Fall is definitely my favorite time to mountain bike in the Tahoe-Truckee area, and it’s great time to check out the sport and/or expand your skills if you’re new to it. The weather is cooler, wildfire smoke is out of the sky, the trails have been refreshed by fall precipitation, and the popular routes aren’t crowded with summer traffic. Mountain biking can be an intimidating sport to start, and it can especially be hard to find fun routes that are beginner-friendly and aren’t just a gravel road. If you’re new to riding or visiting the Tahoe-Truckee area, I’d recommend downloading the Trailforks or MTB Project app on your phone. Most of these trails are located in networks with multiple options, so some navigation help can be useful.
Here are some of my favorite trails that are suitable for newer riders.
Powerline was the first trail that I rode when I moved to Tahoe eight years ago! It’s a great introduction to the trails of South Lake Tahoe. The trail is pretty smooth, with some small rocks and roots but very rideable. There is enough climbing that you’ll get a workout, and there are great views. This trail can get a little sandy from decomposed granite in the late summer or dry fall weather. Click here to read my detailed trail report about Powerline Trail.
The Elizabethtown Meadow Trail is a fairly new and new-to-me trail that I rode for the first time last weekend. This is a great trail to ride in the fall – the aspens were turning yellow and it was beautiful! Trailforks calls this trail intermediate, but I think it’s very doable by a beginner. It’s rocky, but the rocks are small so it feels more bumpy than technical. The actual trail is is about 2.25 miles one direction, but it does connect with other trails and fire roads in the Martis Creek area. I haven’t ridden any of those yet, so I can’t vouch for their difficulty though. Click here to see my Strava route.
3. Railroad Grade Trail, South Lake Tahoe, California
Railroad Grade Trail is a short, fun trail that can be used as a connector to other trails, or ridden as an out and back for a short and sweet ride. Click here to read my description of Railroad Grade, including how to get there and other, more challenging trails you can connect to.
The Emigrant Trail goes 9 ish miles from Highway 89 to Stampede Reservoir. It’s one of the flatter trails in the Truckee area, but there are plenty of small climbs and descents to get a workout. The trail surface is fairly smooth, with some small rocky or rooty sections, but no drops or jumps. Since this is an out and back trail, you can just ride for as long as you want and turn around at any time. To get to this trail, I’d recommend parking at the parking area for Donner Camp Historic Trail on the east side of Highway 89, here. From the parking lot, get on what Trailforks calls Emigrant Alternate and head north. At about mile 2.4, you’ll hit a sharp fork, you’ll want to follow the uphill one (the downhill will take you down to Prosser Creek, which is sometimes crossable, but frequently not). At mile 2.5, you’ll hit Highway 89. Turn right on 89 to go north. Cars go by pretty fast, but you’re only going to be on the road for 0.1 miles to cross Prosser Creek. Right after the bridge, you’ll see Emigrant Trail on the right. Jump back on the road and ride for as long as you want. Click here for my Strava route.
The Flume Trail (sometimes called the Marlette Flume) is hands-down the most iconic trail in the Tahoe area that is accessible to beginner riders. You’ll want to be in decent cardiovascular shape and not scared of heights, but all of the riding is doable by a new rider – any unrideable feature is clearly signed ahead with a warning to get off your bike. Since this trail tops out above 7,800 feet, it is one of the first to get snowed out, so check conditions before you go. I highly recommend this trail to visitors; the views can’t be beat. Click here to read my detailed trail report of the Flume Trail, including how to arrange a self shuttle.
Maybe I’m biased, but I think the Corral Trail Network in South Lake Tahoe, California is one of the best backyard trail networks in the world. When I lived in South Lake, I rode these trails at least once a week during mountain bike season. Now that I’m up in Truckee, I try to make it down at least once or twice a year to ride my old favorites. TAMBA keeps expanding the trail opportunities, and I haven’t ridden everything there is to ride, but here are a few of my favorite routes.
You can access this route from the main Corral Trail Network parking lot, on Fountain Place Rd., which is just off Oneidas St. outside of Meyers. Click here for a Google Map link to the first gate and parking area. During the spring and late fall, this gate might be closed but you can usually drive another mile up the road to a large gravel parking area. (Note: as of summer/fall 2018, the road is closed and you must ride up. Fountain Place Rd. should hopefully be open again by summer 2019).
This can be ridden as a shuttled ride, but if not, get ready to climb! Depending where along Fountain Place Road you park, you’ll climb about 1,500 feet of pavement in 3.4 miles. This is a killer climb (which is why I usually shuttle!), but I feel so accomplished when I actually do it. A little before the end of the pavement, look for the Armstrong Connector sign on the left.
Here, you’ll get on Armstrong Connector, a techy trail with gorgeous views. Trailforks rates this trail as intermediate, and I think it’s definitely on the hard side of intermediate, with a few slabby technical sections that I still end up walking. Connector is about two miles, with 750 feet of descent and just a little bit of climbing.
Connector pops out at the parking area you passed on the pavement climb. From here, get on the trail and go about a tenth of a mile and turn right to get on Sidewinder. Sidewinder is full of tight switchbacks, but they’re all very rideable. There are a few natural features – rocky and rooty sections. Everything is rollable and the harder sections tend to have easier and harder lines – it’s a great trail to progress on. There is one rocky, steep section that it took me years to be able to ride. You really have to pick your correct line on it (ask me about my huge bruise from a recent crash that came from a bad line choice there!), but it’s a good challenge. Sidewinder is ~1 mile and drops about 290 feet.
Sidewinder merges with Lower Corral, and the entry in to this trail can get really beat up and choppy – it was when we rode it earlier this month. Lower Corral starts out with a bit of a false flat, but pretty quickly drops into a really fun jump and berm line that was entirely rebuilt by TAMBA a few years ago. The jumps are all tabletops, so they’re rollable and there are go arounds on the bigger ones. It can get pretty sandy though, so watch your speed and be ready for deep sandy spots. The trail is about 1.2 miles with 400 feet of descent, and pops out on Power Line Road, and old fire road/double track. Turn left on Power Line to get back to the parking area. Click here to see my route on Strava. Total Route: ~11 miles, 1,680 feet of climbing and descending.
