Lake Tahoe: How To Do Everything Wrong and Still Get It Right
If you ask me where I feel most at peace, it would be running through an airport covered in sap with a garbage bag in one hand and a calzone in the other. But let’s rewind a few days...
Since moving to Chicago over a year and a half ago, it seems like we’ve either been out of town or had visitors in town every other weekend. So the idea of having three full days home alone Labor Day weekend was rather appealing. Or at least it seemed appealing until we thought about how miserable the dogs were in the city and the guilt set in. They went from wild things to couch potatoes with no end in sight. But then again, skipping work and laying on the couch all day sounds delightful. Damn they've got it good.
So I didn’t feel too bad when we ditched our plans to take them camping at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, and instead head west for a human-only weekend. It’s important to note that at this point, it was already the week before Labor Day, so the question was: where could we go this last minute?
We were able to get free flight vouchers from a friend and immediately started making a list ranking all the places we could fly standby. As I had been searching Zillow for cozy little cabins in Northern California that week, as one naturally does when they’re bored at work, Tahoe was at the top of the list. Other destinations included Yosemite and Zion, but Yosemite during a holiday weekend sounds like a nightmare and Zion in the summer is like adding the grim reaper to your speed dial -- so we had our fingers crossed for Tahoe, but agreed we'd settle for any flight headed west with two open seats...a little game I call flight roulette.
On Friday, we headed into work with our bags packed for every possible climate. I anxiously refreshed the airline booking page every few minutes to check how many seats were still available. Matt got to the airport early and, as luck would have it, was able to score us seats on a flight into Reno. Within minutes, we booked a hotel for the night, reserved a rental car and purchased a return flight out of Sacramento.
Matt has a bit of a gambling problem, so it’s no surprise that our hotel reservation was at the Golden Nugget Casino. What was a surprise was the barbecue festival that packed the hotel and surrounding area. After finally finding a parking spot and checking into our room, it was after midnight, but that wasn’t going to stop Matt from hitting the roulette table. Not to mention, we hadn’t eaten yet and the 24-hour diner was calling our names.
It seems to be a recurring theme that Matt is so excited to be somewhere, he keeps me up late our first night and then I’m sleep deprived the rest of the trip. So despite telling him we needed to leave for Tahoe first thing in the morning or we wouldn’t get a campsite, we were up til about 4 a.m. and slept in until 9. After stopping by REI to get fuel for our JetBoil and hiking recommendations (pro tip: always stop by REI when visiting somewhere new if you want advice from a local), we finally left Reno around 11 a.m. with little hope we’d score one of the limited permits for Desolation Wilderness, the public wilderness area surrounding Lake Tahoe. About 70 percent of the permits are reservable online and were sold out for the weekend. The remaining 30 percent are first come first serve, but are highly sought after.
We showed up at one of the park offices anyway and, just as expected, were told to try again tomorrow. With nowhere to sleep for the night, we began calling every campground in town and were told they were all sold out. Finally, we got ahold of the KOA and they said they had some overflow spots available. Woo!
We quickly set up camp in the hot sun and then headed for Echo Lakes, which was recommended to us by a guy at REI. We followed the GPS up the mountain to the trailhead….and then down the mountain. Apparently we had passed it and found ourselves headed back down via a narrow series of switchbacks. After making it down, we tried it again, this time without missing our turn. We parked along the road near a cabin and met the biggest white fluffy puppy named Sampson, whose owner informed us we were walking in the opposite direction of the trailhead. She also asked us when we planned to return so she knew when to call the search party if our car was still there tomorrow. It's like she thought we had no sense of direction or something? Lewis and Clark, we are not.
The Echo Lakes Trailhead leads to the Tahoe Rim Trail, which encircles Lake Tahoe and is part of the Pacific Crest Trail, which probably either irritates through-hikers as they make their way around the day hikers romping around barefoot, or is a welcome change of scenery after days of isolation. Since we got a really late start to the day, the trail was emptying out. We hiked to the end of the lakes and made it back just after sunset. If you can’t make the hike or have a permit to camp in the area past Echo Lakes and are short on time, you can pay to hop on one of the boats that shuttles people back and forth.
