Rolling on the Emigrant Trail

Along the Emigrant Trail looking toward Mount Rose.

It was a big winter, nearly double the average snowfall in some places, but now with skiing just about done (except at Squaw Valley), it is time to get out on a bike and roll over some dirt. The problem is that many of our favorite trails are still covered in snow or too muddy to ride. One solution to that dilemma is the Commemorative Overland Emigrant Trail north of Truckee. Everyone who rides it regularly knows it as The Emigrant Trail. It’s located east of the Pacific Crest, sits at a lower elevation than most area trails and travels much of the way through open terrain; so it’s one of the first mountain bike trails to open up in the spring. As an added bonus, it’s rolling, up-and-down terrain is a good warmup for taking on the more challenging mountain-biking trails that will eventually emerge from the snow.

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The Emigrant Trail travels from the edge of Tahoe Donner on Alder Creek Road to Stampede Reservoir, but most folks just ride between Prosser Creek and Stampede. A new trailhead was created a few years ago, just off Hobart Mills Road, to allow people to park off the highway. From this trailhead to Stampede and back is about 22 miles. The alternative trailheads in Tahoe Donner on Alder Creek Road and at the Donner Party Picnic Area on State Route 89 add both length and technical difficulty.

From the Hobart Mills trailhead, the single-track trail follows Prosser Creek, then climbs up to a level plateau. Check out the views of the creek as you climb — if you can pedal hard and look at the same time. If not, enjoy walking your bike the last 50 feet, then stop to watch the bustling water.

Once the trail levels, you cross a lightly used road that provides access to Prosser Reservoir. Your ride now, as it will be for the rest of the route, is through a mixture of sagebrush and Jeffrey pines. Soon, the trail drops down into a lush river of grass; on a boardwalk you cross a small creek. The trail then climbs back out up a steep slope with a challenging switchback that might make some riders disembark before they cross the dirt Old Reno Road, followed by another gentle descent to a springtime creek. Then it’s more climbing.

You get the picture. It’s all mostly gentle to moderate climbs followed by descents until you reach a saddle with mountain views to the north. Here a longer descent leads to a paved crossing of Hobart Mills Road. Those who’ve had enough dirt can head left here, climb up the paved road for about 1 mile before a long descent brings you back to Hobart Mills.

More energized riders face a potential tricky but narrow little creek ford, followed by a roll past a wildflower dotted meadow and a big descent. The riding is fun and not overly challenging, although the trail has become rockier over the years as the formally smooth surface has eroded in many spots.

Creek crossing on the Emigrant Trail near Russel Valley Road.

If you have the energy, go ahead and punch it up those climbs because they will be over soon enough and are followed by descents. There are also some nice gentle ups and downs where you can pedal and enjoy the open forest in the sunshine — which explains why this trail melts out fast.

After the steep part of the descent wanes and the rolling up and down continues, Russell Valley is visible to your right, before another climb brings a descent to a gravel road and a small spring. The next climb brings the last gentle descent to a junction with two steep options to choose from: Straight ahead takes you to an intersection with Dog Valley Road where you can turn left and go to the Stampede Reservoir Boat Ramp or at that first intersection take the single track uphill to your left toward the boat launch. This route though leads to an arm of Stampede that given last winter will be full and not allow passage to the launch.

The view from the boat launch is worth the effort. Most of Stampede unfolds before you. Look for bald eagles and osprey that frequent the lake. You can also be entertained by fishing boats being put into or taken out of the water. Or, on a warm day, get yourself wet. There is a pit toilet, but no water. Once you are ready, return the way you came.

Hobart Mills Trailhead

Drive 5 miles north of Truckee on State Route 89. Just after passing Prosser Creek, turn right on Hobart Mills Road. The trailhead is quickly on your right. Weekends are busy times for this trail; plan accordingly. | truckeetrails.org