Mountain biking the Tahoe Rim Trail

By Bruce Watson 3 April 2015
Reading Time: 4 Minutes Print this page
With only five hours to spare, there was no way Bruce Newton could explore all of the Tahoe Rim Trail’s 265km of tracks through the Sierra Nevada

HERE’S A LESSON I learned recently: Terror beats exhaustion.

There I was sitting slumped by the side of the spectacular Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) high above Lake Tahoe contemplating just how little pedalling power my lungs and legs could generate at 2300m when cracking and thrashing from the nearby undergrowth suggested something sizeable was headed my way.

Maybe it was only a racoon, or a deer, or even just a tree limb breaking off naturally. But my brain screamed ‘Bear!’ and all of a sudden my senses- and legs – were in overdrive… and so were my legs.

Up here in the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges on the California/Nevada border plenty of black bears roam free. Frequent signage had reminded me of that as I ascended slowly from Tahoe City.

I don’t know much about bears, but mountain biking abounds with stories of riders in the wrong woods at the wrong time given a damn good shredding. Apocryphal or not, I wasn’t hanging around to find out!

Flowing down the Tahoe Trail

The good thing was the trail I had just been crawling up I was now flowing back down. Volcanic soil beaten into beautiful hardpack by the passing of thousands of wheels. I was scared and exhilarated at the same time.

Just 10 minutes later I shot out onto the Fiberboard Freeway, a blue-metal road that connects Tahoe City with Watson Lake 400m above. The lake had been my outward-bound objective, but there was no way I was heading there now.

I nearly collided with a group of riders pedalling onto the trail as I slithered to a stop. “This might sound silly, but I think I just had a close encounter with a bear,” I panted to the young lady leading the group.

“Oh sure,” she replied. “We’ve already seen one this morning much closer to town. The only problem is if you get between a sow and her cub and it’s not that time of year, so there’s nothing to worry about.”

Not too keen to totally reassure me she added: “The coyotes aren’t a problem either – at least not until after dusk. You won’t see them at this time of the day.”

Coyotes? Bears? Bloody hell, I think I will take good old Aussie snakes and spiders any time of the day!

Trouble is, behind my new and somewhat perplexed acquaintances, no doubt pondering what this panicked, sweaty fellow with the strange accent was all lathered up about, I could see more of the TRT wending off into the trees, calling to me to explore it. Bears, coyotes or killer rabbits, it was irresistible.

Tahoe Rim Trail

Hit Youtube, type Tahoe Rim Trail and you’ll understand what I am talking about. The TRT is 265km of singletrack bliss, of which about 50 per cent is open to mountain bikes.

It circumnavigates Lake Tahoe, and abuts other legendary rides like the Flume Trail to the east, the brilliantly named ‘Mr Toad’s Wild Ride’ to the south and ‘Hole in the Ground’ near Truckee to the northwest.

In my small five-hour window I wouldn’t make those places, relying on Olympic Bike shop in Tahoe City on Lake Tahoe’s western shore to advise me on the appropriate route, and kit me out with the best MTB rental I have ever experienced – a Trek Gary Fisher Rumblefish 29er.

Big wheels combined with 120mm of suspension travel and 3×10 gearing proved adept at tackling the many challenges posed by the TRT. It rolled smoothly over hardpack, climbed the freeway efficiently and – most importantly – conquered the rocky, rough challenges confidently.

That was particularly important, because that smooth singletrack tempting me back into the forest soon gave way to tougher, more technical trail. By the time I’d reached the highest part of my course, still 10km from ride’s end, the altitude had reduced me to a mess. Sweating profusely, cramping occasionally, I had no choice but to let the bike have its head as we rolled back toward town.

The Fisher happily devoured granite step-ups and step-downs, hoiked up and over boulders sneering at the B-lines and railed big-bermed turns while I simply hung on up-top and marvelled at the challenge and joy riding hours of continuous singletrack brings.

There was also much to enjoy beyond the actual biking. The views out into the Sierra Nevadas are astonishing; sheer pine-covered valleys plunge dazzlingly-green out of sight, or rise into snow-capped peaks. Rounding one corner the track flirted with the edge of what must have been a 500m drop. Minutes later beautiful Lake Tahoe spread out below in all its natural glory, sparkling in the autumn sun.

Epic mountain biking on the Tahoe Rim Trail

By now pedalling was rare and descending almost constant; swishing the bike side to side through downhill switchbacks, then rattling back and forth across gullies, creek crossings and rock gardens.

Every now and then a rider or hiker hefting a pack would pass heading the other way. But for the most part I was out here all alone, revelling in a spectacular trail carving its way across an equally spectacular terrain.

It ended in a series of steep, tight downhill switchbacks, bringing me out opposite a kindergarten. Appropriate really. A kids’ playground on one side of the road, a grown-up playground on the other.

Terror had long since subsided. Now all I felt was regret that I had only five hours, not five days, to explore this rider’s paradise. Bugger the bears (and coyotes), I’ll be back!