Railroad/Incense Cedar Uphill/Lower Corral
For this route, park at the end of Columbine Trail Road in South Lake Tahoe (click here for Google Maps link). This trail is in a neighborhood, so be sure to pay attention to no parking signs and be courteous! Railroad Grade Trail begins in where Columbine Trail road dead ends, and is well marked with a sign. This route starts with a nice warm up, rolling climb, Railroad Grade is a pretty easy trail – just be on the look out for a few bridges that seem to come out of nowhere. This trail is about 1.5 and 170 feet of climbing and takes you along Trout Creek.
Railroad Grade ends on Power Line Road, where you’ll turn left and start climbing. This climb can suck, especially when it gets sandy in the late summer. It’s over in less than a mile though! Just after a short, steep downhill around mile 2.3, look right for a trail – Incense Cedar. You’ll keep climbing, but it’s a much more pleasant, shaded single track climb. The trail is pretty beginner friendly – there are just a few natural rock features, but it’s mostly smooth singletrack. Incense Cedar is 1.8 miles and a little over 500 feet of climbing. It ends with a short downhill on to Lower Corral (see more detailed description above), where you’ll turn right and head downhill.
At the end of Corral, turn left onto Power Line, and make almost an immediate right back onto Railroad Grade. It’s pretty shortly after Corral, so don’t ride by, like I did in the map above, and then you’ ll follow Railroad Grade back to your car. Click here to see my route on Strava.Total Route ~7 miles and ~600 feet of climbing and descending.
This is the most challenging route of the three – there are some serious rock gardens and drops on this route and I definitely don’t ride everything! If you start from the Fountain Place parking area (details in the first route) you’ll climb up Fountain Place Road for two miles and 750 feet of elevation gain. (If you want to tack on a few miles and start with a more gentle climb, you can park at Columbine Trail Rd. and ride up Railroad Grade Trail). Stop at the paved parking area just past the cattle grate.
From the parking lot, go about 0.1 miles and take the left fork, following the signs for Corral. Upper Corral is definitely advanced riding – there are long, technical rock gardens, stone steps, tricky corners, and large drops. It can also get reallly beat up, adding to the difficulty. There are features that I have to walk, but the technical stuff is all very visible and as long as you pay attention you’ll be able to stop in time to walk. I wouldn’t recommend this trail to anyone who isn’t a fairly strong intermediate rider, though, just because you’ll end up walking a ton of stuff. You’ll drop about 380 feet in just under a mile on Upper Corral, and I always feel like I’m dropping elevation really quickly on this section.
You’ll merge on to Lower Corral for just under a mile, then look to the right just after the bridge for the Incense Cedar turn off. Incense Cedar starts with a steep but smooth climb, but starts going downhill pretty quickly. Cedar is a fun trail to ride in this direction, mainly smooth and flowy, but with a few rocky and rooty sections. There are some fun whoops at the beginning, and it’s a good place to practice popping off small features. Like all South Lake trails, it can get sandy thought. While the trail is mostly downhill, there’s one punchy climb a little more than a mile in. The trail ends at Power Line Road, descending about 500 feet in ~1.8 miles. Turn left on Power Line to head back to your car. Be sure to save some energy for this one mile section – there are some steep climbs that can really sap your legs when it’s sandy in late summer. Click here for my route on Strava. Route Total ~6 miles, ~940 feet of climbing and descending.
Those are just a few of my favorite routes at the Corral Trail Network. There are lots more trails to ride here and in the South Lake Tahoe area, thanks to TAMBA. If you enjoy riding these trails, consider throwing a donation their way or help out on a trail building day.
If you’re following my Instagram, you might have seen that Greyson and I were in Oregon last week. We drove up from Truckee and my parents drove down from eastern Washington, and we met in the middle! Our first destination was Bend, Oregon, one of my favorite towns. It’s got climbing, hiking, river floating, amazingbeer, and awesome restaurants. It’s also known as a popular mountain biking location, and Greyson and I have ridden there a couple times before, checking out a section of the Deschutes River Trailand riding a bit in the Phil’s Trail network. While I had fun riding on those trails, they didn’t seem “mountain bike destination” quality, and I wanted to check out the best of what Bend has to offer.
From our research (internet based and talking to the super friendly staff at Crow’s Feet Commons), riding up Funner and down Tiddlywinks was the most highly recommended. The trailhead was pretty easy to find – we followed directions from MTB Project to the parking area at the green gate, located here, about 9 miles from downtown Bend.
From the parking lot, we headed up on Storm King, which we only rode a small section of. After about 0.7 miles, the trail forked and we took a sharp right on to Funner. Funner has sections that are two way, and parts that are split into uphill and downhill only. Those are clearly marked, and it’s important to stay on the correct side, as people come bombing down the downhill sections, not expecting to see someone climbing up. The climb from the gate to the top of Funner (including the Storm King Section) is about 5 miles and 1,000 feet of climbing. It’s never super steep on the climb, but it can be sandy and leg sapping and there are very few breaks from the uphill grind. The trail is rated as intermediate, but it followed a trend I noticed in lots of the trails I’ve ridden in Bend – long, long stretches of easy riding, punctuated by very occasional volcanic rock gardens that are difficult-to-impossible for me to ride.
At mile 5, we hit the top of Funner and a parking lot. From here, the start of Upper Tiddlywinks isn’t super obvious but isn’t too hard to find. The first part of Tiddlywinks is a fun mix of bermed downhill stretches, short punchy climbs, and flat-ish rock gardens. That goes for about 1.1 miles, and then we started to climb again. We climbed about 200 feet in 0.8 miles, but at that point the climb felt pretty rough after so much time in the saddle climbing. Even though none of the climbing was very steep, 8 miles of riding that was mostly climbing or flat really wore me out!
