Encircling Big Blue
“Dude, the water looks so clear, its like we are in the Caribbean!”. Only one of the many moments of observation of natural beauty when going around the largest alpine lake in North America.
We had set the alarm clocks for 6:30am, with the intention to be the first ones at the complimentary breakfast and then embarking on our adventure. Considering we stayed at a rather cheap motel close to the California/Nevada state line, I was not expecting much, but a (styrofoam) bowl of cereal, a cup of orange juice and a banana would have had to suffice. And so, at 7:37am, we started into the fresh morning air and with the circumvention of Big Blue.
“Definitely cold!”, my friend Ethan noted and yes, compared to the night before, when we had arrived at Lake Tahoe, temperatures had dropped significantly and showed about 45 Fahrenheit by 7am. But preparation is everything, and prepared we were with windbreakers and mittens. The forecast for Saturday had not looked that promising initially, but we started with partly cloudy skies literally no wind. The 20% chance of precipitation were just too low to take serious, we decided.
About 20 minutes into the ride, we took a right turn, leaving Hwy 50 behind us and making our way towards Emerald Bay, the first of two significant climbs along the route, as I had meticulously noted on my to-scale map/sketch of the route. Halfway between the turning point and Emerald Bay, we got overtaken by a fellow cyclists, who greeted us with a brisk but collegial “Morning!” between bikers. All dressed in Lance Armstrongs LIVESTRONG gear from head to toe and quadriceps the size probably comparable to Lance’s, he passed us with seemingly no effort. However, he turned around and went back the other way shortly after and so we were on our own heading up and then down to Emerald Bay, only to have to climb back up again for the descent towards Meeks Bay. By that time, we had already gotten rid of all the other layers that we had put on and were just riding in shorts and short-sleeved jerseys.
Apart from a little climb at the Rubicon Park Estates, the road was now relatively flat and we were cruising along Hwy 89. Then the first beach view at Chambers Landing, an invitation we decided to postpone until after the ride and time for a little break. 2 hours and 20 minutes and 52 km (32 miles) into the ride, we arrived at the junction of Hwy 89 and 28, where we watched water flowing out of the lake at its only outlet at the Lake Tahoe Dam. Being on the road for 2 hours and 45 minutes and pretty much halfway around the lake, we took a well-deserved lunch break on a pebble beach at Carnelian Bay. While we indulged ourselves on Clif Bars, Gatorade and GU Energy Gels, we enjoyed beautiful vistas of the lake, in almost spotless sunny skies, while people were out paddle boarding or playing with their dogs on the beach. “Holy cow, we are lucky with the weather so far”, I commented on our pretty fortunate situation at this moment.
Relaxing felt good, but after resting out muscles for about an hour, we continued our journey, passing through Tahoe Vista and Kings Beach and reached the California/Nevada border on a climb at Crystal Bay. We were welcomed not only by great views of the bay itself, but by casino establishments right, left and center. Reaching the other side of the bay, we noticed really for the first time the cleanliness of the water in the lake, luring us into jumping in. But no no, we had something to finish first.
Hurtin’ in Nevada
Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, which we passed through shortly after while still on Hwy 28, presented us with lake views of unbelievable beauty, hidden, tucked away beaches with water so clear that you would think you are on some island in the Caribbean. Stopped briefly at an overlook with restrooms and a chance to fill up on water, we mentally prepared ourselves for the second big climb yet to come, up towards the junction with Hwy 50. Not really knowing what to expect, the climb proved to be steady and not too steep, but stretched over 8 km (5 miles), an elevation gain of roughly 200 meters (656 feet), with a dip in between. After 87 km (54 miles) on the bike, ascending that much in the mid-day sun, totally exposed turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated. My body, starting from my lower back downwards, was hurting and my hamstrings were cursing at me for not having warmed them up properly in the cool morning.
Just about halfway up the climb I got sunscreen in my left eye, which was burning like hell, so I stopped and got passed by Ethan with a “See ya at the top!”. After some stretching, water and some energy drink, I was back on the bike and soon caught up with Ethan again to head up to Spooner Lake/Summit, where the climb finally ended. Thank god.
We didn’t know it then, but the best part was yet to come. Reaching the highest point of our tour at 2153 meters (7063 feet) meant there was nowhere to go but down. And down we went. And epic descent down Hwy 50, reaching top speeds of about 55 km/h (40 mph), even blasting through the short Cave Rock Tunnel, we were on the final stretches of our ride. However, some rolling hills were still in the way between us and the finish line, and every climb at this point was like poison for our legs. But we had to keep going, no matter what.
Climbing up one of the last ascents at Zephyr Cove meant literally turning around the corner for the home stretch towards the state border and the checkered flag. Once I saw the casinos, which I remembered from when we started, I knew that we were only minutes away. And there it was, the state line, and soon thereafter, after being out there for 6 hours and 22 minutes, we pulled in the driveway of our motel. Tired, exhausted, but happy. If only our motel room hadn’t been on the third floor with no elevator…
Just a few organizational aspects that are worth sharing for folks who want to do this great ride as well.
We both carried two 20 oz. bike bottles with us, I had, in addition to that, my 80 oz. camelbak with me, almost filled to the top. If you are just concerned about staying hydrated, than bringing the camelbak is not really necessary, because there are plenty of options to refill the bottles along the way. I mainly wanted the some convenient way to carry clothing layers, as well as Clif bars, snacks and bike repair/maintenance stuff with me.
As can be easily figured out from the report, we did the loop clockwise, mainly because I figured that being on the side closer to the lake would account for better views and thus being able to easily stop and take pictures.
Because we had anticipated chilling temperatures in the morning, we both started out with wearing a wind breaker bike jacked, with a short sleeved jersey underneath, bike mittens and bike shorts. In addition, I was wearing a short sleeved base layer underneath. It certainly helped at the beginning, but as mentioned above, with the first climb, sun coming out and temperatures rising, we continued in shorts and jersey.
Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, it was simply most convenient, i.e. closer, to stay at the southern tip of the lake, meaning in South Lake Tahoe. I picked a motel with a low price (it came out to $80 per night) and with decent reviews on TripAdvisor. Any motel will do, really.
Since July and August are historically the hottest in the Tahoe Area, June or September are good alternatives with more welcoming temperatures if you are exercising outside for multiple hours. For this specific trip, which we did beginning of September, the weather turned out to be nearly perfect, with colder temperatures in the morning (44 Fahrenheit), warming up to around 72 Fahrenheit during the day and pretty much sunny up until the last hour of the ride. In the afternoon as well as the next day, thunderstorm clouds rolled in, which brought showers and cooler temperatures. So even though the temperatures get more accommodating, the weather can, unfortunately, also be a little bit more unpredictable. Before you head out to Tahoe, check the weather forecast. If you consider to take the ride as more of a stroll along the lake, with not paying attention to time too much, be sure to check how much daylight you have available and plan accordingly.
Things to do after the ride
Since we did the loop on a Saturday and were planning on heading back to the Bay Area on Sunday, there was still some time left to explore other things in the South Lake Tahoe area. If you are up for another physically demanding challenge, you can hike up Mount Tallac (from South Lake Tahoe, north on Hwy 89 three miles, left onto Fallen Leaf Lake Road. Turn right at “T” and continue to the Glen Alpine Trailhead sign and turn left). If you want to take it a little easier (like we did), you can take a ride with the Heavenly Gondola up to the top of the resort, where you can enjoy great views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. Although with prices starting at $32 for the return trip, the gondola ride might seem equally steep.