Discovering a fat-tire playground of bare granite in the Crystal Basin

Story and photos by Bob Ward

As the old adage goes, my how time flies when you are having fun. Hard to believe that this May marks my 20th anniversary of mountain biking. Much has changed within the sport during those two decades, but it is amazing how much has stayed the same. While our gear has taken quantum leaps in improvement, many of the rides from “back in the day” bring out the grins as much as the first time around.

In 1985, my inaugural summer on fat tires, I began the research on what was to become my first mountain bike guidebook on the Tahoe region of the Sierra. I chose to focus on the Crystal Basin of the Eldorado National Forest. The Crystal Basin is situated north of Highway 50, just west of the Desolation Wilderness. Besides its natural beauty, I decided on this location for my initial attempt at a guidebook due to my familiarity with the region. This prime chunk of the Tahoe Sierra had been my primary playground for hiking, backcountry skiing, and paddling for decades.

Back in those days, we really felt like trail blazers as mountain biker sightings were few and far between. During the entire research for Mountain Biking in the Northern Sierra, Volume One, The Crystal Basin, my biking buddies and I only encountered other riders on one occasion. In many cases, we were boldly going where no mountain biker had gone before. And boldly beating ourselves up on totally rigid bikes.

We were also getting lost on a regular basis. What we would have given for today’s GPS technology. Despite using a combination of Forest Service and USGS 15 and 7 minute maps we would go hours with only a rough idea of where we were. Being deep in the forest where you can’t sight in on any recognizable peaks and crossing numerous unsigned logging roads tends to make one locationally challenged. Finding a Forest Service boundary marker that would allow us to pinpoint our location would sometime be one of the highlights of our day.

That first guidebook is now a collector’s item, but I still consider several of the tours to be timeless classics. One such ride is to the Slickrock Playground near Loon Lake. The Slickrock Playground is a huge expanse of granite bowls, slabs, ledges, boulders and wide-open expanse that invite mountain bikers to hang out and play for hours.

I had backcountry skied over the top of this potential bikers’ bonanza many times, never realizing the mother lode that was buried under the snow. Discovering this little slice of slickrock paradise was one of the highlights of my research.

For many mountain bikers, the pilgrimage to Moab to ride the famous Slickrock Trail and other classics is a must rite of passage to becoming a serious mountain biker. While it is impossible to compare the Slickrock
Playground to Moab, it does give riders a sampling of what riding on slickrock is all about.

For many people, the Slickrock Playground comes toward the end of the technical riding on the infamous Loon Lake Death March and Ride, which is usually done in a counterclockwise manner. The Loon Lake Loop is a 16-mile ride with epic potential that looks easy on paper, but will challenge any rider. However, you don’t have to be hardcore to access the Slickrock Playground as you can reach it by taking the backdoor route from the north
end of Loon Lake.

If you start this ride at the dam on the north side of Loon Lake, you will actually hit slickrock almost immediately upon starting the tour to the playground. For most riders, the grins first come out as they cross the diversion channel below the dam and hit the first smooth slab of glacially polished granite. I have spent many an hour teaching slickrock skills to beginner riders on this first stretch of hardrock riding. However, the official playground is about a mile in.

Whether or not your final destination is the playground or beyond, I suggest that you spend some time playing on this introduction to slickrock section. Actually, you will be hard pressed to resist. Timid riders will seek out the
paths of least resistance while hardcore types with long-travel bikes will seek out the big drops. One of the pleasures of riding the slickrock is that you can go almost anywhere. The various jeep routes are obvious, but mountain bikers are only restricted by their imagination and skill.

Challenges are relative to skill level. No matter your skill level, you should seek out drops, gaps, ledges, or rock gardens that are a notch above your comfort zone. Push yourself for a few hours on this granite training ground and you will be amazed at how your technical riding skills improve.

While you are playing around on this first section, I suggest that you follow the creek down about a quarter mile. Besides the fun riding, you will be treated to a small waterfall and cascade that makes for a great spot to cool your heels.

Eventually, you will want to make your way to the playground proper. The main route to the playground is a connector trail for the Rubicon Jeep Trail, one of the most famous jeep trails in the world. While most four wheelers do the Rubicon Trail via Wentworth Springs, many start their off-road adventure at Loon Lake. To reach the playground proper you will be following the jeep route as it makes its way into the forest that separates the intro section from the playground.

The forested section of jeep trail is not without its challenges. However, one advantage that slickrock and 4WD trail riding has over singletrack is that you have many lines to choose from. If you do find yourself over your head, it is OK to get off and walk. On the plus side, you won’t have to walk far as you will quickly make your way through the forest and find yourself looking at the massive expanse of granite. You are at the Slickrock Playground … so get out and play.

Once again, the main jeep routes are easy to follow. All you have to do is follow the line of oil leaks, tread marks, and the occasional auto part. But once again, you are free as a bird to fly anywhere you want.

Flowing like water over smooth granite.

Most folks will be taken by gravity and the lure of the big granite bowl that begs to be ridden. However, be sure to save some time and energy for the upper playground. There you will also find great views of Loon Lake and the potential for a cool down dip in the water.

You will also head in this direction if you plan to continue on to McKinstry Lake, McKinstry Peak, Bunker Hill, or Spider Lake. Even if you don’t have any desire for a longer tour, you might want to try your hand at the first section of jeep trail between Loon Lake and the road up from Wentworth Springs. This section sports more dirt than slickrock, but the technical aspects of this section are still a hoot.

Trailhead Beta:

The trailhead for the Slickrock Playground is at Loon Lake. To get to Loon Lake, take Ice House Road, located off of Highway 50 between Pollock Pines and Kyburz at Riverton. Follow Ice House Road about 30 miles north. Once at Loon Lake, follow the main road as it winds along the west and then north shores of the lake. Park on or just below the second dam to begin the tour.

Bob Ward is the author of several guidebooks on mountain biking and was the former owner/operator of HareBrain Adventures, a mountain bike tour company featuring trips in the Tahoe region and the island of Molokai. An avid outdoorsman and photographer, he is currently the manager of the San Francisco REI store. He invites anyone to come by his store to talk mountain biking.