With that, we were finally at the top and ready to descend Lower Tiddlywinks. The trail immediately launches into big, bermed corners, table top jumps and other man made features, with a few natural rock drops built in. I had a blast on the trail – it reminded me a lot of Freund Canyon in Leavenworth with the style of trail building. As for difficulty, all of the tabletops and rock features are rollable, though it’s a great trail for practicing getting some air. There are a few doubles and more complicated features, but everything has a very obvious ride around. We descended ~1,100 feet in just over four miles, and I had a smile on my face the whole time. At mile 12.3, we hit the intersection with Storm King and headed back to the car. Total, we rode just over 13 miles with almost 1,400 feet of climbing and a moving time of 2:12.
I had a great time on Tiddlywinks and it was absolutely worth the climb up – this is the kind of riding I was hoping for in Bend. Additionally, the trails are very well maintained and very well marked. The only thing that was a little confusing to me at first were “Y” marker signs when the trail split. We figured out that this meant the fork was going to come back together soon, and often the “Y” sign delineated an easier and harder route for that short section. If you’re an intermediate or higher rider, I’d highly recommend this route. I think it would be doable for a more advanced beginner, but you’d have to walk quite a few sections and the downhill part might not be worth the climb to the top. If you’re more on the beginner side, I’d recommend Ben’s Trail in the Phil’s Network or the Deschutes River Trail for scenery.
If you’re looking for a challenging and scenic ride you can shuttle in the Truckee area that is still mostly doable by intermediate riders, I highly recommend the the Donner Lake Rim Trail (DLRT) from Castle Valley.
To do this ride as a shuttle, leave one car parked at the Wendin Canyon Trailhead, located at the top of Donner Lake Road, in the dirt parking lot on the left. From there, get on the freeway westbound and take the exit for Boreal (Exit 176). Turn right off the freeway and you’ll be at the trailhead parking. This trailhead is access for the PCT and Hole in the Ground, so it can get busy on the weekends, but we’ve always found parking there, you just might have to park further down on the paved road.
Start up Castle Valley Road, a chunky fire road climb that’s a pretty nice warm up. A little more than 0.5 miles from the trailhead, you’ll make a right turn on to what TrailForks calls Castle Valley East OHV trail. There should be a noticeable sign, pointing right directing you for DLRT access. There’s also a great view of Castle Peak to the right here.
After a short downhill, this trail climbs ~190 feet in just over 0.5 miles. There, the double track forks left for the PCT and right for the Castle Valley section of the DLRT. This trail feels very old school to me – it’s not in any way flowy, and there are lots of short steep sections, both up and down with tight, blind turns and rocky drops. It’s definitely the section that I still have to walk a fair amount of any trails I ride regularly. That said, it’s really fun, great for sessioning and skill building, and the views are expansive. It’s one of the best places to ride sustained granite in the Tahoe-Truckee area and while features may be difficult to clear successfully, they’re not exposed.
After the rocky granite section, the DLRT goes back into the trees for the Summit Lake segment. This section I find slightly easier than the Castle Valley section, and tends more towards roots and narrow trees, though there are still rocky features. Summit Lake is really pretty, and a nice place to stop for a breather or a snack.
Just past the lake, stay left at the fork and get on Summit Lake Road. To me, this section seems something between fire road and double track, but I have seen jeeps on it, so keep an eye out for vehicles. After about 0.7 miles, you’ll take a sudden (and steep) left back onto the DLRT for the Negro Canyon segment. This section is a fun, smooth downhill, though it can get rather overgrown in the spring. The single track ends and spits you out for a left turn onto a short fire road climb. After about 0.1 miles, you’ll be back on single track, a short descent on the Wendin/Drifter Connector. When the connector ends, you’ll be on the Wendin Way trail, one of my favorite downhill trails in Truckee. By late summer, it can get fairly dusty, but the trail is well built enough that it never gets unrideable. There are a few rock gardens and rollable drops, but pretty much everything can be tackled by a confident intermediate rider. There’s one combo of features that’s a blind corner into a rocky drop that’s closely followed by a pinch between two boulders and then another tight rocky switchback that took me a long time to get confident on, though! After a little more than a mile of downhill and almost 500 feet of descending, you’ll be back at the trailhead where your car is parked.
These trails, along with many others in the Truckee area are built and maintained by the Truckee Donner Land Trust. The TDLT is an awesome organization whose mission is “To preserve and protect scenic, historic and recreational lands with high natural resource values in the greater Truckee Donner region and manage recreational activities on these lands in a sustainable manner.” This means, they’re not just protecting the land, they’re actively creating recreation opportunities on their properties, including for mountain bikers. If you enjoy recreating on these trails, I encourage you to help out with a volunteer trail day or donate to the organization if you can. Without organizations dedicated to preserving lands, our favorite trails are at risk to be sold off or shut down, so I encourage everyone to help out, however they can!
Location: Truckee, California
Mileage: ~7.25 miles
Elevation: ~490 feet
Difficulty: Advanced Intermediate Washoe Land
Last fall, Greyson and I took a spontaneous long weekend road trip to one of my favorite parts of the California coast – Mendocino. Fall is the perfect time to visit Mendocino, if anyone is planning any trips. The weather is warm, but not hot and we didn’t get any rain or fog while we were there. In the afternoons, it got pretty breezy on the coastal cliffs, but that was about the only thing that wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t crowded at all, and though it was the tail end of abelone season, we were able to get a campsite at Russian Gulch State Park on Friday night with no reservations.
I’d been to Mendocino a couple of times before, once during a road trip with Greyson and once with my friend Katie. Both of those times we did typical coast things – beach walks, looking for tidepools, stuffing myself with smoked salmon. This time we brought our mountain bikes with the goal of exploring some of the singletrack we’d heard a lot about.
