Cycling around Lake Tahoe isn’t easy, but you have views like this to inspire you. (All photos: Bill Fink)
The Plan: Cycle around Lake Tahoe to check out what may be the best two-day bike ride in America. It promises fresh mountain air, peaceful forest trails, and stunning lake views, not to mention heart-palpitating uphills, teeth-rattling downhills, and once off my bike, some microbrews, mountain barbecue, and perhaps some luck at the blackjack tables.
The Route: A 72-mile loop around Lake Tahoe, from California to Nevada and back again. Pedal through 4,300 feet of combined elevation changes along bike paths, city streets, and highways, with a few detours as the mood strikes me.
The Ride: A Cannondale Synapse Hi-MOD Ace DI2. I’m borrowing the high-end, lightweight, carbon fiber road bike primarily to help with the ride’s two 900-foot climbs and to take advantage of its advertised “crush meets plush” combination of comfort and speed. Plus, it looks cool.
The writer’s secret weapon: the high-tech bike
The Launch: Appropriately, I begin my scenic ride in Tahoe Vista, with a stunning view of Lake Tahoe from the north. It’s the end of September, but the weather remains a summer-like 75 degrees and sunny. Just one couple sits on the beach, and I’m tempted to join them, but I realize I’ll be back at this same spot at the end of my loop and can rest then. I walk the bike out onto the beach for a photo, probably getting some sand in my gears and demonstrating even before my start that despite my professional ride, I’m a decidedly amateur rider.
The beach can wait.
Bear Aware: Cruising through the town of Kings Beach, I see that the trash cans are bear-proofed with latches. I also pass a half-dozen shops selling giant wooden bear statues that were carved using chainsaws. Most of the wooden bears wave a hearty welcome. I hope the real bears are this nice.
These wooden bears are cheerier than the real-life variety.
Elevating: Climbing from the base lake level of 6,200 feet elevation, I’m already gassed on the first uphill approaching the Nevada border. I tell myself it’s just the amazing view that is taking my breath away, and I stop for a few extra minutes to snap some photos.
One of the amazing views of the lake
Border Crossing: Casinos spring up like mushrooms as soon as I cross the border into Nevada. The CalNeva Resort and Casino straddling the state line was once owned by Frank Sinatra, who used secret tunnels underneath it to try to hide his mobster pals from the gambling board. The casino is closed for remodeling, promising a big bang for its summer 2015 reopening.
Sunset over the casinos
Billionaires’ Row: I pedal through Incline Village, noted California tax haven and home to some staggeringly expensive homes along the lakeshore, including Larry Ellison’s recently built vacation pad, an upgrade from his other lakeside estate that he recently sold for nearly $30 million. I grab a for-sale flier for a more modest three-bedroom beachfront house. The price? $12 million. For a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and eccentric, I could have peeled off the road south of Incline to tour Thunderbird Lodge, the former home (which included underground cages for lions) of an eccentric millionaire from the 1930s. I absently wonder what we’ll see 80 years from now touring Ellison’s home.
Staggering Views, Staggering Biker: I begin a 9-mile, 900-foot climb after Incline Village. Around each corner, the view is even more amazing. I distract myself from my huffing and puffing by trying to think of additional adjectives to try to describe the blueness of the lake: azure, sapphire, cobalt, steel blue; depending on how the sun is shining, they all apply to Lake Tahoe. The bike performs great on my climb; gears shift smoothly, and the crank transfers my pedaling power to help me pass people I have no business passing, serious-looking cyclists wearing the full Lance Armstrong spandex kit, looking at me and my baggy shorts with annoyance. I stop near 7,150-foot high Spooner Summit for a celebratory swig of water and an energy bar.
Tunnel Thrill: As the road winds its way along a mountainside hundreds of feet above the lake, it thins, leaving just two feet between my bike, traffic, and a rock retaining wall to my right. It narrows further to traverse the aptly named Cave Rock Tunnel, a 150-foot passage carved through raw mountain rock. I press a roadside button at bike level to initiate flashing lights to warn drivers of my presence. Despite the lights, my pedal through the tunnel is a little nerve-racking — my hands still shaking along with my light bike frame on the long downhill after the tunnel.
Here’s how a trip through the tunnel looked from my handlebars:
Downhill, Looking Up: Zephyr Cove is one of the many little attractions around Lake Tahoe you might miss while cruising on a car road trip. I curl off the road to find a whole resort community and a giant paddleboat, which looked like it was lifted from the Mississippi River circa 1880. My legs are a little too tired to join the nearby beach volleyball game, so I hit the beachside café for an icy drink.
South Lake Tahoe: Biking into the city of South Lake Tahoe, I’m confronted with the odd juxtaposition of high-rise casinos built at the base of high-rise mountains and Heavenly Ski Resort. To maintain the outdoorsy theme of my trip, I stay the night at Basecamp Hotel, where my room features a canvas tent, a picnic bench, and a woodsy theme. After dinner and celebratory margaritas at Azul Latin Kitchen (“azul,” another adjective for the lake!), I poach a sunset view from the top-floor casino bar, and then I hit the blackjack tables. Since I’m visiting during the autumn off-season, there aren’t a ton of gamblers around, so the dealers and players are friendly and chatty, giving the place more of a small-town feel. I gamble for a while next to a crazy old guy with a head wound who goes by the name of Mad Dog. Mr. Dog has a fat bankroll of hundred dollar bills and peels one off to give me after I run out of chips. I promptly gamble that away as well but appreciate the kindness.
A fake trail at the Basecamp Hotel
Return to the North: Apparently when long-distance biking, it’s best not to pound drinks until 2 a.m. in a dry, high-elevation environment. I stagger forward in the morning, thankfully on a quiet bike path away from the road through a peaceful forest panorama. I pedal through the homey Camp Richardson recreation area, the Tallac Historic Site, and even a Forest Service station, where they have a glass viewing area to provide a profile of the Taylor Creek, complete with salmon. You know who else likes salmon? Lake Tahoe’s large bear population. I pedal out of the forest quicker.
Pedaling through Camp Richardson
Because It’s There: After my slow start to the day, I’m rested for the ride over Emerald Bay. The steep, 700-foot climb follows narrow road switchbacks that I can’t help notice have no guardrails. One wrong turn, or bump by a car, and I’d find myself plunging into one of the deepest lakes in the world. Strapped into my pedals, they’d need James Cameron’s submersible to find my body 1,600 feet below the surface. I’m thankful for the light traffic in the autumn off-season. As I stand panting and sweating at the viewpoint overlooking Emerald Bay, an older Swedish couple on their own road trip looks at me like I’m crazy. “But why?” he asks, gesturing at the steep hill behind me. “Because it is there?” Yup, pretty much.
A great view over Emerald Bay… as long as you don’t fall in.
All Downhill: I enjoy a fun roller coaster ride coasting down mountain curves from the road’s summit back to lake level. Because this is Lake Tahoe, yet another stunning beach awaits at the bottom of the hill at Meeks Bay, where I grab a drink and lean against a tree to appreciate an absolutely perfect fall day.
The cycler’s reward: barbecue ribs
Ride to the Finish: The bike path north of the west shore of Lake Tahoe takes little bends into the woods and through a few neighborhoods with gingerbread-house-style, little vacation homes built in the early 1960s. Small shops, markets, and little hotels line the path, enticing me to stop, among them the Fire Sign Café with some breakfast egg scrambles and an even more tempting cherry cobbler pie. Fueled up, I navigate my way through Tahoe City, checking out the many shops that are changing over their offerings as Tahoe’s boating and river-rafting season comes to an end and ski season approaches. My approach back to Tahoe Vista sends me on one last uphill climb, and I happily coast to a finish at the Cedar Glen Lodge, where a newly remodeled cabin awaits with a mini-fireplace and a much-needed shower. My bike odometer reads 80 miles for the trip, including my detours from the regular lake route. I figure my two days of pedaling have burned enough calories to merit a large dinner of barbecue ribs, chicken wings, and beer at Moe’s along the lakefront. A fine reward for an even finer ride.
Beware of bears when biking.