Total Miles: 17.0
The shade of blue hadn’t changed at all. From high above and through a scrim of smoky haze, the sapphire hue of Lake Tahoe was no less brilliant than when I had last seen it two years ago while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Only this time, Emily and I were back to join our good friends Beardoh and Sweet Pea for a summer send-off thru-hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Straddling Nevada and California and forming a 170-mile loop around Lake Tahoe, the Tahoe Rim Trail wends its way along high ridges, traverses wilderness areas, and skirts along several ski areas with the lake rarely far from view. Sharing 50 of those miles with the Pacific Crest Trail and ever under a sky of brilliant California sunshine, it’s about as pleasant a place to hike as you can call to mind.
Even that smoky haze that hung over the surrounding Sierra from another brutally difficult season of fire wasn’t enough to dampen the view or our excitement over spending another early September out on the trail. A cloudless blue sky never hurts either, and we spent the morning climbing up and over the high point of the trail. At a little over 10,000 feet, even the shade of the sky’s blue began to shift to a deeper hue that reminded me of the same effect in the High Sierra.
A constant reminder of how this land seems to be ever-increasingly tied to devastating forest fires wasn’t so much surrounding us in the form of dead or scorched timber, as much as it was directly under our feet. The small plumes of dust that issued forth with every step not only guaranteed we’d each be a dusty mess by day’s end, they spoke of one undeniable fact—the altitude, weather patterns, and months of being soaked in sunshine make this one incredibly dry place. Hours later, those same small dust plumes would mirror a much much larger and more ominous plume of a very different kind.
The afternoon hours slipped past as we strode over very pleasant trail gazing out over the lake far below, chatting away as we went. The only other sound was an occasional cooling breeze that would drift by and rustle through the dried fronds of mule’s ears that coated the mountainside, creating a quiet chorus that for the first time had me thinking that summer was already slowly slipping into autumn.
When Beardoh and I exchanged greetings with an older man walking up the trail towards us, neither of us could quite understand what he said but it sure sounded as though he had said something about a fire. We all sat down for a break and upon getting up to leave it very quickly became abundantly clear what he was referring to. Rising only a few miles away and directly from where we’d come was a large plume of smoke that was growing by the minute.
Minutes later, a low flying plane passed overhead in the direction of the fire, presumably with a payload of water or fire retardant. A trail that hours earlier had been clear and uneventful was now something quite different.
For the last few miles of the day, we’d occasionally turn back to see the plume grow, though with the prevailing wind blowing the smoke away from us, there wasn’t much call for concern other than to wonder how such a fire had been started in the first place. When a lone mountain biker passed us within a mile of where we intended to stop for the day, we had our answer: a small plane had crashed not far from Mount Rose summit. A somber end to an otherwise great start to our hike.