While a mild winter may have had me jonesing for more powder days, spring came right on schedule with the sunny skies and warm weather that Tahoe summers are known for. After enjoying the last bits of spring skiing at the local resorts a group of friends and I wasted no time in transitioning to summer activities. We loaded up the truck with bikes, dogs and camping gear, and headed north for a weekend of mountain biking at Mills Peak.
The Mills Peak trailhead is about an hour north of Truckee on Highway 89 near Greagle. The town and surrounding Mohawk Valley sit at the base of the picturesque Sierra Buttes, and the landscape is decorated with roaring waterfalls, alpine lakes and scenic vistas. The bike ride is easily done as a day trip from North Lake Tahoe or Truckee, but that means missing out on exploring the rest of the area.
To get to the trailhead, look for Gold Lakes Highway and leave a car in the parking area. Continue up Gold Lakes Highway until you reach Church Meadows Road. Follow Church Meadows until you reach Mills Peak Road. From here you can hop on the bike and ride up the fire roads or drive a high clearance vehicle to the top. Take a minute at the summit to enjoy the view. A dark green carpet of trees spotted with blue lakes spreads out as far as you can see. The small town of Sierraville sits just to the south while the Sierra Buttes dominate the skyline to the west.
As you glance back toward the Sierra Buttes and Gold Lake, look for the single track that begins to wind down through the trees; this is where the ride begins. The top section of the trail is rocky with loose shale, which I found to be a little difficult as an intermediate rider, especially because my eyes kept wandering off the trail to take in the view.
Soon, the rocky terrain gives way to smooth dirt as the trail drops into the trees. This ripping section flows through the tight trees with steep downhills and rolling flat sections. Tight, burmed corners give way to short, technical sections and a few short climbs. There is a short section where the trail follows a double track fire road and approximately a quarter-mile of asphalt before riders return to single track. After about 7 miles of grin-inducing pedaling, the trail ends in the parking area at the intersection of Gold Lakes Highway and Highway 89.
Mills Peak Trail was built and continues to be maintained by Sierra Butte Trails Stewardship. SBTS has worked since 2003 to build and maintain trails throughout Plumas and Sierra counties. Currently, they are working to raise money for the Mills Peak Trail expansion project, which will add about 6 more miles of single track and bypass the fire roads and asphalt sections.
Sierra Butte Trails Stewardship partnered with Santa Cruz Bicycles for a fundraising campaign called Five Bucks a Foot where participants pay $5 to sponsor a foot of single track. For each foot purchased, the buyer is entered to win a Santa Cruz bike built to his or her specifications. To contribute to the project and be entered to win, visit sierratrails.org.
After a day of ripping trails, it was time to pitch the tents and exchange stories around the camp fire. The closest campground is on the shores of Snag Lake, just a mile west of the turnoff for Mills Peak Trail on Gold Lakes Highway. This site features 12 undesignated spots with room for trailer parking. There are two vault toilets, but no other amenities. Reservations are not required for this lesser travelled spot. There is decent fishing for rainbow and brook trout, but remember the lake got its name for all the submerged stumps in the water.
Further down the road towards Bassett is Salmon Creek Campground, which features 31 campsites with seven spaces for trailers. There are vault toilets and piped water. Reservations are required and there is a $24 fee per night. The campground parallels Salmon Creek and campers are serenaded by the sound of running water.
Just beyond Salmon Creek Campground is Sardine Lake Campground. This site has 27 campsites and offers the most amenities of the three campgrounds including boat rentals, paved roads and marked trailheads.
Since we were saving all of our energy for the bike ride, we opted for a shorter hike with a nice view. Frazier Falls is just down the road from the Mills Peak Trail turn off. Follow the mile of paved trail to a stunning vista point overlooking the Fraizier Falls. This trail is not difficult or time consuming, and the rewards are worth the trip.
For those looking for a more adventurous hike, the Sierra Butte Lookout may be accessed from the Pacific Crest Trailhead near Packer Lake. This trail ascends 2,500 feet in just 3 miles, but provides panoramic views of the surrounding area including the Sacramento Valley.
For those looking for a quick escape from the Tahoe Basin, this area offers plenty of opportunities for a day trip or overnight stay, and I’m certain this trip will not be my last adventure to the region.
Mills Peak Trail
7 miles | Moderate-strenuous
Fraizer Falls Trail
1.4 miles out and back | Easy
Sierra Butte Lookout
2.5 miles one way | Easy
Snag Lake Campground
Salmon Creek Campground
Visit fs.usda.gov for more information on camping in the area.