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Length 19.5 miles
Time 5 hours
Total Climb 2100 feet
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Flume Trail

It's probably safe to say that Flume Trail is the best known biking trail in the Lake Tahoe area. This is mostly due to its dramatic setting (much of it is carved into a very steep hillside) and the spectacular views of Lake Tahoe that it affords, but it's easy to see that a big part of this popularity is due to the low difficulty level of the trail, allowing many more people than just avid mountain bikers to enjoy it. This one is a one-way shuttle ride that incorporates Flume Trail as part of a longer ride that's mostly a descent.

If you're reading this page only with an interest in riding Flume Trail itself, you should know that this route is not the most typical way of riding that trail. The most common (and shortest) route for riding Flume Trail would start as the reverse of this ride by setting out from the Spooner Lake parking lot, climbing the fire road up North Canyon to Marlette Lake, skirting along the western shore of that lake to Marlette Dam where you can pick up Flume Trail, following the trail to its northern end and taking Tunnel Creek Road down to Route 28. The connection between the end of the ride and the beginning would be by a shuttle. The safer bet would be to park at the Tunnel Creek Shuttle Station near the bottom of Tunnel Creek Road, and to take the shuttle from there to start the ride from Spooner Lake. An alternative could be to park at Spooner Lake and start the ride there, only to pick the shuttle at the end of your ride to return to your car. As of this writing, this shuttle, operated by the Flume Trail Bikes shop, runs from July to November regularly between 2:00 to 5:00 on the hour, and can be reserved for other times by prior arrangement. Make sure you check with them before you rely on any of this information, though.

Despite being significantly longer than that typical Flume Trail ride, the route shown on this page involves only a couple of hundred feet more total elevation gain than that ride, but its climbs are much easier and it throws in an excellent segment on Tahoe Rim Trail into the mix. From that point of view, I would wholeheartedly recommend this particular route to all intermediate and advanced riders as the preferred way of riding Flume Trail.

The suggested parking spot link on the left points to the Spooner Lake parking lot, which is where you'll need to board the shuttle that will take you to the beginning of the ride. This shuttle is operated by Flume Trail Bikes as well. You'll have to ask for the "Tahoe Meadows Rim Trail shuttle", however. If you simply ask for "a shuttle" or "the Flume Trail shuttle", they're more likely to assume you're referring to the shuttle to or from the Tunnel Creek Station, which won't work for you for this ride. One bit of trivia that you might find interesting is that the part-owner of Flume Trail Bikes is Max Jones, who is the person who spearheaded the use of Flume Trail as a recreational trail.

There is a fee for parking at the Spooner Lake parking lot. At the time I did this ride, this fee was $10 for a vehicle carrying up to four mountain bikes.

Obviously, the Lake Tahoe area has snow cover in the winter and this naturally applies to the locale of this ride too. I'm not too closely familiar with the range of dates between which snow cover should be expected along this particular ride route, but I wouldn't plan anything between November and April without closely following the "current conditions" information available on sources like the Flume Trail Bikes website at the link I've provided above.

The ride begins from the trailhead of Tahoe Rim Trail on Mount Rose Highway (Route 431) at Tahoe Meadows where the shuttle drops you off. One very important caveat is that the segment of Tahoe Rim Trail that constitutes the first 8.5 miles of this ride is open to bikes only on even-numbered days of the month. Make sure you don't neglect to take that into account when planning your ride. This portion of the ride starts out by a gentle glide through the idyllic Tahoe Meadows, which seems to be fairly popular with families and casual trail users. You quickly find yourself climbing as you leave those crowds behind, but the portion of the trail that feels like a real climb is over in less than a mile, just as you're beginning to warm up. For the following seven miles, this trail closely follows the spine of a ridge that overlooks Incline Village and Lake Tahoe on one side and features occasional views toward Lake Washoe on the other. This is a gorgeous singletrack trail through a boulder-strewn landscape that's lightly wooded with a variety of picturesque conifer trees. The trail is much more technical than Flume Trail. There are frequent steps and clusters of rocks or boulders. However, it's not like you need to be a seasoned biker to make it through this trail at all. Much of it is a smooth and sandy singletrack. It's just that some tricky trail features will arrive fairly frequently, even though inexperienced riders can easily stop and walk a few feet to make it across any of them. There are no steep climbs or descents along this segment, nor many steep drop-offs next to the trail (maybe a couple). As we were doing the ride, my riding buddies and I were unanimous in the opinion that the ride would have been completely worthwhile even if it consisted of this segment on Tahoe Rim Trail alone.

