Tahoe Rim Trail – Big Meadow to Echo Summit

This year we made one of our goals to hike the entire 165 miles of the Tahoe Rim Trail. The TRT passes through two states (California and Nevada), six counties, one state park, three National Forests, and three Wilderness areas. The plan is to hike sections throughout the year, and hopefully complete it before the snow falls in Autumn. We started our journey the first weekend of June at the Big Meadow trailhead with the goal of backpacking to Echo Summit. Our son’s friend also joined us for this trip, and this would be his first backpacking trip ever.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Beginning at the Big Meadow Trailhead

This would be our family’s fist point to point backpacking trip, usually preferring to do out-and-backs to avoid the logistics of 2 car shuttles. If you wish to complete the Tahoe Rim Trail though, shuttling is something you have to get used to. We left a car at the Echo Summit trailhead on the south side of Highway 50. There’s a nice little parking area next to the PCT sign here. From there we drove back to the Big Meadow Trailhead. This trailhead has more parking and a bathroom, but of course more trail users as well. We got one of the last parking spots.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
First break in Big Meadow

Wanting to get underway ASAP, we quickly got our packs ready, took a quick photo at the trail kiosk, and started hiking. It wasn’t until several minutes later that realized that we weren’t just hiking. These were the first steps of our greater journey. Had I thought of this earlier, I may have been more ceremonious. Said a few words or something.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
South of Big Meadow

Not far from the trailhead, the trail climbs up to Big Meadow. We didn’t really need a break yet, but with the creek flowing through the meadow, aptly named Big Meadow Creek, it’s hard not to stop and enjoy the beauty. The boys even took off their boots to wade.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Dog water break at a creek

South of Big Meadow, the trail climbs over a pass to get to Round Lake. A small creek flows along here, and this section is home to a few mosquitoes. They didn’t bug us too bad as long as we kept moving.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Orange Peel Fungus

We started to see a lot of little fungi scattered around the trail that looked as if someone had tossed pieces of orange peels. I wondered what they might be called, as I had never seen them before. Upon returning home and looking them up, it looks like they are Orange Peel Fungus! Apparently edible, but not tasty. If this is indeed Orange Peel Fungus…

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Lunch Break at Round Lake

Winding through the old growth trees and past boulders of hardened volcanic mud, the boys discussed their swimming plans for Round Top Lake. It was the heat of the day, and we were hot from hiking over the pass. As it always seems to go though, once at the lake the cool mountain breeze coming off the water quickly cooled us down. Nobody was ready to jump in anymore. Instead we all took off our boots and simply waded.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Leaving Round Lake

During lunch we joked about the obvious names in this part of the woods. The person who came up with the names was either unimaginative or in a big hurry. Big Meadow. Big Meadow Creek. Round Lake. And now that I know I saw Orange Peel Fungus, it couldn’t be more fitting.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
The Dardanelles above Round Lake

After a refreshing break at Round Lake, it was time to get hiking again. We weren’t sure where we’d end up that night, but we were hoping to hike close to half of the 15.3 miles to echo summit in order to avoid a strenuous second day.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Enjoying a meadow view

As we hiked along the lake’s east shore we marveled at the giant volcanic mud boulders that bordered the lake. Each one was unique with its own pattern of rocks embedded in the mud. Occasionally through the trees, we could see the rocky cliffs of the Dardanelles above us. It was obvious these boulders along the lake came crashing down from high above. At one point we even heard some rocks falling, taking their time as they bounced their way down, echoing through the valley.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
A great place to refill our water supplies

From Round Lake the trail climbs up into high meadows and aspen trees. We crossed many little seasonal snow melt streams along the way, but didn’t want to stop for water until we crossed the larger inlet creek for Round Lake. When we reached the creek, it looked like the perfect place for another rest, and the water was fast and clear, perfect for refilling our water bottles.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Red Lake Peak

As I started on my happy chore of filtering creek water, the boys started building us a bridge out of downed tree branches. Kristy and the dogs supervised the action from their resting spot. When I finished filling everyone’s bottles and taking a long drink, we put our packs on, ready to continue. The boys gave their new bridge a try, but were crashing through and almost falling in. Mom and Dad decided to find a safer route upstream.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
We made it to the PCT!