Most of the mountain biking in Mendocino is in Jackson Demonstration State Forest, located between the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. When researching mountain biking in this area, one thing we heard over and over is that the trails are nearly impossible to navigate without a guide. They’re not signed, you won’t get any service on your phone so you can track using GPS, and then you’ll get lost and murdered by weed farmers. We found this to be a slight exaggeration.
Since we’d heard about the navigation difficulty, we started our Saturday with a visit to Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too, a local bike shop that came highly recommended. The staff at Catch a Canoe were super great – really helpful, very friendly, and willing to share route recommendations. We ended up buying a guidebook put together by a local expert with maps and suggested routes. The proceeds from the book went towards local trails and we found the maps helpful, though the routes we’re all much longer than what we were interested in this trip.
Manly Gulch/Forest History/Cookhouse We decided that for day one, we wanted to ride Manly Gulch, one of the better known trails in Mendocino. We parked at the top of Manly Gulch on Little Lake Road/408. We had a little difficulty finding the parking area, but figured it out eventually. Manly Gulch is about 2.2 miles with almost 900 feet of elevation loss. The trail isn’t super technical beyond some roots and blind corners, but is just about a perfect example of a flow trail. It’s fast and fun, and can be ridden carefully by beginners and more advanced riders can challenge themselves with speed and small, natural jumps.
After all we’d heard about the un-navigable forest and non-marked trails, we didn’t find this to be true. Maybe it was the specific trails we rode (or our recent experience bushwhacking in British Columbia), but we thought the trails were well signed and we were able to use Trailforks on our phones to help us navigate.
At the end of Manly Gulch, we turned right onto Thompson Gulch, a fire road. We could see another trail ( Marsh Creek Trail) paralleling us, but it peels off and wouldn’t have taken us back to our car. After about 1.2 miles on the fire road, Thompson Gulch bends right, goes for about 0.2 miles before a sharp switchback in the road. Right at that switchback is the entrance to Forest History Trail and the beginning of the climb back to the car. We stayed on Forest History for about 0.6 miles, before hitting a fork. At the fork, we went left and got on Cook House, as Forest History recommends no bikes at that point. Between those two trails, we climbed about 850 feet in 2.2 miles. There are some steep sections on both, and there were some spots I was definitely pushing my bike up, but the majority of the trail is quite rideable. We took quite a few breaks, but it isn’t the worst climb in the world, especially since it was decently shaded and cool. Exhausted and sweaty, we made it back to the car with 5.94 miles, 952 feet of climbing in 1:09 moving time.
Russian Gulch On day two, we decided to ride something really close to our campground, Russian Gulch State Park. Theoretically, we could have ridden from our campground to the trails, but that would have involved a long road climb that I was not into, so we were lazy and drove the mile or so uphill to the trailhead. We hopped on North Boundary Trail, which was an interesting riding experience unlike anything I’ve ridden before or since. After the first half mile or so of wide singletrack climbing, we ended up on something between double track and fire road, that was a mix of hard pack and sand pits. This mix of terrain, especially the strength-sapping sand made for a ride that was more challenging that it looked.
At mile 2.7, we crossed Caspar Little Lake Road. Almost directly across from where North Boundary Trail comes out, there’s a break in the forest that signals the start of a fork with two trails. We took the right fork onto Parallel Action, which we rode for about 1.5 miles. There are lots of little offshoot trails in this area, but if you pay attention to your route, we didn’t find it hard to navigate here either. Also, most of the trails stick pretty close to Caspar Little Lake Road, so you could always jump back onto the main road fairly easily.
Parallel Action was a fun trail – it reminded me a lot of the BC style of trails (minus wooden features). There were lots of quick, little turns, the trails were narrow and heavily wooded and you have to pay attention and not go off onto social trails that go nowhere. After returning on Parallel Action, we got back on North Boundary Trail, but decided that we were going to try some of the offshoot trails we’d seen on our way up. There are some trails that are hiker only in this area, but they’re clearly marked and they’re not trails you’d even want to take a bike on, from what we could see when we walked a little ways down.
At mile 6.4, we took a left onto North Cutoff, a ~0.1 mile trail that took us to North Trail. We turned right on North Trail to head back to our car and were treated to the most fun section of trail we’d ridden all day. This trail only dropped 80 feet in about 1.1 miles, but whoever built it did a great job. It felt like a consistent downhill where you could really let go, go fast, and play on its natural features. At about 7.6 miles, the trail forked and we went right to get back on North Boundary Trail and back to our cars. We think that the trail to the left might have gone back to our campground, but we weren’t sure, and, since it isn’t listed on TrailForks, it might not be bike legal. In total, we rode 8.68 miles with 628 feet of climbing in 1:14.
Where to Camp & Eat We camped in Russian Gulch State Park, which we loved! It was pricey – $40 a night, but that’s the going price for coastal state parks now, I guess. The location was gorgeous in the redwoods, there were nice, clean bathrooms that had hot water showers, and, though you can’t camp super close to the beach, there is one in the campground within easy biking distance. One of the nights we were there, a wedding was going on in the park’s small venue, but our campsite was far enough away that we weren’t bothered by noise at all. I’ve also camped at Westport Beach Campground, which is a private RV park and campground, which I usually try to avoid. However, if you’re tent camping here, you can actually camp on the beach and you’re far away from the RVs! Westport-Union Landing State Beach is a nice cliffside campground, though you’re fairly north of Mendocino at this point.
Over a few trips to Mendocino, I’ve tried quite a few restaurants. My favorite overall is a pizza place in Fort Bragg – Piaci Pizza. There’s really nothing better after a long day of riding. Also in Fort Bragg, is North Coast Brewing Company. I wasn’t super excited about their food, but their beer is great, so I’d at least go for a tasting, even if you eat somewhere else. For seafood, I like Noyo River Grill in Noyo Harbor. The view is the best, and there are lots of fish sellers nearby where you can buy fresh fish to take back to your campsite or bring home. In the town of Mendocino, we had a great dinner at Mendocino Cafe and a delicious breakfast at GoodLife Cafe & Bakery.
