Distance: 11.5-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1080 ft
This is the only ride in the immediate Tahoe area in Bestrides. That’s because I don’t like the riding around Tahoe. I know it’s legendary, especially the ride around the lake. The century that circumnavigates the lake is one of the most popular centuries in the country. I’ve ridden in the Tahoe area a lot, including around the lake several times, and in my opinion it all sucks. The roads, at least in summer, are insanely crowded. The ride around the lake is 1/3 faux Vegas, 1/3 Tahoe City gridlock, 1/6 a slow tedious climb up Hwy 28 to 50 on a shoulder amidst whizzing cars, and 1/6 actually not bad stuff around Emerald Bay, if you don’t mind narrow, rough roads with no shoulder crowded with tourists gawking at the scenery. But aren’t the views of the lake majestic? Yes, for the stretch around Emerald Bay. The rest of the loop, the lake can’t be seen.
The roads radiating out from the lake— 89 and 267 to the north, , 431 and 50 to the east, 89 to the south—are all straight, monotonous shoulder rides with lots of traffic (admittedly 89 to Truckee is easy and pretty—the rest are tough climbs). Hwy 50 towards Sacramento would be a lovely ride if it weren’t heavily trafficked—I’ve never seen a bike on it or heard of anyone riding it.
OK, but what about the bike paths? Lake Tahoe is bike path central. There’s a path that runs along the road on the west side of the lake from Tahoe City to Sugar Pine Point, a path that runs along the Truckee River almost to Squaw Valley, a path that runs along the south shore from near the Y (the Hwy 89/Hwy 50 intersection) past the Tallac Historic Site, and a path that runs south from the lake to Meyers along Hwy 50. They’re all fun at 8 mph on a cruiser or mountain bike, but they’re too small-scale for a road bike. The prettiest by far is the Truckee River trail, and in season it’s packed with pedestrians.
Then there’s the Fallen Leaf Lake Road, a 10-mile out-and-back to a famously lovely little lake with a nice waterfall, Glen Alpine Falls, on the back side. It’s in all the guides to Tahoe-area riding, and it’s the worst ride I’ve ever done on a bike—one lane of atrocious pavement that’s busy, even in the off-season, with cars, half of them in the act of backing up and pulling off the road to make room for the other half going the other way. I did this ride in November, when everything around the lake was closed, and the car traffic was still awful—on some stretches I had to pull off the road every minute or two to let a car pass me.
But if you’re a Californian who likes to travel you’re going to spend time around Tahoe, and even hell has one good road ride, so luckily there’s South Upper Truckee Road. I’d be tempted to add the ride to Bestrides on the name alone (I wish it were Old South Upper Truckee Road, but one can’t have everything—as we shall see, it’s actually Lower South Upper Truckee Rd.). But it’s also a very sweet ride. It’s only 11.5 miles long, but in that space you get a stiff 3.5-mile climb, gorgeous scenery, serious solitude, and a fast, straight descent. The road surface on SUT can be rough, so our route doesn’t descent it, but instead comes down Luther Pass Rd., which is a wide-open, straight 35-45-mph shot. The scenery is typical Tahoe aspen, granite, and pine—gorgeous—but the road is essentially one lane and you are IN the landscape in a way you never can be on larger roads. It isn’t a long enough ride to fill a day, so do it and drive south to the better rides around Markleeville and Hope Valley.
November proved a little late for the annual aspen color display
Park at the intersection of Hwy 50 and South Upper Truckee Road, just west of Hwy 89 and the agricultural inspection station. There’s plenty of roadside dirt on SUT. For 3.2 miles you’re on flat ground among houses as you follow the Upper Truckee River, the upper reaches of the river that runs out of Tahoe and down to the town of Truckee. Note how the first houses were built closest to Hwy 50, then later ones added further out, so as you ride they get newer and bigger, and still bigger, until the last house is spanking new and comically huge. You go through some nice aspen groves which must be stunning during the fall color (I was too late). You pass the clearly marked trailhead for the Hawley Grade National Recreation Trail, which is reputed to be nice.
Soon after the houses, the road turns up, and is constantly 8-12% for the next 3.5 miles. These miles are why you’ve come. Since Hwy 89 goes to the same place, there is no reason why a car should be on this road and you should have it to yourself. It twists and turns deliciously, the road surface has some nastiness, and it gets very narrow—It’s signed “one-lane” at the top. This is about as close to a mountain-bike trail ride as pavement can get. I love the scenery—scattered pines and boulders. This is probably the best boulder ride west of Boulder. At the bottom of the climb you pass the downhill end of a busy mountain bike trail, which may involve you in some traffic.
After 4.6 miles you meet up again with Hwy 89, and you could turn L and ride the rocket ship back to your car, but our route crosses 89 and continues up a completely unsigned road with an intimidating gate (open except in winter) that is in fact more of SUT—it is quite literally Upper South Upper Truckee Road. Continuing on has its risks—this 1.2-mile leg goes by a very large campground, then passes Big Meadows, perhaps the biggest of the trailheads on the Tahoe Rim Trail. So I would imagine it’s hectic in summer. I did it in November, and it was deserted. It’s also utterly delightful, with all the virtues of lower Upper, but windier and with much better pavement. It also has the novelty of being utterly unsigned at both ends—given the activity along this road, that’s inexplicable.
When upper Upper runs into Hwy 89 (again) at 5.8 miles, turn downhill, to the R (it’s easy to go the wrong way), and strap in for the 3-mile dead straight 7% descent, then 3 miles of flats that take you to 89.
Adding Miles: See the beginning of this post.
At the top of this ride you’re 2/3 of the way to Luther Pass, after which it’s a straight, fast descent to Hope Valley and all the Bestrides riches in the area.
A ride slightly out of the Tahoe area, not quite Bestrides-worthy but totally worth doing once, is Donner Pass Road, which parallels Hwy 80 from Cisco Grove to Truckee. It’s 23 miles one way, so it makes a nice out-and-back with one significant hill. From Cisco Grove it’s 13 miles of steady, mild climbing to the Donner Summit Bridge, where there’s a vista point with an unforgettable view of Donner Lake below you, then the one thrilling moment in the ride, an 1100-ft drop through two big esses to the lake. Donner Pass Road follows the north shore of the lake, and it’s fine, but I prefer taking South Shore Dr. on the other side, which is quieter. Both routes are lined with vacation homes. South Shore goes directly through Donner Memorial State Park, then rejoins Donner Pass Rd., which goes through unappealing modern Truckee and ends in the old, charming downtown.
Old Meyers Grade, aka Lincoln Highway Trail, forks off South Upper Truckee Rd. shortly after the beginning of our ride and wanders through back country, crosses Hwy 50, and continues. It’s reported to be worth riding, but I haven’t done it.
By the way there is a North Upper Truckee Rd., almost directly across Hwy 50 from the beginning of South Upper Truckee, but it isn’t worth riding—it looks appealing from the highway, but it’s soon mired in mountain subdivisions.
Afterthoughts: Once back at the intersection of 89 and 50, you can do a very short ride up 50 toward the lake and eat at Pretty Odd Wieners, a highly rated hot dog stand (actually a trailer) in a gas station parking lot on the R. Or a stone’s throw up 50 from the intersection on the L is Burger Lounge, whose burgers are the standard by which all others are measured.