My Favorite Lake Tahoe Mountain Biking Trails

Views of Lake Tahoe from Freel Peak trail.

TAHOOOOOE! The word is fun to yell and the mountain biking there is even better.

When a blog reader asked for recommendations of California mtb trails, I pointed him at a past blog post about coastal rides. However, I didn’t have anything written about Tahoe trip Chelsea and I did last summer. Now I do!

I’ve ridden all these, with the list drawing from various websites and local friends who recommended their favorite trails. I’m an advanced rider (stop chortling, mtb friends) and these trails are blue or black difficulty. I linked to many of the trails on Trailforks to make it easy.

I love multi-hour rides that cover lots of distance, plus enduro-style descending. If you’re looking for tame, flat (cough boring cough) trails, this isn’t your list!

Without further ado, my favorite Lake Tahoe mtb rides:

Rolling down the TRT above Spooner Lake.

Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) from Mt. Rose to Spooner to Van Sickle:
Starting at Mt. Rose, pedal the Tahoe Rim Trail up and down to the top of Van Sickle, then descend into the tourist loony bin that is the S. Lake Tahoe. Fantastic lake views, playful and engaging riding (ahhh, granite is so fun), remote riding, and a healthy dose of effort make this a must-do. The full shebang is 45 miles and took me about 5 hours, so plan for a full day of riding and bring a water filter.

Getting up there at High Meadows near Star Lake.

TRT from Kingsbury S to Star Lake, Freel Peak/Meadows, down Mr. Toads: A close second place for favorite ride around Tahoe! Starting from the Heavenly Resort (we stayed at Chelsea’s parent’s timeshare there), pedal south on the TRT Heavenly and High Meadows to a refreshing (cold!) dip at Star Lake and eat some lunch.

Keep pedaling on Freel Peak trail as views across Lake Tahoe open up, then one last push on Freel Meadows. Finish with a rollicking shred down Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (a fantastic ride by itself). There’s a huge day ride called Rose to Toad’s that combines these first two rides.

Monument Pass and Cold Creek – you’ve got to get up there somehow (I pedaled in from Kingsbury South trailhead on the TRT Heavenly), but once you’re there, it’s all fun downhill. Monument Pass is smoother terrain with lots of switchbacks up high; Cold Creek sports rocky sections with large boulders that are a) fun and b) dangerous when your front wheel disappears into a deep pit. #wreckingsucks

My sister-in-law on Sidewinder.

Corral/Sidewinder – I linked Monument and Cold Creek (above) with this ride, but most people do them on their own. FUN trails!
Sidewinder is a natural granite playground into Corral’s flowy jump trail. Gotta ride it if you’re in the area. The climbing is on pavement so you can crank out laps if you want.

California Hangtown, baby! The climb to the top of Sidewinder.

Christmas Valley – a local Tahoe rider recommended this. Moderate-grade climbing that results in a low-flow descent with way more pedaling than I expected. Entertaining and the end makes it a worthwhile ride, but if you are only doing a couple rides in the area, I vote for skipping this one.

Chelsea’s bro enjoying the fruits of Tahoe.

Armstrong Pass – I linked this with Christmas Valley and it worked well. Similar riding to the rest of the Tahoe Rim Trail and it dumps you out right at the top of Corral/Sidewinder for more fun. A good way to get up to Star Lake if you want to ride Monument Pass and Cold Creek.

Hole in the Ground and Donner Lake Rim – Everyone loves Hole in the Ground…and I confess that I don’t know why! There’s a big climb up, lots of techy traversing (ok, that part is fun), and then it dumps you onto a FIRE ROAD for almost the entire 2,000’ descent.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t ride UP singletrack and DOWN fire roads without a lot of sadness… An out-and-back on Donner Lake Rim Trail was interesting purely for the tech-nasty bike handling required, but it’s mostly flat.

Sneaked a gratuitous van shot in after all!

Bonus Rides:

Flume Trail – Ok, so I didn’t ride ALL of these. Everyone rides Flume Trail near Tahoe, but I opted for the Tahoe Rim Trail from Mt. Rose right above it. However, 12.7mm tourists and Instagram posts can’t be wrong…right? If you want a green trail with views of the lake, I hear it’s great.

