Carson City to Virginia City by Mountain Bike

Summer is beginning to wane, and it makes you think of all the uncompleted rides up in the Sierras that you had on the list for the year. High altitude, singletrack, forested mountains, alpine lakes, and solitude. The only problem is that these rides can require some lengthy driving to the trailhead, and on a busy labor weekend this is not always desirable. So instead of heading up to Lake Tahoe, Scott Russel, Jesse Richardson, and I chose to ride from the neighborhood up into the arid mountains north of Carson City to experience the Old West world of Virginia City.

Virginia City Loop
Near Centennial Park

Ever since the restoration of the V&T Railroad went in, I’ve heard people discussing how nice it would’ve been if a multi-use trail had been built alongside the tracks. If you look at the map or do some exploring though, you’ll find that there are plenty of roads and trails that parallel the railroad tracks, or at least go in the same general direction. All that really needs to be done to start enjoying a trail now is to designate and mark a recommended route. So while this ride was much recreational, we also had the GPS going, collecting data and finding the most desirable off-road routes to connect Carson City and Virginia City.

Virginia City Loop
Above Centennial Park

We headed out from the neighborhood around 8:45, and rode east towards Centennial Park. It was a cool late summer morning, but warm enough to leave any heavy cool weather gear at home. By the time we left the pavement, things warmed up to a perfect temperature that would last all day. We followed the Centennial Singletrack up and over the hills to Mound House, where we met up with the V&T tracks.

Virginia City Loop
V&T Railroad Tracks

A short time later we reached Linehan Road. There seemed to be a few options to get over to Red Rock Road from here, but we chose to ride up Linehan Road, make a right on McClellan Road, and then had a fun descent on an unimproved dirt road down to Red Rock Road where we rejoined the V&T tracks. We followed the tracks to what I believe is the old American Flat Toll Road, the nice road leading north into the mountains just west of the water tank.

vc on mtn bikes in sept 005
Near the Water Tank

The next leg of the journey up the American Flat Toll Road is very pleasant, a gentle climb that never becomes too steep all the way up to American Flat. The hills are very scenic in this area, with many canyons and evidence of past mining activity. We didn’t see any wild horses in the area as we expected, but there were certainly signs of them, especially around the springs we encountered.

Virginia City Loop
American Flat Toll Road

The American Flat Toll Road finally arrives at a big valley known as American Flat, and is just west of Silver City and Gold Hill. Apparently there used to be a little town here, but there’s not much of anything left except a few mining operations. These days, when people talk about American Flat, they are usually referring to the old remains of the United Comstock Merger Mill. According to the BLM Website, the mill was built in 1922 to process local gold and silver ore utilizing cyanide vat leaching in what was then described as the largest concrete mill in the United States. These days though, the old mill more closely resembles a post-apocalyptic city. It has been more recently used as a party spot, a canvas for graffiti artists, and an arena for paint-ball warriors. Use extreme caution when visiting the place, as the concrete is crumbling, there are many open pits, and plenty of exposed rebar. There have been many injuries and even deaths out at the mill site, but the authorities have had a hard time keeping the place shut down. It’s just too interesting of a place to keep the curious explorer out.

Virginia City Loop
Above the United Comstock Merger Mill at American Flat

We turned east prematurely, and came to a dead-end above the mill site. The lookout on the cliff side did give us a good panoramic view of the area though. We backtracked, and took the next road down into the site. I hadn’t been up here in almost 20 years, but the old shells of the buildings were just as spooky as I remembered them. I stayed out of the catacombs below the place, and just poked around the main building. There’s definitely a lot to look at on the walls.

Virginia City Loop
The largest building at the Mill

Virginia City Loop
Inside the Mill

Virginia City Loop
The Karate Monkey

Kona Big Kahuna
The Big Kahuna

Virginia City Loop
Leaving American Flats

After taking in the scenery at the United Comstock Merger Mill, we climbed out of American Flat and rode over to Gold Hill, staying on dirt roads until nearly the Gold Hill Hotel. The pavement is steep here, the steepest terrain we had been on all day.

Virginia City Loop
Gold Hill

Just past the Gold Hill Hotel, we came to the railroad tracks again. The gates were down, and the train was crossing. It was a good excuse to rest as we prepared for the even steeper grade up around the bend. After the train passed we continued our ascent. But just as we crossed the tracks, one of the locals called us over to his house and wanted to talk about our ride. He reminded us how steep the road was going to get around the corner, and suggested we take the next right on Homestead Road, a dirt road that takes the long way around the hill, joins the truck route, and gently climbs up into Virginia City. He also told us we wouldn’t be finding beers at the Cafe del Rio this day, since they were closed. This is just the kind of advice we needed. We thanked our new friend, and finished off the ride into town.

Virginia City Loop
Leaving Gold Hill on Homestead Road

Virginia City Loop
Main Street in Virginia City

When we got to the top of the truck route at the south end of Virginia City, we noticed they weren’t letting traffic down C Street, the main street through town. There was a parade about to start! All sorts of characters were lined up ready to march through town. We took the higher B Street and rode to the north end of town, and kept our eye open for the best place to get some beer, food, and a nice spot to watch the parade.

Virginia City Loop
Parade

We ended up at the Red Dog Saloon. The street wasn’t as crowded here, and the view of the parade would be unobstructed even while sitting at the bar! We hitched the bikes up out front, ordered a round of beers to wash down the trail dust, and selected a medium pizza off the menu. How often do get to do this midway through a mountain bike ride?


It’s a Parade!

As we thoroughly enjoyed our beer and pizza, the parade passed by on the street. We saw dancing girls, gun fighters, Civil War soldiers, Mexican cowboys, and a whole bunch of other characters. And since we were near the end of the parade route, many of the marchers came back up the sidewalk and even into our saloon after they were done. Two of my favorite characters were Diamond Jim the dynamite laden miner, and the tall menacing cowboy, dressed in black, carrying a whip, and ready to pistol whip anyone that got out of line.

vc on mtn bikes in sept 035
In the Red Dog Saloon

Virginia City Loop
Diamond Jim

Virginia City Loop
Riding down C Street in Virginia City

We ordered another round of drinks, and discussed our route home. Originally, we had planned to drop down near Mound House, and catch the road that follows the Carson River back to Carson City. We were enjoying being up in the mountains though, and decided to take Ophir Grade up over the pass, and come back around the west side of McClellan Peak. I hadn’t studied this route on the map, but what the heck, we were rejuvenated from lunch, and this was an adventure right?

vc on mtn bikes in sept 056
Leaving Virginia City

We rode back to the south end of town, all the way to the Gold Hill sign at the NDOT maintenance station, and headed west on the Ophir Grade road. This road gently climbs towards the pass, but it wasn’t long until HWY 342 was far below us. We continued climbing, viewing American Flat off to the east in the valley below, and then finally made it to the top of the pass. From the pass, Jumbo Grade descends over the other side into Washoe Valley to the northwest. We continued along Ophir grade to the south, not knowing what we’d find, but pleased that we were headed in the right direction.

Virginia City Loop
Winding HYW 342 Below

Virginia City Loop
North of McClellan Peak on Ophir Grade

Virginia City Loop
Looking north towards Reno

We eventually came down to a saddle just to the north of McClellan Peak. There was a road climbing up the mountain, a road to the east descending back to American Flat, and a wonderful looking flat road that circled the mountain to the west. Wanting to get over to Goni Road in Carson City, we chose to head west on the route with less climbing, hoping that it would stay nice and flat the whole way.

Virginia City Loop
Wonderful road above Washoe Valley

The road seemed very encouraging for the first few miles with outstanding views of Mount Rose, Washoe Lake, and even Reno far to the north. We passed little groves of bushes and trees that were thriving off springs coming out of the mountain. We even rode through a stand of giant thistles that Jesse failed to see in time. Ouch!

Virginia City Loop
Washoe Lake

Just when we thought the nice road would go on forever, the road dived down into a canyon. It looked as if the proud road builder suddenly suffered a debilitating stroke, sending the road grader madly up and down the hill. We didn’t see much other choice than to follow the road down, and then steeply climb right back to the level we were at.

Virginia City Loop
Trail Gone Bad

Our legs were tired, and we hoped that we wouldn’t get another dip as bad as the one we had just climbed out of. But then it got worse! We came to a downhill so steep, that only Scott had the guts to ride down the silt covered hard pack. Jesse and I used our bikes as walkers, keeping the brakes on to help slow our descent. Jesse heard Scott howling at the bottom and was certain that he had crashed. It turned out he was just so happy to have made it to the bottom with the rubber side down! We regrouped at the bottom and then began the long hike up the other side.

vc on mtn bikes in sept 072
Pushing the Bikes

I knew that the worst had to be behind us, and as it turned out, it was. We finally arrived on the hillside above the volcanic rock deposits on McClellan’s west side. From here it was a fast and fun descent all the way down to Goni Road, and then an even faster descent back into Carson City. We arrived home around 4 PM, our final mileage was 32.6 miles, and we were glad to be back.

