It feels like the first day of fall as we ready our bikes at the Castle Peak trailhead in early September. A few stray, yellow leaves drift by us. A cold wind blows across the summit chilling our summer bones. For a moment, I wish I’d packed an extra layer, though I know I’ll be feeling fine once my blood starts pumping.
Intermediate to advanced
11.6 miles (with car shuttle)
16.9 miles as a loop
Maybe it’s the New Englander in me, but autumn in my humble opinion is always the best time of the year for mountain biking. The mornings are cool, the sun is warm, the leaves are turning and the air has never felt so crisp and clean.
We meander up the bumpy road for about 1 mile to Castle Valley before reaching the start of one of Tahoe’s best mountain bike rides. While Hole in the Ground is not for the faint of heart, it offers something for everyone, as long as you’re not afraid of a steady diet of rock, roots and granite interspersed with perfect high-country, alpine, single track.
A steady climb up well-manicured, cinderblock-laden switchbacks leads up to the summit of Andesite Peak. We ride the crest where the views of Castle Peak don’t get any better. After a short rest, we descend winding, smooth, yet technical-enough-to-keep-us-honest single track down into a spacious alpine bowl strewn with ancient glacial erratics and old-growth pines.
We cross the magical Lower Castle Creek and enter a world unto itself where burnished bushes come to a colorful life. Above us, scattered cirrus clouds hint at the winter to come. Michelle Savard shows up Dave Gagnon and I as we work our way through some tricky rock gardens and slippery sections of worn-down roots.
In the summer, the wildflowers here are something to behold, but for now the secluded forest exudes a comforting stillness. We’re more than 5 miles from civilization in any direction and there is a true sense of solitude in this particular part of world.
That means no one is watching as we attempt several endless (and sometimes ridiculous) side projects to be found alongside the trail. Each one presents a fun detour up and down a granite slab and/or over a boulder. You can push yourself as far as you want and there is certainly terrain that could inspire even the most competent trail rider.
There are even a couple of wall rides midway through that weave seamlessly into the flow of the trail. We test ourselves as best we can while managing to avoid any serious injury that would involve a complicated evacuation from this far out in the alpine.
After getting our fill of God’s natural granite playground, we work our way up the second significant uphill of the ride until reaching the turnoff for Sand Ridge Lake. It is a lonesome, shallow, alpine pond with a sacred spirit. I can easily imagine Native Americans camping here to hunt deer and escape the heat of high summer in the days before dirt bikes and gunpowder.
What follows is a smooth stretch of downhill riding full of gravity drops over seasonal stream beds that lead us past the mysteriously hidden Hold in the Ground pond and on to Lower Lola Montez Lake. This classic alpine lagoon is as beautifully captivating as the wild 1850s burlesque dancer for whom it is named.
Some intrepid soul has even taken it on himself to drag an old canoe up here for anyone who’s happened to pack a back-country fly-fishing rod. There is a perfect perch of granite from which swimmers can jump or dive into the crystal-clear waters. Alas, it’s a bit cold today and were already well into a 12-mile ride with the sun beginning to sink low.
A swift downhill on a gravel road leads us to the final and most demanding section of the ride: the notorious Hole in the Ground stairway. If you can roll through this bumpy, loose, unpredictable section of rocky steps unimpeded, then you are a better rider than most.
Soon enough, we’re back on the gravel road where a final uphill leads us to the end point of the shuttle. My legs ache and my shoulders are tired, but the beauty of the wilderness has reinvigorated my weary soul once again. This is and always will be one of the best rides in Tahoe.
The trailhead is located at the end of Sherritt Lane off the Soda Springs exit on Interstate 80 outside Truckee. | mtbproject.com