Switchbacks & sunsets on Sawtooth

Local mountain biker Ryan Glew enjoys views of the Truckee River Canyon from the lookout just over a mile into the trail. | Sean McAlindin

A powerful late summer thunderstorm rolled through the Truckee River valley on a mid-September afternoon. As I drove through downtown Truckee, the fire department was out in force cutting down an old pine snag that had been struck by lightning along Glenshire Drive just over the knoll from the river. In the distance, I could see yellow light breaking over the Pacific Crest. If the weather cleared, it was going to be perfect, post-rain conditions for mountain bike riding on the Sawtooth Trail.

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When I arrived at the trailhead at the northern end of 06 Fire Road off Thelin Drive in the Sierra Meadows neighborhood of Truckee, the air was still cool and moist. My friend, Ryan Glew, a radiology assistant at Tahoe Forest Hospital, pulled in just as I was donning my raggedy, old bike shoes on the tailgate of my pickup truck. We had about two hours of daylight left as we hit the trail, a sufficient amount of time for this 9-mile cross-country ride.

Ryan Glew smoothly rounds the corner of the lookout up Truckee River into Olympic Valley. | Sean McAlindin

The trail begins on a series of roots and rocks smoothed over by previous riders. After passing giant slanting boulders where I can imagine the Washoe once camped near, we veered south on some satisfying switchback turns that led us along the discontinuous basalt cliff line that overlooks the section of river between Truckee and Olympic Valley. The still-damp pine needles created the perfectly soft landscape for our ride as we swung around the corner into a majestic view of the river canyon with snow-speckled mountains rising above.

The still-damp pine needles created the perfectly soft landscape for our ride as we swung around the corner into a majestic view of the Truckee River canyon with snow-speckled mountains rising above.

Sawtooth is a great moderate ride because it is relatively flat and rolling without any large climbs to speak of. Its rocky sections are a great introduction to a sizeable certain portion of Tahoe riding. A couple of short, curvy downhills took us past the turnoff for a half-mile viewpoint loop that’s worth checking out if only for the noteworthy rock formations. After reconnecting with the trail, we flowed through well-spaced stands of Jeffrey pines as we approached the halfway point of the loop.

Around the time we re-crossed the fire road, a beautiful 360-degree sunset had formed around us beneath the overhead blanket of fluorescent clouds. A short, broad, vertical rainbow shone through massive pine trees. It was the sixth rainbow I’d seen in this miraculously precipitous year. That’s counting the two doubles in September. We stopped for a while and it was quiet, a soft autumn breeze cooling the sweat from our necks.

With no dirt bikers beyond wolf lichen, local mountain biker Ryan Glew meanders onward. | Sean McAlindin

This backside of Sawtooth is much silkier than the front section with fewer rocks to navigate and slow you down. After crossing under power lines and over a couple of abandoned fire roads, we reached a trail junction. At is this point, riders can connect into Two Beavers and a Bear and Two Bridges trails, alternate routes that loop around upper Martis Creek Valley under the shadow of Northstar’s Mount Pluto. There are actually more than two bridges out there, but you’ll have to see that for yourself.

A map of the trail at the northern 06 trailhead.

As we continued to move swiftly along Sawtooth proper, the trail was bounded on either side by sagebrush and manzanita. Copious pads of mahala mat lined the trail on either side creating a luminous effect in the fading pinkish twilight. After passing some gigantic douglas firs, we reached the only real climb of the ride. After cresting the burned-out knoll of manzanita reaching up to an indigo skyline, we dropped into a deep, dense forest where deer lay to sleep.

Passing a random, rocky, volcanic outcropping, we descended steadily back toward the fire road just as darkness fell. Riding down the old logging road we magically dipped and dodged the mud puddles reflecting the fading clouds, arriving back to the car just before headlamps became necessary. The feeling of riding in the near darkness is much like skiing on a low-light day. We kept loose and expected the unexpected as we rode silently on black air toward home.

Next year, Truckee Trails Foundation is planning to build a connector trail from Sawtooth to Watson Lake where riders can connect into the Tahoe Rim Trail. It will be a welcome addition to this already gratifying system of trails that, after the Emigrant Trail, is the most moderate mountain-biking route available in the greater Truckee region. | truckeetrails.org


Sean McAlindin

Sean McAlindin is a writer, musician and educator based in Truckee. When he’s not drafting new story ideas, he can be found jamming with his Celtic bluegrass band, Lost Whiskey Engine, hiking for a local back-country powder stash or hanging out with his daughter, Penelope.