Bicycle ride around Lake Tahoe

Overlooking Emerald Bay from Emerald Bay Pass.

Perhaps some of you have by now deduced that, in addition to insects and natural history, I have a second passion – cycling! In fact, I raced bikes competitively as an amateur for seven years (going by the local nickname “BugMan“) before hanging it up at the end of 2008.  However, even though I’m not racing anymore, I still ride as much as ever, only now it’s purely for the fun of it!  I’m a dedicated roadie, riding year-round and averaging around 5,000-6,000 miles a year.  I love the speed and the smoothness of the road and the opportunity it provides to cover long distances and enjoy the sights (not to mention the resulting freedom to eat like a horse and stay relatively trim!).

One of my most memorable cycling experiences was in 1995, when I joined a group that rode the entire circuit around Lake Tahoe.  I was living in Sacramento at the time and was a relative newbie – the 72-mile ride with 3,500 feet of climbing at elevations ranging from 6,200 feet at lake level to more than 7,000 feet near Carson Pass was without question the most difficult ride I had ever attempted at that point.  Now, as a seasoned ex-racer, such a ride is not extraordinarily difficult for me – in fact, I do rides in the 60-80 mile range with as much climbing or more almost every weekend.  Still, my memories of the challenge and the unbelievable scenery have kept that ride high in the ranks of my most epic, and since we began going back to Lake Tahoe two spring ago I’ve wanted to do it again.  It would not have been possible during our first trip back, as the roads still had quite a bit of snow on them; however, last year the roads were clean and dry, and I resolved to bring my bike with me on this year’s trip in the event that such was again the case.  Madonna del Ghisallo (patron saint of cycling) must have been smiling down upon me, because this year the roads were again in beautiful condition, despite the amount of snow blanketing the surrounding landscapes.  It made for one of the most beautiful bike rides I have ever done in my life.

There was a comforting familiarity to the ride, despite the 15 years since the last – the stunning landscape that I have come to cherish so dearly, the massively shaded solitude of the west shore, lunching on California cuisine in a quaint village along the north shore, and the long climbs and screaming descents through open Jeffrey pine forests along the east shore.  It was also different – I was by myself, yet despite that I was stronger and briming with confidence; not only a seasoned cyclist, but also much more knowledgeable of and closely attuned to the natural history of the area.  I didn’t fear the climbing, I relished it!  I didn’t overcome the challenge, I enjoyed it!  I stopped at a few places to take photographs (taken with my small point-and-shoot, for obvious reasons) and share some of them here – I hope they give you a tiny taste of the flavor of that day.

Near the summit of Emerald Bay Pass, looking back at Mt. Tallac.

High point on Emerald Bay Pass.

The descent to Eagle Falls at Emerald Bay.

 This is an avalanche zone (note deep snow deposits on steep slopes on left side – these extend high up the mountain here).  Moments after taking this photo, an avalanche fell onto the road right as I was descending by this spot. At ~35 mph there was no stopping – I rode right through it as the initial snow drop hit the pavement and then watched in amazement as the main drop dumped onto the road behind me.  It was not big enough to bury anything, but I surely would have crashed had I gotten there just a moment or two later!

Overlooking Emerald Bay from Emerald Bay Pass.

Emerald Bay is a glacial scour formed during the last glacial period ending only 10,000 years ago. Fannette Island, Lake Tahoe’s only island, is thought to be a resistant rib of granite rock that was overridden by the glacial ice. Lateral glacial morraines enclose each side of the bay, and an incomplete terminal morraine connects Emerald Bay to the main lake. Last year, I stood atop the outermost rock of the left side of the terminal morraine and took photographs looking back in this direction

Grove of sugar pines at D. L. Bliss State Park.

Sugar pine, Pinus lambertiana, is among my favorite of all pines.  More common on the west shore due to their preference for higher levels of moisture, their towering, ragged, asymmetrical crowns with long, pendulous cones (usually a foot or more in length) hanging from the branch tips are immediately recognizable from afar.  These majestic trees are the world’s tallest pine and bear the longest cones in the genus; they stand in defiant contrast to the uniformly symmetrical crowns of the more common Jeffrey pines (Pinus jeffreyi) and white firs (Abies concolor) that surrounded them.  For a more thorough treatment of the trees of Lake Tahoe, please visit my three-part series covering the pines, the “other” conifers, and the deciduous trees.

Some might think it was still a little too early in the season for bike riding.

Looking west across Lake Tahoe from Logan Shoals Overlook.

The east shore in Nevada is decidedly drier than California’s west shore.  The forest on the Nevada side is a more open, fire-mediated landscape dominated by Jeffrey pine, as opposed to the denser forests on the west shore with higher incidence of shade-tolerant trees such as white fir and incense-cedar (Libocedrus decurrens).

View of Cave Rock (left center) from Logan Shoals Overlook.

Cave Rock was and still is a sacred place for people of the Washoe tribe, whose ancestors occupied Lake Tahoe during the summers and performed religious ceremonies inside the largest of its caves.  These caves, sitting several hundred feet above the current lake level, were carved by wave action shortly after Lake Tahoe’s formation nearly 3 million years ago when lake levels were much higher than they are today.  The first of two highway tunnels was blasted through the rock in 1931 (much to the dismay of the Washoes), and the second was added in 1957.

Looking north along Lake Tahoe's east shore from atop Logan Shoals Overlook.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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5 Responses to Bicycle ride around Lake Tahoe

  1. peteryeeles says:

    More of that beautiful scenery…

    I actually ride too, Ted. Back in my undergrad days I was a competition cross country mountain bike rider, and over the years have gradually morphed into a (rather casual) club roadie. Since having a kid and moving to the tropics it’s become even more casual! Still enjoy it though, and staying trim means I can keep up with the little boy.

    P.S. nice bike. I won’t lie – I’m green with envy!

    • Cool, another biker. I’ve “met” some other bloggers as well who are avid cyclists – must be something about love of outdoors that draws us to the sport.

      I love that bike!!!

  2. jason says:

    Now that’s a ride worth enjoying over and over again. What spectacular scenery! Breathtaking… I envy you and your family for this opportunity. Just wow!

    Oh, the bike route sign is the best! That was a good laugh. Some might think it too early indeed…

    • Yeah, well I’m hoping to make this an annual tradition. I learned of another classic ride in the area – the Mt. Rose Highway. Starting at lake level (6200′) in Incline Village, it climbs up to the Mt. Rose Pass (8911′) and then drops down to Reno (4440′). Turn around and come back, and you’ve climbed ~14,500′ in a distance of “only” 74 miles! That’s gotta be one of the highest ascent:distance ratio rides one can do. I’m definitely gonna try it next year.

  3. Hi Ted!

    I’m the content strategist for the new http://www.tahoesouth.com website, set to launch in November 2011. It’s the official site for the Lake Tahoe Visitor’s Authority.

    Our blog includes articles on various passions, including road biking. We’re not offering any monetary compensation at this time, but I’m wondering if we could use some or all of this article? We would of course link back to your site and give you credit.

    You have such great pictures!

    Please let me know yea or nay.
    Thanks!
    Vanessa

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