Greyson and I rode from our house to the trails on Waddle Ranch Preserve in Martis Valley on our gravel bikes in the spring. We found some fun fire roads, but much of the single track was a little too gnarly for the gravel bikes. I can’t wait to get back out there on my full suspension, though!
Even though the COVID-19 outbreak has required that we stick close to home, I’ve still been exploring new to me mountain bike trails. I’ve just been trying out trails in Truckee and Tahoe that I haven’t ridden before. The Animal and Animal Crackers trails in the Prosser Trail Network, just north of Truckee off of Highway 89 quickly rose to the top of my favorite trails in the area.
Greyson and I rode these trails as a loop starting from the parking lot at the Donner Party Picnic Area. We parked on the west side of Highway 89 in the gravel parking area, so we could avoid having to cross the highway to get the trailhead. The trails start right from the parking area, so are easy to find. We headed up Emigrant Trail, taking it for about 0.35 miles before making a right turn onto the Lower Prosser Traverse, which is more of a decomposed fire road than a single track trail. At just before 0.9 miles, look for a left turn onto the Lower Prosser Crossover Trail, a short connector climb.
The crossover trail dead ends at Lower Animal Crackers, where you’ll want to make a left to keep climbing up. From here, Lower Animal Crackers climbs about 375 feet in ~0.9 miles. Here, you’ll come to a trail intersection. From here, we decided to make the climb up to the top of Prosser Hill on Upper Animal Crackers, which is a right turn. We started climbing up, but accidentally took the left fork at one point and ended up on the moto primary Prosser Hill DH. We almost immediately had to start pushing up over the loose rocks and steps, and after about 0.5 miles we thought to check where we were on Trailforks and noticed we were on the wrong trail. Ooops! We quickly headed back down the technical (but rideable) trail and got back on Upper Animal Crackers.
Upper Animal Crackers climbs just under 600 feet in about 1.2 miles, and I don’t think it has a single switchback. It is a pretty unrelenting climb, and we ended up pushing up some steep sections before finally making it to the top of Prosser Hill. After hanging out and enjoying the view for a bit, we headed back down the way we came, for a fast, but kind of uninteresting downhill. While the view from Prosser Hill is great, Upper Animal Crackers isn’t a super fun trail, up or down. I think it’s worth doing at least once for the view, but I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this segment. Also, on the way down (at about mile 1.3 from the top, we accidentally took a left fork onto an unnamed moto trail and had to backtrack and then cut a little cross country to get back on Upper Animal Crackers. Having Trailforks on our phones was a life saver on this ride – I’d highly recommend!
After a bit back on Upper Animal Crackers, we made it to the trail intersection and took the right turn onto Animal Crossover, a short connector trail. Trailforks was useful here, too, to make sure we didn’t get on yet another moto trail nearby. The real downhill fun begins on Animal Trail, which Trailforks ranks as a black diamond. I thought it was on the easier side for an advanced trail, but could see it getting more challenging later in the season as it gets blown out. When we rode it in late May, it was still in great shape. I thought the downhill was all rideable, with the biggest challenges being some steep and tight switchbacks. There aren’t really any mandatory jumps or built features, but the trail is a great example of trail building that uses natural contours and features to make a fun and challenging trail. Animal Trail drops 635 feet in about 1.2 miles with hardly any climbing. It dead ends back at Lower Prosser Traverse for a right turn before a quick left back onto Emigrant Trail and then back at the parking area.
Like I said, I had a great time and really enjoyed this loop which was 9.15 miles and 1,757 feet of climbing, including our wrong turn detours. Next time, I’ll just do a shorter loop and skip Upper Animal Crackers, while paying closer attention at trail intersections. The trails aren’t super well marked, so I’d recommend having Trailforks on your phone and checking every so often, so you don’t end up on moto trails by accident.
The Sawtooth Loop is a classic XC-style mountain bike loop in Truckee, and I always have a great time on it.
