Written by Kyle Ellison, photos by Heather Ellison.
Kyle Ellison gives us some insider secrets to riding one of the most scenic mountain bike trails in the nation.
To put it simply, a ride on Lake Tahoe’s Flume Trail ranks somewhere between “disturbingly beautiful” and “completely and utterly life-changing”. Consistently regarded as one of the most scenic mountain bike trails in the entire nation, the Flume Trail snakes for 13-miles on a two-wheeled joyride that offers the rider unparalleled vistas of the entire Lake Tahoe Basin. Accessible from late-May to mid-October when the trail is clear of heavy mountain snows, even an inexperienced intermediate rider can navigate the singletrack that is home to the best view in all of Lake Tahoe.
Step 1: Drop a car
Unless you feel like unnecessarily tacking on 9 miles of gradual uphill on a crowded highway, it’s best to either drop a car outside of Incline Village or utilize the hourly shuttle service provided by Flume Trail Mountain Bikes.
Step 2: Get a bike
If you’re able to provide your own high-performance, full suspension mountain bike, then by all means tackle the trail without even stopping at the shop at Spooner Lake. For riders who are looking to test-ride a high-performance bike or are in need of a little added suspension, however, Flume Trail Mountain Bikes rent out bikes at reasonable rates that include bike rental, helmets, maps, and bottles of water.
Step 3: Start the climb
After parking and paying the rangers at Spooner Lake ($2 to ride in, $10 to drive in), the trail begins with a moderately hellacious 1200’ climb from Spooner up to Marlette Lake. Aerobically this is the most strenuous section of trail, and on some of the steeper parts it could potentially be a hike-and-bike type of situation. If anyone gives you a hard time for pushing the bike you can blame it on the altitude, seeing as near the summit of the trail you are well over 8,000 ft. above sea level.
Even though the climb right out of the gate can be pretty strenuous, the views afforded of Marlette Lake once you reach the top make the entire sweat-fest worth the climb. Smaller and simpler than chaotic Lake Tahoe, Marlette has all the charm of a remote backcountry lake, and it’s the jumping off point for the most scenic and fabled section of the trail.
Step 4: Get out the camera—then get technical
During the late spring and early summer months, bikers may have to carry their bikes over a few boulders so as to avoid the sections where Marlette Lake swells from snowmelt and runoff and swallows sections of the trail. Once past the lake, however, the true singletrack starts in earnest and things start to get a little technical.
While the Flume Trail in its entirety is a 13 mile ride, the panoramic lake vistas for which the Flume Trail is famous only comprise a 4-5 mile section of trail—so be sure to take it all in while riding along the ridge. A relatively flat, narrow, singletrack ridge that’s carved out of the side of the granite mountain, the ridge section of the Flume Trail offers dramatic views of the lake that stretch from the distant peaks of Tahoe’s west shore to the turquoise waters of Sand Harbor nearly 1800 ft. below.
There are a few sections that require the rider to walk the bike across potential landslide areas, and although the temptation to ride across these sections is definitely strong, the consequences of an ill-timed slip over the cliff face would be completely catastrophic.
Step 5: Watch your speed
After turning inland from the narrow, knife-thin ridgeline, riders cross the junction with Tunnel Creek Rd. and begin the nearly 1800’ descent down the treacherous, sandy fire road. More than one rider has broken himself on this steep descent, and it would be a shame to end such an epic ride with something as brutal as an epic trip over the handlebars. Signs warn of waterbars and loose patches of sand, and as long as you bike within your means on the downhill, this is an exhilarating end to a day on one of Tahoe’s most revered and respected trails.