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Length 22.5 miles
Time 4 hours
Total Climb 2600 feet
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Emigrant Trail

As far as I can see, Emigrant Trail is one of the most popular mountain biking trails in the vicinity of Lake Tahoe. However, as opposed to some other popular trails in the area that have earned their renown due to exhilarating technical challenges or mind-blowing views, it appears that Emigrant Trail owes its fame to a difficulty level that's manageable to many. There are virtually no treacherous trail features on this ride for all but the most inexperienced riders, and there's relatively little total elevation gain for a ride of this length. Coupled with the open and airy setting of the trail that strings together a number of pretty meadows, a couple of alpine vistas, and at least one cute creek, it's not hard to see how that would make this a desirable trail.

That's not to say that this is a casual ride with zero difficulty. It's a stiff workout, especially if you do the full length of the trail (resulting in roughly a 29-mile ride) and maintain high speeds. However, the trail has no stretches that are seriously steep. There are no unbroken climbs on the ride you see on this page that are longer than a quarter mile, and the slopes of the majority of uphill segments are very moderate. Most of the climbs that feel "steep" have a grade no steeper than 12%, and there are probably only a couple of spots on this entire ride where the grade reaches 15% (and that only for a moment). If you find yourself huffing and puffing as you do a climb on this trail, more of that difficulty is likely to be due to the chunky trail surface on the climb than due to the steep slope.

Speaking of chunky climbs, the ride's more technical stretches arrive mostly in the trail's later parts, making it even more suitable for less experienced riders; you can simply turn back when you start feeling that you're getting in over your head. I rated the technical difficulty of the full ride a 6 out of 10 but, if you turn back fairly early, it could be as low as a 4 by my standards. The trail has no shortage of rock gardens, especially near its northern end, but these are of the kind that won't force most riders to even slow down. I don't remember any point in the trail that would give experienced riders any pause, with the possible exception of some tight turns that arrive unexpectedly at the end of fast segments. Much of the trail appears to be designed for good flow and high speeds.

The surface of Emigrant Trail is typically a little sandy, but not enough to be an impediment. At least this was the case the couple of times I rode this trail during the dry season. In addition to that, however, there is often no shortage of a sprinkling of loose pebbles on the trail surface, and sometimes even larger loose rocks. So, at least for me, this is a ride on which one should always be conscious of one's grip and traction.

One commendable fact about the trail is that it's a true singletrack from beginning to end (though some of the rocky patches have been widened). At numerous points on this ride, you will encounter junctions with dirt roads (and twice with a paved road). It's a very safe navigational tip for this ride that you should always continue onto the singletrack on the opposite side in every such instance (that is, unless things have changed since my ride, of course). There's only one minor exception to this shortly before the 3.5-mile mark of this ride where the trail temporarily merges onto a fire road, but the point where the singletrack diverges off it again in merely a few dozen yards is very obvious.

As I've already alluded to above, Emigrant Trail doesn't actually begin from the point from which this particular ride does. There is a little over three more miles of it heading west from Route 89. I've only ridden a portion of that part of the trail, but the portion that I have ridden there was not radically different from the portion seen on this page. The slopes are just as mild, if not more so, and the same is true about the technical difficulty. The biggest thing that makes that stretch of the trail different is the fact that much of it follows Alder Creek very closely. I'm under the impression that this is a creek that has flowing water year round.

I've chosen to begin this ride from the Donner Camp picnic ground. I think there are at least two good reasons for this: it has a decent-sized parking lot; and the Donner Camp site is a bit of a point of interest in its own right, providing an additional excuse to be here and making this a more attractive starting point. Although this parking lot is "midway" along Emigrant Trail, there's no harm in riding the entire extent of the trail in two separate out-and-back trips from this spot for those who are interested in doing a round trip of the whole trail. Meanwhile, if you are among the few people who may not have heard of the story of the Donner Party, which is as fascinating as it is tragic, you'd do well to read up on it on your own. For anyone interested in the history of California, this site is a very memorable place since it's the spot where the final chapter of the horrific experience of one part of the Donner Party unfolded.

Fairly early on in the ride, near Prosser Creek, the trail presents you with a choice between fording the creek or crossing it using a bridge on Route 89. The junction where you're given the choice arrives just before you finish the second mile of the ride and has a very unambiguous sign. The same is true at the junction where you need to make the same decision when approaching from the other direction. You can't miss them (unless the signs have disappeared since I've written this). If you want to make the safer choice, opt for the bridge on the road, which is what this particular route does. From my limited experience, Prosser Creek doesn't look like one whose flow can be expected to be very weak. However, the shortcut through the ford is not a long one, so you wouldn't lose much by trying it first and returning to take the route to the bridge if the water level appears to be bad. There's a sign near the road that asks riders to walk their bikes across the bridge, which is not a problem since the distance you cover on pavement is only about 500 feet, so it only takes a minute even on foot (which also brings with it the bonus of taking a longer look at the pretty Prosser Creek from the bridge). Taking the bridge extends the trail by about one mile (and the round trip by two miles) and it's a fun mile.

Incidentally, there's an unsigned split in the trail when you're using that bridge during the return portion of the ride that doesn't seem to have an obvious "correct" side. You'll notice on the route plot above that I've actually taken the wrong side at that split first, before turning back and continuing the right way. This is the only confusing junction that I remember on this entire ride, and the correct turn in the return direction is left as you can tell by the plot.

There's one more potentially confusing split on the trail about 0.4 miles before the turn-around point of this particular ride, though picking the wrong side at this split would be much less consequential. There's a trail sign at this junction, but it doesn't clarify too many things unless you already know what you're looking for. If you continue straight at this split, it will swing to the right and take you to a very small roadside pocket on Dog Valley Road in about a third of a mile. The left-hand option at the split is considered to be the formal continuation of Emigrant Trail, as far as I understand, which is what I've followed on this ride. I've turned around from a spot on this stretch of Emigrant Trail that meets a branch of Stampede Lake that will flood the trail when the water level is high. If you continue further from that spot when the lake is dry enough, the trail will continue only for another 0.4 miles, cutting through a paved parking lot before ending when it reaches another one at a boat ramp (Captain Roberts Boat Ramp) on the shore of the reservoir.

You will find a lot of things on this ride, but true tree cover is not one of them. There is no shortage of trees and, when looked at from ground level, your view looks like you're traveling in a wooded land. You won't have any difficulty finding trees if you look for one in whose shade you'd like to take a rest stop, but most trees in the area are spaced far enough from all others that there is no canopy to create any areas of unbroken shade. So, if escaping the heat on a hot day will be your priority, this ride should not be among your top options. On the flip side, I've read at least one source mentioning that this trail will become free of snow fairly early when the winter is on its way out, though I don't have any firsthand experience about that since I don't get to ride in this area very often.

© Ergin Guney


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