Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Flume Trail - Lake Tahoe (CA)

Of all the mountain bike trails in Lake Tahoe, the Flume Trail is probably the most famous. Known more for its amazing scenery than technical riding, it's considered a must-do by most mountain bikers that make the pilgrimage to this riding destination. After getting our fill of rowdy terrain the previous days on the Downieville Downhill & Toads, a longer and more scenic ride was just what we were looking for. It also happened to be July 8th, which worked out well since the section of the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) that we’d be riding to access the Flume Trail was only open to mountain bikes on even-numbered days.

The drive from our rental in Meyers to the south end of Incline Village was only about 30 miles, but took more than an hour due to speed limits, traffic and getting stuck behind a wide load caravan. When we finally pulled into the parking lot near Flume Trail Bikes, I was pretty grumpy and ready to be riding my bike – I don’t do well with crowds… After some delays getting food, going to the bathroom etc., we finally left our shuttle car and started up the highway toward Tahoe Meadows. It wasn’t until we were driving along this stretch that I truly realized why riding it on a bike would be terrible – On a highway with road construction.

As we got out of the car at the parking lot at Tahoe Meadows, the temps were surprisingly cool with a light breeze adding to the chill factor. Although I knew that I'd probably warm up pretty quickly once I started pedaling, I threw on some arm warmers before jumping onto the trail. The trail started off paralleling the highway but soon dropped into and crossed Tahoe Meadows. At the far end of the meadow we crossed Ophir Creek over a small wooden footbridge.

Tahoe Meadows

On the other side of the bridge, the trail began to climb up toward the rim, and it soon became apparent that this was a popular section of trail for hikers as well. Although we had a rather large group of 11, everyone we passed by was in good spirits and were more than willing to share the trail. Although there were a few rocky bits here and there, the trail was pretty straightforward all the way to the top of the ridge, where we found the first views of Lake Tahoe from the ride.

Making our way up to the ridge
(photo by Jason Snook)

Sandra and Emily C. dig in on the climb

Toppin' out

Now following along the rim, the trail went through a series of short climbs and descents, with fun rock moves scattered throughout. The sub-alpine terrain was also spectacular, with grasses, wildflowers and white granite boulders in sharp contrast with one other. We were also treated to more views of Lake Tahoe to the west and the Washoe Valley to the east. The further we traveled from Tahoe Meadows, the fewer hikers but more bikers we came across. This wasn't entirely surprising since this trail sees a lot of shuttle traffic fed by the local bike shops on even numbered days. Eventually the trail tee'd into Tunnel Creek Rd., which we descended about a 1/4 mile on to the northern trailhead of the famed Flume Trail.

A typical section of the TRT along the ridge

Randy and Jason among the granite 

Lots of fun rock moves in this section, as Jason shows us.

Arthur and Evan rally down another section of the beautiful TRT

Jason rides by a vista looking out toward the Washoe Valley

The author splits his focus between the trail and scenery
(photo by Jason Snook) 

Erin U. rides through one of the many small meadows along the way

Evan, leading the pack.

Although the guide books and maps recommend riding the Flume Trail in a northerly direction, my buddy who rides in Tahoe often suggested that we do it in the opposite direction. This would set us up for a road climb/trail descent vs. trail climb/road descent, on the east side of Marlette Lake. This certainly seemed better to me, but I was also a little concerned that we'd encounter a lot of bikers coming the other way.

The first mile or so was pretty uneventful, but the trail soon began to carve itself into the side of the ridge, exposing an impressive wall of bleached granite that lined the east side of the trail. In some locations it overhung us, giving the path a bit of a cavernous feel. Although there was some exposure toward the right side of the trail, the trail was wide enough to prevent vertigo. This was by far the most scenic section of trail that we had ridden in Tahoe, and a testament to why it's the most popular in the area. That said, if you're looking for challenging terrain you won't find it here, as it's about the flattest trail I've ever ridden and there are very few technical sections.

A rider enters the classic section of the Flume Trail

Arthur and Evan hug the wall on the famed Flume Trail

Emily P, enjoying the ride!

Coonabomber too!

Views of Lake Tahoe abound on The Flume Trail

A few rocky obstacles along the way

A typical section of the Flume Trail

Danika makes an appearance 

Somewhere on the southern end of the Flume Trail

Finishing it up

The Flume Trail ended abruptly at the Marlette Lake Dam, where it transitioned into a dirt road that wrapped around the south end of the lake. Once on the east side of the lake, the road began to climb in earnest as it made its way up to a lookout over the lake. The vista didn’t really provide much of a view, but it did allow us to catch our breath before reconnecting with the TRT and continuing the climb. As the trail ascended it traveled through some pretty spectacular landscape, which included a few meadows that were adorned with a brilliant array of wildflowers. It eventually topped out on an open ridgetop with panoramic view of the area; unfortunately, the wind was a bit too obnoxious and we decided to keep riding.

Marlette Lake

Riding the road around the lake

The start of the road climb out of the Marlette basin

Nearing the end of the steep stuff

A quick rest at the overlook

Arthur leads the crew up the final trail climb

Typical scenery on the climb up the TRT from Marlette Lake 

More meadows!

Sandra digs in on the meadow climb

Topping out once again!

A view from the open ridge

Since I had assumed that the trail was all downhill from this point on, I opened up my suspension and lowered my seat. Although it did descend for a short distance, it soon began to ascend once again, which wouldn’t have been such a big deal if I hadn’t burned myself out on the climb up the road. Luckily it was only a short climb up and over a small knoll and we soon found ourselves at the top of the true descent. As my buddy had told me, it was certainly sweet, with lots of fast traverses, switchbacks, and even some fun techie rock sections. I was pleasantly surprised that we didn't run into much uphill traffic, which I assumed we’d have based on the maps and guidebooks recommended route. The downhill was good enough to make be forget about the suffering on the climb, which in my mind is key to a good trail.

Making our way toward the final descent

One last climb. Ugh...

Arthur rounds the corner on the final singletrack descent

Emily C. on the descent

More sub-alpine landscape

Kim nears the end of the descent

All too soon the trail started to flatten out, and we rode through another beautiful meadow and soon after that reconnected with Tunnel Creek Rd. Since none of us had the energy to ride north on the TRT back to Tahoe Meadows, we started our descent down the road toward our shuttle car that was parked at the bottom. The road itself was pretty sandy in spots which made for some excitement around some of the corners at speed. One thing I was not expecting from this section of the ride was the amazing views along the way – in fact, they were some of the best of the trip! Not surprisingly, there was quite a bit of foot traffic on the road as well, providing easy access to the great vistas. After about 3 miles the road deposited us back at the parking lot for Flume Trail Bikes and the Café. This was actually a great place to relax while some of our crew gathered the shuttle vehicles up top. The Café had a good selection of food and beverages, which we certainly took advantage of.

A large meadow marked the end of the trail descent

Heading back toward Tunnel Creek Rd.

Partway down Tunnel Creek Rd.

Mandatory scenery stop 

Even though the it was a dirt road descent, it's hard to complain with view like this!

Jason on a another typical section of Tunnel Creek Rd.

The route we did for the Flume Trail was an absolute classic, and certainly provided the most scenic vistas of the trip. Although the terrain on the Flume Trail itself was pretty flat and tame, it more than made up for it with the views. Also, there were some fun technical sections on the TRT that helped bring some challenge to the ride. I would have to concur with my buddy about the direction we rode the route, as the descent on the east side of Marlette Lake was a great way to end the singletrack. I must say that I agree with the masses and that this is a must-do ride if you’re in the Tahoe area!

The tracks from our ride:

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