Sierra views: Road bike ride from Donner Lake to Cisco Grove on Old Highway 40 offers incredible rewards
TRUCKEE, Calif. — The Lake Tahoe-Truckee region is known for its fine single track just calling for folks to grab their mountain bikes and go — but we also have some incredible road biking routes that will challenge and entice anyone who likes to spin their skinny tires.
One of the best is the 40-mile out and back from Donner Lake west of Truckee to Cisco Grove on Old Highway 40.
Begin your ride at the eastern end of Donner Lake. Park along the road just to the east of the Donner Memorial State Park entrance.
Ride toward Donner Lake, then take a quick left turn into the state park. Stay right at the gate and wind past several sandy beaches, and restroom facilities along the lovely Donner Lake shoreline.
The park ends at a gate, followed by a quick climb up South Shore Drive. Follow the road for a few miles of easy riding past lakefront homes to the rejoining with Donner Pass Road at West End Beach.
From here, a left turn begins a major climb: three miles of steady, sometimes steep ascent on the narrow winding road up to Donner Pass.
Oh, but you are so amply rewarded with sheer granite cliffs dotted with rock climbers perched high above, and the full panorama of Donner Lake and the Pacific Crest.
Just before reaching the picturesque Rainbow Bridge, a scenic viewpoint provides a well-deserved excuse to stop. With Donner Lake and the town in the foreground, look to Mt. Rose in the distance.
Cross the bridge, and more popular climbing routes, to reach Donner Pass and the Highway 40 crossing of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Now, the riding is easy, with just one quick climb to Sugar Bowl, followed by some ten miles of downhill. Riders rush past rustic lodges and the little burg of Soda Springs before crossing Interstate 80 and leaving most of the civilization behind.
The route becomes steeper as you zip through Kingvale, before mostly leveling out for miles of pleasant and relaxing riding along the Yuba River.
Just after crossing the freeway again, a quick sharp descent takes you past the enormous boulders and slick cascades just above the Rainbow Lodge.
Next, you pass the Loch Levon Lake trailhead, which for hikers provides access to several beautiful, very swimmable mountain lakes three miles above.
Only two more miles of descent await, passing rushing Yuba River views before reaching the turn around point at Cisco Grove, where a small store can replenish your supplies.
On the way back, that gentle downhill that you hardly noticed on the way out, has transitioned into a steady seemingly unending pull on the climb back to the pass, with the toughest section between Kingvale and Soda Springs.
Eventually, the climb ends at Donner Pass, and the thrill begins: a three mile rapid descent with jaw dropping views. Unfortunately, while you will want to enjoy the amazing vista, keep your wits about you and your speed under control so you can stay on the road.
The good news is that the traffic is usually light and driving slowly, since drivers are also mesmerized by the view, so you will probably not get passed by cars.
At Donner Lake, go straight and cool down with a few miles of level riding back to your car on the bike lane.
Hot and ready for a swim? Pick out one of the 20 plus small public piers you pass and enjoy a well deserved cool off break. You can also start the ride with the flat, northern side of Donner Lake, and save the ride through the state park for the grand finale.
If that is your plan, be careful on the sharp right turn you will need to make at the bottom of the long downhill.
Tim Hauserman, a nearly lifelong resident of Tahoe City, is a freelance author and cross-country ski instructor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.