The hike is an easy 5 miles out and back with a great view. On one side, you have a view of the lakes almost the entirety of the hike, and on the other, you have the towering granite of the Sierras with some vistas offering spectacular glimpses of Tahoe...and the traffic below. There are also a few cabins dotting the shores of the lake--none of which are for sale on Zillow--that can only be accessed by foot, boat or snowmobile. Our view, however, was mostly clouded by the smoke from the ongoing forest fires. Climate change is real, folks.
We picked up some beer on our way back to camp and then played cards while our pad thai and mac n cheese cooked. It was a beautiful night, so we left the rain fly off our tent and passed out gazing at the stars. We awoke at 6 the next morning and headed to the park office. We were about twelfth in line before the office opened at 7 a.m., behind a group of college students snoozing away in their sleeping bags next to the entrance.
We were able to get a permit for the Eagle Lake area of Desolation Wilderness and excitedly rushed back to camp to pack up. The hike in to this area wasn’t too far, so we decided to check out more of Tahoe before starting our hike. We stopped by a sporting goods store where we met Jay, a guy who worked there and recommended a great bouldering spot. He even lent us his guide books and crash pad for the day. The area he recommended had some really challenging problems and the boulders were covered in sap, which meant we were covered in sap. You want to know what sticks to sap? Literally everything. And what unsticks sap? Literally nothing (that I had in my pack). So we were covered in sap and pine needs and dirt and it was great.
It was getting hot, so we decided we would go cool off and clean up in the lake. However, holiday weekend + beautiful weather + two-lane road around one of the most beautiful lakes in the world = Chicago-like traffic. We didn’t get to swim, but after a long wait, we got a parking spot near one of the trailheads that led to our our permit area and we were off.
I’m not sure how far in we hiked, but after journeying off the trail a bit, we happened upon a cliff overlooking Eagle Lake and knew we were destined to sleep there. One minute I was wondering how we got so lucky to find this spot and the next I was freaking out that I would sleepwalk (for the first time ever) right over the edge to my death. I was trying to convince Matt to duct tape me into my sleeping bag when I remembered bears, and forgot all about my fear of sleepwalking.
When we first found our campsite, I installed the rope for our bear hang on one of the highest branches I could find some 50 yards away from our tent. Some people who forgot their rope and didn’t know we were there tried taking it and--long story short--it needed to be reinstalled. However, now it was dark and we had consumed a lot beer (All of which Matt carried during the 100 percent uphill hike. And I’m not talking just cans of beer, he brought those giant glass bottles of fancy beer..and more than we could have ever consumed).
This is where the fun began. After several failed attempts, Matt finally got the rope over the branch, but it wrapped around the branch several times and was stuck. After pulling really hard, it came free and sent the rock that was tied to the end of the rope rocketing towards me. I dove out of the way, falling into a cushion of shrubs below. It was hilarious, but I lost all confidence in Matt’s ability to do it, so I took over. After many more failed attempts, I came up with a new technique of swinging the rope. However, the rock wasn’t entirely secure and went flying off the rope toward Matt. We were now tied 1-1 and it was Matt’s turn again. He used a huge rock and finally got it over the branch...but the rock on one end of the rope and our garbage bag on the other lined up perfectly, sending them crashing into each other and shattering all of those glass beer bottles. We could finally go to bed...more sore from laughing than anything else.
Monday morning, we woke up with the sun and raced back down the mountain to catch our flight. I made coffee and cooked dehydrated eggs in the parking lot before making an uneducated guess as to which direction was Sacramento. Per usual, we were cutting it close making our flight, so we didn’t have time to strategically repack our backpacks. We just stuffed in whatever we could and threw the rest in a garbage bag.
That's how we ended up here: racing through the Sacramento airport covered in sap, dirt and blood with a garbage bag full of clothes. If we made our flight, it would be the only thing that went according to plan all weekend. So I stopped for a calzone.