140 miles, 20,000 feet of climbing and two days riding The Lake Trail with Chris McNamara
By Kurt Gensheimer
WE HUMANS ARE AN INTERESTING LOT. If there’s a giant mountain looming before us, we must climb it. If there’s a turbulent river raging, we must raft it. If there’s a giant wave rising, we must surf it. If there’s an expansive desert with sweltering heat, we must cross it. And in the case of legendary rock climber and BASE jumper Chris McNamara, if there is a massive lake in your backyard, you must ride your mountain bike around it.
Lake Tahoe is the second deepest lake in North America, boasting emerald blue waters and white sand beaches attracting outdoor enthusiasts from around the globe. Traditionally known for the world-class skiing in winter and boating in summer, thanks to the Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association (TAMBA) and the Tahoe National Forest – Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, Lake Tahoe is now known for some of the best mountain biking in North America. Despite this growing reputation for mountain biking, there still isn’t an official mountain bike-legal route around Lake Tahoe.
For the last two years, Chris has spent countless hours researching, hiking, riding and mapping a way to circumnavigate Lake Tahoe on as much legal singletrack as possible. Although the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) already does the job, there are sections of TRT on the west shore of Tahoe that are either in Wilderness or share an alignment with the Pacific Crest Trail, blocking access to mountain bikes. But this limitation will not stop Chris from creating what he calls #thelaketrail.
Chris rose to notoriety in the 1990s as a 15-year-old who summited the West Face El Capitan in Yosemite, one of the youngest climbers ever to achieve such a feat. After that experience he became a big wall addict, discovering new lines and finding new routes to climb. His enthusiasm for discovering new adventures led him to BASE jumping. Combined with his climbing experience, Chris had many first jumps that nobody before had ever done because they required expert climbing skill.
In 2007, Chris eventually achieved the first ever wing suit BASE jump into the Grand Canyon. That jump changed his life forever, not so much because of the achievement, but because he almost died doing that jump, twice, narrowly missing a cliff band, then almost drowning when he landed in the Colorado River in his wing suit. Then in 2009, Chris got word that his good friend and BASE jumping partner, Shane McConkey, tragically died during a wing suit jump.
“Shane was the most detail oriented and meticulous guy I knew when it came to preparation,” said Chris. “When Shane died, I realized that nobody had safety in BASE jumping figured out.”
Chris quit jumping completely and started riding his dirt bike a lot more after he moved from his hometown of Marin County to South Lake Tahoe full time in 2014, but having to drive a half-hour every time he wanted to ride got old quickly. That’s when Chris discovered mountain biking and TAMBA. Even though he was completely new to the sport, he immediately got involved with TAMBA, helping fund trail projects and volunteer trail building.
“Chris is one of the most determined people I’ve ever met,” said Ben Fish, TAMBA President. “Match that with his cool and collected demeanor without an ounce of ego, and things get done. A lot of people have an idea about doing something, but Chris is following through and pouring his heart into The Lake Trail. He’s made the right contacts and approached it in a collaborative manner.”
Over the last two years, Chris’ obsession has been with figuring out The Lake Trail. Chris asked if I’d like to join him on a two-day mountain bike circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe, finishing with the TAMBA Rose to Toad’s fundraiser ride, a 63-mile mountain bike adventure on the TRT from Mount Rose Meadows to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. A complete glutton for punishment, I immediately took Chris up on the offer. 140 miles and 20,000 feet of climbing over two days sounded quite aggressive, but I was overdue for a couple long days in the saddle. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Saturday – Toad’s to Rose
We started at 7AM Saturday of Labor Day weekend in the parking lot at the end of Mr. Toad’s, pedaling neighborhood trail through Meyers to Tahoe Mountain. The frozen dew on the meadow and frozen fingers gripped over my handlebars was a reminder of fall’s approach, but as soon as we reached the top of Tahoe Mountain trail, the sun was already out and the brief morning chill was a memory.
The climb and descent off Tahoe Mountain was a perfect way to start the ride; not too steep on the up and a ton of good flow on the way down towards Fallen Leaf Lake. After some “adventure route finding” to Highway 89, we had to crank out the most unfortunate part of the entire 140 mile ride – 12 miles of pavement around Emerald Bay to Meeks Bay. Aside from having a little chocolate donut thrown at us out of a pickup by some disgruntled donut eater (I was tempted to grab it off the ground and eat it), traffic was agreeable, but let’s be honest – pavement sucks on a mountain bike.
This zone from Spring Creek Road to Meeks Bay has been the primary obstacle in preventing the completion of an all-dirt route around Lake Tahoe. With California State Park land on the Emerald Bay side of Highway 89 and a combination of Desolation Wilderness and private land on the west side, there is only a very narrow sliver of non-Wilderness Forest Service land to work with.
Chris has held numerous meetings with land managers of both agencies, trying to negotiate a bike-legal way to get through Emerald Bay area without riding the highway. Although nothing is formal yet, he’s gotten full support from Tahoe National Forest and is working towards a solution that will be the final dirt piece to this 140-mile puzzle. And given Chris’ successful history in sport, building businesses and supporting community, everyone in Tahoe is optimistic.
After the 12-mile buzz on asphalt, we hit a network of trails through Sugar Pine Point State Park, and onto one of my favorite trails of the day, Pine Martin. Featuring a mix of classic Tahoe decomposed granite sand and dark, rich alpine loam that rarely gets ridden, Pine Martin had great technical flow both up and down.