Virginia City Loop
The final descent back to Carson City

In the end we were really happy with our route climbing to Virginia City. There were areas for fine tuning, but overall it was a good ride and very scenic. We definitely would take a different route coming back. Although scenic, there was too much walking, and there are almost certainly some better routes to take. But going back for some more exploration will be lots of fun!

Carson City to Virginia City
Map of the Route

Download the Google Earth KMZ files of the map HERE.

Here are a couple of articles about the toll roads leading to Virginia City:

All Toll Roads lead to the Comstock (NV Appeal)

Story of Half Way House

The full photo set of this trip can be found HERE.

Scott’s photos from the trip are HERE.

And Jesse has a few photos too HERE.

26 thoughts on “Carson City to Virginia City by Mountain Bike

  1. I really wish I could have gone on that one. I’ve been wanting to do that for years! Finally I have friends with enough guts to do it and I already had other plans! UGH!!!

    1. Exploration rides are best done with small groups in case it really sucks…but now that we know it’s awesome, I’d like to do that ride again soon and invite everyone. Rides that start from your front porch are best!

      1. then again, you might need to eat someone if things go really wrong, so you don’t want too small of a group.

  2. Ok… I’ve looked that baby over and I’ve found a couple of alternate routes for the trip back that will avoid the huge dip you guys dropped into. One will take you to the Washoe view, but add a few miles. The other stays on the east side of the hills. I’m ready… when are we doing it boys?!

  3. Thank you for posting this ride! We are heading out to try it this morning. Hey! We have seen you bicycle commuting around town in your red jersey and with your signature long beard! So, it is great to see it is you who posted this “photographic travel log” THANKS AGAIN. You may have seen us too, riding the trails or on our weekly Zoom on the road bokes up the Va. City Truck Route Wahoo gotta keep going!!! Keep Going You Guys! Much encouragement from Tom and Mary Kay also known as Slim and Minnie

      1. Great Fun Ride just as we expected from your very nice presentation! We took our time – sandwiches and everything – and it was a perfect day for it, too. Went as far as the RR crossing in American Flat, enjoying the grand view above the Consolidated Mill, and then we backtracked to Centennial Park with just a little bit of exploration of the nice alternate trails just before getting back to the park. In case anybody is wondering, that out-and-back ride takes just a little over 3 hrs. including stopping for lunch and just cruising along taking in the views.

        By the way, we think we have scoped out a complete loop that would go back to Centennial Park. We want to try taking Ophir Grade from up at the dept. of highway parking lot to McClellan Peak, then go on Goni for a bit, then East on the trail that is either below the powerline or parallel to it…(we have run in this area a bit, years ago, but I think we will want to explore this part backwards from Centennial Park before we do the big loop idea)… then anyway we would continue East to pickup the Centennial Park trail you started out on, so as to keep a nice not too steep grade downhill to cruise into the park at the end. If you do this route before we do, please let us know how it goes!

        This should turn out to be a very attractive loop with great scenery of course but also because it should have not-too-extreme grades if we can find just the right trails back to the park.

  4. You missed the best trail to the top of McClellan. After passing the water tank and the road you took you should have continued south toward McClellan and the very steep road that goes straight to the top. The route that I have ridden many times goes past the steep road and continues west, the road is very rideable from this point and it winds its way to the top of McClellan after passing through a magnificent Aspen grove (thousands of Aspens).

    The route for this ride is posted in Google Earth and is one of many rides I have posted for the Carson City area.

      1. Thanks! Your loop looks great, and we will try several others of your routes too.

        We had an adventure trying to find a higher up route from McClellan to Centennial hoping to find a route that would involve less riding down Goni Rd, but we just did a lot of bushwacking instead as the roads on Google Earth were phantoms.

        We did find out it is a pretty good scorpion habitat up there!

        So, happy trails!

  5. Awesome Ride! The Part of the Road where it cuts down sharp and then back up is a water line that is part of the Historic Water that goes over to Virginia City from Marlette Lake and Hobart. You all know what the Flume Trail is, well this is part of the same system. Thank For all the Great Pictures!

  6. Jonathan, that’s what this photo was representing:
    Virginia City Loop

    I don’t know if the pipe that is buried under the flume trail carries water anymore, but I may be mistaken. I’m pretty sure the water being carried to VC comes from Hobart Reservoir now.

    We rode across the VC pipeline in a ton of places on that ride, one spot was even sweating water out of it’s joint which was pretty cool to look at.

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