Take a ride on the Flume
The Flume Trail on Lake Tahoe’s east shore is the most well known bike ride in the basin.
Guide books tout it as the “local’s favorite,” enthusiasts from all over come to Tahoe just to ride the Flume. It’s well maintained, clean and offers some of the most beautiful views imaginable.
The trail itself runs from Marlette Lake, above Sand Harbor and ends at the top of Tunnel Creek road, which snakes its way down to just above Hidden Beach.
Running fairly flat the entire way, the trail maintains an elevation of just under 8,000 feet, so no matter which end riders start from, they have to climb to get to the trail.
If one chooses to ride the trail from north to south, as I did, the climb is intense.
First of all, parking on this side is pretty much nonexistent. Finding a place on the highway to park requires going north of the service road about a half-mile, then riding back down along the narrow shoulder.
Tunnel Creek road is soft sand, fairly deep and very loose in areas, all the way to the top. It is basically a large gradient climb, solid with no flat spots or downhill, for 2.6 miles.
Now, halfway through this climb – or even a quarter of the way – basically the entire time, recreational riders will ask themselves what in the world they are doing here. Why are they climbing this hill, what could possibly make this much work worthwhile.
They will be offered some clues along the way, lovely views to remind them that the higher they climb the better view they’ll get. However, it will not be until they reach the top and begin on the Flume Trail that they will truly have an answer.
Pressed for time, my brother and I climbed to the top, and we only made it because a quarter-mile from the top it started to rain, making our ascent more pleasant. Upon reaching the sign signaling the beginning of the Flume Trail, we walked out on some boulders to survey the map and decide if we had enough time to continue.
At the top of Tunnel Creek road, the trail is not fully visible. Riders can see that it is no longer a road but single track, and they can see that it starts off descending into a wooded area.
Both observations are pleasant prospects after such a taxing climb.
Having done all that work, we decided to at least go a little ways on the trail so that we wouldn’t have climbed for nothing.
As soon as we started, it was obvious that we would not be turning back.
From the north end, the trail goes down slightly, through a wooded valley and then pops back out amongst a granite field that no one in their right mind would ever build a trail through.
In reality, it was built during the mining boom from 1860-1900. A box flume carried water along the route from Marlette Lake to the Tunnel Creek Station. There it joined another coming from the north and entered a 4,000-foot pipe that emptied on the east side of the Carson Range. It then joined the key pipeline of the Comstock, the Inverted Siphon, which could deliver 10 million gallons of water per day to a reservoir near Virginia City.
After Tunnel Creek road, the next 4.5 miles of the Flume is packed sand, providing traction and a smooth ride. There are no rocks or obstacles present in the trail, which is good because it is all single track with a deadly drop directly to the lake side. Definitely a trail you do not want to venture off of.
The trail continues to snake its way through granite cliffs, over vista drop-offs and generally runs along some steep, steep terrain providing riders with a view described more accurately as down on the lake than over it. With Sand Harbor directly below most of the ride, emerald green waters give way to the deep blue of Tahoe in a display of natural beauty that rivals any in the world.
From north to south, the ride will culminate with a quick trip around a ridge and into a wooded area. From there, cross a creek via a wooden bridge and then up the only technical section of the ride to Marlette Lake.
Marlette is like any other lake in the area, clear and blue and cold enough to stifle even the toughest heat or exhaustion from an extensive ride.
While the option does exist to continue along service roads and bike trails to Spooner Lake, where there is a shuttle service running back to the bottom of Tunnel Creek road, we simply could not resist the temptation to ride back across the perfection that we had just crossed.
A moderate trail, the flume is flat and pleasant. If riders have no fear of heights they will find the trail itself incredible. Climbing up to the trail is really the only difficult thing about the whole ride.
If done from north to south, an out and back trip to Marlette Lake is 14.2 miles and can be done in a few hours.
Some things to be aware of on the trail are the presence of other riders. The trail is narrow and next to a substantial drop so riders should keep their speed in control and take extra caution around corners and bends in the trail.
Also, once reaching Marlette Lake keep a close eye out, as bald eagles have been sighted in the area.
As we ripped back down Tunnel Creek road, which had been such a strain to climb, we whooped and hollered as we hopped off of rises in the trail and slid around swooping bends. In the end, we could have been riding down a pot hole infested dilapidated road and still been pumped after a ride like the flume.
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