Last week, I climbed a new-to-me peak in the Truckee area – Castle Peak. If you’ve driven east into Truckee on I-80, you’ve probably seen this unique peak jutting into the sky. It’s noticeable mainly because of the distinctive south facing cliffs and turrets, leftovers from an ancient volcano. In the winter, Castle Peak is a popular snowshoe and ski destination and in the summer it’s great for hiking. When I went in mid-July, it was snow free and the wildflowers were incredible.
Castle Peak is a doable, but challenging summit off of the Pacific Crest Trail. There are a couple of different ways to access Castle Peak, and the route I took was around ~1,900 feet of climbing in just over 7 miles. While this hike doesn’t require any technical climbing, it’s a tough, steep hike at altitude with uneven, loose terrain, exposed to the heat of the sun and there are spots where a fall would result in serious injury. Plus, to get to the actual summit there is some class 3 scrambling. You should be in pretty good shape and have some technical hiking experience. Be sure to bring lots of water and the 10 essentials.
I started my hike at the parking area for the Donner Summit trails, just north of I-80 off of exit 176 for Castle Peak/Boreal resort. (For a longer hike with more time on the PCT, you could park on the south side of the freeway by Boreal Resort and get on the PCT right away.) From the parking area, head up the Castle Valley Fire Road. Pretty quickly past the gate, there’s a great view of Castle Peak to the right, but it’s kind of intimidating to see how far you’ll have to climb!
After about 0.56 miles, look for a double track trail to the right. There should be a trail marker for the Donner Lake Rim Trail, where you’ll head down for a bit before beginning to climb. After about 0.4 miles on the DLRT, the Pacific Crest Trail intersects the DLRT, and you’ll turn left and start heading north. Here the climb is pretty mellow and shaded – enjoy it while it lasts! When I hiked it, there were a ton of corn lilies in this section. At about 1.2 miles on the PCT, there is a sharp right uphill to a signed intersection.
Follow the signs to Castle Peak and take the trail on the right, Castle Peak West Trail. Now this is when things get challenging! The trail climbs 1,100+ feet in just over a mile, and much of the trail is loose and sandy, making footing a challenge. I took a ton of breaks in this section, stopping to catch my breath, check out the unique rock formations, drink water and enjoy the views. Unfortunately, it was a little hazy the day I did the hike with smoke from a fire near Susanville.
There’s a steep climb to a small saddle before the final push to the summit – be sure to take advantage of this relatively relaxed section to take it easy. There are lots of little social trails to the summit from here. It seemed to me that they all reconnected fairly quickly, as long as you keep heading towards the summit. The trail is steeper on the last push, but at least there are some shady spots. If you want to get to the true summit of Castle Peak, you’ll have to scramble down past the west summit and back up again with some class 3 climbing up to the top.
Once you’re there, enjoy a snack break, soak in the 360 degree view and get mentally ready for the hike down. Honestly, I struggled more on the hike down than the climb up. The loose, sandy steep sections took nearly constant attention not to slip and fall. It was stressful! I didn’t bring trekking poles, but I wished I had, especially on the sketchy downhill. However, the hike down gets a lot easier as soon as you’re back on the PCT, and then it’s easy sailing back to your car.
There’s an awesome new trail network in Kings Beach, just north of Lake Tahoe! We rode a few trails there this weekend to check it out, and really enjoyed this awesome new mountain bike resource.
Sorry about my hydration strap flapping into view for a bit on the Beaver Trail section. I forgot to tuck it away.
The water level on our local rivers was pretty low this spring and early summer, so Greyson and I played around with paddling our Kokopelli Nirvana Whitewater rafts on Donner Lake. Can you packraft on flat water?
Since Greyson and I spent the spring and summer sticking close to home, we took the opportunity to ride some of the local trails we haven’t ridden before. Animal & Animal Crackers shot to the top of my list of favorite local trails, and I made a quick video about it. Check it out!
I know this is a time where many people want to retreat to nature, to social distance in the wilderness, to travel somewhere the pace of life seems more relaxed and less crowded. I love sharing the special places and fun adventures available in Tahoe, Truckee and the Sierra. Even though my audience is small, I would feel irresponsible if I didn’t join in the chorus of voices encouraging people to stay close to home and adventure responsibly during this critical time of “flattening the curve”. I especially appreciated this email sent out by Visit Truckee, our tourism bureau.
