Ride to Star Lake

I recently had the opportunity to ditch work and get up into the high country for some riding and adventure. My friend Ryan was up from the Bay Area, and wanted to ride something up at Tahoe that he hadn’t done yet. I had been wanting to get back up to Star Lake before the summer was over, and so plans were easily agreed upon for a Tahoe Rim Trail ride leaving south from Kingsbury Grade.

Tahoe Rim Trail
Top of the switchbacks, ready for some cruisin’

There’s no warming up when leaving the trailhead at the Heavenly Ski Resort Stagecoach Chairlift. To get to the singletrack, you need to climb up a sandy ski run, or go back up the pavement on the one-way Tramway Dr you drove in on. We chose the pavement option to conserve a little energy, but it was still tough, loaded down with larger packs and plenty of food and water for a few hours in the saddle.

Tahoe Rim Trail
Smudgemo Skipposaurus

The Tahoe Rim Trail site says this section of trail is for experienced riders only. Once on the singletrack, the grade becomes more moderate, but numerous rock challenges await you. In the first five miles, you’ll find yourself getting off the bike a lot to get around a switchback or to get up one of the frequent steps along the climb. You get a break after the first mile of climbing switchbacks, but many more steps must be climbed before reaching Monument Pass. This may be disappointing for the rider looking to get into the groove with some uninterrupted saddle time. But for the mountain biker looking to enjoy a day of outstanding scenery in the back country no matter what your mode of travel, this ride is for you. It’s also good to know that with gravity and momentum on your side, many of the obstacles are quite rideable on the return trip. It’s actually quite a fun downhill for those who like technical riding. Tough it out, and you won’t be disappointed.

Tahoe Rim Trail
High above the Carson Valley

This was Ryan’s 2nd ride on his new Smudgemo Skipposaurus. Never heard of it? That’s because he built the frame himself.  Ryan was riding version #2 that day.  Version #1 had a coke can shim in the seat tube due to tube thickness problems, and a Krylon paint job.  It was a joy to ride, but it had a few errors that made him want to do version #2.  Version #2 was powder coated professionally, and turned out to be a pretty decent bike.   Ryan said other small details, like cable routing, might be changed if there is to be a Version #3.  He said the bike was riding great on the trail that day, and was stoked to be riding on something he created. As for the name, you’ll have to ask him for the back story.

Tahoe Rim Trail
Way better than being at work

As we made our way around the east side of Monument Peak, we could hear heavy equipment working the Heavenly Ski resort area. While our eyes said we were out in the wilderness, our ears made us speculate that there were service roads just out of sight through the trees. When we began our ascent out of Mott Canyon though, these sounds began to fade, and feelings of solitude started to settle in. Just before the final ascent to Monument Pass, the trees thinned, and we had airplane like views of the Carson Valley. The trail is narrow here, and it felt like you could just jump off the edge and fly all the way down to the valley floor. We didn’t attempt this though.

Tahoe Rim Trail
Stairs on the way to Monument Pass

Tahoe Rim Trail
Monument Pass

Crossing Monument Pass is significant in this ride. I was happy to tell Ryan that we’d get to ride our bikes for the next 4 miles without having to get off every 50 yards. He seemed pleased with this. Monument Pass is also geographically significant, since this is where you cross from the east side of the mountains to the west side. Suddenly the pine trees you’re used to seeing along the Rim Trail give way to widely spaced mountain mahogany and very old and large juniper trees. It feels more desolate here, and has a totally different feel than the first half of the trail. The trail gets pretty sandy here in spots, and Ryan commented how squirrely it felt compared to his Bay Area dirt. For local riders accustomed to the summer sand of Ash Canyon, it won’t feel too unnatural though. My bike’s larger 29″ wheels were definitely an advantage in this section.

Tahoe Rim Trail
We still need to ride all the way over there…

With the exception of a few day hikers near the trailhead, we only saw one group of backpackers on the trail all day. We didn’t see any other bikes. There are still areas around the Tahoe that you can enjoy solitude, and this is one of them. Compared to the overcrowded parking lots and beaches below, this area is quite a contrast. You’re actually happy to see another human being periodically, knowing that someone else may be in the vicinity should you need help. The backpackers were eager to get to Star Lake, their destination for the day after 9 miles of hiking. We were too, because it was time for lunch!

Tahoe Rim Trail
Star Lake

Tahoe Rim Trail
West side of Star Lake

Just when you start thinking, “When are we going to get there? We’ve been climbing a long time…”, you arrive at Star Lake. The blue green waters of Star Lake rest at 9,100 ft elevation, and the still snowy 10,823 ft tall peak of Jobs Sister towers above it. You can take all the photos of it you want, but you still can’t capture how big it all feels.

Tahoe Rim Trail
Heading back to Monument Pass

We enjoyed a nice lunch on the lake and talked about bikes. We had a comfortable log to sit on while we gazed out across the lake. There were no mosquitoes. A father and son quietly fished nearby. Hikers off in the distance towards Freel Peak cried out to each other. Ryan shared his tuna fish sandwich with me.  The places you can get to on a mountain bike are just as cool as actually riding the bike itself, if not more so.

Tahoe Rim Trail
Fun Boulders on Monument Pass

After a nice rest and lunch, we were eager to get some downhill. Early into the downhill we encountered the backpacking family. “Are we almost at the lake?”, he tiredly asked me. Like a good dad, he was carrying most of the load and letting his kids hike mostly burden free. I felt like a boss giving out a raise and a bonus when I told him, yep, you’re almost there…just around the corner. He couldn’t have been more pleased. We had a fun descent down from the lake, then a short climb back up to Monument Pass.

Tahoe Rim Trail
Mott Canyon Creek

We were back to the rocks.  All the boulders and steps that were a pain on the way up were now a play ground. We had a blast rolling and bumping our way back down to Mott Canyon. There’s a nice little creek here, a lot of wild flowers, and a chair lift above your head. Shortly after this there’s a short road climb to gain altitude back up to the TRT. It takes less than a minute to descend, but on the way back, it takes a few minutes to hike.  As we were pushing our bikes up the road, a couple of chicken sized birds crossed in front of us.  I had never seen a bird like this before in the wild, but the name Sage Grouse popped into my head.  They almost looked like quail on steroids. I compared my photos to Internet photos when I got home, and my identification was confirmed.  What a cool sighting!

Tahoe Rim Trail
Let’s do it again, but take the lift!

Once we had hiked to the top of the road, we were in for the most fun singletrack of the day.  Fast, windy trail through the woods with many fun obstacles.  Even the last mile of switchbacks was a lot of fun to come down.  It was surprising how much you could ride on the return trip that seemed impossible on the way in.  We finished the ride with a short trip down the ski run.  50 yards from the car we had to ride through a mud hole!  The bikes were nothing but dusty all day, and now the bikes were muddy right before it was time to load them on the car.  Oh well.  Can’t expect to stay clean when mountain biking, right?  We stopped at the ski lift before loading up for the day, and thought we could probably do that downhill one more time if only we could get the lift working…

Interested in doing this ride? I wrote a pretty good trail guide last year HERE.

Back in 2008, I got to ride in Ryan’s neck of the woods.  Read about our Oakland mountain bike ride HERE.

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