Hiking the Incline Flume Trail

The Incline Flume Trail is a real gem. For ease of access, lake and mountain views, minimal elevation change, historical relevance and overall great experience with little effort, the Incline Flume Trail off State Route 431, aka Mount Rose Highway, has got to be among Tahoe’s best.

The East Shore of Lake Tahoe as seen from the trail. | Mark McLaughlin

Don’t confuse the Incline Flume with the better-known Marlette Flume Trail that runs along the Carson Range from Marlette Lake to Tunnel Creek Road south of Incline Village, Nev. While the classic Flume Trail is mostly a biking adventure, the Incline Flume Trail is best experienced by foot.

Sparkling streams, wildflowers, aspen groves and stunning views of Lake Tahoe all add to the experience.

The Incline Flume Trailhead can be reached by taking the Mount Rose Highway east from State Route 28. In a few miles, you will pass a scenic highway lookout on the right. In another 400 yards, you’ll see a parking area on your left where you’ll stop. The trailhead is on the other side of the highway (east) and downhill about 50 feet. The trail follows the topographic contour of the mountainside and is mostly level and well maintained. It is dog and kid friendly, which makes it great for families. Due to its mixed-use designation, trail etiquette gives cyclists the right of way. Mountain bikers often ride in pairs or small groups, so be aware others may quickly follow. There is a popular network of back-country bike trails in the area so expect more activity on weekends.

READ MORE: Explore the Marlette Flume Trail

I recommend hiking this trail as opposed to biking it because there is much subtle beauty that is missed at higher speeds. Sparkling streams, wildflowers, aspen groves and stunning views of Lake Tahoe all add to the experience. After a few miles, the trail reaches the Diamond Peak Ski Resort property, which is where many turn back. The trail system becomes more challenging before ultimately reaching the main Flume Trail.

The Incline Tram.

Alongside the Incline Flume Trail, there are many pieces of decayed lumber planks, stark evidence of the trail’s raison d’etre. In the late 1800s, Incline and Glenbrook, Nev., were the two epicenters for milling and transportation of processed Tahoe timber to the Comstock mines. To support this massive logging enterprise, an extensive network of water flumes, mechanical lifts, short-line railroad operations and timber rafting were utilized.

The system of water flumes was extensive in the Tahoe region. The V flume was first developed by Nevadan James W. Haines. Shaped like the letter V, this innovative design moved cut lumber efficiently down from the Carson Range on the eastern margin of the Tahoe Basin to the valley floor where it could be hauled to the bustling silver mines. Haines patented the V flume in 1870, but a U.S. District Court later decreed that so many lumber companies had constructed them in the years following, that Haines had lost his right to financially benefit as the original inventor.

A relatively inexpensive alternative to the traditional method of constructing roads for slow, horse-drawn log haulers, water flumes revolutionized the transportation of lumber throughout the mountains of western Nevada and the Sierra.

A family explores the Incline Flume Trail. | Mark McLaughlin

The flume’s V-shape had an important purpose. If sliding boards lodged against an obstruction, the flowing water backed up, raising the wood along the slanting sides and freeing it. The same result was not accomplished in the traditional U-shaped flume with its box-like perpendicular sides.

The V flume proved so effective at delivering lumber that by 1879 there were 10 of them operating in the Tahoe Sierra. They totaled more than 80 miles in length. The longest snaked through the mountains for nearly 25 miles. In 1879 alone, loggers flumed more than 33 million board feet of lumber and milled timber out of the mountains.

At Incline, cord wood and cut lumber were loaded into tram cars and hauled 1,400 feet up to Incline Summit by a double-track tramline. Built in 1880, this steam-powered cable railway was 4,000 feet long and became known as “The Great Tramline of Tahoe.” Steamship captains circling Big Blue made it a point to bring their ships into Crystal Bay, Nev., so passengers could get a good look at the impressive undertaking. Powered by two massive 12-foot-diameter iron bullwheels, the innovative logging operation inspired the moniker “Incline.” By 1897, however, nothing remained except for stripped forestland, logging roads and crumbling flumes. Today, the legacy of the Incline Flume has become a gift for us all.

Learn more about upcoming trail building days and other projects on the Incline Flume at inclinetrails.org.