Emerald Bay
Emerald Bay2 - The Lake Trail Journal

Since the beginning of the year one of my major goals was to bikepack The Lake Trail. The Lake Trail is a 133 mile loop around Lake Tahoe. It’s a collection of single track, double track, dirt roads and some pavement. The loop has over 16,000′ of climbing and countless views.

Prior to bikepacking The Lake Trail I completed the John Muir Trail (JMT) in just under two weeks. I also hadn’t mountain biked much all year. I wasn’t going to let either of these things stop me from completing one of my major goals for the year. Please enjoy my journal from my trip below.

Day 1 – 9/10/19

Ski Run Blvd to M46.5 – 51.9 Miles

51.9 Total Miles – 8 am to 10 pm

Mostly Sunning 60’s Windy, then temp dropped, rain and hail, thunder and lightning.

Days of Rain 1.

I spent the night car camping in noisy South Lake Tahoe. I had arranged to leave my van behind my friends office. It was a far cry from the camping spots I had along the John Muir Trail prior to this. When I got up I attempted to buy arm warmers, since I forgot to pack mine. No one was open at 7 in the morning so I headed to Starbucks for breakfast. Phillip the Trail Donkey and I got started at 8 am.

The temperature was all over the place due to the wind. At first I was cold, then hot, then cold and hot again. The day went like this all day. I actually rode with my puffy jacket on. I have never done this.

Phillip the Trail Donkey - The Lake Trail Journal

The trail was amazing but very hard to follow at first. There is a ton of trails around South Lake Tahoe and Stateline. I saw very few people throughout the morning but the numbers increased as I went. I climbed pretty much from the bottom of the lake all the way to Hwy. 50.

The single track before Hwy. 50 was great. It wasn’t overly technical and mostly rideable. I was convinced I was going to see a bear. I didn’t. The Flume Trail was the highlight of the day. Not for the riding but the views. Getting to the Flume Trail was a bitch of a climb but oh so worth it.

Later in the afternoon the temperature plummeted and it started to lightly rain. Phillip and I took cover under a large tree. As I sat there freezing, yes freezing, it began to hail/snow. Then the lightening started. Phillip and I ended up staying under our tree for over 20 minutes.

Sand Harbor - The Lake Trail Journal

When I got to the north side of the lake around mile 40 I started to fade physically but considering I hadn’t ridden in months I wasn’t surprised. I also hadn’t done a good job keeping my calorie count up. The trail got very hard to follow, with many very confusing sections.

As I traversed a side hill of decomposing granite and manzanita bushes I got stung by a wasp in the head. It stung me right under the helmet strap, which meant the rest of the trip my helmet rode right on the swollen spot.

Just before twilight faded into darkness I completely lost all signs of the trail. After 30 minutes of trying to follow the GPS track to ridiculous underbrush I found a different version of the route which had an alternate track through the section I was in. This whole ordeal spent most of my remaining energy reserves.

Craig Fowler & Phillip the Trail Donkey - The Lake Trail Journal

After finding the trail I pushed on towards a suggested campsite. Of course it took longer to do those few miles than I was hoping it would. The first campsite wasn’t that great so I skipped it to the second one that was suggested. I missed the second one, but I found my own which turned out to be an amazing spot.

I didn’t get camp set up and dinner cooked until 10:10 pm. I ate dinner and it was quickly off to bed. This was probably my longest ride of the year and my first ride of distance since late June. I was exhausted.

Day 2 – 9/11/19

M51.9 to M110.3

58.4 Miles, 110.3 Total Miles

7:30 am to 7:40 pm

Mostly Sunning 60-70

Days of Rain 1.

After a very long Day 1, I went to bed with the plan to sleep in until 7 am. I slept great on a soft bed of pine needles.

My morning started with the disappointment of crazy stale generic Pop Tarts. They were so bad I couldn’t eat them. Next was putting on my helmet and remembering about the wasp sting. It was quite uncomfortable until I got used to it.

Lake Tahoe - The Lake Trail

The highlight of the morning was seeing a Red Tail Hawk drinking at a stream crossing on the Beaver Tail Trail. I spooked him as I rode up and he took flight to a nearby tree, where he just watched me for a bit before taking off again. Later in the day I saw a few grouse, which would turn out to be the biggest animal I saw the entire trip.

The riding was wonderful. There was much less route finding and better weather. With less route finding I was able to achieve more flow, which made my day more fluid. This helped time go by faster. I timed getting to Tahoe City perfectly. I was there for lunch and got pizza. After lunch I got some more food at the market across the street. The reality is I didn’t need half of what I bought.

Lake Tahoe - The Lake Trail

After lunch I there were five big climbs with long HABs. The first one was the longest but the descent was pretty sweet. I saw less views of the lake early in the day and they increased as the day went on. I did see more people compared to yesterday. A bunch of which were thru-hikers of the Tahoe Rim Trail.

After tackling the five climbs I was getting pretty mentally tired. But then I was blessed with 10 miles of unexpected pavement! I was about to stop to cook dinner at 6:15, so that unlike yesterday it wasn’t 10 pm when I ate this time. When I looked at my phone I saw the next 10 miles was paved. As it was going to get dark shortly I realized it was better to pound out the pavement miles before it got dark and push dinner off.

Stream Crossing at night - The Lake Trail

I did have to get over a few climbs during the pavement section and the middle one was quite long. With the increasing darkness falling upon me I had to put my rain jacket on for the descent to Emerald Bay. The temperature was falling as fast as the sun was. At the bottom of the descent I was blessed with an amazing view and sunset over the lake. It was the highlight of the day for sure.

I had to climb one more hill and then find water before I camped. The climb wasn’t too bad compared to the previous one but the descent was another long one. I was pretty chilled by the bottom. I found water where I expected and made camp roughly a mile or so up the trail. Unfortunately the water wasn’t that great. Even adding Skratch to it, it left a taste in my mouth that would last for days.

Day 3 – 9/12/19

M110.3 to M133.4

23.1 Miles, 133.4 Total Miles

7:05 – 10:57 am

Mostly Sunny 70’s

Days of Rain 1.

As it turned out, stopping where I did last night was a good decision. Not more than 200’ from where I camped a clear cut started and after that it was all dirt roads and open space without any good camp spots for a few miles.

Phillip the Trail Donkey - The Lake Trail Journal

I slept well despite being near to the road and some traffic noise. I woke up feeling really good after two full days of bikepacking. Knowing I had a short day ahead of me I was super motivated to finish. I only had one climb of note, which was up Tahoe Mtn. 

Before I reached Tahoe Mtn. I had the pleasure to ride along the calm shores of Fallen Leaf Lake. This was the lake helicopters were scooping water from in 2007 to fight the South Lake Tahoe fire.

Fallen Leaf Lake - The Lake Trail

The climb wasn’t steep but it was a steady grind which tested my legs. The best part of the climb was all the birds. The thorny bushes that scratched my legs and arms as I climbed, were home to 100’s of birds. Once again I spooked a Red Tail Hawk having its morning drink at a small stream. 

After the climb I had a great descent. Following that the trail flowed pretty well. I stopped at a gas station in Meyers, which was right next to the market I went to in 2007 during my PCT thru-hike.

Phillip the Trail Donkey - The Lake Trail Journal

Overall the The Lake Trail was super enjoyable, but that isn’t to say there were sections I would pass on. There was a lot of looking at my phone to know which trail to take, as well as testing climbs, short steep HABs and long HABs, and most of all great views of Lake Tahoe. If you’re looking for a challenging but not overly long bikepacking route, you’ve found it.

Craig Fowler & Phillip the Trail Donkey - The Lake Trail Journal