I love Mendocino, and I had a great visit last fall. I’m excited to go back!
This spring, Greyson and I had a chance to ride a new-to-us trail system in Marin County at China Camp State Park. Marin County doesn’t have a ton of mountain bike legal trails, but the ones at China Camp State Park are. We had a great time riding at China Camp – we really didn’t know what to expect, and we were pleasantly surprised. The trails are definitely old school xc style, which we don’t really have any chance to ride in the Tahoe area. The nine mile loop we did was a great early spring ride. The trails weren’t super challenging, but there was enough variety to keep things exciting, and there were some great views of San Pablo Bay as well.
We stuck with the front side of the park, parking on North San Pedro Road across from the main trailhead. Parking on the road is free, but there is a $3 per person trail use fee that goes towards park and trail maintenance. We headed up Bay View Trail which starts with a climb of about 615 feet over two miles. The trail is really well graded, though, so the climb never seems too difficult.
At about mile 3.7, we made a left turn on to Oak Ridge Trail. Since we were going east, this segment was mostly downhill after a climb of less than 50 feet. Oak Ridge Trail had some gorgeous views out across bay at the higher points of the trail. Oak Ridge Trail ends, and we turned left onto Shoreline Trail at about mile 5.4, which we stayed on for the rest of our loop. This segment parallels San Pedro Bay for the majority, so there are more great views. Shoreline is also more rolling than Bay View and Oak Ridge trails, and the trail climbs about 600 feet and descends about 575 feet in around 4 miles. We skipped a small section of this trail due to it being closed during construction, and rode double track and road for the last half mile back to our car, for 9.1 miles in 1:16 moving time.
While not extremely technical or flashy, I thought that the trails at China Camp were fun with some great views. There was enough elevation gain that we got a good workout in, but weren’t overwhelming on our out of shape legs and lungs. I’d highly recommend the trails we rode in China Camp State Park to beginner mountain bikers or anyone who wants to do a mid-winter tune up ride. I wouldn’t plan a trip to Marin County just to ride these trails, but if you’re in the area with your bike and looking for something to do, a visit to China Camp is worth it. These trails can definitely be ridden on a hardtail or cyclocross bike- we saw several of each on the trails.
While we were in the area, we had to check out the then-newly opened Splitrock Tap & Wheel, a bike shop/restaurant and tap room in Fairfax, California. Splitrock is located in downtown Fairfax, but has its own lot with plenty of parking, as well as indoor parking for your bike. It’s a one room affair, with long tables sharing spaces with bikes and bike accessories and the kitchen and bar in the back. It’s the only US distributor of Whyte Bikes, which Greyson is interested in as his next potential bike purchase – so this was one of the main reasons we stopped.
Splitrock Tap & Wheel combines bike, pizza and beer – three of my favorite things. It was pretty busy when we were there, and it took a long time to get our food. However, they were newly open and I’m guessing that things run more smoothly now that it’s been open for awhile. Besides, there was plenty to look at and the staff was happy to answer lots of questions about the bikes, so waiting wasn’t too bad. The fast service on the beer end of things didn’t hurt either! When the pizza came out, it was delicious and worth the wait. I’d recommend Split Rock Tap & Wheel if you’re looking for somewhere to eat in the Fairfax/San Rafael area, especially if you are into mountain biking – the novelty of the space is worth a visit.
The Downieville Downhill is one of the best known mountain bike trails in the US, and it’s for good reason. The trail is unique, challenging, and a blast to ride. The network of trails around Downieville is growing, thanks to the hard work of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, but the classic route is 15 miles with nearly 6,800 feet of descent.
As a mountain biker in California, I’d been hearing about the Downieville Downhill for years, and really wanted to ride it. Before I rode it for the first time in 2014, I wondered if I could handle riding it, since I’d heard about how rough, technical and exposed it could be. If you look around the internet, you’ll find dozens of videos of people riding the trail, which do give a good overview of the trail. However, the vast majority of the people doing the POV videos are guys who are advanced to pro-level riders, which isn’t super helpful for determining difficulty if you’re less skilled.
So, how good of a rider do you have to be to ride the Downieville Downhill? I think that anyone with intermediate mountain bike skills can have fun on the trail, but if you’re a less than advanced rider, be prepared to walk some sections. The Downieville Downhill is mostly downhill, with less than 500 feet of climbing. Despite this, the ride is physically exhausting due to the technical and unrelenting nature of the trail. You’ll want to be in good cardio shape, take breaks as needed, and be sure to drink lots of water and eat plenty of calories. The first time I did the trail, I bonked and had a complete meltdown, so stay on top of your nutrition.
As far as gear goes, you’ll need a full suspension bike to ride this trail. I’ve ridden it on both my 26 inch, 150 mm travel GT Sanction and my 115 mm travel Transition Smuggler, and I had a blast on both. Most people would probably prefer more travel than 115 mm, but with 29 inch wheels and modern geometry, my riding ability is the only thing limiting me on the trail. Though I ride with clipless pedals most of the time, I like flat pedals for the long rocky sections of the trail. Knee pads are also a must, and I usually wear my beefier ones for Downieville. I’d recommend a full face helmet and goggles, though plenty of people do the ride in half lids.
The Trail Basically everyone does the Downieville Downhill as a shuttle. You can self shuttle, but I recommend doing the Yuba Expeditions shuttle. It’s much easier to arrange, a reasonable price ($25), and the proceeds from the shop go towards trail building and maintenance in the area. The shuttle will drop you off at Packer Saddle where you’ll jump right on to the first trail of the Downhill, Sunrise Trail. Sunrise Trail is a newer section that’s a mix of flowy dirt berms, rocks and roots. It can get pretty dusty during long dry stretches, but this is one of the easiest sections of the trail, even when blown out. Trailforks rates it as intermediate, which I think is accurate.
