Last week Tim came out from Colorado for a bikepacking tour on the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT). We wanted to do this ride last summer but we both had some creaks in the knees and spent a lot of time rebuilding our fitness. But we weren’t trying to set any land speed records on this tour, the goal was to stay pain free and enjoy the incredible scenery of the Lake Tahoe basin. It was awesome!
(i’m going to try something different and put the pictures first…)
The TRT circumnavigates Lake Tahoe on the high elevation rim surrounding the lake. The lake almost looks like it’s in the ‘crater’ of a big old volcano. The trail comes down from the rim only when it needs to mainly to cross major roads and highways. The entire trail loop is 165 miles but bikes are not allowed on approximately half of those miles, mainly because of Wilderness Areas on the west side of the lake and when the TRT overlaps the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). You can link up some dirt if you want to avoid the roads but we just chose to cruise the road and paths around the west side.
Day 1. 37 miles. We started with the Mt. Rose/Tahoe Meadows shuttle van from Incline village. This day was notably cooler and more overcast than any other day we’ve had this summer. A recent thunderstorm created some flash flooding in the area and the trail was washed away in some places. Sand washes and deep ruts appeared in areas they hadn’t been two days previous. After 9.5 miles of beautiful singletrack going over and around large seemingly sun-bleached granite, we hit the trail intersection at Tunnel Creek. From here we took the dirt road left down Red House Flume trail and linked into the Sunflower trail. We missed the peak of the Wooly mule’s ears flowers but it still reminded me of Crested Butte. After the climb we stopped for a snack at the Marlette Lake Campground before continuing on the TRT backwards to Tunnel Creek again. This way down the TRT is really fun! From here, we turned left and went down to the famous Flume Trail. Yes, we took all the same photos that so many others have taken before. It’s impossible not to stop and take photos on this trail, there’s really nothing like it. After the flume we hit Marlette Lake and ‘wildflower corridor’ (i just named it that) with towering aspens along Hobart Road. This was the biggest aspen grove I’ve seen since moving here. After that “nice” climb we were on our way to Spooner Lake on the dirt Hobart Road. We got to the bike shop before closing but it was already shut, as were all the water fountains/pumps because the lightning storm had blown out power to the area. From the lake, we looped back and rode back up the dirt road a bit and found a filterable creek and a good campsite for the night. Seeing the weather forecast I chose to risk going light and it paid off. I still brought some “Feelmax” slippers as camp shoes and was glad I did. They stuff easily into any pack and are a nice change from cycling shoes. But I really should just join what it seems like every other CA mtn biker we saw on the trail does and ride flats and normal shoes.
Day 2. Spooner Lake to Star lake. We knew this would be the hardest day of the tour but it turned out harder than expected, even being only 29 miles, mostly because of the 6,440ft of climbing and being mostly up. But today was also some of the better parts of the trail, especially after Kingsbury Grade. The TRT is so well documented online; my pictures pale in comparison to the many already out there. Riding around, over, under, and beside the huge slabs of granite, big lake and valley views, massive trees, tons of wildflowers, and the amount of uninterrupted GOOD singletrack is simply amazing.
We descended into Kingsbury Grade and made our way to the Summit Store for some snacks and water before heading out for Star Lake. From here there is no water until Star. It was a difficult stretch at the end of the day but we really wanted to camp by the lake. There were a couple of hard pushes up to Star, the first climb out of Heavenly being especially terrible, and the hike up to Monument Pass was the last punch. But the trail after Monument all the way to Star was some of the best. Once we arrived, there was another group of two already occupying the one best site on the beach but we found a pretty OK spot with a really sweet granite ‘couch’. Star Lake is around 9,100ft elevation and the tallest peak in the Tahoe Basin, Freel Peak (10,881 ft.), looks down on it. They’ve already named a couple nearby peaks after Steve Jobs, how nice!
