRT
- While it is essentially the same experience whichever way you hike, most thru-hikers choose to travel clockwise around the trail.
- The maximum group size allowed on the trail is 12 people.
- Guided day, segment, and thru-hikes are available through the Tahoe Rim Trail Association.
- While the TRT is open year-round, the Kingsbury South Trailhead is off-limits during ski season, and Barker Pass Road is not accessible from October to June.
- Cell service is not reliable on most sections of the trail.
- The total elevation change along the TRT is equivalent to summiting Mount Whitney four times.
- The trail is generally well marked, with signs at every major junction, though weather conditions may prevent them from being visible.
- Temperatures vary drastically from day to night and from season to season. It’s best to hike in the summer months, when temperatures typically hit highs in the 70s and lows in the 40s—but temperatures can drop below freezing year-round. Check weather conditions before hitting the trail.
- Always be prepared for snow in the Sierra; high elevations and north-facing slopes often carry snow—even in July and August.
- Snowpack in the winter can be 10 feet high, so it is recommended to plan a hike during the summer months.
- Camping is never allowed at trailheads.
- Plan to camp 100 feet away from the trails and 200 feet away from water sources, but stay within 300 feet of the trail corridor.
- Fires are generally prohibited along the trail, though camp stoves are allowed with the proper permits.
What to Bring to the Tahoe Rim Trail
- Hiking boots
- Sandals or river shoes
- Bear canisters containing all the food needed for the journey (canisters can be rented from REI)
- California-made water bottle
- Water filter to treat drinking water
- Bear spray
- Mineral sunscreen
- Camp stove
- Freeze dried food
- Tent and sleeping bag
- Layers of clothing with extra socks
- Trail map outlining the planned hiking route
Now that you’ve got everything you need, you're ready to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail.