Trail of the Month: February 2013
California's Truckee River Bike Trail
By Laura Stark
"As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords."
—Mark Twain, American writer and humorist, on Lake Tahoe in Roughing It, published 1872
Surrounded by the majestic, snowcapped mountains of the Sierra Nevada and renowned for its clear blue water, the country's second deepest lake is surely as stunning today as when Mark Twain saw it more than a century ago. In fact, Lake Tahoe was recently deemed America's best lake by popular vote in a USA Today survey. Although dozens of tributaries flow into the lake, only one flows out, and it is along this waterway that the Truckee River Bike Trail is aligned.
"It's a pretty spectacular setting," says Barry Bergman, manager of trail development at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Western office. "And it's a year-round destination. The biggest crowds are in the winter, but it's also busy in the summer because of the lake."
The trail follows the former route of a tourist train that operated in the early 1900s. The Lake Tahoe Railway and Transportation Company took passengers from the bustling railroad town of Truckee (a stop along the First Intercontinental Railroad) to Tahoe City on the lake's shore. From there, travelers could take steamships to other destinations on the lake. The railroad was leased to Southern Pacific Company in 1925, but by 1943 it had ceased operation, no match for the burgeoning car industry.
The critical role of railroads in the shaping of Truckee is fully explored in the Truckee Railroad Museum, which opened in 2010. Although the rail-trail stops about nine miles short of Truckee, you can continue heading north from its endpoint in Olympic Valley along the wide shoulder of Highway 89 to the downtown area where the museum is housed next to a historical, and still-functioning, train station. Before the railroad, the town was an important stagecoach and wagon stop called Coburn Station (after a saloon keeper) and retains its Wild West character in its rugged small-town feel and 19th century buildings.
The name Truckee that now graces the town, river and rail-trail, predates the coming of the railroad. Once known as the Salmon Trout River, the waterway was renamed for a leader of the Paiute tribe, known as Chief Truckee, in gratitude for guiding westward settlers through the area in the mid-1800s.
One notorious California-bound group, the Donner party, did not fair well. In late October 1846, the travel-weary group of more than 80 emigrants, many of whom were children, became stranded on the shores of Lake Truckee for several weeks in heavy snow, unable to complete their journey across the mountains. When they were finally rescued the following February, nearly half the group had perished, many from starvation. In a desperate attempt to survive, some had resorted to cannibalism. The Donner Memorial State Park in western Truckee stands as a testament to their tragic struggle.
South of Truckee the trail picks up in Olympic Valley, which was known as Squaw Valley when it was chosen to host the 1960 winter Olympic Games. In true American style, it was the first Olympic Games to tabulate scores by computer (IBM) and the opening and closing ceremonies were produced by famed animator Walt Disney. The elaborate entertainment involved 5,000 performers and set the standard for future Olympic Games.
Continuing south, through an evergreen forest, the asphalt trail closely follows the Truckee River, a pleasant place to cool off during a summer ride and an incredibly popular outlet for fishing, white water rafting, kayaking and paddle boarding. The area's popularity is, however, a double-edged sword.
"The river is heavily impacted by recreational use and its banks are becoming very degraded," says Lisa Wallace, executive director of the Truckee River Watershed Council. "We're losing vegetation and overhanging banks for fish."
To remedy the situation, the organization is partnering with the Tahoe City Public Utility District (TCPUD) and others to add more environmentally friendly river access points and directional signage in the hopes of improving the waterway so that it can continue to be enjoyed responsibly.
With this strong community support and its abundant beauty, the watershed became part of the National Forest Foundation's "Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences" program this past fall, one of only 14 sites chosen nationwide. The program will support additional efforts to restore and protect the much-loved and much-used resource.
The trail's nearly seven-mile journey ends in Tahoe City, the gateway to the lake, just as the trains did decades ago. Less than a half-mile from this endpoint, you can view artifacts and photographs from the area's intriguing past at the Gatekeepers Museum (130 W. Lake Blvd.) Interestingly, the unincorporated community is a city in name only. One of the responsibilities of its governing body, the TCPUD, is the development and management of the rail-trail.
"In the 1970s, TCPUD started a bicycle trail network in our district," says Cindy Gustafson, the organization's general manager. "Ever since that time, we've been working to complete a unified trail."
Just this summer, a critical piece of the network fell into place when the Lakeside Trail, which directly connects to the Truckee River Bike Trail, opened in downtown Tahoe City. Nineteen miles of paved off-road trail are now accessible along the western and northern shores of the lake. In an area known for its extreme sports, the level, smooth pathways are a welcome addition for walkers, casual cyclists, inline skaters and families.
"We had all these segments of trail, but the biggest gap has been right through the heart of Tahoe City," says Gustafson. "It forced bicyclists to share the road on a narrow two-lane roadway. The Lakeside Trail has connected everything together."
With 300,000 to 400,000 annual visitors on the Truckee River Bike Trail alone, Gustafson says the community has been "hugely supportive" of these efforts. "It's the most highly rated recreational facility that we operate," she says. "Visitors and residents want to get outdoors and not be trapped in their cars."
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