Around Lake Tahoe

It’s been forever since I posted but I’ll make up with a very long one – about a very long ride.

The Plan

I went up to Tahoe the other weekend with a plan: circumnavigate the entire lake by bike, on trails, as much as possible. Bikes are only allowed on parts of the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) and some sections on paved road would be unavoidable.

My planned route: South Lake Tahoe to Tahoe City by road, then up the Tahoe Rim Trail to Brockway Summit, road to Kings Beach and Incline Village, road climb up to Mount Rose / Tahoe Meadows, TRT to Flume trail, North Canyon road to Spooner Lake, TRT to the Bench and Kingsbury, followed by the section of the TRT known as ‘The Punisher’ (Monument Pass to Star Lake and Armstrong Pass), to Big Meadows and back to South Lake.

I’d try to do it solo and unsupported (except for Starbucks breaks), in a day-and-a-half, and I wanted to camp out in the wilderness so I’d need to lug quite some stuff along. My original route proved to be a bit over-ambitious as you’ll find out, but I did manage to close the loop (didn’t have much choice, actually…).

South Lake to Tahoe City

Driving up to Tahoe on a Friday in mid-summer was my first challenge – after some traffic trouble I finally got ready to roll some time in the late afternoon. Besides the normal biking stuff I also had to carry the camping gear – lightweight pad and sleeping bag, camping stove and food were shoved in or attached to my backpack and I felt like a snail on my Yeti those first couple of road miles. But after a while I got somehow used to it, and was starting to enjoy the beautiful scenery and rolling roads around Emerald Bay.
Emerald Bay

Twenty five miles later I made it to Tahoe City and had my first major stop: water refill, a quick chill out near the beach. Then it was time to hit the TRT for the first time, but it was fair to say that the TRT hit me instead – going north out of town the trail climbs up steeply, gets very rocky and at some point turns into a mere trace through piles of stones and scree. It was as if the entire mountain was made of loose rocks.

Counting stars

I made it through but it took a lot out of me; luckily there was a short but sweet downhill break before the climbing ensued. It was getting late (past 8pm) and darker, so it was time to set up camp. I found a nice spot in a corner behind some big rocks with a lake view – that would do. I got out the camping stove to cook up dinner – on the menu was ramen noodles and soy beans, truly a balanced meal! But a real relief after the diet of power bars and goos from the past couple of hours. I didn’t have a tent, and I didn’t think I’d need one, until I got bugged my mosquitos – I was far from standing water and thought at this elevation there wouldn’t be a problem but either I was wrong or I’ve managed to find the one spot in the area popular with the buggers. Anyway, at least I didn’t run into a bear, and watching the stars and near-full moon illuminating the lake was an eerie experience.
Tahoe moon

To Brockway Summit

The next morning, after a pretty sorry excuse for a good night of sleep, it was to time to get rolling again. I started the day with some more technical climbing – instead of my usual double shot of caffeine. A slow-motion uphill stumble and fall didn’t improve my mood. But the very sweet descent towards Watson Lake did.

Meanwhile, I was running out of water – this side of the Tahoe basin seems really dry, no streams with running water to be seen (perhaps the mountains on this side are too low in elevation to have any snow melt left). I finally arrived at Watson Lake, but found the water there look rather disgusting. I poured a some in my water bottle with built-in filter but the iodine didn’t really make it taste very appetizing. So I took out the stove again and started boiling some water, and added a tea bag – the cooked water/tea went into my Camelback and have to say was rather tasty.


Some more technical climbing and I was worried about how it was wearing me out – was it the altitude, the lack of sleep, the heavy load? Not a good sign, as this was just an appetizer for all the climbing that was still to come. A low speed endo in one of the downhill rock gardens didn’t help to lift my spirits either – I only ended up with some bruises, nothing broken – except for the latch that kept my saddle bag in place (nothing that zip ties couldn’t fix). The rest of the downhill to Brockway felt great though, and soon I was cruising on the road into King Beach and later Incline Village.

Flume trail

Starbucks break and decision time. The thought of having to tackle the 12 mile road climb on the Mount Rose highway to Tahoe Meadows was weighing on me: it was hot, I felt not too great already and it would be a soul-crushing boring affair with cars and trucks flying up the road inches from me. There was an alternative: climbing the Tunnel Creek dirt road up to the Flume trail; I would have to miss one of my favorite sections of the TRT but wouldn’t have to deal with the Mount Rose Highway Hell.

Flume trail

So I went up Tunnel Creek: 2.5 miles for about 1400 feet of elevation gain: how bad can that be? Answer: very, very bad! Tunnel Creek is steep but more importantly: very loose. Last time I went down this trail I didn’t quite appreciate the latter fact. The loose sand all over the place makes climbing it in the mid-day heat a death march from hell. Maybe the Mount Rose option would have been better after all. Oh well. Just keep going and it will be over at some point. As soon as I hit the Flume trail, my worries went away: this five mile stretch was all I needed now: really relaxed cruising, with jaw-dropping scenery all along the way. The biggest hurdle were the shuttle people coming from the other direction, but everyone was friendly and enjoying themselves and what else can you on a place like this?

Climb to The Bench, descent into Kingsbury


After the Flume, there is Marlette Lake, then a short climb and a long descent to Spooner Lake. Another refueling station for me as there is water and a bike shop selling power bars and goos. After my lunch break, it was time to take on another major challenge: the five mile climb up the TRT to the Bench – when I last did this a while ago, I was relatively fresh and not carrying so much stuff, and still I remember it to be quite painful. Now, it felt like a mind-numbing test of willpower. For every hard section or rocky turn I managed to clear, there were two more that forced me to hike. It was an ordeal, but I concentrated on the great descent I knew was in store for me after that, and struggled through it.

The final stretch

After having taken in the gorgeous vistas near the Bench, it was time to take on the rocky goodness of the descent into Kingsbury. It was great fun, but the short climbing intermezzos that I usually don’t even notice, were hurting and stinging like crazy – I was getting really worn out. I then took the ‘Kingsbury Stinger’ downhill trail, but couldn’t muster the courage to even consider tackling The Punisher after that, so I cruised back into town.

I still had to ride about 12 road miles to the car, but was delirious because I knew I had closed the loop: 95 miles total, of which 65 miles this second day. An excellent stretch of the legs, as Jeff (TahoeBC) would say.

It was tough but a great and rewarding experience – only noticeable really after it was done ;). The GPS track and many more photos can be checked out on the MTBGuru trip page.

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