After safely crossing the creek, we continued into the woods bordering some meadows. A good view of Red Lake Peak (climbed earlier this year) opened up to the southeast. Suddenly we came out of the woods and into Meiss Meadow. This is the southernmost end of the Tahoe Rim Trail, and it joins the Pacific Crest Trail here as it heads north for many miles along the west side of Lake Tahoe.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Welcome to the Meiss Family Cabin

Across the Meadow was the Meiss Family cabin and barn. We took a quick side trip to investigate. We found the main cabin padlocked shut. The barn was open, but it looked exactly like a barn inside, with a muddy floor and makeshift plywood chairs and table. It’s not a place you’d want to hang out unless you were fleeing a torrential storm. The best place to view the cabin and barn was from the corral outside.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
At the Cabins

Five miles into our hike now, we were all starting to get a little tired. Having started hiking sometime after noon, our bellies were ready for dinner. It was two miles to Showers Lake from here, the halfway point of the trip. We didn’t think we’d make it that far, but decided to hike north to see how far we’d make it.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
5 miles in, 10 miles to go

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
North on the PCT

We hiked just a short ways when we came to the headwaters of the Upper Truckee River at the north end of the meadow. It was deep and wide enough that we’d have to take off our boots to cross it. Since it was starting to cool down, the thought of crossing the icy river didn’t seem too appealing.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Setting up camp near Meiss Lake

Just to the northeast was Meiss Lake, and there was some firm ground at the edge of the woods overlooking the lake. Everything was pointing to setting up camp, so that’s just what we did. We found a nice spot under the pines, with privacy from the trail, overlooking the meadow and lake. We haven’t camped in many spots prettier than this one.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Reading before dinner

After setting up camp, the boys explored and read books while we worked on dinner. We were all starving. For dinner we had noodles with vegetable broth and fresh vegetables. Delicious. By the time we started doing dishes, I thought I was going to nod off. We hit the tents just as it got dark, and settled in for a long night’s sleep. I didn’t even make it to the book I brought, asleep instantly.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Kristy’s backcountry kitchen

The next morning we headed down to the creek to get water for morning beverages. It seemed to take forever to just get a couple bottles though. We decided to return later after breakfast when we did our river crossing. After breakfast and coffee, we packed up our gear and headed out for a long day of hiking.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Alpenglow before bedtime

We got to the river ford just as several other people were passing through. It became a group crossing. Halfway across, I was glad we didn’t cross the night before. It was freezing! It wasn’t too bad in the morning sun though. Once at the other side, I started filtering more water for the day.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Good morning!

Just like before breakfast, the filter didn’t seem to be doing much. Perhaps the element was clogged. Then it hit me. The little scouring pad that I tossed aside when packing at home wasn’t for dishes. It was for cleaning the filter. Dang it! Luckily I had my iodine water treatment pills as backup. We scooped up river water in all our bottles, and dropped a pill in each. In about 20 minutes, we’d have safe water to drink. Luckily the water was nearly crystal clear already, with no floating debris.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Water crossing at the Upper Truckee

Not long after we crossed the river, we started encountering patchy snow. We realized we made an excellent choice to camp where we did, because everything was now snowy or muddy. Not only that, the trail was starting to get steeper.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Patches of snow

We reached Showers Lake, and it was mostly more of the same. Snow above the lake, and wet and muddy in the runoff. We talked to a group of ladies here that were hiking the same route as a day hike, and discussed the route ahead of us. We all hoped the snow would clear over the next ridge. We really didn’t want to go back after coming this far. 8 more miles to Echo Summit, 7 miles back to Big Meadow.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Climbing to Showers Lake

Just getting around Showers Lake seemed to take forever. At first we were trying to keep our boots dry, stepping from dry spot to dry spot. There was no good route through though. Soon our boots were soaked. We made it around the lake and took a break to wring out our socks. I scouted the route ahead. Just to the north was a huge canyon. I could see the way around the top of the canyon high in the snow above. Getting up to a little shelf above the canyon on the other side was our next goal.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Showers Lake and the route ahead

We began what would be a hike through mostly snow for the next several miles. Luckily the snow was pretty firm, and we seldom post-holed through. It was actually way better than walking through the mud. Near our next ridge crossing, we paused for a break on a dry patch of ground. The trail was a creek bed here from all the melting snow, and I found a little pool of water where it ran off the trail. I got the water filter cleaned up a bit, and was able to refill everyone’s water bottle.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
North of Showers Lake

