How to safely cross the 72-mile ride around Lake Tahoe off your bucket list
America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride
One way to ride the lake is to be of the thousands of locals and visitors doing it as part of America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride, which takes place June 4 this summer, and/or the Tour De Tahoe, set for Sept. 10. Go to www.ridethewest.org" target="_blank">Bold">www.ridethewest.org for more information.
Last summer, the Lake Tahoe Bicycle Coalition launched a multimedia education campaign to promote safe bicycling for Tahoe visitors and residents.
A full list of tips and helpful videos is available at www.tahoebike.org/bike-safety" target="_blank">Bold">www.tahoebike.org/bike-safety . Here are 10 tips for biking at Lake Tahoe, as provided by the Lake Tahoe Bicycle Coalition:
1. Keep your bike properly maintained: Before the beginning of your ride make certain your brakes and gears work properly and your tires are inflated. Carry along a spare tire tube and patch kit, know how to use it, and have an air pump in the event of a flat tire.
2. Wear a helmet: It’s a great way to stay safe for anyone riding a bicycle, and in California it’s the law for anyone under 18.
3. Ride in the same direction as traffic flow: Riding against the traffic direction is not only illegal, it’s highly dangerous. Motorists are less likely to see you in time to avoid a collision, and the higher speed of any collision is more likely to cause you serious or fatal injuries.
4. Stop at all stop signs and red traffic lights: You and the bicycle are a vehicle with the same rights and responsibilities as an automobile. Obey all traffic laws.
5. Use proper hand signals when turning, stopping, or changing lanes: This alerts other road users of your intentions.
6. Ride in a straight line and in a single file: When we’re riding a bike, we all want drivers to avoid hitting us. Help drivers predict where you will be: ride in a straight line. Many roads do not have enough width to safely ride side by side so ride in single file and be safe.
7. Be seen: Use lights (white in front and red in back), reflectors, and reflective clothing during darkness. Both California and Nevada state law require lights and reflectors while bicycling at night. Be seen and be safe.
8. Ride to the right if you are moving slower than other traffic: Unless you are turning left, passing another bicycle or vehicle, or avoiding hazards.
9. Do not impair your senses: Wearing headphones on both ears or riding your bike while under the influence of drugs or alcohol puts you and others are risk. People riding bikes are still subject to DUI citations.
10. Lastly: Walk your bike when using a crosswalk.
Lake Tahoe is a bowl of luscious water sitting in alpine splendor at 6,200 feet above sea level and is surrounded by rocky peaks that reach 3,000 feet higher still. A 72-mile ribbon of pavement circles the lake, climbing over ridges and hugging the shoreline with spectacular views of its shimmering deep blue water.
Given all this beauty, it has to be the perfect place to ride a road bike, right? Well … sort of. It can potentially be an amazing ride (although a challenging one), but it’s also on a busy, sometimes-narrow stretch of highway, so it’s best to provide yourself with good information to decide if this is the right ride for you.
Kings Beach resident Dana Ash has ridden the lake several times and says, “there are amazing views and the perfect amount of climbing for a ride that length. However, the traffic is absurd, so you best do it midweek, off-season and start early.”
Truckee resident Buff Wendt concurs, saying, “I avoided this ride for years mostly due to traffic concerns and lack of good bike lanes. But timed correctly, it is a lovely ride and it is fantastic to see all of Lake Tahoe at a level of detail that one can not ascertain from an automobile.”
Five important tips for a safe ride
The ride around Lake Tahoe is a big circle, so you can pick your spot and start riding and end up where you started 72 miles later.
It takes the average strong rider at least five to six hours to make the circuit, but plan on taking all day and stopping a few times along the route. Here are a few suggestions to make the ride more enjoyable and safe:
First, ride clockwise, as that will keep you closer to the lake the entire route. Ty Polastri of biketahoe.org adds that you should ride clockwise so that “motorists gawking at the lake will see you.”
Second, even if you live in North Lake Tahoe, make the drive to the South Shore to start your ride. Why? Because the most challenging and dangerous part of the ride is the climb up and around Emerald Bay. The road is especially narrow through this section, and there are a ton of motorists whose eyes are focused on the view instead of your butt. So you want to get past Emerald Bay before the throngs of visitors arrive.
Which brings us to numbers three, four and five on my recommendation list: Start early in the morning, ride mid-week, and do the ride preferably not in July and August.
The glory of the ride
Now that we’ve passed through the cautions, let’s talk about the glory of the ride. How about setting out from the Taylor Creek Visitor Center in South Lake Tahoe? There are restrooms and water, and you can even take a stroll after your ride along Taylor Creek to get your body used to being on the ground again.
The climb to Emerald Bay starts quickly, and the road is narrow, with up to a 10 percent grade, but the views are sublime. Be sure to take a few breaks to truly enjoy those views, instead of having to pay attention to the road. In other words — don’t do what my friend Tom did. He was merrily riding along once summer, enjoying the splendor of Emerald Bay, when he looked up just in time to briefly glimpse the large boulder that he immediately went flying over.
The road switchbacks to where Cascade Lake can be seen on one side and Emerald Bay on the other as the grade abates before reaching Inspiration Point. From here, a steep downhill takes the rider to the Vikingsholm Parking lot, where another steady ascent leads to the entrance to Bliss State Park. Guess what folks? The next long, sustained climb is over 30 miles away.
Heading to the North Shore and Nevada
Next, it’s a fast descent to Rubicon Bay where rolling, and mostly level, terrain begins for the jaunt along the West Shore to Tahoe City. From Meeks Bay, you can choose to ride the road, or the bike trail. In Tahoe City, take a break at Commons Beach (water available) or grab a bite to eat.
Once replenished, catch the bike trail for a mile of warm up before another mile of ascent to the top of Dollar Hill. Control your speed on the other side, as it’s steep and windy, before leveling off to rolling up and downs to Carnelian Bay. More easy riding brings you to Kings Beach, where a beach-side sit might be in order if you are ready to rest your rump.
From Kings Beach, a short climb brings you to the Nevada state line at Crystal Bay, where a windy descent leads to Incline Village. Hang a right on Lakeshore Boulevard and pass the luxurious homes and swanky beaches while avoiding the traffic on Highway 28.
Once you meet 28 again, turn right and capture glorious views for the next 10 miles. First, you ride just a stone’s throw from the lake to Sand Harbor, then take on the longest climb of the ride to over 7,000 feet on Spooner Summit. It’s steady, but not too steep, so put it in low gear and enjoy the views of Tahoe as you climb. Note the iconic Thunderbird Lodge on the rocky point below. Eventually, the climbing ends at the junction of Highway 28 and 50.
Traversing the East Shore back to South Lake Tahoe
Now, heading south on the busy four-lane U.S. Highway 50, a wild downhill brings you to Cave Rock. Be careful and watch out for the fast moving traffic, especially through the tunnel. After riding through the cave, you are in for some rolling ups and downs into Round Hill and eventually busy South Lake Tahoe.
About a half mile into California you can catch a westbound bike trail near Pioneer Trail, which will take you to Ski Run Boulevard, then after a gap, find more bike trail at Lakeview Road, which will take you all the way back to the start at Taylor Creek.
If you are riding during the offseason, the bike trail may be smooth sailing, but during busy times many strong riders may want to stay on the road and avoid the crowds of strollers, walkers and families on the trail.
Ready to take on the challenge and ride the lake? Before you do, remember a few words from local biking advocate Ty Polastri: “When riding around the lake, be prepared — not only for traffic and time of day, but also the variability that weather can present. The bottom line is it is not a walk in the park.”
But it sure is awfully pretty.