You’ll be on Sunrise Trail for about 1.6 miles and drop about 450 feet in elevation before it turns into Butcher Ranch Trail. Butcher Ranch is the trail you’ll be on the longest – about 6 miles with about 3,100 feet of descent and 1,200 feet of climbing. Butcher Ranch is a legitimate advanced trail, though, like I said before, intermediate riders can handle it with careful line choice and walking some sections. There are extended rock gardens with 6 inch – 1 foot drops, and these long technical sections always have me wishing for an uphill “break” by the end. Butcher Ranch bottoms out at a bridge over Pauley Creek at about mile 7.7. Take a break here, because you’re about to tackle the stoutest climb of the trail. (Though this spot can sometimes be really buggy!) You’ll climb almost 200 feet in under half a mile, which feels even worse than it sounds.
After the climb, you’ll get to a trail intersection with Second Divide climbing up and Third Divide heading down. The Downieville Downhill route has you heading down Third Divide at this point. Trailforks rates this trail as intermediate, but I think it’s definitely on the hard side of intermediate, especially as fatigued as you are at this point of the trail. This segment is about two miles with 1,250 feet of descending and is not nearly as rocky as much of Butcher Ranch. Third Divide has some long, flowy sections but isn’t a “flow trail” in the modern sense as there are more rooty sections and small drops, and not very many bermed turns.
Third Divide spits you out on Lavezzola Road, an easy fire road section you’ll be on for about 1.2 miles. The fire road section is a nice break, so relax for a bit. Lavezzola Road intersects First Divide at a pretty obvious trail head on your right. First Divide is the most rolling section of the Downieville Downhill, as you’ll climb about 1,050 feet and descent 1,460 feet over three miles. However, most of this ascent comes in small rollers that don’t even feel like climbing. There are a few stout climbs though! Trailforks has First Divide graded as an intermediate, which I think is pretty accurate. There’s nothing super technical on this segment, though there are some narrow sections with major exposure (like literally fall off a cliff and die exposure) that make the riding feel more challenging. You’ll also be feeling the cumulative effects of the long ride at this point and fatigue from the rollers. It’s also usually significantly hotter at this point in the ride. This is all to say, don’t underestimate this section! Also, watch out for poison oak if you do stop for a break here.
Just before you hit the 15 mile point, First Divide will drop you back into town on to Main Street of Downieville. While you may be tempted to blow through stop signs to get back to your vehicle, don’t! Apparently, there are often officers waiting to ticket riders who ignore the stop signs.
After this long, difficult, but incredibly fun and rewarding ride, there’s nothing better than jumping in the North Yuba River which has its confluence with the Downie River almost directly across from Yuba Expeditions bike shop. The bike shop usually has beer from the Brewing Lair on draft, so grab one of those while your at it. Cheers with your riding buddies and celebrate the fact that you just conquered one of the best mountain bike trails in California!
P.S. If you’re looking for recommendations for places to stay or eat in and around Downieville, check back tomorrow!
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I receive a small percentage of the sale as compensation – at no additional cost to you. I promise to only recommend products that I use and enjoy!
I’ve been coming to Mammoth Mountain for lift-serviced mountain biking about once a year since I moved to Tahoe in 2010. Mammoth has diverse terrain, something for every level – beginner to advanced:
“Mammoth Mountain Bike Park offers terrain for every ability level, boasting 3,500 acres and over 80 miles of single track. We offer the best beginner experience in the industry with the Discovery Zone, miles and miles of forested intermediate trail riding and are the leaders in building diverse and creative gravity fed DH and all-mountain expert and pro level trails.”
Though it might seem silly to drive the three and a half hours to Mammoth Lakes from Truckee when Northstar at Tahoe is just 20 minutes away, the quality and condition of Mammoth’s trails and terrain blow Northstar out of the water. If I’m paying $50 for a lift ticket, I want amazing, fun and well maintained trails, which Mammoth delivers. The views from some of Mammoth’s trails are among the top in California, too!
Off The Top: This trail is my #1 everyone must-do trail at Mammoth Mountain. Ride the gondola to the very top of the mountain and prepare for amazing views! The trail itself is graded intermediate, but I think it’s pretty easy – nothing too technical, just exposure with some tight switchbacks (that are easily walked if you’re uncomfortable). This trail has views that are up there with the Tahoe Flume Trail. The steep mountain side covered in bare volcanic pumice means unobstructed views in at least 180 degrees. You can see the Minarets, as well as other stunning Sierra Peaks. If you’re a more advanced rider, take the Kamikaze cut off and bomb down the loose and rocky fire road, home to the Kamikaze Downhill race. Beginners and intermediate riders can follow Off the Top into the trees for a fun cross country trail of mostly smooth dirt, broken up by a few easy rock gardens. Take the fairly easy but still fun Beach Cruiser trail to a fire road, and you’ll quickly be back at the base. Watch for faster riders speeding by on the fire road and stay right!
Brake Through: This is another fun intermediate trail, though it involves more exertion and climbing that Off the Top and is slightly more technical. To ride brake through, you get off the gondola at McCoy Station at mid-mountain. After exiting the building, turn left and follow the signs to Brake Through. You’ll climb a slight incline for about a half mile, before turning left at the well-marked Brake Through trailhead. The first half mile or so after the turn off has the most technically difficult rock sections of the trail. Brake Through weaves in and out through trees and exposed volcanic sections. The trail itself is mostly smooth dirt, with some loose pumice sections and small rock gardens. Towards the bottom, there are several intersections, but they’re well marked. Keep following Brake Through trail until it runs out (about 3.25 miles from the top) and hop on Downtown. You can continue on Downtown all the way into Mammoth Lakes, where you can catch the shuttle from the Village and head back to the bike park. If you’re looking for more of a challenge you can follow the signs to Shotgun – see more info below.
