The Best Mountain Bike Trails and Attractions in Tahoe National Forest
Surrounding the blue jewel of Northern California, Tahoe National Forest is a mountain biking mecca nestled among the Sierra Nevada mountains. Spanning 850,000 acres from Nevada City east of Sacramento all the way to Reno, west of Lake Tahoe itself, the forest coats the landscape in lush greenery; high, clear lakes; and peaks soaring to 9,000 feet. A bounty of maintained singletrack and rugged backcountry dirt adorns the region, meaning this place will whet any mountain biker’s exploratory appetite, guaranteed.
A fun and little known fact: Lake Tahoe isn’t actually part of the Tahoe National Forest! It is managed and maintained separately by the US Forest Service as Lake Tahoe Basin. But, because of the excellent riding around the stunning blue vistas, it is a must-see (and must-ride).
Sandwiched between Plumas National Forest to the north and Eldorado to the south, Tahoe is one of the nation’s most recreative and visited regions of federal land to date. Notable destinations within Tahoe National Forest include Downieville, Truckee, Donner Pass, the Pacific Crest Trail, and Granite Chief Wilderness. Now it’s our turn to motivate you to go and check them out!
The Top 10 Mountain Bike Trails in Tahoe National Forest and the Lake Tahoe Basin.
Whether you’re on a week-long vacation or just in for a day of exceptional riding, here are our top 10 recommendations.
Don’t think, just do it. This trail is the #1 reason why so many bikers choose to visit Lake Tahoe. The views alone are absolutely breathtaking. Managed by the Tahoe Rim Trail Association (TRTA), the 165-mile loop crosses six counties in both Nevada and California, taking riders on an epic journey through wildflower meadows, passing by waterfalls and stunning vistas. Broken up into several segments, not all portions of the TRT are open to mountain bikes, such as the sections that overlap with the Pacific Crest Trail and those that go through Wilderness areas. But the sections that DO allow bikes are amazing, include some technical sections and descents, and contain a good deal of climbing (so bring your legs!).
Comprised of more than 100 miles of trail and located just outside of Truckee, Northstar has become a downhiller’s bucket list destination. The resort provides bike and gear rentals and seasonal, all-day, or half-day passes. Northstar is home to the Specialized Bike Academy, for those looking for some coaching. Gypsy trail, being ridden by Red Bull’s Aaron Chase in the above video, and Sticks and Stones are two of the favs, so be sure to hit them up!
Looking for some twisty, steep, and technical singletrack? Don’t miss the South Yuba trail, which winds up and down for 20 miles through the dense greenery east of Nevada City, CA. The trail is rocky and narrow in some parts as it follows along the Yuba River.
The ripping descents in Downieville have been featured in several Singletracks.com articles, including the 10 Best MTB Shuttle Routes in the Western US. Butcher Ranch, Third Divide, and Sunrise trails are must rides — these singletrack descents have given the region all the notoriety it deserves. Not only are they a part of the nation’s longest downhill race course, they cut through some absolutely stunning scenery. Hop on shuttle… repeat.
Why the name? (Someone please answer this in the comments because we’d love to know!) At 17 miles with rocky, technical chunk and switchbacks mixed in, it makes for a good day’s ride even for advanced riders. Want more? Turn it into a loop and skip a shuttle, or extend your ride further with the Donner Lake Rim Trail.
Another jaw dropper… surprise, surprise. This is only one of two trails on our list located in Nevada, and the scenic vistas made it a no-brainer to include. This trail has a decent amount of climbing or descending (depending on the direction you take it, or if you ride it as an out and back). However, its lack of technicality opens it up to a wide range of skill sets. The trail can get fairly exposed in sections, so note that if you don’t care for heights. It can be accessed at Spooner Lake State Park, or by way of the Tahoe Rim Trail.
A bout of singletrack that traverses around the north side of Donner Lake, the scenery is amazing, like most other trails in this region. It consists of a bounty of technical granite rock, with a fun descent in the middle. It’s connected to but going in the opposite direction (east) of Hole in the Ground. There is parking just off Castle Valley Road, where the trailhead can be accessed.
This 25-mile-long trail is a notable part of the Nevada City Dirt Classic, and it’s also designated as a National Recreation Trail. It’s fun and mostly flat, but as riders move from west to east, the difficulty increases. Stop at Spaulding Lake and ride it back, or keep going to increase your XC challenge. If you don’t want to ride the whole thing, there are many places to access it from Hwy 20.
SUPER FUN! Seventeen miles of bermed hairpin turns, granite rock, lush singletrack, a bit of climbing, and flowing downhill. Bomb down it and hit up the Corral trail, next!
One of the more technical, well-known downhill trails in the south Lake Tahoe Basin, its 6 miles is for intermediate to advanced riders. Full of rock gardens and drops, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is physically demanding. Rip down from the Tahoe Rim Trail to the CA-NV state line through Monument Pass, or include the full Armstrong Pass and hit up Mr. Toad’s to make a big loop.
The Top 3 Off-Bike Attractions in the Tahoe National Forest
Hiking: The Pacific Crest Trail
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) was established in 1968 as one of the first congressionally designated scenic trails in the US. A portion of the 2,650-mile route from Mexico to Canada cuts right through the heart of Tahoe National Forest. Adorned with rushing streams and picturesque topography, hiking the PCT will orient you with some of the richest land our National Forest system has to offer.
Within Tahoe National Forest, the PCT runs from McRay Ridge just north of Sierra City, and travels south through Donner Summit toward Olympic Valley and the Granite Chief Wilderness. Highlighting the best best vistas within the Sierra Nevada crest, hikers will cross land home to black bear, badgers, and deer.
