The Tahoe Rim Trail from Kingsbury to Star Lake is an advanced ride that takes the rider from the trailhead at 7,400 feet elevation, through the woods, on cliff sides high above Carson Valley, across Monument Pass at 8,820 feet elevation, across barren wind swept mountainsides, and up to the 9,100 ft high alpine Star Lake at the base of the highest mountains in the Tahoe Basin. On July 24th, a group of riders led by our guide, Marcus Marchegger, rode this adventurous 18 mile out-and-back ride, a ride that has become one of my favorite sections of the Tahoe Rim Trail. The following is the story of our ride and a guide to help you navigate your next adventure.
The Kingsbury Trailhead is a bit awkward and isn’t as well marked as many of the other TRT trailheads due to the ski resort roads and buildings. To get there, drive up to Dagget Pass, the summit of Kingsbury Grade. Take Tramway Drive south for about 1.5 miles to the Heavenly Valley Resort Stagecoach Lodge parking lot. There are no facilities here, and everything appears to be closed down for the summer; however, there is a convenience store back on Tramway Drive if you need any last minute provisions.
The trail begins underneath the Stagecoach chairlift at 7,400 ft. elevation. This section of trail basically goes straight up the ski run, going through a marshy area and then straight up through loose sand. Awful. We came back this way (still awful), but there is a better way to get going on the trail. Ride back up the road you came in on which parallels the ski run, turn right on the first switchback, and then make the first left on Needle Peak Road. Ride a short way back over to the ski run, and ride around the gate. The road will become dirt, and ends up crossing the ski run where you rejoin the Tahoe Rim Trail. Look for the TRT sign at the trail that goes into the woods. This is where the real trail begins.
Once past the mileage sign, the trail begins with a series of switchbacks climbing through a forest of red firs and Jeffrey pine. The climb is moderate, but there are numerous boulders to navigate. The obstacles aren’t huge, but enough to stop forward momentum at slow speeds. We had to dismount frequently climbing this section, but were able to ride most of it descending on the way back. After about of mile of climbing, we reached a saddle where the trail mellowed out and became relaxed rolling singletrack through the woods.
Western white pines and lodgepole pines become the dominant tree in this section. The trail crosses the south fork of Dagget Creek and goes under one of the ski lifts of Heavenly Ski Resort. The trail is wide and open in places, and other times it gets narrow as it goes through thick stands of manzanita and tobacco brush.
Eventually the trail arrives at the north rim of Mott Canyon where it meets a ski area service road. In one direction it climbs steeply up the hill, and in the other direction it dives down into Mott Canyon. For a rider that is accustomed to the gentle flowing grades of the Tahoe Rim Trail, neither direction looks inviting. You might feel lost and bewildered at this point. There is a small TRT sign high on the tree above that points the way down into Mott Canyon, but it’s easy to miss since it is way above eye level. Thankfully, Marcus knew the way to go, and we followed the steep sandy road down into the canyon. It wasn’t far, but enough to make you worry that you were descending too much and think about how brutal it was going to be coming back up this road on the return trip.
Just when you think you’ve descended too far, the Tahoe Trim Trail takes off again to the south. Look for the little signs high up on the tree.
Soon the trail crosses under another ski area chairlift at the bottom of Mott Canyon. Numerous varieties of wildflowers grow along the tiny Mott Canyon Creek.
The climb out of Mott Canyon is breath taking. Not so much for the scenery, but because of the big drop-off on the downside of the trail. It’s a fun section, and keeps you focused. It’s also a section where you can appreciate the hard work and engineering skills of the Tahoe Rim Trail trail builders.
Once out of the canyon, you begin the ascent to Monument Pass. The trail is reminiscent of the Flume Trail in this section, but instead of Lake Tahoe, you are high above the Carson Valley. This section is very exposed and becomes more difficult the closer you get to monument pass. We found ourselves getting off the bikes frequently to get over steps and get up the switchbacks. This was ok though, since it was nice to rest and enjoy the spectacular view.
At just over five miles into the ride you reach Monument Pass at 8,820 ft elevation. You feel like you’re pretty high up, but Monument Peak still towers above you to the west at 10,067 ft elevation. This is a good spot to rest up from the climb you just did, because there is a lot of smooth riding from this point on.
After regrouping and having a short rest, we crossed back over to the Tahoe side and into the California section of the Trail. It wasn’t long before we started seeing Freel Peak and Jobs Sister up ahead. The trail really opens up on this section and there is much to look at. We enjoyed the still snow covered mountains of Desolation Wilderness far off to the west, and the green High Meadows below us. Further up the trail we would get a few views of South Lake Tahoe.
The trail is relaxing and rolling at this point, but a bit sandy. The fat tires on my big 29 inch wheels were really a plus for keeping the bike under control. It was great to get some continuous riding in after all the dismounting we had to do previously.