Shotgun: This trail is more of a downhill trail than Off the Top and Brake Through. You’ll definitely want a full suspension bike with some travel to handle some drops and rocky sections. Shotgun is one of the “easier” advanced trails at Mammoth, but it’s definitely not for beginners. The best way to access Shotgun is from the Downtown trail which starts at the Mammoth Mountain base, and can be connected to from a bunch of higher mountain trails. There’s a very obvious sign pointing out the right turn onto Shotgun, and after a short, but butt kicking climb, you’ll have arrived to the fun part of this trail. The trail was fairly chopped up when I rode it, with lots of small drops and loose dirt and rocks, but it was still so much fun! I felt like I could ride it fast and aggressively (for me!) and take on features that I would normally chicken out on, because the trail is so well designed. It’s a short trail (~0.6 miles), and you end up in the parking lot of one of the ski bases that is closed in the summer. Ride downhill on the road coming out of the parking lot, and you’ll end right at the Mammoth Village shuttle stop.
4. White Bark: This trail is the most downhill trail that I typically ride at Mammoth, and it’s definitely challenging. There are steep wood features and decent size drops, but it’s a really short trail – so it’s a good one to get your downhill feet wet. If you feel like it’s over your head, you can get off it and back on to the fire road pretty quickly. It does tend to get pretty beat up, so it becomes more challenging later in the season.
Whether you are an experienced mountain biker, or want to try it for the first time, Mammoth Mountain Bike Park is a great destination.
My Gear Picks
Helmet: Definitely something with a full face. I have and love a Bell Super 2R, and the Giro Switchblade is also supposed to be great.
Pads: I always wear knee and elbow pads when I ride at the bike park, and I usually wear a more heavy duty pair of knee pads like the Fox Launch. For elbow pads, I go for something light, like these ones from G-Form .
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I receive a small percentage of the sale as compensation – at no additional cost to you. I promise to only recommend products that I use and enjoy!
Santa Cruz, California is an awesome place. It’s got the relaxed vibe of a beach town, with the amenities and cuisine of a bigger city. It’s surrounded by the Santa Cruz mountains, but you don’t even have to get out of town to be immersed in a redwood forest. In addition to all of the great beach activities, the Santa Cruz area is a hot spot for mountain biking. While newer trails like the Flow Trail in Soquel Demonstration State Forest and Emma McCrary Trail in Pogonip, get a lot more publicity (and a lot more riders), there’s an underrated gem of a trail network within easy riding distance of town – Wilder Ranch State Park.
Wilder Ranch was one of the original places to mountain bike in the Santa Cruz area. Greyson grew up riding here almost every weekend in the 90s! The network is a little more old-school than something like the Lithia Trails in Ashland, Oregon or the Hammerfest Trails in Parksville, British Columbia. Don’t worry, the trail building isn’t stuck in the 90’s. They’ve built some new switchbacked single track, so there’s less climbing up exposed fire road, while leaving old school favorites like Old Cabin and Zane Gray untouched.
One of my favorite things about Wilder is how many classic coastal California terrains that you can pack in one ride. You can go from coastal bluffs to oak woodlands to wide open ocean views to thick redwood forests and back in under ten miles! Because there are so many trails in this network, it can be hard to string together a route without a guide. So here are a couple of my favorite routes that gets you on the best of what Wilder Ranch has to offer. Note: mile markers are approximate and intended as a general guide based on my rides. I started all of these rides in the parking lot inside the state park. Any of these routes can be done by an intermediate rider, and most could be ridden by a beginner- some sections of Old Cabin and Zane Gray might be tough for a newer rider.
Wilder Ridge & Zane Gray: This lollipop route is about 6.5 miles and 850 feet of climbing and will get you good views and one of the most technical singletrack sections in Wilder. From the parking lot, head past the stables on the Wilder Ranch Connector. After a half mile, you’ll make a sharp left onto Wilder Ridge Loop (fire road). This is the trail where you’ll do most of the climbing. The climb is fairly challenging – you gain ~450 feet of elevation in about 1.5 miles, and it’s mostly fire road or double track, plus, the steepest pitch is at the very top. After the steepest part of the climb (~1.9 miles into this route), Zane Gray Cutoff is on the left. The first part of Zane Gray is wide open, bluff riding – be sure to pull off onto the overlook for gorgeous ocean views, but the trail quickly turns into shale-y, challenging riding. There are exposed corners (no banked berms here!) and shark fins ready to catch your pedals. There are even a few small drops. The whole cutoff is under a mile, but you’ll descend ~320 feet in that time. Zane Gray will basically turn into Wilder Ridge Loop (single track), but stay left if you’re unsure. This is a fairly easy, rolling single track section, but watch for erosion ruts and there are some short steep climbs. At about 5.2 miles, the Wilder Ridge Loop single track will merge back with the fire road, and you’re almost back. At 6 miles, don’t miss the sharp right back towards the parking lot (like I did on the above screen shot!), and before you know it, you’ll be back at your car. This route took Greyson and I about an hour of riding time, and we definitely weren’t pushing our speed. It was a great late-winter tune up ride for us. See Strava route here.
