Wallace, CA Change


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Mike Sweeney
07/31/2014 12:29 PM
The Lake Tahoe Flume Trail has steep drop-offs along its edge and mountain bikes whizzing along. Photo courtesy of Ben Fish,, of the Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association.

My hike around Lake Tahoe started at the Hyatt Hotel in Incline Village, Nevada. The shuttle bus dropped me there after 24 hours of watching weather warnings on the little TV in my cabin on the grounds of the storied Tahoe Biltmore Hotel, on the lake’s northeast shore. The Biltmore was built in 1946 and has a rich history, but even in its heyday, you were more likely to spot Phyllis Diller there than the Rat Pack. A stubborn storm last week brought flash flood warnings, lightning warnings, and even a tornado alert to the High Country. Finally, the forecast improved and I finalized a plan to hike clockwise around the lake to connect with the Pacific Crest Trail near Echo Summit.

From the Hyatt, I trudged a mile up to unpaved Tully Creek Road and followed it 2.5 miles to the legendary Flume Trail. The Flume is considered one of the top ten mountain bike rides in North America. It has been written up in Men’s Journal, Outside Magazine, National Geographic and countless mountain bike publications. It follows a route that was established in the late 19th century by Sierra Nevada Lumber Company, to transport logs down the mountain to mines in Nevada. Remnants of the wooden flume are still in evidence on the trail today, as are metal pipes that were used to transport water to the Virginia City silver mines along the same route. As you walk along, it’s easy to lose yourself in incredible Tahoe vistas while pondering this engineering marvel, but once the first mountain bike comes flying around a blind curve, your pondering is over. I saw 10 or 12 mountain bikers along this section of trail and, while they were all polite, my heart jumped into my throat each time I heard one coming. Mountain bikers take pride in not using their brakes. I found the best plan was to snuggle up against the mountain so they had to go around on the cliff side of the trail. That slowed them down a bit as the drop off is absolutely sheer in many places. Although many riders have been injured on the FT, and at least two fatalities have occurred since it was cleared in 1983, the folks I saw were having a blast and seemed to be enjoying the rush of danger.

I was glad to get to Marlette Lake, where the hiking trail splits from the biking trail on the descent to Spooner Lake. It was becoming exceedingly clear that this backpack would be a great study in who uses Tahoe trails, but it would not be a peaceful wilderness sojourn. (You know this when a map says a trail is open to bikes, but you know it on a whole different level when you are actually hiking it with bikes). Trails are clearly marked and everyone seems to abide by the rules, so you just have to adjust your expectations.

I had 15 miles under my belt when I reached Spooner Lake, and it was apparent that the occasional round of golf had not prepared me for additional miles. I was thrilled to see picnic tables, but the water fixtures were covered with black plastic and the lake had a big sign that proclaimed there were leeches in the water. Yuck. I knew iodine tablets would kill the leeches, but I wasn’t prepared to drink water with texture. Fortunately, guys working on bikes in a little shop gave me a couple of liters and I was set for the night. The next day it would become obvious that water challenges would always be a part of this hike.

I fell asleep to the distant hum of cars and trucks on Highway 50. It had been a great first day and tomorrow I would finally get on the Tahoe Rim Trail, two miles away, at Spooner Summit. There was not a lot of wildlife on the FT, but there were chipmunks, squirrels, hummingbirds and the occasional hawk. Blue Lupine and purple Fireweed brought color to the trail, while Ponderosa Pine, Western White Pine and Red Fir trees provided shade.

The highlights, of course, were the views of Lake Tahoe, the 16th-deepest freshwater lake in the world, and second deepest in the US. The turquoise hue of the water around Sand Harbor, a few miles south of Incline Village, was especially striking. (When I got home, I read that the boat launch at Sand Harbor closed on July 28, due to low water levels — yet another consequence of the drought).

In the morning, I talked with two gals who were hiking a section of the TRT. We discussed the lack of water, and they asked me where I planned to get water that day. When I told them Burke Creek, 14 miles away, near Kingsbury Grade, they shook their heads and said that there was no water there, according to the trail guide and hikers they had talked to. They were meeting family at a nearby trailhead, so we parted with the usual “happy trails,” but I was feeling just a little less confident as I hiked up to Spooner Summit. I figured I could get some water from somebody at the trailhead there, but when I arrived, there were just two empty cars in the lot and a steady flow of cars and trucks zooming by on Highway 50. I hustled across a break in the traffic and headed south on the Rim Trail, wondering how long I could stretch 1.5 liters of our most precious resource.

Next week: Trail Angels; Stateline; Camp Richardson; and a shortcut proves formidable.

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