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North Lake Tahoe:
Mountain Bike Heaven Meets Multi-Sport Bliss

by Lisa Jhung

North Lake TahoeThe first time I went mountain biking on the trails of North Lake Tahoe, I got so lost among pine trees, alpine peaks and meadows that I felt like the possibility of getting eaten by a black bear, with no one hearing my screams, was a reality.


Yippee! At last!

By the time I popped out at a trailhead in Tahoe City, I was thrilled that the terrain, however confusing at first, was so expansive. I hadn’t lived anywhere before where there were so many trail options and nobody on them.

I spent the spring, summer and fall (and two years after that) exploring all those trails near my house just outside of Tahoe City (population: 1,000). I found new variations of trails that wound up, down and around the Mt. Watson area above town, and I never got bored. My favorite quick loop was less than an hour long and was so scenic and diverse in its technical challenges — a climb up a fire road with views of the lake, sweet single-track sections, some rocky, some smooth, a babyhead-sized boulder field, logs to hop, creeks to cross, etc. — that I hardly had to venture anywhere else in the Tahoe region.

But when I did travel off my backyard trails, I realized that the riding in all of Tahoe is just as spectacular. Riding the West Shore (Drunken Bear Trail, Paige Meadows) offered views of different peaks, open meadows filled with wildflowers and aspen trees. Riding the Western States Trail down to Squaw Valley challenged me with tight switchbacks. Riding the well-known (and therefor sometimes crowded) Flume Trail on the East Shore gave me epic views with steep drop-offs to the crystal blue lake below. Every day was another adventure inside the pearly gates of mountain bike heaven.

Tahoe City sits on the North Shore of the 22-mile long, 12-mile-wide Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The lake itself is split by the California and Nevada borders, with the closest major city (and international airport) being Reno, Nevada, 50 miles to the east. Sacramento, California (90 miles) and San Francisco (193 miles) are both to the southwest of the lake, and the North Shore towns of Tahoe City, California and Incline Village, Nevada. The historic (and more populated, with 13,864 people) town of Truckee is 15 miles north of Lake Tahoe.

While South Lake Tahoe is famous for its casinos, the North Shore is more low-key. Both boast epic trails and outdoor adventures all-around, with thousands of trail options for mountain biking, hiking, trail running, backpacking, horseback riding and simply lounging. Winter months in Tahoe are busy with skiers and snowboarders who visit its nine resorts (the most popular being Squaw Valley on the North Shore and Heavenly on the South Shore), each with its own personality. Summer months are busy with boaters, wake boarders, barbecuers and campers, multi-sporters and summertime beer drinkers.

With the altitude of Lake Tahoe at 6,220 feet, and trails reaching several peaks over 9,000 feet (a few over 10,000), mountain biking a few miles from lake level usually gets you away from the summertime masses and off on some of the best trails you’ll ride. Ever.

For those who prefer honing their downhill skills and riding a chairlift back to the top, both Squaw Valley and Northstar-at-Tahoe resorts are open for summer riding — although lift tickets run from $16 for a single ride to $26 for the day.

And for road riders, the 72-mile around-the-lake road ride is an epic, and shorter road rides (Highway 89 along the Truckee River, for one) are among the most scenic I’ve ridden.

The days off the bike are pretty peachy, too. Trail running on many of the same trails is outstanding, and the access is even greater, as some trails are closed to bikes. One of my favorites is the steep-climbing Five Lakes Trail near Alpine Meadows that connects to the Pacific Crest Trail and runs past several (more than five, actually) stunning alpine lakes.

Rock climbers praise the area’s granite (90-foot Wall, Granite Chief, Donner Summit), as the Tahoe Basin is known for some of the best rock north of Yosemite. And in one of the few places in the U.S. that successfully combines mountain sports with flatwater sports, kayaking on gorgeous Lake Tahoe is heavenly. You can rent kayaks and canoes from paddle centers in Carnelian Bay and the King’s Beach (both on the North Shore) and paddle the lakefront in either direction. And for whitewater boaters, the Truckee River offers Class II to IV sections along its 140-mile length from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake, near Reno, Nevada. Class I rafting is popular (read: a zoo) and often alcohol-induced in the summer, so steer clear, hop on a trail or in a kayak, and leave the tourists behind.

During the two-and-a-half years Adventure Sports senior editor Lisa Jhung lived near Tahoe City, she could often be spotted sporting bike grease or trail mud somewhere on her body.

The Lowdown north Lake Tahoe

Getting there: Tahoe City and its sweet mountain trails are 50 miles from the closest airport, which is in Reno, Nevada. The North Shore is 90 miles from Sacramento and 193 miles from San Francisco. Interstate 80 runs east to west between Reno and Sacramento, and North Lake Tahoe is south from the interstate,
off of Highway 89 or Highway 267 from Truckee, California.

Climate: The Tahoe area is known for its snow sports, so there’s no semblance of mountain biking on the trails between November and April; some years there’s snow on the trails until June. Summers can get hot, into the high 90s, but morning or late afternoon rides are still pleasurable. Be prepared for summer thunderstorms. Fall riding among autumn colors and clear, brisk skies is epic, and trails are less crowded after Labor Day.

Camping and accommodations: A variety of campgrounds exist in the Tahoe area, some with full hook-ups for RVs and showers, others with running water only. Most campgrounds are open from May through September, and can fill up quickly, so make reservations early. For areas run by the U.S. Forest Service, call (877) 444-6777, and for California State Parks, call (800) 444-7275. Check the California Camping guide for details before booking to avoid surprises. There are some inexpensive hotels in Tahoe City, and condos and cabins are available for renting and may be your best bet. Check www.lodging.com and www.tahoeaccommodations.com for both.

Rentals, tune-ups and gear: Bike shops on the North Shore can help you with tune-ups, rentals, gear, advice on where to ride and maps. Try the Backcountry Store in Tahoe City (530-581-5861) and Truckee (530-582-0909) and Cycle Paths (530-581-1171), Olympic Bike Shop (530-581-2500), and TSR Mountain Bike Rental (530-583-0123) in Tahoe City. For running shoes, apparel and topographical maps, try Alpenglow in Tahoe City (530-583-6917).

Races: The Lake Tahoe region (South Shore) will be the site of the
2003 Subaru Primal Quest Adventure Race on September 5-14 (www.ecoprimalquest.com). The Tahoe Big Blue Adventure Race returns to the North Shore for its second year on September 13 (www.bigblueadventure.com). The Xterra USA Championship (www.xterraplanet.com) will be held in Incline Village on September 27 and will include off-road triathlons, trail runs and a variety of adventure sports clinics.

For more information on multi-sport adventures in North Lake Tahoe, see www.tahoeadventuresports.com or call the North Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce (530-581-6900).


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