Every summer we pack up our bikes, load the car full of duffel bags, mountain bikes, fishing poles, and our trail-loving dog for a non-stop adventure on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. The five to six hour drive through California’s Central Valley and up the Sierras is almost always uneventful, filled with various stops at gas stations, fast food places, and rest areas for a quick pit stop. After several of these mind numbing hours on endless freeways powered by travel cups of brown swill, we finally crest the top of beautiful Donner Pass.
At that point, we know our mountain bike trip has begun in earnest. You can see the trails all around, smell the heady scent of pine, and feel that bright alpine sun on your skin. Barrelling down the other side of the summit into the valley below — through Truckee’s wild-west shtick — and eventually arriving at the north shore of the lake at the city of Kings Beach seems to take an eternity. We are not alone. Tahoe’s only scourge is weekend traffic, which welcomes us on the main road. It’s jammed packed with drunk, happy tourists. We pick our way through the crowd to arrive at our destination. Good thing almost all of them don’t know how to truly enjoy this place. It’s found in the shopping malls, crowded public beaches, casinos nor parasailing. It’s found on your bike way up on the perfect trails that literally surround the area, getting away from it all.
I didn’t think that going to Tahoe this year was in the cards, but since my husband and I had a business commitment in nearby Reno we decided to plan accordingly. You can’t expect two hard-core mountain bikers to travel to the Tahoe area and not anticipate at least one ride! On previous trips we would always stay in the Truckee/Tahoe City area, but because of our prearranged business trip we decided to stop at Donner Lake on the way home from Reno to ride. Also, we absolutely needed to include to a detour to Tahoe City before leaving the area. I had been clamouring to go to Tahoe for months but – as luck would have it – we didn’t have an opportunity for a full mountain biking trip this year. Getting in a couple of rides while in the area is undoubtedly alright by me!
We arrived in Reno Sunday evening and after a light dinner we hit the sack with visions of singletrack dancing in our heads. The first half of the day was consumed by a long, arduous meeting. We figured there would be little time to do much else, but we got lucky when the meeting ended in the early afternoon. Cool! We saw the perfect opportunity for a quick ride on the North Shore.
TAHOE XC CENTER
A fairly easy drive from Reno to Tahoe City, the Tahoe XC Center is a great starting place for some really awesome trails. They even offer mountain bike rentals and a small cafe at the trailhead. During the winter, it’s a popular XC ski area offering groomed trails and hosting races. But this is summer and we have other plans for these great trails. From the parking lot, we head across a meadow then straight up the hill, around a 500 foot steady climb on singletrack until we get to a paved logging road at the Tahoe rim. We turn right onto the road and continue to climb until we spot the Tahoe Rim Trail on the left, this is where the fun really begins.
You can’t go wrong with any section of the Tahoe Rim Trail and this is no exception. We begin to make our way up the front side until we reach the ridgeline. The ridgeline offers impressive elevated views of the massively blue lake on one side, and the Squaw Valley area on the other. We allow a few minutes to catch our breath, take some pictures, and take in the spectacular scenery. The trail is so awe-inspiring you don’t feel the altitude and grade of the climb. What you do notice are the amazing views, technical challenges and the flow of the moon dust covered singletrack. We continue climbing until we reach the very top and cruise the fun up-and-down sections leading us along the ridgeline. The next section of trail is a winding narrow powdery section surrounded by giant boulders interspersed with thick tree cover and rock gardens. I have the urge to speed through this section like a Jedi, but too much speed into a rock garden or set of roots can send you crashing into one of those giant boulders. It must happen all the time, though, as it’s very easy to get carried away on this flowy masterpiece.
At the end of this section of downhill, you encounter the highlight of this ride – the Western States Trail. It’s a pivotal section of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. This event is the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race and it’s the ultimate endurance running race, but for us the trail offers some seriously fun mountain biking. It swoops down, switch backing through dense forest and over a creek via a wooden bridge where it finally empties you out onto the paved Truckee river trail. We cruise slowly back to town – and our car – during which we are passed by crowds of college students party-tubing down the river.