Day 3. 43 miles, about half road. At the crack of 10am we departed on our ride to South Lake Tahoe for some real food. Although the freeze-dried Pad Thai I had both nights was delicious (it really was) we were both ready for something fresher. From Star Lake the trail benches and then climbs to Armstrong Pass. We kept passing the same two women who were backpacking the TRT loop. They had a little help from a husband one day but they were cruising (and they were in their 60’s)! I’ll have to stop by and say “hi” to Paco and his wife at their Truckee bike shop and see how the trip went. All the people we met on the trail were so nice, no attitude and all smiles, no matter on bike or foot.
The trail from Armstrong Pass to South Lake is one of those sections where on the map profile appears at first glance to be all downhill. But we all know that’s a crock, nothing is ALL downhill. Just thinking it’s all downhill makes it harder psychologically when you meet even the most minor uphill. We finally got to the top of Xmas Valley trail (which is really supposed to be all downhill) and we saw a group of 9 older women with very little water and gear. This was one thing that kept happening to us on the trail – running into people in the middle of nowhere and appearing entirely unprepared, or just being completely hardcore. It was impressive.
We dropped into Meyers having descended the Lake (Christmas) Valley Trail and Tim’s Lefty was acting up. Luckily only his bearings needed to be reset. My stem was crooked somehow too, stem bolts were totally tight. It’s a bit of a rough downhill. We enjoyed a long lunch at Sprouts in town where we recharged all our tech. Sprouts rocks. We eventually hit the road and found a lakeside campsite on Fallen Leaf Lake just before dark. Being Thursday night, the crowds all around town and paid camp spots were horrendous. It’s truly amazing how many people were out and about. $35 for a tent campsite with hundreds of others at Richardson Bay Campground? No thanks. I hate to say it but the traffic and numbers of people made it feel like the Los Angeles of the mountains. But South Lake has an amazing trail system for bikes and it’s highly worth a few days of exploring the super fun technical and flowy trail going through some very unique ecosystems one after the other. It’s like nowhere I’ve ridden.
Day 4. 32.6 miles mostly road with about 8 miles of trail. We hit the road a bit earlier to reduce the chances of being on the road with too many tourists. This part of Hwy 89 is amazingly scenic, passing by Emerald Bay with views across the lake and up to the mountains and what we had just ridden. We stopped to get some eats and kick on the beach at Meeks Bay. The Forest Service woman at the front gate basically recommended we poach the next door beach…so we did, not realizing we were supposed to pay $10 to use the area. Everything seems private along the Tahoe ‘coastline.’ We definitely stuck out, dirtbags on bikes at a private beach. But we ate some grub on the deck listening to blasting 50’s tunes and soaked our legs in the lake. We must’ve looked pretty pitiful because some dude brought us over a full order of biscuits and gravy for free.
The bike path starts right around Sugar Pine State Park on Hwy 89 and goes almost all the way to Tahoe City. I pretty much forced us to get some dirt just before Tahoe City heading up the Ward Creek trail to meet up with Paige Meadows section of the TRT. We skipped Stanford Rocks. The 1 mile climb up to Paige Meadows was definitely harder than it looked on the map but the downhill made up for it. The trail pops out right next to the Truckee where we experienced some serious culture shock. We had entered another world, with rafts bursting at the seams with people in swimsuits partying as they floated down the river. This is so Tahoe — come out of the seeming isolation of the woods and you’re greeted with tons of people having fun in every way you can think of, it’s hilarious. The side-effect is that there is traffic even on weekdays, especially in Tahoe City. After a bit of a nap and cleanup we headed to Rosie’s for dinner and a couple of Racer 5 pints. Never has that beer tasted so good!
Day 5. We were supposed take the TRT from Tahoe City to Brockway Summit…but we just plain bailed and rode back to the car in Incline, an easy 16 mile road and bikepath ride. It was a good call, we had had enough and got through with no flats or technicals or injuries. Timmy got a jump on the long drive back to Colorado via lonely Highway 50 and made it back for work early (yay!). It was great to hang out with a good friend and ride some of the best trail I’ve ridden to date in California. The TRT is not to be skipped. All said, we rode about 155 miles with 20,000′ of climbing.