Over the next pass, we just kept following the footsteps of previous trail users. Every once in a while, you’d see the trail where the snow was melted. Someone must have had a GPS to stay on track so well. Sometimes the snow would clear a lot, and we’d lose sight of the trail. We’d have to spread out and look for the trail or more footprints. The dogs were being mostly carried at this point to help protect their paws from the snow.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Lake Tahoe to the Northeast

We ran into a group of guys hiking the opposite direction at one of the intersections. We talked and joked with them for a bit. They asked me where we were headed, and when I told them Echo Summit, their faces got really serious. “You mean today?”, they asked? They had come that direction, and said it was pretty much snowy the whole way with exception of the last couple miles. There was also a treacherous pass to cross.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Trekking across the snow

We continued on, following footprints in the snow, and scouting for the trail. Eventually we made it to Bryan Meadow and another trail intersection. From this point we knew we had 4 miles left. Saying this aloud kind of broke our spirits. This was almost as much as we hiked the first day, and we were already exhausted. Our second pair of socks were soaked through now too. One more mountain pass to go though, and we had no choice but to just keep making forward progress.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Where’s the trail?

The trail leaves Bryan Meadow to the northeast up a small canyon. We followed the trail for maybe 100 yards, and then there was a large fallen tree blocking the trail. No problem, we’d just walk around it. On the other side though, there was no sign of a trail and no footprints in the snow. Just gone. The woods started to get thicker, and there wasn’t a clear path through. Nothing at all that looked like a trail corridor. A sinking feeling descended on me at this point. I wasn’t lost, but I wasn’t sure we’d have enough daylight left to get over the pass if we had to go exploring. There would be no way to find our way over the snowy pass with headlamps. I knew we could stay another night if we really needed to. We were pretty much out of food, but there was water to be had everywhere. The big problem was that we were expected back that night, and the boys had school in the morning. Additionally, you don’t really want to take someone else’s kid out backpacking for the first time, and then not return them to their mother when expected. This would not go over well at all. We’d have to figure this out and keep moving.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Muddy Buddies

Instead of going further up the canyon, we (I) decided to climb straight up the mountain. I figured with a clear view of the area, we’d be able to determine our position and route. Once at the top, I could see the route ahead, a big steep canyon that we’d have to find a way down through. We would need to find the trail though if we had any hope of getting to the bottom safely. From our position on the map, I knew (or hoped anyway) that we could hike down the sunny side of the ridge, and we’d eventually intersect the trail.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Dry Ground!

Thankfully we found the trail, and it was a great sight to see. We picked up the footprints again, and they lead us down into a snowy cliff section. The trail was not visible at this point, but there was an obvious route down through the granite boulders. After we got down a ways, the snow thinned, and the trail became more visible. We were now on the north face on a steep slope though. Snowbanks covered the trail at times, and we had to dig our boots and poles into the snow to keep from sliding down the mountain. The mosquitoes seemed to sense our moment of peril, and descended upon us with no mercy.  I wish I had photos from this section, but nobody was feeling particularly photogenic at this moment.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
Almost done

Once the trail leveled out and headed north, we were finally out of the snow.  There were probably about 2 miles left to hike, and if it got dark now, we’d be able to find our way pretty easy. The mosquitoes were still thick, but we were moving quicker now. The cloud of bugs followed just behind us in our wake. We were exhausted, but we seemed to draw some new energy. We could feel the trailhead calling us. The dogs could feel it too, and they trotted along side us. As soon as we saw the car, I felt every last bit of energy leave my body. We couldn’t get our packs and wet boots and socks off fast enough. It was 7:30 PM when we finally piled into the car. There was quite an interesting smell brewing in the car as we drove off, but being able to sit down without swatting mosquitoes was pure heaven.

TRT Big Meadow to Echo Summit
The End! For now.

As miserable as I might make this second day sound, it was still oddly fun.  There were no real mental breakdowns either, and only one water bottle chucking.  Everyone stayed tough.  A challenge like this reminds you that you’re alive. It always surprises me what you can really do when you have to. I also knew that after a few days, when the aches and pains subsided, we’d be excited to hit the next section of the TRT. This has proved to be true, but we all agree that we plan to wait until the snow melts a bit more! 7 more sections, 150 miles to go…

The complete photoset of this trip is on Flickr HERE.

The official Tahoe Rim Trail site.


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