ALPINE ROLLER COASTER – GRANLIBAKKEN
Early the next morning we made our escape back to Tahoe City for a couple of hours of sweet trails before we had to be back in Reno for an afternoon conference. This time Granlibakken Resort just south of town is our destination. Granlibakken is a cross-country ski resort that offers incredible mountain biking in the summer. Epic trails winding through pine trees and granite rock make for a supreme riding experience.
My husband Rick and I have been riding here for years and it is Tahoe mountain biking at its best. We set out on our favourite trail which winds its way up to a spot called Paige Meadows. The climb is moderate and the trail is covered in several inches of moon dust and small rock gardens, but it’s so worth it as you reach the upper sections. Stunning scenery awaits you: singletrack meandering through the meadow with colourful wildflowers, aspen trees, and tall grasses swaying in the late afternoon summer breeze, plus an abundance of butterflies and grasshoppers. These are not just ordinary butterflies, they’re an assortment of small, brightly coloured ones which flit around with no fear of people. They literally land on your arm as you watch them. It’s one of the most tranquil and peaceful places I have ever seen, and an outstanding spot to take a break from riding and enjoy a snack.
We continue on our way across the meadow until we reach a junction: left will take you to Squaw Valley and right will take you down to the Truckee River at the spot where it intersects with the heart of downtown Tahoe City. We choose to go right, which is a fast dusty singletrack interspersed with rocky sections. The last two miles of the trail are sharp switchback sections under dense tree cover that gets thicker as you approach the bank of the river. This area has excellent swimming holes – time to hop off your bike and cool down in the clear and cold flowing water. As you cruise back through town you pass over Fanny Bridge, named for the throngs of people who are always leaning over it to watch the hundreds of salmon who collect to spawn below.
DONNER LAKE LOOP
This was the last day of our trip so our plan was to stop at one of the many fabulous trails along the way and get in one more ride before our departure home. We choose a section of the Donner Lake Rim Trail, which loops along the ridge north of Donner Lake above Truckee. The lake was named for the Donner Party, which was an ill-fated group of American Pioneers led by George Donner and James F. Reed who set out for California in a wagon train in May 1846. They were delayed by a series of mishaps and mistakes, and spent the brutal winter of 1846–47 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada. Some of the pioneers resorted to cannibalism to survive. Subsequently, the lake and the trail were named after the unfortunate travellers.
We had never ridden this trail before so I was excited to see what it was like. It turned out to be even better than I expected with 10 miles of singletrack bliss. Swooping through sparkling granite boulders, lush green pine trees, and Manzanita, this trail lived up to my expectations of yet another outstanding Tahoe ride. Many sections of the trail were strewn with loose shale rock that sounded like broken glass as I maneuvered my bike down the many gnarly rock drop-offs. We wound our way through the tight twisty singletrack, flicking our agile machines around every switchback. The dirt in this area is an unusually fluffy white-coloured moon dust with large rounded white crystal boulders poking out everywhere. Spectacular!
The Sierra Nevada range has some of the most stunning trails you could ever experience as a mountain biker. While we have been coming here for many years, we have yet to discover everything Tahoe has to offer a mountain biker. I could ride here for the next 80 years and not run out of new trails to explore. Rick and I steadily climb the singletrack until we reached the crest of the hill and decided to turn around with the thought of our impending drive home back to the rat race. Grinning all the way to the bottom, we arrived back at the car with a feeling of extreme satisfaction in knowing that we were ending our mini mountain bike trip on a high. At that moment, we were already wondering when we would be back for more.
Michelle is living in the land of sun — Southern California. She has spent many years racing in the expert class on the California XC circuit and she also races CAT 2/3 cyclocross. Michelle loves being outside, training, and hiking with her husband and border collie.