Bike Rides & Hikes

Fresh Tracks: Spooner Summit trek may leave you breathless

Lake Tahoe emerges well into the Tahoe Rim Trail Spooner Summit hike in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The out-and-back adventure includes a 1,993-foot elevation gain.
Lake Tahoe emerges well into the Tahoe Rim Trail Spooner Summit hike in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The out-and-back adventure includes a 1,993-foot elevation gain. rpench@sacbee.com

Five minutes into this trek, smack in the middle of the climb from the Spooner Summit trailhead on the Tahoe Rim Trail, you probably will be cursing my name. That is, if you aren’t so hypoxic that forming words is beyond your lung capacity.

A mile in, and you might be so put out by the steady uphill via switchbacks that you express a desire that I do something anatomically impossible to myself.

At 3 miles, when the real climbing begins as you ascend to 8,800 feet, you will either be plunged into a fugue state or wonder what in the world The Bee was thinking in recommending a Fresh Tracks that resembles nothing so much as nature’s sadistic Stairmaster – set to maximum resistance.

All right, so, granted, the first half of this 10.4-mile out-and-back in the lush forest about 15 miles north of South Lake Tahoe can be a bit taxing. But by the time you reach the turnaround, at just over 5 miles, you may find yourself thanking me.

Not for the extreme workout – though your cardiovascular system will surely benefit – but for the view that will hit you as you round the final uphill curve fraught with jagged rocks and flowering mule’s ear plants waving you onward in the suddenly stiffening breeze.

Common landscape adjectives fail to do justice to the view.

Expansive?

Certainly. The conifers and aspen that shade you on the way up dwindle and, suddenly, you emerge into a vast swath of open space, the kind of verdant alpine meadow that would set Julie Andrews a-twirl.

Panoramic?

No doubt. If you weren’t already aware of the sheer size of Lake Tahoe, the view from here will astound. If you leave the single-track trail and carefully scale a collection of granite boulders at cliff’s edge, you can see clear to South Point on your right, Zephyr Cove and almost down to the town of Stateline on your left. In the distance, even the myopic can see the jutting land mass on Tahoe’s west side, the Crystal Range still sporting wisps of snow, a mere winter combover, in early July.

Colorful?

Well, duh! The lake’s famous blueness, heralded on bumper stickers affixed to roughly half the automobiles in California, is on full display. But the hue is given an added lushness when offset by the coniferous carpet of dark green below as well as the stark gray of the granite boulders and darker tint of other igneous rock.

Lonely?

Maybe solitudinous is more apt. I must’ve spent 20 minutes chilling at the viewpoint – identified on most maps as the plateau between the western flanks of South Camp Peak to the north and Genoa Peak to the south – on a sunny summer morning and encountered nary a soul. In fact, it wasn’t until well into my descent back to Spooner Summit that I saw another trail user huffing and puffing upward – in this case, two mountain bikers, backs bent and necks craned upward, walking their bikes in search of flatter terrain.

Solitude is your reward for enduring the 2,000-foot elevation gain in the first 5 miles. Not many hikers make it beyond the first 1.7 miles, where you cross a wide, dusty fire road leading to Duane Bliss Peak. And that is a good turnaround for those seeking a mellower hike. Fewer still make it beyond the next junction with another fire road, at the 3-mile mark. But it’s only after that when the Tahoe Rim Trail trail provides first glimpses of the lake peeking between trees, sort of a coming-attractions trailer for the featured performance.

Once you’re done drinking in the views, the trip back is a 2,000-foot elevation loss. Enjoy. But somehow (and isn’t this always the case?) the downhill doesn’t seem as extreme as the uphill. You can almost glide down and, because you aren’t hyperventilating anymore, you can take time to appreciate the summer bloom that’s said to peak in late July and early August.

Most prominent are patches of purple penstemon, which dot the meadows amid fallen tree trunks. Because I’m horticulturally illiterate, I mistook these waving, small-leafed beauties as lupine. The Internet, the autodidact’s best friend, set me straight and even provided the origin of the plant’s sobriquet, “Bearded Tongue,” so named because of its protruding, hairy stamen. Other technicolor flowers I admired but misidentified: red snow plant, tiny tube-shaped buds I thought were Indian paintbrush; Indian paintbrush, which I identified as alpine lily; mule’s ear, whose yellow flowering I guessed was some type of poppy; and bulbous white perideridia, which I dismissed as dandelion.

This much I do know: By the route’s end, you will have forgotten all about the pain of climbing, gratefully distracted by the views and the hues.

SPOONER SUMMIT

Trail length: 10.4 miles (out-and-back)

Alternative trail length: 12.2 miles (point-to-point to Kingsbury North)

Elevation gain: 1,993 feet

Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Highway 50 to South Lake Tahoe. Continue on Highway 50 about 15 miles to a signed pullout on the right for Tahoe Rim Trail Spooner Summit. There is a parking lot on the lefthand side of the road that serves a trailhead to Spooner Lake. Park at the lot on the righthand side (east) of Highway 50 and look for the trailhead kiosk to the southeast.

Route: Follow the switchbacks uphill for the first mile before it flattens a bit. Cross a fireroad at 1.7 miles. Keep straight on single track (look for blue TRT arrow). At 3 miles, you’ll cross another fire road (unsigned Genoa Peak Road). Look for wooden fence post with the blue TRT logo and follow single track uphill until you reach a wide plateau with sweeping views of Lake Tahoe at 5 miles. Retrace steps to trailhead.

Point-to-point route: You’ll need a car shuttle. Park one car at Kingsbury North trailhead (From Highway 50, turn right on Highway 207, then turn left (north) on Benjamin Drive (which turns into Andria Drive) for 2 miles until it dead-ends. Take the other car to Spooner Summit to begin the trek. After reaching the plateau at 5 miles, the route leads on a modest, forested downhill with limited lake views to the Kingsbury North trailhead.

Difficulty: Moderate

Exposure: Mix of sun and shade

Toilets: At Spooner Summit trailhead only

Parking: Free

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