TAHOE NUGGET #240: BIKE THE TAHOE FLUME TRAIL!
It’s official. Lake Tahoe’s spectacular flume trail is open for mountain bike enthusiasts. This 14-mile ride is one of the most popular back-country cycling excursions in the basin, one that offers stunning views and requires a nominal amount of technical ability (you can always walk the bike past the scary parts).
Portions of the flume trail have steep drop-away margins, but for me the exposure was more exhilarating than threatening. No texting or distracted cycling on this ride!
The main trail itself is nearly level, but the final approach past Snow Valley up a sand and gravel mountain slope does require a level of physical fitness. I walked my bike up the final portion of the climb, but ardent cyclists in better shape than me engaged their “granny gear” and pedaled the whole way. The pitch is steep (1,100 foot vertical gain in a half mile), but once you get that grunt out of the way, the rest of the trip is level or downhill and it’s smooth sailing on one of America’s most scenic rides. (Google for maps and info before you go.)
Birds-eye view of Nevada’s Sand Harbor State Park from the flume trail. Sand Harbor boasts some of the best beaches at Lake Tahoe. Swimming, kayaking, and boulder diving are favorite activities for all ages.
Every summer and fall, mountain bikers flock to this 19th century logging flume trail 1,600 feet above Tahoe’s idyllic east shore beaches. The narrow pathway hugs the steep face of the Carson Range’s west slope overlooking the lake. The first water flume in the eastern Sierra was built in 1869 to move wood efficiently from the mountains down to the Nevada valley floor where it could be hauled to the bustling Comstock mines.
For more than a century, the Truckee Tahoe region supported a commercial logging industry. When I moved to Truckee in 1978, the town’s lumber yard was still in action as shown here.
The long, winding flumes were built in sections tight enough to hold water, and strong enough to carry cord wood for Comstock boilers as well as cut lumber up to 40 feet long. In some of the steeper areas, loggers used dry chutes to move the timber. These were made of cut-out logs that were firmly staked to the ground and greased daily. The dry chutes were shorter than the water flumes, but the big logs flashed down so quickly that the friction often produced a bright trail of sparks, flames and smoke.
Sunday outing for local family near a dry flume. The flumes and lumberjacks were quiet on Sundays and the only safe time to explore the loggging operations. Note the tree trunks stripped of bark, ready for the saw mill.
By 1879 there were 10 flumes operating in the region totaling more than 80 miles in length. One of the most spectacular flumes was owned by the Pacific Wood, Lumber and Flume Company. It wound its way for 15 miles before ending near the Virginia & Truckee Railroad tracks. Called the Bonanza V Flume it was an engineering marvel in its day. Construction required two million feet of timber and 56,000 pounds of nails, but it was built in only 10 weeks.
Timber baron Duane Leroy Bliss and his wife Elizabeth. Bliss made a lot of money investing in the timber and flume industries, wealth that he used to adavnce Lake Tahoe’s tourism industry. He launched the luxury steamer Tahoe, built the famous Tahoe Tavern Hotel, and constructed the narrow gauge Tahoe Truckee Railway that connected Tahoe City with the main transcontental line at Truckee.
In 1875, H.J. Ramsdell, a New York Tribune reporter, was out on assignment, touring the various Comstock mining operations. One day Ramsdell asked silver baron John Mackay, part owner of the Bonanza flume, how the timber for underground tunnel support was transported out of the mountains. Mackay suggested a visit to his company’s operation.
Once there, Mackay and his associates challenged Ramsdell to join them in a trip down the flume by hog trough, a crude narrow boat 16 feet long with a V-shaped keel. The 200-pound reporter could not believe what he was hearing, but he thought, “If men worth 25 to 30 million dollars apiece could afford to risk their lives, I could afford to risk mine which is not worth half as much.” For a bit of comfort, two small boards were installed as seats.
The men were well-dressed, but apparently not concerned about their clothes or their lives. While stout workmen held the two boats over the rushing current, the daring city slickers were told to jump in as soon as the boats were dropped. They were also warned that: “A flume has no element of safety. You cannot stop, you cannot lessen your speed; you have only to sit still, shut your eyes, say your prayers, take all the water that comes…and wait for eternity.”
Lumberjacks often floated small wooden V-shaped boxes called Go Devils down the flumes. The Go Devils carried tools, supplies, and sometimes lunch from worker to worker. Image is an artist’s line drawing rendition of two brave souls riding a flume. Published in Harper’s Weekly, June 2, 1877.
The boat was lowered and suddenly they were off. When the terrified reporter finally opened his eyes, they were already streaking down the mountainside. The trestle was 70 feet high in some places, and since Ramsdell was lying down, he could see only the aerial flume stretching for miles ahead. The second boat crashed into the first and the men were thrown into the rushing water. The tangled confusion of splintered wood and terrified adventurers slid 15 miles in just 35 minutes, scaring the daylight out them but saving themselves a whole day of traveling by horse-drawn carriage.
The experience enabled reporter Ramsdell to write a good story, but his main satisfaction came from the fact that his wealthy hosts were so battered and sore, they could not get out of bed the next day.
Like the miners working the dangerous Comstock Lode, loggers worked hard and played hard. Here’s a lumberjack taking the fast route to the saloons and brothels in Virginia City. The artist took the liberty of painting a tree trunk, but usually the timber had been sawed into lumber by the time it made its way down a water flume.
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