Englesman, Old Cabin, Eucalyptus, Twin Oaks, Zane Gray, Wilder Ridge For a longer loop that really hits all of the highlights, try this almost 12 mile route with about 1,560 feet of climbing. You’ll start on the Wilder Ranch Connector for a half a mile and then take the left fork up Englesman – NOT the sharp left onto Wilder ridge loop or right onto Englesman Loop, confusing, I know. At 1.4 miles, you’ll want to bend left onto the Englesman Reroute trail. This is really well built single track that’s fun to climb. You’ll get your heart pumping, but I never feel completely burnt out. This section is about 1.1 miles and 263 feet of climbing, but I think it feels easier than that. At 2.5 miles, you’ll on the the Englesman Loop double track/fire road for less than half a mile. Turn right to get on the classic Old Cabin trail. This trail drops you into an incredible redwood grove. You can bomb down switchbacks surrounded by giant old growth, and, if it’s a hot day, it will be much cooler in the little canyon. Now that you’ve gotten that super fun descent, you’ll have to climb back out of the other side of Old Cabin, about 260 feet. Old Cabin dead ends on Eucalyptus at 3.8 miles. Turn right and climb another 200 feet on a mile of exposed fire road. That’s definitely the worst part of this loop. Ride down the fire road until 6.2 miles and turn left onto Rodrigo for more single track. At 6.4 miles, make a sharp right on to Bobcat for 0.2 miles. Bobcat will dead end at Twin Oaks, and turn left. Twin Oaks will end with a little uphill at mile 7.3 and out you on Wilder Ridge Loop. Turn left and keep climbing, about 100 feet to mile 8. Here you’ll make a left on to the techy Zane Gray Cutoff, described in more detail above. At 8.9 miles, Zane Gray dumps you out on the single track section of Wilder Ridge Loop (stay left). You’ll hit the Wilder Ridge fire road at 10.6 miles, and after that it’s just the sharp right back on to Wilder Ranch Connector at 11.4 miles, and back to your car. We did this in 1:51 riding time, but we took lots of scenery and snack breaks – overall it took 2:24. See my Strava route here.
Englesman, Wild Boar, Old Cabin, Eucalyptus, Twin Oaks, Wilder Ridge This route gets you to Old Cabin and some great views, but is shorter and climbs a little less, 9.5 miles and ~1,300 feet of climbing. Similar to above, you’ll start on the Wilder Ranch Connector for a half a mile and then take the left fork up Englesman, and 1.4 miles, you bend left onto the Englesman Reroute trail. At 2.2 miles, turn left onto Wild Boar. At 2.7 miles, Wild Boar turns left and turns into Old Cabin, the redwood grove classic with a fun descent and a punchy climb. Old Cabin will end on Eucalyptus fire road at 3.6 miles. Turn left and keep climbing! You’ll top out on Eucalyptus at 4.8 miles – with Old Cabin you climb almost 450 feet in under two miles. It’s a stout climb. At the top, you’ll find the namesake eucalyptus tree grove with some picnic tables. It’s a great place to stop, catch your breath, and enjoy the view and a snack. Drop down the fire road – which can get pretty rutted, so watch out. At mile 5.9, you’ll go through a four way intersection, and you’ll continue going straight, which will put you on Enchanted Loop. At 6.1 miles, hit a fire road and turn left. Continue straight at mile 6.3 on to Wilder Ridge Loop fire road for only 0.1 miles, where you’ll take the left fork at mile 6.4 back on to single track – Twin Oaks. This single track spits out on to Wilder Ridge Loop fire road at mile 7.5. The sharp right on to the connecter comes at mile 9, and then back to the parking lot. We did this with a moving time of 1:24 and a leisurely 2:15 overall. See my Strava route here.
A note about Wilder: All of the trails at Wilder Ranch are mixed use, so be sure to yield to hikers and horses. I’ve never had a bad encounter with an equestrian at Wilder, but I try to spend the most time on trails that tend to see less horse traffic, like Old Cabin, Zane Gray and the single track parts of Wilder Ridge Loop. You’ll need to walk your bike through the historic ranch part of the park, but it’s very well signed and for a pretty short distance.
If you’re looking for a mellow but fun day away from the crowds, check out Wilder Ranch State Park!
I’ve ridden a lot of awesome trails all over the west – from Santa Barbara to Whistler and everywhere in between. I say that because after all sorts of amazing road trips to incredible riding destinations, Mills Peak Trail, which is less than an hour north of Truckee, is still one of my all time favorites.
Mills Peak Trail is the work of the awesome Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, a nonprofit trail organization that is also behind the world famous Downieville Downhill. The trail is awesome – a great mix of flowy, bermed corners and chunky, challenging rock gardens weaving through old trees with occasional wide views. You can ride it a couple of different ways – climb from the bottom or shuttle from the top.
The shuttle route takes you to the very top of Mills Peak. You’ll have great views, and there’s even an old fire lookout at the top.
From there, you’ll have a nine mile descent with 2,800+ feet of elevation loss. The trail is segmented into three sections of about three miles each. The top third is the rockiest and most technical, but I think it’s entirely doable by a strong intermediate rider, as long as you’re paying attention. The short and punchy rocky micro-climbs are more challenging than any of the downhills on this section. There are a couple spots with amazing views of the Gold Lakes Basin and you might even be able to spot a waterfall.
The second section is practically brand new. This part was all fire road until January of 2018 when SBTS finished punching through a new singletrack trail that paralleled the old fire road. Greyson and I went up for a trail work day in May to help smooth out and finish up the trail. Since it’s still so new, it’s a little rough and bumpy but I figure that it will be in great shape soon, especially after a winter’s worth of snow and rain fall on it. This section seemed like the steepest to me, and my hands and forearms were beat up after riding it in all its new trail glory. We had to take a couple of breaks to shake out our hands. See bumpy texture below.
The last third is the part of the trail I’m most familiar with, as it’s the part we’ve ridden the most times. The last third is split in half with a road crossing. When your headed downhill, the section before the road crossing is flowy with lots of bermed corners, but has enough rocky sections to keep things interesting. Watch out for the massive sugar pine cones that like to collect in the trail! They’re a worse obstacle than loose rocks. The final ~1.5 miles of the trail has lots of rock gardens and small rock drops – nothing that’s not rollable, but great for practicing techniques. This section isn’t very steep, so while the trail is pretty rocky it remains very rideable.
If you’re not lucky enough to have a shuttle (though Yuba Expeditions is supposed to start running paid shuttles in July 2018), you can ride Mills Peak from the bottom. Greyson and I have ridden up the bottom third of Mills Peak Trail quite a few times now, which is just a climb of ~1,100 feet in just over three miles, for a round trip of 6 miles. Climbing the whole thing is doable (for people in better shape than me), and you’d end up climbing around 3,000 feet in 9 miles. Maybe next year I’ll be in good enough shape for that epic day!