“Our beloved travelers, now is not the time to visit Truckee…While the Truckee community is reeling from business impacts due to COVID-19, we extend our deepest thoughts to beloved visitors who have supported our tourism economy. With immense compassion for everyone’s wish to be in the fresh mountain air, now is NOT the time to visit Truckee. Truckee’s healthcare system is excellent, but limited. The consequences of COVID-19 for our small town would be devastating. Our first positive case was reported Monday, March 16th and is under self-quarantine. Right now, please support Truckee-Tahoe businesses from afar. Rebook lodging for a later date. Reach out to businesses you enjoyed in the past. Send an email, post a photo and tag words of encouragement. Consider making donations, buy gift cards, ask for credit versus refunds, pay for an online yoga class, order books and sports gear online from our local shops. Cash flow is critical for us right now. If you can afford it, reconsider canceling memberships. If you are here, dozens of restaurants, sports shops and grocery stores are offering deliveries, curbside pickup, rentals drop-offs, etc. But again, now is not the time to visit. Some restaurants, retail shops, and lodging establishments are CLOSED. All ski areas are closed. We are facing heartbreaking, serious decisions and will need the help of our tourism family on the road to recovery. Over the coming weeks, we will share photos and stories to keep you entertained and hopeful when happy times are here again. Truckee will be ready to welcome you when the world is ready to travel again. Good karma, pay-it-forward, BE STRONG and we will see you soon. Our mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, and trails will be here to welcome you back. There will be many more winters and fresh pow in the years ahead!”
This has already become an issue in places like Moab and Bishop, where hundreds or thousands of visitors are overwhelming limited local resources. Please don’t travel to these rural outdoor adventure destinations right now. The local residents truly appreciate it, and will welcome visitors with open arms when it is safe again.
As much as I love Lake Tahoe, the California coast, Yosemite National Park, etc., they’re often busy with visitors and locals, especially on a nice summer weekend, taking away some of the natural charm. If I’m wanting a less crowded experience, I head north of Truckee on Highway 89 into the “Lost Sierra” of eastern Plumas and Sierra counties.
The Lost Sierra is a gem of a region, dotted with small towns and hundreds of outdoor opportunities. There’s really something for everyone there! Unsurprisingly, my favorite thing about this area is the awesome mountain bike trails – Mt. Hough (Quincy), Mills Peak (Graeagle), and the Downieville Downhill (Downieville) are all in the Lost Sierra. There are lots more great trails in this area, and the Sierra Buttes Trails Stewardship is constantly adding and improving miles of trails.
The Lost Sierra is well known for hiking, and you can get to some incredible destinations on your feet. The hiking the Sierra Buttes trail to the tallest point in the Lakes Basin. There are dozens of other great day hikes in this area – check out this link from Plumas National Forest as a resource. The Pacific Crest Trail goes through the Lost Sierra as well, with Sierra City and Quincy being popular town stops for thru hikers. Day hikes on this section of the PCT will take you to some incredible places and views.
There are quite a few rivers and streams flowing through the Lost Sierra which means there’s great fishing, swimming, rafting and floating. There’s rafting and whitewater kayaking on the Feather River, and it has gentle stretches and tributaries that can be tube floated or canoed. The confluence of the North Yuba River and the Downie River is in downtown Downieville, and it makes basically a perfect swimming hole. Nothing feels better than jumping in after a hot, summer mountain bike ride! For lake recreation, Bucks Lake, southwest of Quincy, and Gold Lake, north of Sierra City are great options. If hot springs are more your style, Sierraville is home to the Sierra Hot Springs, a private, relaxing resort in the Sierra Valley.
The Lost Sierra is also a great place to experience history, art, and culture. Did you know that Downieville was almost the capital of California? Also, it was the most populous city at one point during the gold rush. Located in a building from 1852 in the heart of downtown, the Downieville Museum is small, but worth a visit. There are also a few historic fire lookouts throughout the region. There’s one on top of Mills Peak that you can drive to (via rough road) and one at Calpine that you can reserve and stay at!
