Three spectacular day trips in order of difficulty
By Matt Niswonger
After 17 years and over 200,000 volunteer hours, the 150-mile Tahoe Rim Trail loop was completed at the California/Nevada stateline on the north shore of Lake Tahoe in 2001. The complete trail became an instant classic for hikers, bikers and equestrians. With stunning views of the Lake Tahoe Basin and the Carson Valley, the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) is especially enticing to mountain bikers looking to push themselves on these world-class trails. Not every section of the TRT is legal for bikes; however the majority IS bike legal and most sections that are restricted have a logical detour for bikes. All bike restrictions and other pertinent information are listed on the official TRT website located at tahoerimtrail.org.
I’m writing this article while the experience of riding the TRT is still fresh in my mind, having just completed the 2019 TAMBA Rose to Toads. This fundraiser ride that supports the Tahoe Rim Trail Association links three distinct sections of the TRT into one spectacular and challenging day. While I don’t recommend trying to ride the whole Rose to Toads course unless you are highly experienced and in the mood for a very challenging day, breaking the ride into three distinct day trips makes sense for any mountain biker looking to test yourself on the TRT and gauge your fitness for next year’s Rose to Toads.
For those not familiar, it’s worth noting that Tahoe mountain biking is rugged, rocky and more intimidating than some other parts of California, especially coastal areas like Santa Cruz. I rode these parts of the TRT on a newer Stumpjumper LT and I generally prefer the comfort of a full-suspension bike. That said, many people ride the TRT on a hardtail so it all comes down to personal preference. I’m not one to nerd out on bike specs so the only piece of hardware advice I’d give for the TRT is to have a big climbing gear like the SRAM Eagle or something equivalent. There are many sections of the TRT that require even strong riders to dismount and hike; but obviously the less you have to hike the better, so a large climbing gear is key.
Here are three sections of the TRT for mountain bikers, in order of difficulty. All three added together equal the complete Rose to Toads course, so put it on your calendar for next year and consider this training. Each section is a point-to-point adventure so you will need to be dropped off and picked up, or figure out a shuttle. Please note that riding bikes on Hwy 50 or Hwy 28 is not recommended due to traffic congestion.
Mount Rose to Spooner Lake – About 20 Miles
Start at the Tahoe Meadows trailhead off the Mount Rose Highway. This is a beautiful way to start a long day with smooth riding through a picturesque meadow. This part of the Tahoe Rim Trail has some of the most enjoyable riding of the whole loop, but don’t be lulled into thinking your day will be easy. There is plenty of uphill in your future. The highlight of this ride is the Flume Trail, with a stunning panorama of Lake Tahoe and a vertigo inducing view one thousand feet straight down to Sand Harbor. While not technically a part of the TRT, the Flume Trail is a spectacular way to see Lake Tahoe by bike and is often referred to as one of the most beautiful mountain bike trails in the world. Once you cross Tunnel Creek Road follow the signs to the Flume Trail towards Marlette Lake. After Marlette Lake follow the signs to Spooner Lake via a few short miles of dirt road. Just past Spooner Lake the ride ends at a parking area near the intersection of Hwy 50 and Hwy 28. Strong riders can do this adventure as an out and back, but most people will want to be picked up at the pullout on Hwy 50 to finish up a 20-mile day.
Please note that the first section of this ride, from Tahoe Meadows to Tunnel Creek Road, is only open to mountain bikers on even calendar days. Please refer to the TRT website under the mountain biking tab for more details.
Spooner Lake to Kingsbury Grade – About 15 Miles
This section of the TRT starts with a six-mile climb up to “the Bench” and a fantastic view of the Lake. This is a tough climb requiring a few mandatory dismount sections as you gain elevation, but the views of Lake Tahoe from the Bench are worth it. Once you reach the Bench it’s mostly flat or downhill for the remainder of the ride until you get to Kingsbury Grade, but there are a few pesky climbs on the last section. During the 2019 Rose to Toads I did not feel great when I arrived at the Bench and accidentally took a fall near this area. When I reached the top of the climb I decided to keep moving, but I should have stopped to eat and rest. Long story short: when you get to the Bench take a minute to get off your bike and eat something, especially if you are feeling woozy. The view is not bad either.
After the Bench it is mostly downhill to Kingsbury Grade along some fun and rocky trail. This nine-mile section from the Bench to the second rest stop goes pretty quickly. The key here is to recover from the climb and try to keep the rubber side down as there are a few rocky sections that will cause you to fall if you are not vigilant. When you see Kingsbury Grade get off your bike and walk the final 50 feet of trail because it’s a bit sketchy. Watch out for cars because people drive fast on Kingsbury Grade. From here you can either get picked up on Kingsbury Grade by car or ride down nearby Buchanan Road to South Lake Tahoe, a nicer option with fewer cars.
Kingsbury Grade to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – About 26 Miles
This is a long day so make sure you get an early start. Take plenty of food and at least two full water bottles and a hydration bladder. Alternatively you can bring a water filter so you can fill up at streams and lakes along the way. Either way, make sure you plan your hydration strategy carefully as this ride requires plenty of mandatory hike-a-bike above 9,000 feet.
From Kingsbury Grade you will immediately be climbing for a few miles until you see a sign pointing to the Van Sickle Trail. If you are starting to second-guess your ability to do this section of the TRT (I did many times), you might consider bailing down the Van Sickle Trail all the way to South Lake Tahoe. Otherwise keep on going and follow the TRT signs to Monument Pass. This section from the top of Van Sickle to Monument Pass starts out hard and just gets harder as you near the Pass. Expect to get off your bike many times to surmount steep, rocky sections. As a consolation prize you will be rewarded with a gorgeous view of the Carson Valley.
From the top of Monument Pass you will spend the next few hours at an elevation of 9,000 feet, until you reach the top of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The elevation made me feel a bit queasy and cold, so be advised it’s a good idea to bring a light jacket and plenty of food. Don’t feel discouraged if you find yourself getting off your bike on a regular basis, as this section includes many hard bits that will push your legs past the breaking point. The trick is to keep moving, even if you are hiking your bike.
Once you get past Star Lake there is no quick way back to your car although there are still a couple of bailout options. If you really want to complete this part of the TRT (as I did) you will need to be cresting Freel Pass by early afternoon; otherwise descend the Star Lake Trail to access the Cold Creek Trail and drop down to Pioneer Trail Road or risk mountain biking in the dark. The final leg of the journey between Star Lake and Mr. Toad’s is time consuming. You might find yourself behind schedule; that’s why I recommend getting an early start and also carrying a bike light just in case you have to descend in the dark. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is a gnarly, old-school trail, so don’t ride past your limit even if you are anxious to get home. Most riders choose to walk the upper rocky sections, but no worries, the trail gets easier as you descend. Have fun and be safe!