As the largest alpine lake in North America, Lake Tahoe is world-renowned for the clarity of its water, its magnificent vistas, spectacular ski resorts, and limitless tourist attractions. In fact, as the second deepest lake in the USA, Lake Tahoe holds so much water that it can cover the entire state of California up to 14 inches. Tahoe can be experienced a number of ways, from easy walks along the shore, riding Heavenly Ski Resort’s year-round gondola for panoramic lake views, or cruising along the shore by paddlewheeler or kayak.
While researching biking options during my recent visit over Memorial Day Weekend, Tahoe’s Flume Trail was beckoning the adventurer in me. Once I learned that the Flume Trail is rated among the top mountain biking trails in the US — if not the world — the decision to conquer my fear of heights and embark on this thrilling experience was a no-brainer.
In the late 1800s, the Sierra Nevada Wood and Lumber Company transported its raw lumber via a wooden flume located 1600 vertical feet above the shores of Lake Tahoe. While the wooden flume has long since been disassembled and the days of hauling timber provide for an interesting history lesson, the path used for the wooden flume is now the setting for one of the most hair-raising mountain biking adventures in the nation.
If you didn’t bring your own mountain bike to Tahoe, Flume Trail Bikes offers rentals for this world-class ride. Located in Incline Village at the northeast shore of Tahoe and at the end of the trail, Flume Trail Bikes rents high quality mountain bikes beginning at $35 per day; for $10 they can also shuttle you to Spooner Lake, where the off-road adventure officially begins.
Instead of taking their shuttle, I opted for an 11-mile ride along Nevada’s Hwy 28 up to Spooner Lake so I could relish the spectacular blues that make Tahoe so famous. The incredibly rich hues definitely made the more than 1000 vertical feet of climbing worthwhile. The color of the water was so rich I imagined myself in the South Pacific, not the Sierras.
After passing the gorgeous beaches of Sand Harbor, the strenuous climb to Spooner Lake began. Given the lack of a safe bike lane and the throngs of tourists off for a carefree joyride over the long holiday weekend, I was certainly glad I opted against renting a road bike to ride around the lake’s perimeter.
After a challenging climb up to Spooner Lake at 7000 feet, I knew the most difficult section still lay ahead: a very steep 1300-foot climb over 4 miles with minimal shade — definitely the toughest part of the day — and there is no way out of it, regardless of whether you take the shuttle or not. I made sure to hydrate sufficiently at Spooner Lake, and I took a breather by riding around the lake’s 2-mile perimeter.
Enjoying the relaxing sights and sounds of tranquil Spooner Lake was certainly a pleasure, but the thrilling Flume Trail was still calling my name. At this point, I was dreading the inevitable 1300-foot climb along the dusty and not terribly scenic “North Canyon Fire Road” to the adventure’s high point above Marlette Lake at an altitude of 8300 feet. I had never ridden a bike, let alone climbed one, at so high an altitude. Calling that climb challenging is an understatement, and I found myself, along with other Flume Trail enthusiasts, walking the bike and huffing and puffing along long steep stretches. But alas, slowly but surely, I finally made it to the crest at 8300 feet where views of Marlette Lake (where the Flume Trail begins) eventually appeared.
At this point, I was pleased to have completed ALL of the climbing for the day and coasted downhill to picturesque Marlette Lake at an elevation of 7823.
This is Tahoe of course, so even peaceful Marlette Lake posed its own challenges and obstacles — namely the lake itself! In order to reach the official start of the Flume Trail, I had two choices: carry my heavy bike up and over some tricky boulders, or take a quick dip in the cool waters of this alpine lake. I chose to walk in the water!
The dip in frigid Marlette Lake certainly got my blood rushing and stimulated my adrenaline. I was so excited at this point to finally reach the start of the 4.4 mile Flume Trail. The warning sign about landslides and steep drop-offs only further aroused my thirst for adventure. I chose to leave my fear of heights behind at Marlette Lake, and proceed in the direction of thrills and excitement.
4.4 miles may not sound like much, but this is no ordinary 4.4 miles. The narrowness of the trail now used primarily by mountain bikers was mindboggling. And the views of Lake Tahoe shimmering below were breathtaking. One interesting fact about the trail is that it consists of virtually ZERO ELEVATION GAIN. The challenge is not posed by steep climbs or descents, but by the narrowness of the trail, rocks and boulders, and the requirement for painstakingly careful focus to avoid a perilous plunge down to the shores of Tahoe 1600 feet below. For most of the trail, I was able to ride my bike along the trail, but there were a handful of treacherous sections that did require me to dismount and walk the bike carefully towards safety.
It took me nearly 90 minutes to traverse the 4.4 mile trail, not because it is inherently difficult, but because I kept stopping to immerse myself in the awe-inspiring views. Words are obviously insufficient to describe the beauty of this unforgettable experience, and my pictures below don’t do it justice, but you can see for yourself how unique this adventure was.
Looking back at the Flume Trail, I simply could not believe the narrowness of the trail. I was thankful for having ridden from south to north because my fear of heights tends to kick in when the right side of my body is exposed. I imagine it would have been much more difficult for me to complete the ride in reverse. The fact that I had extended my adventure by riding from the rental shop instead of taking the shuttle, and circling around Spooner Lake meant that I encountered only 4 people during the entire course of the 4.4 mile journey — a more crowded Flume Trail would likely be more dangerous and less enjoyable. Once I reached the northern terminus of the trail, it was an easy downhill coast via the 2.9-mile Tunnel Creek Trail back to my starting point. The total distance of this adventure was approximately 26.7 miles with about 2400 feet of elevation gain.
Tahoe’s Flume Trail is a fabulously unique way to experience and appreciate one of the world’s most beautiful lakes, while quenching your thirst for thrilling adventures.
Michael Alti is a member of the 2013 Newport Beach Citizens Bicycle Master Plan Oversight Committee and the founder of The Alti Law Firm, practicing land use, environmental law, water law and business law. He is also a Top Fundraiser with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Bay to Bay Bike Tour raising money to fight MS.