Roadtripping to The West’s Best Shuttle Rides (PUBLISHED: Outdoor Sports Guide)

Originally published in Outdoor Sports Guide Magazine, August 2014.

Shuttle rides, where ones takes a vehicle to an upper, higher-elevation trailhead, in order to make the majority of a ride a coast downhill, at one time was the lowest form of mountain biking. Shunned by peers as lazy for avoiding climbing and scolded by guidebook authors for taking the easy way out, shuttle rides were generally frowned upon. In fact, Rider Mel’s first Moab guidebook coaxed its readers to “pedal” from town to ride the Gemini Bridges Trail, making for a 44-mile day, mostly on hot asphalt for about a dozen miles on dirt. Just to make a loop instead of a one-way? No thanks!

Last summer we set out on a road trip to Portland to link the classic shuttle rides in four western states, similar to the Whole Enchilada near Moab. We’d start near our home in SLC, hit up the Tahoe Rim outside Reno, trek up to Downieville in California, then finish in Oregon on the McKenzie River Trail and its campside hot springs. Even with all this “downhill” riding, our legs would still be worked!

Photo of a mountain biker

Utah: The Wasatch Crest

The Wasatch Crest begins on a high mountain pass at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon, home to Solitude and Brighton ski areas, and finishes several thousand feet and over two dozen miles later back in the Salt Lake Valley. We could do the shuttle ourselves with two cars or grab a ride with Wasatch Crest Shuttle, which saved an hour—at least—of our day.

On a fall day, temps can be in the 30s at the start and in the 70s by the time you pop post-ride beers back at the car. In between, there is some amazing singletrack, one grueling climb, and a lot of descending. A lot. But first, we must must climb Puke Hill.  A few minutes from the flowy start, when those leg muscles have just barely started to warm, BAM! This climb always feels worse than it should. Riding it clean is tough, but not as difficult as it was a decade or two ago. Getting started again on the steep and loose doubletrack is a challenge and many riders wind up walking much of this 500-foot, half-mile climb.

Once past the intimidating Puke Hill, more climbing awaits. I thought this was a shuttle ride, what’s up with all the pedaling? Similar to the Whole Enchilada in that, while yes, overall the trail loses a few thousand feet, riders wind up climbing about one thousand feet throughout the ride. It’s well worth the tradeoff.

Once topped out on the Crest, there are miles of ridgeline singletrack fun ahead! Views of Big Cottonwood, Park City, and, at points, across the Salt Lake Valley to the Oquirrh range. Options to finish include dropping down to Desolation Lake and into Big Cottonwood, riding into Mill Creek Canyon via Big or Little Water, or ending in Park City when the Canyons Resort trails are in play. The classic is to follow the Great Western Trail into Mill Creek Canyon, ending up on the pavement at the top of the road. For some bonus riding, tacking on the Pipeline Trail for the lower 8 miles of canyon is fun when uncrowded. Since we had a drive to Reno ahead of us, we opted to rally the pavement—more riding awaited tomorrow!

Nevada: Tahoe Rim The next day, Reno local and longtime buddy Dan led us to Incline Village, situated on the north shore of Lake Tahoe to stash a shuttle car, then to the top of the Mt. Rose Highway and Tahoe Meadows trailhead to start our ride. Eight miles of stunning vistas from the top of the pass on the Tahoe Rim Trail with views of the lake, huge pine trees, and just enough technical fun was just what the doctor ordered after yesterday’s Utah ride and drive across the Great Basin.

The Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) technically circles the entire lake, though most people ride it in sections. The highlight of this ride is a section on the northeast end: the short (about 4 miles), but stunning, Flume Trail. Staring at the emerald waters just to the side of your handlebars while riding could lead to disaster on the narrow track. Pull over! We slowed down the pace and had a few snacks along this scenic stretch, which is also popular with day hikers.

Once the Flume ends, we could’ve gone out and back to the TRT, then quickly drop down to our car stashed in Incline Village, making for about a 21-mile day. But that’s no fun! Instead, we added about 6 more miles of climbing heading around the backside of Marlette Lake and eventually rejoined the TRT to climb back up to its original confluence with the Flume Trail. The final three miles down the wide Tunnel Creek Trail into Incline Village, with million dollar views of Lake Tahoe is the perfect end to this 27-mile trek! Actually, the cold Sierra Nevada Pale Ales in the shuttle vehicle were the perfect end.

California: Downieville

I’d read about the Downieville Downhill in bike magazines and blogs for years. The entire point of choosing to drive to Portland via Lake Tahoe from SLC was to tick Downieville off my list.