After traversing across Homewood ski resort on double track offering the best chairlift lake views in Tahoe, we descended a raw old logging road to a primitive neighborhood single track into Tahoe Pines. From there we climbed a diabolically steep social trail out of town up to Stanford Rock, dropping the bottom part of Stanford Rock trail into Ward Canyon. The morning was finished off by riding TRT from Paige Meadows into Tahoe City, a classic downhill rip that had to be taken a bit slower due to a lot of holiday weekend traffic.
After inhaling massive cheeseburgers at the Bridgetender in Tahoe City, Chris and I weaved through the mobs of cars in town. But within five minutes of hitting dirt on Jackpine trail, we saw only a handful of people the rest of the day. This is the beauty of Lake Tahoe; even on one of the busiest weekends of the summer, no matter how jammed it is with tourists by the lake, within only a couple miles you can have total peace in the woods.
After riding the rather busy TRT over Brockway Summit, we hit some of the best descending of the day towards King’s Beach on a network of seldom used trails I’d never before seen. In fact, there were a lot of trails on the first day I’d never seen that Chris has spent two years sniffing out. By the time we hit Incline Village, I realized that each community around Lake Tahoe has their own little tribe of trail builders. There are as many social trails off the map as there are official trails on the map, and Chris has been spending the time figuring out how to link them all together.
Considering we were more than 12 hours deep into the ride and running out of daylight, the first day culminated with a brutal grind up Old Mount Rose Highway to our camp spot near Mount Rose Meadows. We had 78 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing on the day, and as hard as the TAMBA Rose to Toad’s ride is, we were pretty sure the second day was going to be easier than the first.
Sunday – Rose to Toad’s
The mountain bike community in Tahoe is small and tight-knit. As soon as Chris and I showed up in the parking lot at Mount Rose Meadows on Sunday morning, people were wishing us luck. I guess the word of our two-day trip around the lake got out, and the encouragement helped us soldier on.
Celebrating its seventh year, Rose to Toad’s has grown from a handful of friends to 200 participants, raising more than $10,000 this year for TAMBA to spend on trail building efforts. Dreamed up by Ben and Amy Fish, the driving force behind TAMBA, Rose to Toad’s is a ride that takes considerable fitness and skill to complete. Rose to Toad’s is an achievement to be proud of, as there’s usually only a 50 percent finish rate.
Not only must you weather 63 miles and 9,000 feet of climbing on the TRT, but the raging five-mile finish on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is one hell of a violent way to end a big day. If you’ve ridden Toad’s, you know what I mean by violent (especially on a hardtail!), but it’s the most fun kind of violent you can have, as Toad’s is a legitimate and raw downhill trail that seems to go on forever and ever.
Although Chris told me to just ride ahead at my own pace, we ended up staying together much of the day. It was a classic Aesop fable, with Chris as the tortoise and me as the hare. I’d zoom ahead on the climbs, stopping at the top to take in the views or refill my slow-leaking tire, while Chris would keep moving, only stopping briefly at the two aid stations to refuel. Considering he’s only been riding mountain bikes for three years, I was blown away by his endurance. Not many people with only a few years experience can pull off a ride of this magnitude, but Chris seemed to be chipping away at it like he did in his climbing days.
Chris and I leapfrogged each other all day, taking in the absolutely stunning views of not only Lake Tahoe from the Flume Trail and “The Bench” above Spooner Lake, but also the remarkable vistas out east over the Carson Valley from Monument Pass. After cresting Freel Pass from Star Lake, the final climb of the day up to Toad’s definitely hurt the most, especially when I failed to keep pace with some young shirtless kid who passed me like I was going backwards.
By the time we hit the top of Toad’s, I was out of food, almost out of water and every inch of my body was aching. It’s already hard enough to descend Toad’s on a capable trail bike with full faculties, but when you’re 140 miles deep on a hardtail, it’s a whole different universe. Having only ridden the trail once a long time ago, I asked Chris, “this trail is all rideable with pretty obvious lines, right?”
Chris glanced over before he rolled off and said, “Yep, and I’m gonna walk the shit out of those lines. Just watch.”
I followed Chris until he unclipped after the first nasty section and said, “that’s enough for me.”
Against my better judgement, I continued on, committing to at least an attempt at cleaning the massive boulder step-downs and drops. After almost stuffing the front end on one drop and going over the bars, I managed to clean the entire section and let out a whoooo! in relief that echoed through the forest.
We both made it to the bottom of Toad’s with bikes and bodies intact, pedaling to the post-ride party in the same parking lot we started at the day before, mowing down bacon and beer as our reward. No mechanicals suffered, no injuries. It was an incredible two days of riding. But two days was far too aggressive for a ride like this. I would recommend at least three, maybe five.
The beauty of The Lake Trail is that it’s close enough to civilization that you don’t need to carry a bunch of bikepacking gear. The best way to knock this ride out is to stay at hotels or vacation rentals along the way, maximizing the enjoyment of this absolutely world-class multi-day mountain bike adventure in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Just like all of his first achievements in climbing and BASE jumping, Chris McNamara will be the first to map an official mountain bike-legal route around Lake Tahoe, and I was damn glad to be along for the ride.