Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride | A South Shore Classic

Michelle Savard rides the stairway midway down.

If someone in Tahoe jokingly tells you there are two seasons in the mountains — winter and construction — kindly remind yourself that that is just one way of looking at.

After weaving in a happy August carpool, past hazy Emerald Bay and on toward the charming little hamlet of Meyers, we turn left beyond the agricultural inspection station to park my white-capped four-banger at the tail end of the shuttle along Fountain Place Road. We then take Dave Gagnon’s Ford up to State Route 89 South toward Pickett’s Junction. At the summit of Luther Pass, just before Grass Lake, we park.

We’re .9 miles from the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 165-mile circuit that forms a loop around the Tahoe Basin in the Sierra Nevada and Carson Range of California and Nevada. All along the 10-day circuit hide wonderful hiking, biking, skiing, climbing and bouldering areas well-known to Tahoe locals and the world alike.

Uphill from the road, a crew of Tahoe Rim Trail Association volunteers busily repair some overuse damage. Their laborious rock work helps to build a sustainable path up the steep hillside connector that joins the highway with main trail. A couple crouches by a pile of small boulders meticulously placing golf ball-sized pebbles in between the sculpted cracks. We walk our bikes through the construction zone on dainty toes and thank them for their important service.

The Climb

A moderate, yet continuous, opening mile or so leads to a junction with Tahoe Rim Trail. We continue northeast winding up a scenic ridge, which offers large granite boulders and giant prehistoric roots to traverse along the way.

“It’s definitely doable,” says Gagnon. “But if I can’t ride it, almost nobody can.”

It’s such humble honesty that endears me to this man, a traveling nurse from Massachusetts. He leads us in a valiant effort through nature’s obstacle course and its looming pine-tree shadows. From the ridgeline, we cruise down granite dust to the saddle above Tucker Flat where a smoky haze haunts the distance.

The original Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, which opened in Disneyland in 1955, led young riders in the dark through a series of seemingly benign, yet somehow alarming, cartoon images of mice, policemen, judges and crazed Italian chefs, mimicking an unsettlingly dream, until suddenly dropping into a fiery moment of perdition and emerging to the almost too-happy music of the ticket station where parents patiently waited with plastic smiles.

Mr. Toad’s, the classic South Shore downhill mountain bike ride, is pretty much the same — only with better scenery, no parents, plenty of sunshine and way more drops.

Dave Gagnon passes beneath a fallen pine tree in the rolling
terrain of the lower forest.

The Descent

Three miles in, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride splits from Tahoe Rim Trail for a rambling, rocky, technical, yet flowy, 5-mile, 2,500-foot descent along the west side of Saxon Creek drainage.

It doesn’t take long to arrive at a massive field of 2- to 3-foot boulders that ride like Squaw Valley moguls in early November. A sharp turn leads to a sudden, continuous drop over petrified roots and dusty granite that doesn’t let up for almost 300 vertical feet.

Halfway down the pitch, I set up my camera beside a granite boulder and tell Dave to go for it. He hesitates for a moment above the initial 4-foot drop.

“It’s definitely doable,” I assure him from my crouched position along the trail.

He commits, falling smoothly in and quickly picking up speed as he rounds the corner below me gently bouncing down a natural rock staircase. He makes it all the way around the final curve and lets out a yowl of happiness on swooping into the bottom run-out.

Several more technical sections lead us down the 5-mile descent, including a long and unexpectedly beautifully manmade staircase, which Michelle Savard rides with swiftness and precision.

From here, the trail slopes gently down switchbacks along the Saxon Creek and into towering pine forests reminiscent of Endor, home of the Ewoks. We ride beneath a fallen Jeffrey pine with green moss growing in fluorescent coral from its broad sides.

Flying down the rest of an increasingly smooth trail, we pick up speed and confidence as we go. A few more fun sections lead us to the final dirt road and back to the beginning of our journey.

“Was it scary?” our imaginary parents anxiously ask as we emerge in a flash into the dirt parking lot.

“No, not at all,” we all three say in unison, sweat still covering our flushed cheeks, adrenaline pumping through our sweet, innocent veins. |