Downhill to Downieville!
Downieville fun on Gold Valley Rim.

Downieville – my mountain bike friends speak of Downieville like it’s hallowed ground, a shrine of trails not to be missed. I needed to go there, so on the way back from Tahoe we detoured a bit to explore.

You can pay to shuttle from Downieville to avoid the ~3k’ climb up from the highway. NAH. Just pedal it! The fire road is steep, but the views are great. I added a bit to my day and did the climb from Sierra City, then rode Gold Valley Rim, Pauley Creek, Butcher, 2nd, 1st divide, which is (mostly) the route that the Downieville Classic follows.

Note: I considered riding up the highway, but it’s narrow and people are going fast. Hitchhike or catch a shuttle if your awesome wife isn’t available to meet you at the end of the ride.

The less fun, but good-for-ya route to the top at Downieville. Shuttles are overrated.
Getting up high on Mt. Elwell near Graegle!

Graegle –  Say it like “Gray Eagle” and fly like… anyway.

This little town is COOL and geared toward mountain biking like Oakridge, Oregon. I did a double-whammy day of Mills Peak and Mt. Elwell, which is either a big ride or my legs were tired from all the Tahoe riding! Mills is the easier of the two, with climbing on the highway/fire road to the trailhead. From there, shred back toward town on well-built, varied trails.

As for Mt. Elwell… Pedal back up from town (or ride this on the second day if you’re wiser than me) and then huff and puff up the too-steep-to-ride trail to the top of Elwell. I knew it was steep when a guy on an electric bike couldn’t pedal it!

Why ride uphill when you can carry your bike?

From the top, buckle your shoes and don the pads cuz it’s game time. Rocks! More rocks! ROCKS. Be prepared for black diamond riding. Nothing is crazy and there aren’t any big gaps, but the riding is in your face and challenging. Disclaimer aside, it’s also suparad! At the bottom, jump in the reservoir and enjoy the laidback vibe in town.

Chelsea’s mom laying down a patch of rubber on the trail from Tahoe City.

Family Fun: we did two rides with C’s family on the paved trails along the lake. One starts west of S. Lake Tahoe and the other we started in Tahoe City on the north shore. Both were fun and bike rental shops abound.

The first is shorter (maybe 10 miles available), whereas the second one has ~30 miles out and back, which Chelsea’s parents crushed on their rental cruisers. Someday I’ll be that tough!

Fabulous lake views from the top of Ellis Peak.
Fabulous lake views from the top of Ellis Peak.

Hike Ellis Peak – need a rest day (well, from biking)? This six mile hike ends with a full-on amazing view of Lake Tahoe. Highly recommended!

In a funny small-world moment, we picked up two PCT hitchhikers on the drive back from Ellis Peak’s trailhead. Turns out one follows me on Instagram and is the personal trainer for Portland friends. Her girlfriend Carrot is a well-known thru-hiker whose excellent book we’d read. I love that kind of random stuff!

Small world!

That’s all I’ve got. If you have trails to recommend, fire away below in the comments. Happy pedaling!

Onward!
4 replies
  1. Go Jules Go
    Go Jules Go says:

    Sooo, for the rest of us, I trust you’re firing up another post called, “My Favorite Time Shares to Sit and Drink Coffee in While Reading ‘Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart,'” right?

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Ahhh, I see you stillll don’t understand what this blog is about, Ms Jules! 😉 Maybe a post called “I’ll Never Own a Timeshare (/Boat/2nd Home), But It’s Sweet When People You Know Do!”

      Reply
  2. Ben
    Ben says:

    All worthy rides! No need to look down on Flume, it’s a great easy spin back from riding TRT from Mt Rose Highway to Marlette Lake.

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Fair enough, Ben! I was mostly poking fun at Flume since juuust about everyone I know mentions that trail and all the local guides do too. Clearly the tone came off a bit too serious. Good call on connecting that from Marlette Lake with a start at Mt. Rose. Cheers!

      Reply

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