The High Sierra Music Festival is an incredible festival that happens in Quincy every year during the first weekend in July. Beyond the music, there is a parade, costume contests, art, comedy, a pool, great food and much more. Much smaller, but just as awesome is the Lost Sierra Hoedown, which takes place in September at the Johnsville Historic Ski Bowl. It’s got a focus on community, music, outdoor recreation, and it’s fundraiser for local groups.
Small rural towns aren’t usually known for their food scenes, but there definitely a few great restaurants in the Lost Sierra. The Brewing Lair (Blairsden) is one of my favorite breweries in all of California. They don’t serve food, but they sometimes have a food truck, and you can always bring your own. If we’re doing that, we usually stop at Graeagle Mountain Frostee to grab greasy, comfort food to go. Also in Blairsden is Bread & Butter, which is an excellent stationary food truck with outdoor seating. Quintopia Brewing in Quincy is fairly new, but already has great beer, delicious food, and reasonable prices. Try the chicken tikka masala fries! My favorite place in Downieville is Two Rivers Cafe. It’s a little on the pricy side, but the food is good and the deck seating overlooks the river confluence. Finally, Los Dos Hermanos is a good Mexican restaurant tucked away in Sierraville.
This is just scratching the surface of all of the great things to do and see in the Lost Sierra region. I hope you’ll plan a trip to the Lost Sierra this summer or fall and that you love it as much as I do.
I spent an amazing four day weekend in June Lake recently, celebrating at a bachelorette party for one of my best friends. We did many super fun things – beer at June Lake Brewing, swimming in June Lake, dancing to Lizzo, barbecuing, etc. A huge highlight was a short but hard hike up to the incredible Fern Lake.
The trail to Fern Lake is only 3.2 miles, but it gains around 1,500 feet of elevation. It’s really steep – apparently the trail builders didn’t believe in switch backs. I think there’s only a couple on the whole trail! There are also a few short sections that are closer to scrambling than hiking. It’s also at altitude, starting above 7,000 feet and topping out around 8,900 feet. The trail is rated as difficult – which I agree with. Everyone in our group struggled at some point, but we took it slow with lots of breaks and we made it to the top.
We parked at the Yost Creek/Fern Lake Trailhead – even on a beautiful Saturday during a busy weekend there was plenty of parking. The trail was easy to find and we headed up Yost Creek Trail, which would eventually fork into Fern Lake Trail. The trail starts climbing immediately through an aspen grove. It was really mosquito-y through this part, but there were also fields of mariposa lilies, which was incredible.
After about half a mile, we were out of the mosquitos and aspens, and the trails started to have incredible views of the surrounding mountains, the green valley below us, and waterfalls off in the distance. At about one mile into the hike, the Yost Creek Trail heads east and crosses Fern Creek – which was raging and basically a waterfall when we were there. The Fern Lake Trail is the right fork and heads steeply up. While the whole route is a steep climb, this next ~0.25 mile section is the steepest, loosest and most technical. It’s also exposed and hot.
Eventually, the trail flattens out for a bit and we got back in the cool shade of the trails. This flat section (less than 0.2 miles) is a nice respite from the mostly relentless climb, but we weren’t totally done climbing yet (despite what the well-meaning but entire wrong trail runner we encountered told us). After another ~0.1 miles of climbing, Fern Lake came into view.
It was totally worth the work to get there! We shared summit beers & snacks and a few of us jumped in the very cold lake before heading back down the trail. The descent was much easier physically than the climb up, but it required a lot of mental energy since it was dusty and rocky. We all slipped a few times, but luckily no one got hurt. Before we knew it, we were back at the car. (Click here for my Strava route for just the downhill. I forgot to turn on my watch for the trip up.) We made a beeline for June Lake Brewing for hard earned Hawaiian food from Ohana’s 395 and delicious IPAs (This summer, I’m loving June Lake Brewing’s Changing of the Guard IPA). This trail is incredible, and I’d highly recommend it to in shape hikers who have experience with steep, sandy climbs.