Western States Trail – Painted Rock loop from CA-89

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I set out to do a loop hike entitled Western States Trail: Painted Rock Loop, described in one of the hiking guides for the Tahoe area, Afoot & Afield Reno-Tahoe.  I had actually hesitated for some time to try this hike solo because the trip summary includes the following verbiage: “Although generally well marked, the route uses several trail and road segments that require trail users to exercise some route-finding skill.”  I’ve been working on my route-finding skills, especially during the last two years, so I decided to give it a try.  I did have an off-trail excursion of about a mile (round-trip).  Although my route differed a bit from the written description, my GPS track looks remarkably like the route map in the guide.  I’m including more trail notes than usual in order to clarify the route because of the differences from the guidebook.

GPS track

GPS track

The hike is actually a semi-loop, or balloon, configuration, and lies entirely within the Tahoe National Forest.  The first and last parts of the loop follow the Western States Trail, which is part of the American Discovery Trail, a coast-to-coast network of over 6000 miles of multi-use trails.  The WST crosses CA-89 south of Truckee at the Midway Bridge roughly equidistant from the access roads to Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows.  Earlier in the summer I’d hiked the adjoining WST section to Squaw Valley.

There are two ways to access the trailhead, which is across CA-89 from the small parking area.  One way is to cross the road and walk on the outside of the guard rail for the Truckee River crossing.  A trail starts to become visible a few yards past the end of the guard rail.

photo of finding the trailhead

Finding the trailhead

Another way is to follow a short spur from the parking area downhill to the paved bike trail, turn right to follow the river and bike trail under the road, and then follow another short spur uphill to the right immediately after clearing the undercrossing.  The latter is safer with respect to traffic on CA-89.  The spur goes around one hairpin curve before you see a sign indicating the trail.  Either way, the Western States Trail immediately starts climbing up the hill from the Truckee River.  After 0.25 mile or so, the traffic noise becomes muffled by the intervening forest.  A little further up the hill the trail crosses a series of 4 small bridges over rivulets, all of which had running water in late August, and a hop-across of a 5th small stream.

The first 5 miles of the hike follows the Western States Trail.  It is a pleasant hike through forested areas, with occasional views across the Truckee River Canyon or Deer Creek Canyon.  This part of the route is an early section followed by the Tevis Cup, a well-known 100-mile equestrian event; the hike follows the Tevis Cup route in reverse.  There are several intersections, and at each one it is helpful to look for the modest Western States Trail marker nearby.  Some of these markers have faded or incomplete lettering on the side facing away from the intersection.  The beginning of the actual loop (see GPS track) is a Tee intersection about 2.1 miles from the trailhead after about 800 feet of climbing.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

About 3.8 miles from the trailhead there is a nice view of the skyline across the canyon.

picture of skyline across the canyon

Skyline across the canyon

The trail changes back and forth a couple of times between dirt road and single-track trail.  About 5.1 miles from the trailhead, the route leaves the Western States Trail and heads up the hillside.  The signpost for a sign that indicates “to Tahoe Rim Trail” has been broken, and the sign sits off to the side.  The connector trail continues to go through pretty forest.

image of connector trail between Western States Trail and Tahoe Rim Trail

Connector trail between Western States Trail and Tahoe Rim Trail

The next section of the hike includes a few discrepancies from both my maps and the description in the hiking guidebook.  The connector trail is labeled 0.7 mile on one map and 1.0 mile on another, and was actually 1.8 miles according to my GPS.  In any case, the connector trail ends at a paved road, which is known locally as the Fibreboard Freeway.  There is also a dirt road at this junction: clearly a major intersection, yet I couldn’t find any signs with identifications.  The guidebook instructions refer to a dirt road that goes to the right, away from the paved road, so I followed the dirt road for a ways even though it didn’t seem to be going in the right direction according to my GPS track.  After about a half mile I abandoned this exploration and returned to the intersection.  According to my maps, the Tahoe Rim Trail would cross the paved road perhaps 1¼ mile away, though there was supposed to be a short spur trail over to the TRT sooner.  Sure enough, about 0.3 mile along the paved road there was another dirt road angling away from the paved road, and barely 100 yards down this dirt road I found the Tahoe Rim Trail and turned right.  A mile or so later the TRT crosses the Fibreboard Freeway again; this intersection has better signage, including an indication that the distance to Tahoe City is 8 miles.

About 0.8 mile later, there is a short spur trail to a vista point that I presume to be Painted Rock, even though the maps show Painted Rock to be in a different place (where there apparently isn’t a spur trail for a view).  After my recent trail-finding challenges, it was especially pleasant to take a short break and enjoy the views, including Castle Peak to the northwest.

photo of Castle Peak from Painted Rock vista point

Castle Peak from Painted Rock vista point

Less than a half mile past the vista point was a nice view of Lake Tahoe punctuated by a few trees.  This happened to be the only view of Lake Tahoe on this hike.

picture of Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe

About a mile later there was a short spur trail to the right, leading to a dirt road labeled 16N53 on my maps.  This road goes down rather steeply for about 0.4 mile, along the way showing great views of Squaw Valley and surrounding peaks.  I found it prudent to pay attention to my footing, stopping frequently to enjoy the views.

image of Squaw Valley nestled beneath numerous peaks

Squaw Valley nestled beneath numerous peaks

At the bottom of this steep dirt road the loop completes at the Tee intersection 2.1 miles from the trailhead.  Retracing my way down I noticed a couple of flowers – clearly past their peak, but I believe they were snow plants, which are quite spectacularly red when they emerge from the snow as one of the earliest spring wildflowers.  I’d never seen “mature” snow plants before, and was a bit surprised at how tall they become.

photo of Snow plants which grow quite tall during the season, after emerging from the snow in spring

Snow plants grow quite tall during the season, after emerging from the snow in spring

Instead of getting irritated about taking an unplanned detour, as I sometimes do, on this occasion I celebrated my trail-finding accomplishments, having successfully negotiated a loop trail that had several not-well-marked intersections and was described as needing some trail-finding skills.  And after having hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail section past Painted Rock on several previous occasions without ever identifying the Rock, I now know where it is.

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