Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Thunder Mountain Loop - Lake Tahoe, CA

During the planning for our 4th o’July MTB weekend in Tahoe, my buddy Bill suggested we try and bag Thunder Mountain, which he’d gotten skunked on his previous two attempts due to low snow levels. With very little information available for this loop, the only word we’d gotten was that it has some pretty nice views and that the downhill rivaled Toad's, one of the classic and most well-known rides in South Lake Tahoe. My own research also indicated mostly volcanic terrain rather than the standard granite I’d come to expect from riding in the Tahoe area. It also looked like a bit of an adventure ride, including some hike-a-bike – just the type of riding I seek out! I’m guessing that the reason that Thunder Mountain isn’t as popular as the other Tahoe trails is simply based on its location, near Kirkwood, which is quite a bit south of the lake.

Since we’d planned to do Thunder Mountain, we camped about halfway between it and Toad's, near Picketts Junction. The drive to the trailhead took us along Hwy 88, past a few alpine lakes and some beautiful granite terrain that looked like it would serve up some really nice backcountry skiing. To start the ride we parked down low near Silver Lake, which would allow us to finish the ride with the descent – certainly my favorite way to end a day! After finding some nice shade in which to park the car, we made some final adjustments to our bikes and started our ride up the dirt road, paralleling and on the west side of the highway.

Prep work

The first mile consisted of a nice consistent grade up a road that alternated between sections of gravel and pavement. Before long, the road brought us to an open field with a few RVs camped out for the 4th of July holiday. From here, Bill had remembered jumping onto singletrack, which took us some time (and backtracking) to find. Hint -- it's right off a spur road and in-between a few of the campsites.

Starting it off with a road climb -- a great way to warm up the legs!

4th o' July campers

The next part of the ride started to climb with a bit more gusto, alternating between meadows and coniferous forests. Eventually, the trail opened up as it brought us up toward Castle Point and some great views off to the north. Once we’d taken in the view, we dropped in for a short descent, which led us to a crossing over Hwy 88.

Matt puts his tires on the first singletrack of the day

A few small meadows like this one along the way

The author coasting through a flat bit of trail
(photo by Bill Riedl)

Approaching the first topout of the day

Bill, trying to keep his eye on the trail

The author checks out the view from his bike
(photo by Bill Riedl)

Matt with a more appropriate method of taking it in
(photo by Bill Riedl)

Enjoying the first (short) descent of our ride

On the other side of the highway the trail began to climb quite steeply, forcing me to shift down into my granny gear and settle in for a bit of suffering. The trail soon entered a large meadow carpeted in Wooly Mule’s Ears and Lupine. We also caught our first glimpse of Martin Point, one of the prominent peaks along the trail. As the trail re-entered the woods, the wildflowers really started to pop and I found myself stopping every minute or so to snap off photos, which got a little bit out of control. I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a solo ride and that I needed to catch back up with the boys.

Bill, starting off the real climb.

Thumbs up, so far.

The author, mid climb.
(photo by Bill Riedl)

Matt cruises past. Note the windbreaks lining the ridge on rider's left. 

Martin Point

Wooly Mule's Ears and Lupine abound

Another photo of the wildflower carpet

Bill digs in on one of the few switchbacks

Another view of Martin Point, from the trail.

The first of many lava rock formations

I soon caught up to the others at the Two Sentinels, a couple of volcanic rock formations lining the top of the rim that looked out to the northeast over the Kirkwood Valley. The views were pretty damn impressive. In addition to the Two Sentinels, there were a few other volcanic hoodoos scattered across the landscape which created a cool contrast with the wildflowers and the surrounding granite terrain.

The view of the Kirkwood valley, from the Two Sentinels.

The trail flattens out a bit at the Sentinels 

As we continued, the trail followed along the ridge above Kirkwood, with the scenery getting better and better the further we went. We soon reached the first hike-a-bike section, which took us up and around a few steep & loose switchbacks. After the trail had finished traversing under and past Martin Point, Thunder Mountain came into view, with its eastern summit in the form of a large volcanic mass reaching up toward the sky. The trail headed straight toward the mountain as it snaked its way through a labyrinth of lava rock.

Back on the bikes

Bill pointing out the names of the surronding landmarks

The great alpine scenery starting to build

Looking back toward the Sentinels

Yet another hoodoo

Starting off the next climb

The author along the traverse
(photo by Bill Riedl)

First hike-a-bike of the day

Steep and loose switchy

Another one of the author on the ridge traverse
(photo by Bill Riedl)

Bill gets his first view of Thunder Mountain

The trail now going up Thunder Mountain becomes visible

Matt enjoying the alpine scenery

Heading into the lava labyrinth

Bill, hidden somewhere amongst the rocks

More stunning alpine scenery

Ominous signage at the ski resort boundary
(photo by Bill Riedl)

Closing in on Thunder Mountain it became clear that the trail actually went through a small pass at the base of the eastern summit pinnacle. This was one of the few places where we saw other people – two groups of hikers and a group of mountain bikers heading up toward the pass in front of us. The climb up quickly turned into another hike-a-bike, due to how steep and loose it was. I didn’t mind, since it allowed me to take in the view without worrying about riding off the trail while I did so. Sure enough, we topped out at the base of the pinnacle. Flanking the other side of the small pass was another lava rock pillar.

Bill, stoked for the upcoming climb / hike-a-bike

Off the bikes once again

One of the few ridable sections on the steep pitch up Thunder Mountain

The author doing some hiking
(photo by Bill Riedl)

Bill closes in on the pass

Made it!

The author gets in on the celebration
(photo by Matt Perkins)

From here, the trail descended from the pass at a modest rate as it rounded the bend and headed off toward the west. We soon reached a trail intersection, with a left turn continuing the trail loop and a right turn heading up toward the western summit of Thunder Mountain. Since we were treating this as an adventure ride, we chose the latter and made our way toward the other summit.

