Henness Pass | Ride historic route from Verdi to Boca

The Little Truckee River between Stampede and Boca Reservoirs. | Tim Hauserman

Have you ever thought it be nice to ride your bike from Reno to Truckee? In a few years, such a journey will be possible along the Truckee River via the Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway. Only a section between Hirschdale and Floriston remains to be completed. In the meantime, you can ride a route that was the primary means of getting from Truckee to the Truckee Meadows back in the mid-1800s: Henness Pass Road.

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Henness Pass Road was developed by Patrick Henness in 1849 as an alternative to Donner Summit. It goes from Camptonville in the California foothills to Verdi, Nev. It became the route for mining traffic between California and Virginia City, Nev., until the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. It remained a primary route for auto traffic until Highway 40 was completed through the Truckee River Canyon in 1925. J. Ross Brown wrote in 1863 of his trip on the road: “At calculation we must have passed 2 or 3 hundred teams. There were horse teams and mule teams, and ox teams. I never before saw so many teams on one road, no wonder the dust was so deep!”

I could see the expansive views of Dog Valley to the north, as well as distant Crystal Peak, named after the high-quality quartz mined there around the time of World War II.

Fortunately, when I recently rode Henness Pass Road from Verdi to Boca Reservoir, I saw no ox or mule teams, just about 10 cars on my 2.5-hour, 19-mile journey. The road heads up the drainage of Dog Creek through the semi-desert climate of Verdi, into a healthy forest of pines and cedars before heading down to Stampede Reservoir.

I left from Crystal Peak Park along the Truckee River in Verdi. It’s a nice spot for a pre-ride break with picnic tables in the shade and restrooms. I rode through Verdi to Bridge Street, which passes by the school and library before crossing the Truckee River. Then a right turn starts the climb up Dog Valley Road. In about a mile, the homes are left behind as the road enters California and becomes Henness Pass Road. Here you see a warning sign: there is no pavement from here on out and the road is not maintained in the winter. Most importantly, GPS lists this as a viable alternate route and it isn’t really. Apparently, there has been a problem with not-so-smart smartphones sending folks on this road when the traffic backs up on Interstate 80. But, it’s a sometimes narrow, sometimes rocky jaunt, which cannot be driven on easily.

The climb begins immediately and, just so you know, it goes on forever — or at least it seems so on a bike. When I started out the temperature was barely 70 degrees F, but it seemed a lot hotter. Wildfires have been frequent in the Verdi area and as you work your way up to a saddle, trees are few and shade is lacking. Eventually, after about 1,500 feet of climbing in 3 miles, the road reaches a junction at a saddle and the grade finally eases at 6,000 feet. Here Long Valley Road drops down into Dog Valley and eventually heads to Long Valley. Henness Pass turns left, following the signs to Summit 2.

As the road traverses across a ridge you realize the road served as a firebreak on a fairly recent fire, which roared over nearby treeless Lady Bug Peak. To the right, a healthy forest of Jeffrey pines, sugar pines and cedar. To the left, the pines are mostly gone and replaced by smaller deciduous trees and brush.

Now there is plenty of shade from the lofty pine trees and the climb is gentler, making the route much more enjoyable. I could see the expansive views of Dog Valley to the north, as well as distant Crystal Peak, named after the high-quality quartz mined there around the time of World War II.

Occasionally the road surface is composed of crushed quartz, a fun surface to ride through that feels like rock salt. I reached Summit 2, an open flat intersection where a left turn started a long climb to Verdi Peak. Henness Pass Road goes straight, beginning a 1.5-mile descent to pavement near Stampede Reservoir.

When the road meets the pavement, the route turns left and begins an 8-mile jaunt to Boca. It first heads through lovely little Hoke Valley with views of an arm of the Stampede Reservoir, then climbs up to the Stampede Dam road, now closed for dam improvements. Eventually after a fews ascents and descents the route passes close to the Little Truckee River, a sparkling gem of a river that is popular fly-fishing terrain. This leads into Boca Reservoir.

The Boca Dam parking area is about a half-mile off Interstate 80. A more ambitious rider could continue underneath Interstate 80, climb to the eastern edge of Glenshire, then follow Glenshire Drive to the Truckee Legacy Trail for an easy 4 miles to downtown Truckee.