The leaves are changing in Truckee-Tahoe right now, and it’s beautiful on the trails right now. A great place to check out the fall colors and get a great ride is the Donner Lake Rim Trail. This video is of the Glacier Way & Drifter Hut Switchbacks sections of the Donner Lake Rim Trail and the Wendin Way Trail. I hope you get out and enjoy!
Fall, or “Locals Summer”, is hands down my favorite time to go mountain biking in Tahoe and Truckee. The weather is cooler, the trails are less crowded, and, if we’re lucky, we’ve gotten some rain to help tamp down the dust. However, some rides are better than other in the fall. Some trails get over ridden throughout the summer and are too loose by September, and others are high enough that early season snow renders them unrideable. Here are some of my favorite Truckee and Tahoe trails to ride in the fall.
Donner Lake Rim Trail, Truckee, California
The Donner Lake Rim Trail, which currently traverses about 10.5 miles of single track above the north side of Donner Lake is an awesome fall ride. Other than some loose, dusty corners, the trail holds up really well into the late fall. The Donner Lake Rim Trail has some of the best views of Donner Lake, it’s one of the best mountain biking trails for fall colors. It’s easy to access, has plenty of parking, and it connects to other local trails, like Hole in the Ground and Wendin Way.
The Donner Lake Rim Trail has sections for everyone, from beginners to advanced riders. The Castle Valley segment is rocky and technical, the Drifter Hut Switchbacks are mostly flowy with some tight corners, and the Skislope segment is either a mellow climb up or ride down. For more details about the trails, check out my Trail Guides for the Donner Lake Rim Trail from Castle Valley and from Glacier Way. I haven’t written a trail guide for the newest section of the Donner Lake Rim Trail that connects to Northwoods Drive, but you can check out my video of the trail here.
Upper Corral and Incense Cedar Trails, South Lake Tahoe, California
While Truckee mainly gets dusty in the fall, South Lake Tahoe trails tend to get sandy from decomposed granite. This route consisting of Upper Corral and Incense Cedar mostly avoids the sandpits that form in the fall. To access the trails, head up Fountain Place Road, a paved road that can be ridden or shuttled. Upper Corral is a pretty technical downhill trail, earning its advanced rating on Trailforks. There are some tricky turns, mandatory drops, and long rock gardens, though all the features are walkable if needed. Incense Cedar, on the other hand, is a mellow trail that’s mainly downhill, with a few short climbs sprinkled throughout. Incense Cedar pops out onto Powerline Road, a fire road that can get pretty sandy in spots, but is rideable back to the parking area on Fountain Place. To see my Strava track for this route, click here. For more information about the Corral Trail Network, click here for my trail guide.
Royal Gorge Rim Trail, Soda Springs, California
The Royal Gorge trails on Donner Summit make for great fall riding. The trails were designed with mountain biking in mind, so they hold up well. Also, since they’re less well known than other Truckee trails, they have much lower traffic than something like Jackass, and aren’t as beat up as a result.mFor a great fall ride, I’d recommend the Royal Gorge Rim Trail Loop, which is a little over 6 miles and about 1,000 feet of climbing. Be sure to take the Routen Peak Spur, and enjoy the incredible views. Click here to see my video featuring the Royal Gorge Trails.
Tyrolean Downhill, Incline Village, Nevada
The Tyrolean Downhill is an awesome shuttle trail that gets sandy, but is still an excellent late season ride. It’s got incredible views of Lake Tahoe and takes you through a variety of classic Tahoe terrain. Tyrolean has features that will challenge advanced riders, but the majority of the technical features have ride arounds that make this doable by intermediate riders – without losing the flow!
To do the Tyrolean Downhill as a shuttle (which most riders do), leave one car parked at the Diamond Peak Ski Resort parking lot, where the trail ends. While there are several ways to access the Tyrolean Downhill, my favorite is via the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT). Park at the Tahoe Meadows Tahoe Rim Trail parking area, off of Highway 431. Hop on the TRT: Tahoe Meadows to Tunnel Creek segment, and after about 1.6 miles, you’ll hit ab intersection. Turn right to get on Upper Tyrolean, which is a mellow flowing ride through the forest. After about 1.15 miles, Upper Tyrolean turns into the Tyrolean DH, which drops nearly 1,650 feet in 3.3 miles! The trail ends at the Diamond Peak parking lot, making this a super easy shuttle, with only about 350 feet of climbing over about 6 miles. Click here to see my Strava route, but ignore the spur at mile 0.8. We were riding through patchy snow at the top and took a wrong turn. For my video of the Tyrolean Downhill (also featuring a trail race and a bunch of runners who aren’t usually there), click here.
