Summiting a peak via mountain bike is a cool experience, and riding the Royal Gorge Rim Trail to the top of Rowton Peak is great! Plus, the downhill is even more fun. The trails in Royal Gorge are an overlooked gem in the Truckee area, and I made a video of the ride up and down Rowton Peak.
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.
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
I’ve officially given up on winter. Not that I haven’t been riding/climbing/hiking all “winter,” but I’ve now officially given up on having any real winter in California this year. In honor of this revelation, I went on my first hard mountain bike ride of 2015, the Sawtooth Trail in Truckee, California.
Sawtooth is a really fun and challenging lollipop trail through pine forests and across rocky pumice. The trail is easy to access, with the trailhead at a gravel parking lot on Sawtooth Court, just a couple of miles south of downtown Truckee. Click here for Google Maps directions.
Though I used to be more into riding trails that went generally in the downhill direction (via shuttle, chair lift, steep push up, etc.), I’ve gotten more into technical cross country style trails, hopefully with a mix rollers, technical sections, short but hard climbs, fast, flowy sections and awesome views. Sawtooth Trail delivers across all of these requirements!
Sawtooth Trail is an 11 mile lollipop with about 750 feet of climbing. The 750 feel of elevation gain definitely worked me, though I don’t know if I should blame it on being out of shape, or the fact that a lot of the climbing is more technical that I’m used to. Though there are long, smooth sections of the trail, Sawtooth is rocky enough that I would strongly recommend a full suspension bike for it. It would definitely be doable by a skilled rider on a hardtail, but I don’t think it would be very much fun!
There are some really long rocky sections, but I didn’t find anything un-rideable (and rocks are definitely not my strong point!), but my wrists and hands were exhausted by the end, and loose rocks made the short, steep climbs lung busters. It took Greyson and I about 2 hours to complete the whole loop, which included several breaks for scenery, water, mechanical difficulties, etc – we definitely weren’t in a rush.
The one main recommendation I would make with this trail, is to be sure to ride the lollipop clockwise. At about two miles in, you’ll hit a fork in the trail with a sign pointing straight to “Sawtooth Trail” and left to “Sawtooth Road”. Take the left toward “Sawtooth Road!” The trail crosses the dirt road and keeps going, eventually looping back to this intersection. I’ve ridden the trail in both directions, and riding the trail clockwise is way more fun! Otherwise you’ll be climbing up some nasty loose pumice.
This trail is closed to ATVs, and though it was a beautiful Sunday, we didn’t run into too many other mountain bikers, though I imagine it will get more crowded as more people give up on winter. It’s also fairly shaded for most of the trail, so I imagine it will be a little cooler in the summer than some of the other area trails.
Sawtooth is a really fun trail, and a great place to practice your rocky climbing skills. I can’t wait to go back! Also, Greyson has playing with the slo-mo feature on his new phone, and took a silly slo-mo video of me riding on Sawtooth Trail. You can check it out here.
Location: Sawtooth Court, Truckee, California
Mileage: 10 miles
Elevation Gain: 775
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!