Whether you’re looking to escape into the Sierras for a few hours or a few days, make sure to get the appropriate permit before setting out on your adventure. More information can be found at PCTA.org.
Heighten your Tahoe adventure by rafting the Truckee, American, and/or Yuba rivers. Whether you’re looking for a mellow, self-guided float or some gnarly, adrenaline-fueled Class IV/V rapids, the region promises to deliver a satiating experience. The premier part of the season runs from May-September. Check out the following sites for information on rivers of interest, trips, prices, and booking:
Olympic Valley and Squaw Peak
Located on the banks of the Truckee River in Placer County, this old mining area was home to the Winter Olympics in 1960. Fast forward to the 21st century, and Squaw Valley has served visitors as a premier destination for downhill and XC skiing for decades. If you’re visiting in July, be sure to check out the Wanderlust yoga and music festival. Workshops, lectures, meditation practices, and world-class instruction, the event promotes a journey into the self through healthy, positive, mind-body practice. Incorporated with trail running, riding, paddle boarding, and late night jams, you’ll leave feeling recharged and enlightened.
The Top 5 Camping Areas in Tahoe National Forest
There are 76 designated campgrounds within the national forest boundary, so you can choose a site that best fits your priorities. Here are our recommendations, based on the best trail proximity.
Downieville: There are several campsites not too far away from town (for those that want shuttle access to the Downieville Downhill network), and also close to Sierra City. All sites in this region allow campfires, however, check daily restrictions. Indian Valley campground is recommended due to its access to North Yuba, Hall’s Ranch, and Fiddle Creek trails, as well as its location on the North Yuba River. In addition, many riders prefer to camp near Packer Saddle off Gold Lake Road because of the awesome views and quiet location. The Packsaddle and Diablo campgrounds have stream water only, as well as access to the Packer Lake Picnic Site.
Granite Flat Campground is close to Donner Lake and just 1.5 miles southwest of Truckee. This campground offers 74 single sites, many of which are located on the Truckee River (get your swim on!). Its amenities also include drinking water, campfire rings, and grills. Because of its location on Hwy 89, you can hear cars, but if proximity to a variety of trails is important, it should be considered.
The White Cloud campground is a quaint wooded site that provides great access to Nevada City and the Pioneer and Hallelujah trails. It is also fairly close to the South Yuba trail. Its usage is pretty light, so securing a spot without a reservation isn’t typically a problem.
The Top 3 Mountain Biking Events in Tahoe National Forest
Look no further for a good time. Downieville certainly lives up to its legacy — four days of steadily-flowing Sierra Nevada beer, live music, a Red Bull river jump, log pulls, and of course, mountain bike racing. A part of the Lost Sierra Triple Crown series, events include the All-Mountain World Championships, an XC race, and the seriously kickass 15-mile Downieville Downhill — the longest downhill race in the nation. If you don’t want to race, come for the fun, shred some dirt, and enjoy the scenery.
As a Leadville Trail 100 MTB qualifier, this event will appropriately kick your ass. The two-loop, 100 km race will take racers up and over peaks in the Northstar region, comprising nearly 7,300 feet of climbing. It can be ridden as a solo 50K or 100K, or done as a relay team. Famed (and freshly retired) pro roadie/adventure extraordinaire Ted King raced it in 2016, taking 3rd place, only to be beat by Levi Leipheimer and Dave Wiens. In 2017, he couldn’t resist returning and took 4th, coming in just behind Ryan Petry of Phoenix, AZ’s Construction Zone Racing. If you’re looking for a NorCal XC challenge… you’ve found it. (Video courtesy of channelMTB).
This awesome XC series is comprised of thee races, including the CA MTB State Championship, and takes riders on a journey through some of the southwestern Tahoe trail systems. Hosted by the Youth Bicyclists of Nevada County (YBONC), a non-profit group with a mission to promote health and community for younger populations through cycling, the race is for all ages and levels, with a kids course, of course. Race #1 is a part of the Sierra Cup MTB Series, and a qualifier for MTB Nationals. And like any good mountain bike event, there’s a plethora of food and live music to keep the stoke flowing.
The Top 3 Bike Shops Near Tahoe National Forest
Yuba Expeditions, Downieville, CA
Shenanigans aside, this shop is legit! They are known for their partnership with the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, volunteering their time for trail maintenance and promoting advocacy. Yuba Expeditions carries Santa Cruz and Ibis Cycles, provides riders with fast shuttle service, and has a great selection of demo bikes. Be sure to hit them up if you’re mountain biking in the area!
Tour of Nevada City Bicycle Shop, Nevada City, CA
Located just outside the southwestern corner of Tahoe National Forest, this shop is a great stop on your way to hit the dirt. Not only do they provide fantastic service and keep lots of parts in stock, they have a wide variety of mountain bikes, from Devinci and Ibis to Seven Cycles — something for every type of mountain biker. Be sure to check out their demo days schedule!
CyclePaths, Truckee, CA
These guys have been around for more than 32 years, renowned as the “first mountain bike touring company in the Tahoe basin.” With an impressive stock of demo bikes (Santa Cruz, Ibis, Juliana, and Rocky Mountain), they’ll make sure you’re ready for anything, whether it be a day at the Truckee Bike Park, or a low key day on some sought-after NorCal dirt.
Your Turn: Have any tips for mountain biking in Tahoe National Forest that we didn’t mention? Share them in the comments below!