My favorite place to mountain bike at Lake Tahoe is the expansive network of trails that fan out from Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area above Tahoe City through Burton Creek State Park and National Forest lands. Miles of single track and dirt roads pass through wildflower-dotted meadows, deep forests of firs and pines up to rocky crags with views of Lake Tahoe.
While you can access the trail network through several steep ascents in Tahoe City, the best place to start is at Tahoe Cross Country. If you don’t have a bike, you can rent one. Tahoe Adventure Company runs a bike rental operation at the trailhead.
The most challenging part about riding at Burton Creek is that are so many trails, and they go in so many different directions that it is hard to describe them in words. I will do my best. One piece of good news is that a number of years ago my good friend Kevin Murnane installed a set of maps at key trail junctions. If you get confused, refer to these maps or ask a local.
For starters, I will take you on a 15-mile, 2.5-hour loop through some of my favorite spots.
Head out on the main trail from the parking lot and after hitting the top of the hill, cruise by the green water tank you will see on your right. During the ski season this is known as the Green Trail. Follow this dirt road gently uphill for about 1 mile to where a left turn takes you downhill to a three-way junction. Stay right at the junction, then quickly right again. This is the Orange Trail. After a gentle ascent across an open area you meet another junction. Stay straight and begin a steep ascent on the Lakeview Trail, which as you might imagine, takes you to a beautiful lake view.
Near the top, a bench to your left is a good spot to take a sit for a spell and enjoy the view. Don’t dally, however, this journey has only just begun.
As you start to descend after reaching the top, note a single-track trail to your left. This is the Lakeview Ridge Trail. It was built last year to replace a hellish path called the Elevator Shaft. The new trail is designed for bikers and switchbacks enough for most folks to keep pedaling the whole way up — and it’s also pretty dang fun to ride down. Quickly, the trail climbs to an even better view than the one you just enjoyed from the bench. That funny-looking metal object just below is a fire alert camera and weather station.
After about 1.5 mile of climbing, you reach an abandoned road. The trail goes left and begins a gentler climb on a traverse. In a while you meet the Tahoe Rim Trail, where a right turn leads to Watson Lake. Our route heads straight ahead for another 1.5 miles of mostly gentle uphill. Nice glimpses of the lake pop into view now and then through the trees. The trail tops out and takes a sharp right. In about 50 yards, the Tahoe Rim Trail heads sharply left and you have now entered my favorite mile of riding on the whole trip. It’s a smooth, lovely, not too steep downhill to the Fiberboard Freeway; a mostly paved primary access road through the heart of the forest.
Cross the road and the Tahoe Rim Trail begins a mile of hefty single-track climbing to the top of Painted Rock. Here, refuel and enjoy the magnificent view into Olympic Valley. A half mile of gentle riding leads to a lakeview before a biker’s favorite section: a winding, flowing downhill around and over lava rocks. At the bottom you meet, “The Wall,” a dirt road.
Here a right turn heads down a very steep section of dirt road to the Western States Trail, eventually reaching the Truckee River at the midway bridge between Alpine Meadows and Olympic Valley. Straight ahead, the Tahoe Rim Trail climbs through rocky terrain to Glass Mountain, then heads toward Tahoe City. For our loop, however, we turn left and follow the dirt road on a 1-mile descent to the Fiberboard. Take a left and a quick right on single track, which winds its way past the edge of a meadow to a junction in the trees.
I hope you are ready to climb because it’s about to get steep. Put it in low and grunt your way up to the top of Stump Meadow on the Gold Trail where you meet the Ocelot Trail, which also opened last year to replace another way too steep trail. Ocelot is a flowing, fun downhill that winds through the forest and will elicit a yippee or two.
At the bottom, straight ahead leads to Tahoe City, but we go left on a 1-mile descent on old road on the Bronze Trail that leads to a left turn onto the Silver Trail. Follow this main route on a gentle climb, followed by a roll past the pond at the edge of Antone Meadows.
At the next junction, pick the middle route heading east — with raised single track — and follow the Orange Trail back to a junction you passed a few hours ago just below the Lakeview Trail. Backtrack the rest of the way back to the ski area. You will be dusty, smiling and ready for a dive into Lake Tahoe.