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Flume/Tahoe Rim Trail

The Flume Trail at Lake Tahoe is one of the most scenic rides around.  It is the type of ride that shows up on magazine covers and postcards.  The trail is built into the side of a very steep mountain, but the trail is plenty wide to ride on (unless you have a fear of heights).  The Flume Trail is definitely worth a trip to Tahoe (among other reasons)!

Park: Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park
Date: July 3, 2003
Distance: 22.55 miles
Ride Time: 3:26
Total Ascent: 3,384 feet
Map: Detailed trail map
Overall Rating: 10

Our first time on the Flume trail was also our first mountain biking visit to Tahoe. We were looking forward to some spectacular views without excessive climbing, but we were a bit concerned about the altitude effects on us "lowlanders". The views were certainly not disappointing!

The Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park contains 12,242 acres maintained by the state of Nevada. This is on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe about midway between North Shore and South Shore. If you have not been to Lake Tahoe, it straddles the California-Nevada border and is the largest Alpine lake in North America, containing enough water to cover all of California to a depth of 14.5 inches (see this page for additional interesting Tahoe facts).

We started the ride from the Spooner Lake entrance off of Highway 28 at about 11:00. The weather was great, with moderate temperature, clear skies, and a slight breeze. The ride starts with a climb up North Canyon Road to Marlette Lake. This 3.7 mile climb picks up about 1,200 feet from the 7,000 foot elevation starting point (this works out to a 6% grade). This does not sound too bad, but this is where we first noticed that we were not at sea level. Some after-the-fact calculations show that the there is a 23% reduction in the air pressure at 7,000 feet over sea level conditions (see table), with a corresponding reduction in oxygen. On top of this, there were several sections that were quite sandy. The section at the end of this climb was fairly steep with a 14% grade. The top of the hill is marked by a set of story boards describing the history of the flumes. This was a very welcome sight after the high altitude climb.

From the top, it is a quick and easy coast down to Marlette Lake. This lake is at 7,800 feet and is very pretty. It is a nice spot to take a short break after the long climb. After catching our breadth and pointing a lost work crew supervisor in the right direction, we started the short and easy ride around Marlette Lake to its dam (there is a short shallow section of water to traverse at the dam) and official start of the Flume Trail.

Now the real fun begins. The flume originally carried water, so it was built with a very, very  slight downward slope. This means that that trail which follows the path of the original flume is essentially flat. Just as we got started, I found a hand-made square nail in the center of the trail that must have been used in the construction of the original flume. The trail then started traversing a mountainside with a great view of Lake Tahoe.

The trail continued to follow the contour of the mountainside, which is actually so steep as to almost be a cliff. There are a few spots where you would go down quite a way if you fell off of the trail. However, these spots are not too common as long as you don't get too distracted looking at the view. Since the trail is essentially flat, there are no problems with picking up too much speed and accidently launching yourself into space.

In some of the pictures it is easy to see that we had picked up quite a bit of altitude (the road is Highway 28 at the elevation we started at). The mountains on the opposite side of the lake are still topped with snow, even in July.

 The view of Sand Harbor (turquoise water and sandy hook beach) shows both the altitude and color gradient of the water as it changes from very shallow to very deep.

We took a break at the end of the Flume Trail to rest and have some lunch. We found some large rocks with a great view of the lake to enjoy some sandwiches we had brought. This was a great break, sitting in the sun and absorbing everything we had seen. At this point, we had three choices: go downhill to catch a shuttle back to the car, ride on to another former flume trail (Red House) or take the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) back. We knew the the TRT involved a bit more climbing, but nothing was too tough for us!

We climbed up the TRT. It started off very steep, but only for a short distance. It leveled off, so we took a moment to catch our breath, now that the "steep part" we had been told about was behind us. Unfortunately, it turned out that the vast majority of the climbing was still ahead of us. We rode uphill, then we rode uphill more, then a lot more and then it got steep (see the ride profile at the top of the page). We went through lots of switchbacks as the trail climbed up the mountain. We hoped that the top was just around the next bend, but it wasn't. This was another place where we were definitely feeling the impact of the high altitude. It turned out that we were climbing a 10% grade with lots of obstacles and tight turns. There were several places we had to lift our bikes over because the rocks were just too high, especially in our exhausted condition.

We finally reached the summit and it turned out that the climb was worth it. We had a spectacular view of Marlette and Tahoe lakes to the west. The Nevada desert and Washoe Lake was to the east. The west side has lot of green trees and vegetation, while the eastern side was the brown of a dry desert. It was a very stark contrast, caused by all of the moisture being dropped on the westward side before storms are able to cross the mountain side. The summit was very windy (really windy!) and cold and bare of any vegetation, but just over the summit the it was warm with lots of wooly mule's ears (leafy green plants with yellow flowers).

After snapping a few pictures on the summit, it was time to head back down the mountain. We headed downhill on the TRT and then picked up Hobart Road to take us back to Marlette Lake. This trip hardly required any pedaling as we let gravity pull us down the mountain. After a brief stop at Marlette Lake, we did the last climb to the story boards and then zipped back to our starting point on North Canyon. From there, it was just a long drive home, trying to avoid a large assortment of idiot drivers (but that is another story).

This was another epic ride. In fact, the trail is an official IMBA Epic Trail.  The view from the Flume Trail was unlike any other we have seen. The weather was great, I got lots of great pictures, and there were few other riders even though it was just before a holiday (we encountered only 1 rider on the TRT).

This is one of those rides that shows up in magazines and on postcards. Really. Go do it! Don't forget to bring your of the pictures you take will end up being the background image on your computer at work to remind yourself of what you are missing while you are at work!

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