It Takes a Village to Build a Trail

TRTA trail volunteers Robbie Kay and John McKenna move giants boulders on Echo Summit | Courtesy Tahoe Rim Trail Association

The next time you’re cruising down a perfectly sculpted trail with crystal-clear views of Lake Tahoe in the distance, take a moment to silently thank the countless mountain bikers, hikers, fundraisers and forest rangers who work together to make these enchanted paths a reality. These are the product of thousands of hours of dreaming, scouting and organizing by members of diverse groups of citizens who care enough about this place to jump through many hoops and lift innumerable rocks to put these official routes in place.

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With more than a dozen different land-management agencies in the area, the paperwork adds up quickly, especially when it comes to the legally required National Environmental Policy Act guidelines, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.


“Pretty much across the board, none of them have a significant budget for trails,” says Curtis Johnson. “When it comes to construction or maintenance, it really depends on trail partnerships with different groups for fundraising and volunteer support to help out with some of these projects.”

TRTA volunteers, from left, Matt Rump, Donna Maher, Tom Fullerton and Jamie Goodspeed celebrate a job well done. | Courtesy Tahoe Rim Trail Association

Johnson is the president of Biggest Little Trail Stewardship, a nonprofit formerly known as Poedunks, that maintains trails primarily in the greater Reno area. In partnership with the Forest Service, they’ve built 42 miles of single track on Peavine Peak north of the city. This year, their project focuses on building a 2-mile flow trail at Sierra Vista Park, as well as a connector to the Peavine network.

“It takes a long time to build legal trails, but if you can get a good relationship going [with the land managers] it can be better and more sustainable,” he says. “Over the last three or four years, we’ve spent more time rebuilding trails because of the erosion problems.

People who build trails without knowing what they are doing can create a lot of problems. Trails that take a direct route down the fall line leave scars in the hillside, which lead to erosion from rain and melting snow. The key to building long-lasting and sustainable trails is including regular grade reversals in which a downhill route goes back uphill for a few yards. This allows the water to run off down a more natural route rather than along the trail.

“Trail building is all about micromanaging water and making it fun for people to ride at the same time,” says Johnson. “It’s the most fun you’ll have since you we’re building a fort as a kid.”

Connecting trails

One of the most anticipated trail projects of 2019 is the Big Chief Trail, which connects the popular Sawtooth Trail along Forest Service Road 06 with Watson Lake and Northstar California in North Lake Tahoe. In an effort led by Truckee Trails Foundation, the soft opening of the trail in the fall received nothing but glowing reviews.

“We are anxious to see how well it handles the snowmelt and our crew will certainly get out as early as possible this spring to get it ready for users,” says Foundation executive director Allison Pedley. “After a big snow year, we anticipate the need for some heavy maintenance on a few other trails, such as the PCT [Pacific Crest Trail], but of course higher elevation trails won’t be ready for us until later in the summer.”

TAMBA Trails Director Scott Brown working on the Lily Lake Trail above Fallen Leaf Lake with Lake Tahoe in the background. | Courtesy TAMBA

The foundation’s crews will also be working on the Western States Trail and scoping a possible connection between the Sawtooth Trail and State Route 89, as well as working with the Forest Service to improve and add 2 new miles to the popular Jackass Trail in Truckee. Another long-sought extension now in talks is the completion of the Hole in the Ground loop, which would avoid a 5-mile pedal on pavement and logging roads from Soda Springs to Boreal Mountain Resort, thereby completing a 16 mile alpine single-track circuit high on Donner Summit.

“This is all part of our effort to bring greater connectivity and enhanced trail sustainability in this area,” says Pedley.

Carson City’s muscle

Down the hill in Carson City, Muscle Powered has forged a strong relationship with the city of Carson City, Nev., that includes a memorandum of understanding allowing the volunteer-driven nonprofit to work on trails under city parks and recreation and open-space management. This year, they are planning to build an Ash to Kings Canyon connector, which will link the two most prominent valleys rising above Carson to each other and eventually to the Tahoe Rim Trail.

“We are more or less the labor arm for the city,” says Muscle Powered president Randy Gaa. “The more you dig into it, you’ll find it’s like a big community. I think what attracted to me building and maintaining trails is when I was out there using them and enjoying them, they were really awesome awe-inspiring vistas. I felt it would be really cool to give back. It’s cathartic.”

Community trail building

Considering the vast amount of granite, steep grades and immense terrain, trail building in the Sierra Nevada takes not only tremendous human effort, but money and lots of it. Oftentimes, professional crews with heavy equipment are required to make the trails safe, functional and sustainable. This is where interagency collaboration is key. For an upcoming project to build a flow trail in the Forest Service land above the King’s Beach grid, several community partners have joined forces to make it happen.

“We’re all in it together and we all bring what we can to the party,” says Tahoe Fund CEO Amy Berry. “For the new trail in Kings Beach, the Forest Service did environmental work, TAMBA [Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association] will help build it and Tahoe Fund assists in securing the funding to get it done. We are lucky to live in a place where people are so generous and love trails and are willing to contribute in a meaningful way. Everybody gets to ride the trails and people give in the ways they can.”

The greatest example of community trail-building efforts to date would probably have to be the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail. Its association was formed as a whole in 1981 as the dream child of Glen Hampton, a Forest Service recreation officer.

Dr. Johanna Foster breaks ground on the V&T Trail. | Courtesy Muscle Powered

“He saw that recreation in the Tahoe Basin was really concentrated in a few areas, so he dreamt up the system and recruited a ragtag team of volunteers that worked for 17 years building the trail,” says association operations and marketing manager Justine Lentz.

Upcoming projects for the Tahoe Rim Trail’s 300 volunteers include rerouting from logging roads to single track in areas ranging from Mott Canyon in Stateline, Nev., to Ward Creek outside of Tahoe City and Martis Peak above Brockway Summit.

“These are our lands and it’s our responsibility to maintain them,” says Lentz. “Our trail sees over 440,000 users annual and they aren’t all from people from the Tahoe Basin. We have 5.7 million annual visitors, so keeping a dispersed system maintained is important for the user experience. Recreation funding has been pretty slashed as of late, so we’ve been leaning on nonprofits and volunteers to handle the day-to-day management piece.”

A vision of single track

Any story about trail building in Tahoe would be remiss without mentioning the incredible work of TAMBA, which has multiple projects in the works this year. Tahoe Fund recently approved a campaign to raise funds for TAMBA to complete construction of the Lily Lake Trail this summer, agreeing to double every dollar donated until they reach a goal of $75,000. This will connect the Glen Alpine Trailhead to Angora Ridge Road, both of which are popular entrances to Desolation Wilderness. It is extremely challenging terrain to build on with massive boulder fields, dense fields of willows and shrubs condensed by the snow and steep switchbacks that require rock walls to reinforce.

TRTA Executive Director Morgan Steel on a steep section of exposed rock. | Courtesy Tahoe Rim Trail Association

One big-picture goal of TAMBA is to connect a loop of single track that circles Lake Tahoe by using parts of the Tahoe Rim Trail and diverting others around Desolation and Mount Rose wilderness areas, which are not legally accessible to bicycles or machinery, including chainsaws. They are also introducing an adopt-a-trail program and working to add improved signage throughout the trail network.

Eventually, local mountain bikers hope to have a network of single track that connects from Downieville to Mammoth and possibly at some point, from Canada to Mexico.

“If you’re dreaming, then dream big,” says Scott Brown, a TAMBA trails director. “We like to work hard, get dirty and learn new skills. It’s really fun, rewarding, challenging work and you get to see the results.”