Big Chief Trail, Truckee, California
One of the newest, techiest trails in Truckee is an incredible fall ride, the Big Chief Trail. The trail is mainly in the thick forest, and is well built so the dirt segments hold up well, even after long, dry periods. There are also incredible rock work, long rock gardens, and gravel sections which won’t get very loose and dusty. It’s made up of two sections, Big Chief Upper and Big Chief Lower and can be accessed by a 7.7 mile fire road climb on the 06/Sawtooth Road. It can also be shuttled and some people ride up the trail. The trail is multidirectional, but most riders tend to ride up the fire road. The whole ride is about 15.7 miles and around 2,000 feet of climbing. For my Strava route, click here.
This is a trail for advanced and intermediate riders, especially the upper section – there are some big drops, tight corners, and technical rock gardens. I ended up walking quite a few features on Big Chief Upper! For an easier ride, you can easily just do Big Chief Lower, as the start of this segment crosses the 06 at about mile 3.7. If you’re looking for even longer ride, you can tack on Sawtooth Loop or other trails in the Sawtooth network. Click here to see my video of Big Chief Trail.
There’s a newly completed portion of the Donner Lake Rim Trail! Trailforks is calling it two segments – DLRT Teton and DLRT Skislope, which cover about 5.5 miles and around 950 feet of descent (or climbing, depending which direction you ride it). The trail is pretty dusty and riding slow right now, but it has incredible views and I think it will be amazing once it gets some rain!
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
There is an awesome new trail in the Truckee area! The Truckee Donner Land Trust has been steadily working on a 23-mile, multi-use trail that will circle Donner Lake.
Currently, there’s 7.2 miles completed, and the trail accesses some of the best views in the Truckee area – the Sierra Crest, Mount Rose and Donner Lake. Eventually, the trail will connect with other area trails, including the Pacific Crest Trail and Hole in the Ground trail. Additionally, there is an offshoot access trail called Wendin Way Trail through Johnson Canyon (sometimes known as Negro Canyon) that begins and ends near the Donner Lake exit north of I-80. With this less than stellar winter we’ve been having, I’ve gotten a chance to ride it a couple of times lately.
Both times, we shuttled the ride for a mostly downhill trip, leaving a car parked at Donner Lake, and driving our bikes up to the Tahoe Donner Glacier Way Trailhead. You can also park your second car at the trailhead parking lot at the bottom of Johnson Canyon, just off the Donner Lake I-80 ext. Don’t forget keys for both cars!
The trail starts with a steady but not steep climb of 300 feet over almost two miles. Due to the fact that we were riding in February at above 7,500 feet, we had to push our bikes through a few slushy snow patches on the way up, and across a small snow field when the trail flattened out.There are a few offshoot trails, but just stay on the main wide trail until you see a sign directing you to turn left on to the Donner Lake Rim Trail. We were rewarded after the climb with sweeping views of the Sierra Crest and Donner Lake once we made it through.
Now we get to the fun part! The rest of the trail is downhill, speedy single track. There are some rocky sections at the top and again at the bottom, but the trail is mainly nice dirt, and not the sandy decomposed granite that I’m used to riding in Tahoe! There are some sharp switchbacks and slightly exposed sections, but I would classify the ride as totally doable for intermediate riders, but still exciting enough to be fun for advanced riders. Note: there were a couple of big trees down when we rode this last weekend (2/16/2015), so be on the lookout for obstacles!
After about 700 feet of descent at 3.5 miles from the start, there is a big metal sign at the Donner Lake Rim Trail/Wendin Way intersection. Go left onto the Wendin Way trail and continue your descent for another 1.5 miles and 500 feet through Johnson/Negro Canyon. I had so much fun on this part of the trail! Wendin Way Trail will spit you out back at the trailhead parking lot, or, like we did, you can continue down the paved Donner Lake Road to Donner Lake, where we left a car.
The Donner Lake Rim Trail and Wendin Way Trail are my favorite trails I’ve ridden in Truckee so far. The Truckee Donner Land Trust does an amazing job with their trail building. Though this is a multi-use trail, it feels like it’s designed for mountain bikes. I felt like I could build up speed without losing control. The trails have enough rocks to feel challenging without being a miles-long rock garden sufferfest. I could glide through (most of) the switchbacks. I love that the Truckee Donner Land Trust is preserving wonderful places, but also making them so accessible for people to enjoy! (They also own the Webber Falls property). They are a wonderful group, doing a lot for the area, and they can use your support, through donations or by enjoying and respecting their properties. I hope you get a chance to enjoy them. I know I will be back on the Donner Lake Rim Trail!