The trail, heading down from the pass

Bill, dropping down from the pass.

Some exposure in this section, but not too bad.

Matt, dropping down from the pass.

More good views on the other side

Even though we knew we’d eventually have to start hiking, we decided to ride our bikes as far as we could. The trail climbed gradually with one small patch of snow that required a foot dab. Soon after the trail became very steep and rocky, forcing us from our bikes. Along the way, we found a cool little rock arch that would have been easy to miss if we hadn’t been taking in our surroundings. The short hike to the summit didn’t gain much elevation but did require some careful footwork and minor route finding. Eventually, we reached what we believed to be the western summit of Thunder Mountain, where we found a nice little vista that overlooked Silver Lake to the south. There was also a metal ID badge that was mounted to the rock, which read, “John Bandy Volcano CA 8-11”. A quick Google search turned up nothing on this, so your guess is as good as mine on who mounted it there and why.

The only snow patch we'd ride through on this day -- pretty weak

Going up

Some cool rocks formations along the way toward the western summit

Bill waiting for someone to play king of the mountain with him

This section looks more ridable than it was, at least for mortals.

A natural arch that can be seen from the summit 

A bit of a scramble to get there, but nothing too treacherous

Matt closes in on the west summit

The final scramble

Rewarded with more spectacular views

Silver Lake

The badge

Heading back down from the summit, we quickly reached the trail intersection, this time taking the other fork as part of the Thunder Mountain Loop. Since I wanted to snap some photos of the downhill, I jumped out ahead while the other two padded up. The descent started out with nice sightlines that allowed for some good speed. I soon found another cool rock formation to grab some snaps of while the others rode past. Before long, they zipped by, and after getting a few shots off I saddled back up and gave chase. The trail continued its rapid descent where Bill and I leapfrogged, taking photos along the way.

Heading back down toward the intersection

Back on the loop, near the start of the descent.

Droping into the forest for a bit

A change of scenery

You could build up some really good speed in this section

The author, getting up to speed.
(photo by Bill Riedl)

First signs of granite on the descent

Within a mile or so of the previous intersection, we ran into another, with a right turn continuing downhill toward the car and a left turn heading toward Scout Carson Lake, at least according to the sign. Bill suggested we head left and add some miles as an out-n-back, which Matt and I quickly signed up for – since we’d started to get into some granite, we had high hopes that we’d find some good stuff along the way. The trail started off with loose rock that wasn’t necessary the terrain we’d hoped for. It did transition into some fun boulder tech for a short bit but soon returned to the unstable rock. The real saving grace of this stretch was the incredible scenery, which drew us further and further down the trail. We ended up riding about two miles before the trail essentially turned into a streambed of un-rideable terrain. It also headed straight up the hill into the unknown. It was at this point that we’d decided to cut our losses and head back, which was probably a good call since all three of us were getting a little low on water and the sun was cookin’.

One of the good sections of the side trail, near the start.

Entering the large meadow section, which would make up a large portion of this section.

A bit of hike-a-bike over loose rock

Pretty fantastic sightlines
(photo by Bill Riedl)

Patches of small trees broke up the meadow from time to time

Bill, where the trail ends... At least for us.

Heading back

The author, enjoying the views more than the trail.
(photo by Bill Riedl)

Bill, working on a boulder problem

One of the few fun bits on this section

Now back at the intersection with the Thunder Mountain Loop, we padded up and prepared ourselves for the final descent. Once again, we leapfrogged along the way while being treated to some pretty spectacular riding. Just as the beta we received had indicated, the riding was a lot like Toad's, with lots of challenging rock drops that were all rideable. Even between the bigger drops were plenty of natural features that spiced things up a bit.

Bill, finding the goods!

Finishing up another

Matt styles on of the best boulder gardens on the descent

More bouldery fun

A small slab, thrown in for good measure.

The techie stuff lasted for quite a while before transitioning into natural flow trail, with lots of fast straight-aways and swoopy turns – I was having way too much fun to stop for photos in this stretch, so you’ll just have to take my word for it! There was one notable section where the trail snaked its way through a volcanic maze. I quickly parked my bike and snapped off some shots as the others rode through. More flow trail followed for a short bit until it finally ended at Hwy 88.

Bill rides through a really cool lava field

The author gets a boost near the end of the ride.
(photo by Bill Riedl)

After a quick double-check of the map we confirmed that we needed to ride up the road for about a quarter mile to the turnoff where we’d left the car. Luckily, we avoided being run over and finished our loop, totally stoked on what we’d just ridden!

I think it goes without saying that I really enjoyed this loop – It has everything I look for in a ride, mainly great views and challenging tech! This combined with it being an adventure ride really sealed the deal for me, and I’d certainly consider it one of the top rides in the Tahoe area. Regarding the views, and as I stated before, it’s really unlike any other riding area that I’ve been to in Tahoe, mainly due to the volcanic rock in lieu of granite. That said, the granite does return for the last descent, which provides similar riding to that found on Toads, which of course is a big plus. The only real downside I see is that it’s pretty far from Tahoe proper, at approximately 40 miles/minutes south of South Lake. If you’re in the Truckee area this might be a bit far, but if you’re at the bottom end of the lake it’s well worth the drive. Also, if you’re looking for a good shuttle ride, this is not the ride for you.

As for the two out-n-back side trails: The one leading to the summit of Thunder Mountain was well worth it in my opinion, at least the first time you do the ride. On the other hand, I can’t recommend doing the one that headed east toward Scout Carson Lake, unless you’re just trying to put in some more miles and take in a few more views.

The tracks from our ride:

Relive 'Morning Jul 3rd'