Before making the final ascent to Star Lake, we rode through a stand of very old juniper trees. Although the trees themselves weren’t very tall, the trunks were massive! The bark looked and felt like it was several inches think, the inside of the tree impervious to the outside elements. None of us were very tired at this point, but we really just wanted to spend some time enjoying the company of these extraordinary trees.
Near the top of the final climb, I began to wonder just how far away Star Lake was. We came up on a trail marker, but it gave no distances. Before I could finish further speculation, we topped the ridge and there it was! The beautiful blue-green waters of Star Lake. Marcus was at the trail intersection to show us where his favorite beach was, and then I could see Troy and Jesse down at the water’s edge contemplating a swim.
We had a nice long lunch at Star Lake. This is a place you’ll want to spend some time at. It’s remote and unspoiled, a place that not many people get to see. Across the lake we could hear the whizzing reels of some fly fisherman, and further down we could hear the occasional Kersplash! of people doing cannonballs into the water off some high rocks. Other than that, it was very peaceful. We soaked our legs in the cool waters and stared up in amazement at the craggy peak of Jobs Sister looming above us.
We had rested and cooled off enough that jumping into the cold lake seemed less inviting than it had when we first arrived. I was out on a rock taking photos of the lake when I heard a rustling in the bushes down the shore. I thought we were about to get a wildlife sighting, but it was just Marcus. He had shed all his cycling gear, and was about to make the plunge into the lake. When he surfaced, he let out a howl that would startle even the most battle hardened Norseman. This pretty much helped me decide whether or not I was going to go swimming or not. I went back to shore and put on my shoes.
For riders looking for even more riding, the trail crosses the outlet stream on the lake’s west side, and ascends the mountainside to the saddle below Freel Peak. From here it continues all the way to Big Meadow, or you can even connect to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride which drops back down to South Lake Tahoe. We had ridden plenty though, and were ready for some fun descending back to Kingsbury.
We started the downhill out of Star Lake, and were at least 27 seconds into it when we came around the corner to Marcus and Troy pulled over on the side of the trail. Troy had hit something on the trail and had torn the sidewall of his rear tire! The tire was setup tubeless, so it was an instant flat. We booted the tire, put a tube in it, and were once again underway.
The return trip to Monument Pass was fantastic. After the fast descent out of Star Lake, the easy rolling terrain allowed a comfortable speed for looking around and enjoying the scenery. The wide open views make you feel like you are on top of the world. I frequently got the chills from the beauty and awesomeness I was taking in.
Another thing that is worth mentioning about this ride is all the different micro-environments you pass through. As you descend out of Star Lake, you pass through stands of western white pine, lodgepole, and hemlock. Soon after you are riding through giant juniper trees. Climbing back to monument pass there is sagebrush and mountain mahogany, giving it more of a desert feel. The scenery is always changing, and keeps the trail interesting.
After climbing to monument pass, we began our descent down to the Carson Valley side. Much of the trail that we had to walk up on the way out was now rideable with gravity on our side. There are some big granite boulders to pick your way through in the beginning, and then fun staircases to bounce down after that. Some of the switchbacks were still too tight to navigate though, and we had to dismount occasionally. Once the trail smoothed out, we enjoyed a scenic ride along the cliff above Carson Valley, and then descended back down the narrow path leading into Mott Canyon.
After a nice rest at Mott Canyon Creek, we arrived at the sandy road climb. Troy made a granny gear attempt to scratch his way up the hill, but the rest of us pushed our bikes up. It took seconds to descend this thing, but several minutes to get back up. It felt great to get to the top, knowing that it was mostly descending back to the trailhead!
Once back up on the north rim of Mott Canyon, we were treated to a long smooth singletrack section. It was not super fast, but more relaxed and rhythmic. Lots of twists and turns and fun trail features to ride over. We came to the final saddle, and finished off the last mile of switchbacks down the hill. Again, we were able to ride much more of the trail than we did when we were ascending.
We ended the ride with the steep sandy trail down the ski slope back to the parking lot. Again, this is not the best designed section of the trail, especially when compared to the construction marvels of the trail up above, but it was probably better than coming back down the pavement section we had climbed in the beginning.
- This is a strenuous ride with lots of rock steps and boulders to negotiate. There are also some steep drop-offs that may unnerve people that are afraid of heights.
- This area is remote. Before you take any unnecessary risks, think about how long it will take help to reach you should you get injured.
- Make sure you bring a full repair kit. With all the rocks, there is plenty of opportunity for flat tires and impacts. I scratched up my shiny new bash guard pretty good on this trip!
- Bring a lot of water. Although the ride wasn’t that hot, I went through most of a CamelBak and two water bottles.
- Much of the ride is exposed, and the sun is intense at this elevation. Wear some sunscreen.
- Although there is much exposure on this ride, there are still many sections of shaded woods. Wear sunglasses with a good transition lens that lets you see good in the shadows.
- Check the weather report before you go, and be prepared. You don’t want to be up on the high exposed areas if a thundershower breaks out.