Tahoe Rim Trail eventually emerges onto a wide clearing that is its junction with Tunnel Creek Road. Once you're there, what separates you from the beginning of Flume Trail will only be a half-mile descent down a steep fire road. The grade of this descent hovers around -13% and the surface is occasionally rutty and frequently very sandy.

Flume Trail starts at a signed junction and continues almost flatly along a steep (sometimes very steep) hillside directly overlooking Lake Tahoe for just over four miles. This trail used to be an aqueduct (a "flume") that carried water from Marlette Dam. I've read that the dam and the flume were built in the late 19th century in order to supply the mining towns of Virginia City, Silver City, and Gold Hill with water during the Comstock silver mining boom. Its use as and conversion into a recreational trail apparently started in the 1980s, mainly through the efforts of Max Jones, as I've already mentioned above. Due to its origins as a means of transporting water using gravity, the grade of this trail is an almost perfectly even (and infinitesimal) 0.3%, precisely. The elevation profile plot you see above makes this quite obvious, along with the fact that you'll be traversing the trail "uphill" on this ride, though this is unnoticeable while on the bike.

The technical difficulty of Flume Trail is low. Almost the entire trail has a smooth and sandy surface that's hardly ever broken by any rock or root. It's a wide to medium-width singletrack from beginning to end. While the beginning and end of Flume Trail cut across moderately sloped hillsides, its most recognized stretches are around the middle of its length and are on a much steeper slope. These portions of the trail occasionally feature a steep drop past the edge of the trail and should be traversed carefully by less experienced riders. Some parts of the trail require you to pick your spot carefully when stopping to let an approaching rider or hiker pass by, which will tend to happen frequently due to the popularity of this trail. Still, there is only one short stretch of Flume Trail that feels dangerously exposed, not counting another spot where you'll have to walk your bike (as suggested by a sign) over some large and sharp boulders that have fallen onto the trail during a slide. In general, riders with less experience should be willing to dismount and walk any spots on Flume Trail where their instincts tell them to.

At the southern end of Flume Trail, you'll find the trail diving into a short stretch of dense vegetation where it becomes very rocky and technical as it dips toward and climbs back away from a small creek. This is Marlette Creek, and in a few seconds you find yourself at the edge of Marlette Lake, right on Marlette Dam. This might just be the prettiest reservoir lake I've seen in recent years. It's surrounded by seemingly untouched steep hills covered in conifer trees all the way to the lake's edge. The ride then follows a flat fire road along the shore of this lake for one mile.

After Marlette Lake, the interesting parts of the ride are behind you. What remains after this is the ride's last climb (a 0.7-mile stretch where the grade varies but averages around 7% overall) followed by a 4-mile descent, all of it over a mostly featureless and frequently sandy fire road. These final five miles or so of the ride are traversed more out of necessity than for any kind of riding fun and, sadly, there are no alternate bike-legal trails that would be more interesting from a biker's point of view and would still take you back to your vehicle at Spooner Lake.

One note worth making is about sand: From the beginning of this ride, all the way to Marlette Dam, the trail character varies between moderately sandy and dangerously sandy. This seems to be the ground up form of the (I think) granite that dominates the geography of this area. It's not as fine as beach sand, nor is it very dusty. But, it does mean that, at least during dry conditions, you'll need to pay attention to how much front brake you use, how much speed you carry into turns, and how close you stand near the edge of the trail (especially on Flume Trail) where this sand can be very loose and can give out unexpectedly. It also saps your energy and increases the physical difficulty of the ride beyond what you might otherwise expect. Meanwhile, the four-mile fire-road descent at the end of the ride also has more than its fair share of "beachy" spots, though the sand there is finer and dustier. So, if you're tempted to blast down that descent, you might want to keep that in mind.

© Ergin Guney


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