Tahoe on My Mind
Riding around Lake Tahoe had been on my mind during previous visits to that area of California, but I never quite found the right time. Determined not to miss another opportunity when I was going to be there, I flew in for a writing retreat a couple of days early, hoping for some mid-October sun rather than snow or chilly rain.
And so, with my lungs adjusting to the crisp, thin mountain air at 6,200 feet, and after the morning frost had melted on a cloudless day, I double-checked to make sure all the big signs proclaiming “No overnight parking. Cars left after midnight will be towed.” meant only “No overnight parking during snow season, so we can plow.” I then left my rental car parked at the Village at Squaw Valley and set off on my bike for a solo two-day, 89-mile ride.
I’d considered riding the 72 hilly miles around the lake itself in one day, but I wanted to linger, take lots of photos, and hike along the way. Plus, the literally freezing mornings and shortening daylight hours of mid-October made a long day ride much less attractive to me than a bike overnight.
Squaw Valley Road took me the two-plus miles from the village to Highway 89, where I turned south onto a trail paralleling both the highway and the Truckee River for the five miles into Tahoe City. I’d ridden this stretch previously and knew that compared to the road, the trail was much more scenic and peaceful — closer to the river, which at times drowns out the traffic noise.
Tahoe City is at the northwest “corner” of the lake. Getting into town, I continued straight onto Highway 28 rather than turning right with the trail to continue along Highway 89. You can go either way here, but I chose to ride clockwise around the lake to be as close as possible to it rather than being on the far side of the roads and having my lake views broken up by passing motor vehicles.
Tahoe City is the hub at the lake’s northern shore and features large grocery stores and a selection of restaurants. I bought food for a picnic lunch and snacks here (there’s also a store up the road in Kings Beach). Along Highway 28 in Tahoe City, the lake comes into view, with its clear blue waters, and mountains rising above framed by pine tress. For the next 15 or so miles, through Kings Beach to Incline Village and the Nevada state line, hilly Highway 28 plays hide-and-seek with Lake Tahoe; though it isn’t always visible through the houses and fences that line its shores, the lake's calming presence is never far away — nor long hidden from view.
Passing Nevada’s welcoming brigade of casinos, I turned right onto Lakeshore Drive, a bit of a shortcut but, more importantly, a break from Highway 28’s faster motor traffic. Lakeshore Drive ended a few miles farther southeast, and I turned right to continue along 28, going south along the lake’s east side.
The views opened up, the road stayed closer to the lake through a much less-developed area, and I took frequent photo breaks — glad to be able to just stop wherever I was with my bike and not needing a pullout big enough for cars. At Memorial Point, I explored by foot down a short, curvy trail leading to the lake and its boulder-strewn shore. Only another mile or so down the road, I turned right into Sand Harbor State Park ($1 entry fee for bikes, though they just waved me through), where I had a picnic lunch on an almost deserted beach — one of the joys of an off-season, mid-week bike overnight. The warm sun sparkled off the lake, lighting up both the day and my slightly jet-lagged mood, and tempting, but not convincing, me to dive into the lake’s chilly waters. Instead of swimming, I walked along a short boardwalk trail photographing rocky nooks. The water was so clear, it reminded me of the Caribbean, though the pine trees lining the shores did not. Drinking more water than usual when I ride as I was adjusting to dry air at altitude, I was pleased to find running water in the park’s one open bathroom block; the restaurant and water fountains were already out of service for the winter.
From Sand Harbor, I returned to Highway 28 and continued south. Enthralled with the lake views, I might not have even realized the road was climbing to over 7,000’, except for my odometer telling me that I had slowed down.
Highway 28, a two-lane road since Lakeshore Drive, ends at Route 50, a four-to-six-lane road that would’ve been adequate at two lanes for the moderate traffic when I was there. Turning right onto it, I was greeted with a long descent (at least a few miles, though I wasn’t watching my odometer), and flew down the smooth pavement. It was one of those the sun-in-my-face, wind-in-my-hair, lungs-full-of-fresh-air, at-one-with-my-bike, there’s-nowhere-I’d-rather-be-than-right-here moments.
The descent ended, but the riding remained easy as I passed Cave Rock. Nearing the state line, the first businesses I’d seen since turning onto Lakeshore Drive sprang up. Casinos bid me farewell, without getting my business, as I crossed from Nevada back into California and South Lake Tahoe. I’d chosen not to bring camping gear through airports for just one night, since the rest of my trip didn’t involve camping; so, I spent the night in one of South Lake Tahoe’s many motels. (With heavy frost still on the grass at 8:30 the next morning, I didn’t regret this decision.)
South Lake Tahoe is easily the biggest town along the lake, and I bought a breakfast sandwich and food for the day’s ride before leaving. It’s possible to ride through town on mapped bike routes that zigzag a lot, but after one trail I was on deteriorated, I primarily stuck to Highway 50. I was glad I did when I got to a freshly repaved stretch that was still closed to motor vehicles, but where a construction worker told me, “The highway patrol isn’t stopping bikes from using it.”
Where Highway 50 meets Highway 89, I turned right onto 89 to ride north along the lake’s west side. On a whim, I followed a sign for a forest trail and turned right off Highway 89 onto a neighborhood street. I then turned left onto the trail, which wound through evergreens and provided a welcome break from traffic noise until it ended after three miles at the highway. The road soon started climbing, and I reached the only switchbacks along the lake’s shore. I didn’t see any signs indicating grades, but the steepest sections felt like at least 10 percent. Like switchbacks frequently do, though, they rewarded me with magnificent views, including a panorama of mountains snow-capped from an early autumn snow and mountainsides laced with golden trees. The switchbacks ended before Inspiration Point, with its views down into Emerald Bay. But the road kept climbing, forested mountains on my left and the lake to my right.
I stopped at the Vikingsholm parking area for a hike. A steep and wide, partially paved, mile-long trail took me down to the lake. After enjoying a picnic lunch, I meandered another mile or so along the unpaved Rubicon Trail, which stayed close to the lake’s shore. On it I only saw a few other hikers, despite the perfect hiking weather: sunny and temps in the upper 60s.
After I hopped back on my bike, the road continued climbing for a bit; then I reached a stretch with much more descending than climbing that returned me closer to the lake’s elevation. The grades were mostly gentle the rest of the way back to Tahoe City, and with this part of the west side of the lake more developed than the east, the views were more commonly obscured. A trail parallels Highway 89 for much of the last nine miles into Tahoe City. At times I rode on the trail, but it crosses 89 a lot, so at times I just stuck to the highway to keep my momentum and stay in the flow of riding, rather than stopping to wait for a break in traffic to cross.
Back in Tahoe City, my loop around the lake completed but my trip not yet over, I got back on the trail to Squaw Valley Road. I was tempted to bypass Squaw Valley and keep riding north, wondering if I could get all the way to the Canadian border before any mountain passes were closed by snow for the winter. But I had friends to meet up with in Tahoe, friends whom I haven’t yet convinced to try bike touring. And so, with the Sierra Cascades Route on my mind, I ended my bike overnight, crossing one short tour off my list and adding one much longer one to it.
Tip for this adventure: If you're climbing the switchbacks along the lake's west side from south to north, as I did, be sure to look behind you for the views!