Rolling into Downieville exudes a sense of arrival you don’t get in many towns. This place feels as though it hasn’t changed since the Gold Rush. The single car-width bridge into a town surrounded by huge redwoods, as well as the architecture along the main drag, is unique to this hamlet. Straight out of the Old West two-story buildings and an interesting mix of friendly old-timers and mountain bikers adds a unique character to Downieville.

Not knowing any locals, we hired Yuba Expeditions to give us a ride. Since we were camping near the start of the trail, among the alpine lakes and granite peaks around Sierra City, we left our car at the upper trailhead, rode the downhill, then were shuttled back to our vehicle. This works well, assuming we wouldn’t ride too slow and miss our scheduled shuttle, which we almost did after my second flat tire. Most riders drive into Downieville and are shuttled to the start and can ride back to their car in town at their own pace.

The Downieville Downhill is 15 miles and drops a thrilling 4,000 feet and has all of five minutes of pedaling! The ride starts out on the Sunrise Trail, adjacent to the Pacific Crest Trail. This new section of singletrack is steep and fun, with some windy turns. There are some other trail options (Pauly Creek, Gold Valley, Big Boulder) that involve climbing to make a longer day, but we had a 10-hour drive ahead of us to Oregon, so we opted for the “express route.” Next up for us was the Butcher Ranch Trail, which upped the scenic value and featured some fun creek crossings, which were a tad cold at 8:00 a.m.! The only climbing is at the end of this section after a footbridge over a creek. The next choice was between Second and Third Divide. Second Divide, according to the shuttle driver, was a bit more technical with some exposure above a creek. Third Divide, however, was fast and tacky singletrack through huge trees. Decision made! Third Divide is possibly the best single section of trail I have ridden. Ever. Too bad it’s only about 3 miles. Perhaps more reason to do a second shuttle each day! Our ride finished on First Divide, 4,000 feet and about 40 degrees warmer than when we started, pumped forearms and all!

Oregon: McKenzie River Trail

Our final shuttle ride was a 10-hour trek from California through Bend, Oregon, which has some incredible biking in its own right, to the McKenzie River Trail. Heralded as “America’s #1 Trail,” we were excited see what the hype was all about. Arriving late in camp at a local hot springs, our sore muscles had one last long ride left in them! Our campsite was located a few yards from the trail with several hot springs on-site at Belknap Hot Springs. Translation: perfect planning.

Early the next morning we were dropped off 26 miles from the trail’s end and stoked to ride. The McKenzie River Trail begins at Clear Lake with a significant amount of technical riding in and around lava flows, which are really sharp when you fall and hurt yourself landing on them! This ride really is the tale of two trails—the upper and lower. While the upper section is slow going, the bottom is smooth and fast, however, the waterfalls, natural springs, and pools of the upper section make it a worthwhile tradeoff. Once past the Trail Bridge Campground the riding is fairly easy; I would consider doing a shorter version starting there, too.

The scenery along the way is a close second to the thrill of biking. Our photos barely do the McKenzie River Trail justice. It is one of the most diverse and unique slices of nature I’ve had the chance to ride my bike through.

I walked my bike more than a few times and even had a derailleur rip off after being snagged by some sharp volcanic rock only eight miles in. A bit of trailside mechanic-ery and I was able to continue, although with only a single speed. Total bummer to miss out on rallying the bottom buffed sections at top speed! Thankfully, hot springs awaited to soak up my sorrows of failed gear and chat about a return to ride.

Four days earlier we began our trip in the high desert of Utah, ending in a Pacific Northwest forest, replete with moss hanging from trees, witnessing it all from the saddle of a mountain bike. This trip was a great reminder of how quickly a bike allows you access to remote and diverse places. You know, as long as you get a shuttle there first.

Photo of a mountain biker

When to Go

We rode these trails in early July, which is a nice combo of long days and clear weather that’s warm enough for dips in lakes and rivers after riding.

Safety Third

Swap in some fresh brake pads before riding (especially Downieville), and consider bringing an extra tire in your pack in case you blow a sidewall on the trail. It would be a mission to walk out on a few of these rides, and we didn’t run into many riders in Downieville or the top section of McKenzie. Plan to be self-sufficient.

Trail info & Shuttle Services

Wasatch Crest: utahmountainbiking.com/trails/wasatch.htm, wcshuttle.com

Tahoe: flumetrailtahoe.com/trails_description.html

Downieville: yubaexpeditions.com

McKenzie River: mckenzierivertrail.com / belknaphotsprings.com

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