27 Sep Pedaling Into a Fall Spectacle
Mountain biking offers a front-row seat to the stunning scenery and ideal conditions of autumn in Tahoe
There truly are no bad seasons at Lake Tahoe, but fall is arguably the best time to be a mountain biker.
As the heat and crowds of summer fade and we eagerly await winter’s return, the cooler days make for ideal riding temperatures, and occasional autumn storms provide much-needed moisture to create optimal trail conditions.
Meanwhile, Mother Nature puts on a picturesque display that shouldn’t be missed, and one of the most fun ways to take it all in is by bike. Mountain bikes allow us to travel quickly and efficiently on two wheels across peaks and meadows, giving us a front-row seat to the colorful splendor of the changing seasons.
Throughout the Tahoe Basin and Northern Sierra, pockets of color brighten up the shortening days. Groves of aspens, willows and a variety of bushes and shrubs light up in a vibrant flourish as they prepare to lie dormant for the long, cold winter months.
Leaves start changing as early as late September, depending on location, elevation and aspect, and often last through October. While fall colors can be observed in many places, some trails and riding areas dazzle the senses more than others.
Situated just above Tahoe City on the northwest shore of the lake, Page Meadows is one of the most accessible places to take in fall colors. Just a short pedal from town, this series of interconnected meadows is a feast for the eyes across all seasons.
Home to a wonderful wildflower bloom each spring, the meadows transition to shimmering golden grasses in late summer before truly shining come autumn. Lined with large groves of aspen trees, Page Meadows explodes each October with one of the most vibrant displays of foliage around the lake. The generally flat and non-technical trails that connect through the meadows provide easy viewings around every turn.
There are several ways to access Page Meadows; one of the best is a loop starting from 64-Acres Park just south of the “Y” in Tahoe City. A relatively short climb up the Rawhide Trail leads to the meadows, and a small network of trails heads west through them, passing by—and sometimes directly through—the aspen groves.
The Tahoe Rim Trail crosses the westernmost meadow, serving as a fun, though at times technically challenging, way to ride back down. Page Meadows can also easily be incorporated into routes on nearby Scott Peak and Stanford Rock to create longer rides.
The Flume Trail and Marlette Lake
Each fall, the massive grove of aspens on Marlette Lake’s southeast shore lights up the area with an explosion of yellow and orange.
Nestled in the mountains above Tahoe’s East Shore, this alpine lake is beautiful and steeped in history. Created with the construction of a small dam in the 1870s, it originally served as one of the primary sources of water for the booming gold and silver mines of Nevada. Wooden flumes and pipelines were built to transport water through the mountains and across the valley to its destination over 21 miles away.
Marlette Lake, which was purchased by the state of Nevada in the 1960s and is now part of the Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Parks system, is one of the most popular areas for recreation in the region.
While the flumes and pipes have long since been removed, the shelf carved into the mountainside between the Marlette Lake dam and Tunnel Creek Road is now Tahoe’s most iconic mountain bike path—the Flume Trail, which traverses the steep slopes below Herlan Peak and above Sand Harbor with outrageous views the entire way.
There are a few ways to access Marlette Lake by bike, but riding the Flume Trail is certainly the best. Typically done as a shuttle, this 14-mile point-to-point trek is arguably one of the most scenic rides in the world. The aspens by the lake may be the star of the show, but the ride is no less spectacular as you make your way from nearby Spooner Lake to Marlette Lake and across the Flume Trail before finishing in Incline Village.
From Spooner Lake State Park, the route follows North Canyon Road, paralleling a creek drainage lined with willows and aspen groves as you climb (steeply) to the saddle above Marlette Lake. A short descent brings you to the lake’s shore, passing through the aforementioned aspen grove before skirting around to the dam and the beginning of the Flume Trail.
If gorgeous colors aren’t enough, the unobstructed panoramic views from this stretch of trail are some of the most breathtaking you’ll ever see. When the Flume Trail ends at Tunnel Creek Road, the encore begins as this long, often sandy descent passes through several mature aspen groves en route to Incline Village.
Scotts Lake Trail
This South Shore trail’s namesake, Scotts Lake, sits close to Luther Pass and Highway 89, sandwiched between Waterhouse and Stevens peaks, and is a popular destination for hiking, biking, fishing and camping. The trail runs northwest from the lake, gently descending a drainage alongside Big Meadow Creek down to Big Meadow and its junction with the Tahoe Rim Trail.
This beautiful drainage is full of large aspen groves and willows, and the trail passes alongside and through them for 2 miles. The trail provides a mix of fast, flowy sections with a handful of technical rock gardens that will keep you on your toes.
A common way to ride Scotts Lake Trail is as a 6-mile out-and-back from the Big Meadow Trailhead on Highway 89. The Tahoe Rim Trail climbs sharply from the trailhead for about half a mile up to Big Meadow, and it is extremely rocky and technical right out of the gate.
Walking your bike is pretty much guaranteed, but this section is a fun, chunky and technical descent on the way back down. Just before you reach Big Meadow, Scotts Lake Trail heads left and climbs gradually to its high point above Scotts Lake. Return the way you came for a delightful descent surrounded by superb foliage.
Scotts Lake Trail can also be linked with several nearby trails like the Tahoe Rim Trail, Christmas Valley and Scotts Lake–Luther Pass Connector to create loops and point-to-point rides of various lengths.
The Truckee area is home to hundreds of miles of trails and seemingly endless options for beautiful fall rides, but the Tahoe Donner area on the northwest end of town is perhaps the best.
While there are certainly plenty of aspen groves—one of the trails is named Aspen Grove, after all—the willows are one of the highlights in this area. Tall, bushy willows dot the sparsely treed landscape, bursting in bright hues across the hillsides.
Well known for offering top-notch cross-country skiing, the Tahoe Donner Association has been steadily improving and growing the trail network on its expansive 7,000-acre property, creating a fantastic recreation resource for the entire community. Although the land is privately owned, the trail system is open to the public, boasting more than 60 miles of multi-use paths throughout Tahoe Donner, on and around Hawk’s Peak and across picturesque Euer Valley.
The Alder Creek Adventure Center serves as the primary activity hub and is a great jump-off point to explore the trails. With so many paths and roads crisscrossing Tahoe Donner, there’s no limit to the ways they can be connected to create rides of varying lengths and difficulty.
Due to the sheer number of options and intersections, navigating this area can be a bit daunting. Fortunately, trails are well marked, and there are large maps in various locations to help you find your way.
A good starting point is a loop around Euer Valley. This route climbs the lower section of True Grit before traversing Hawk’s Peak on Hastings Cutoff over to a descent on Motherlode and Fool’s Gold into Euer Valley. The Coyote Crossing Trail leads across the west end of the valley to the Sidewinder trail, which winds its way east and around to a short climb on Cinnamon Twist and the return to the Adventure Center.
Tahoe Donner’s trails can be accessed in several other ways, including from the aspen-lined Emigrant Trail along Alder Creek or the Donner Lake Rim Trail.
From South Lake Tahoe to the trails of Tahoe Donner and beyond, the options are nearly endless for an awe-inspiring fall bike ride. Take advantage before winter sets in.
Jeremy Benson moved to the Lake Tahoe area in 2001 to “ski for a year before getting a real job” and never left. He currently works for OutdoorGearLab.com as a writer, editor and mountain bike tester, and is the author of two guidebooks published by Mountaineers Books: Mountain Bike Tahoe and Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes: California.