Ranging Around Reno: A Loop Around Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe ride
If you can find a parking space near Emerald Bay, the rewards are great, with incredible views, beaches, hiking trails and waterfalls all nearby. Photos by the author.

The mountain ranges to the south of Reno, Nevada, are a playground full of great rides. Today’s will take me up to Virginia City, down to Carson City (the Nevada state capital), up to and around Lake Tahoe and then back down to Reno. It’s still early in the season, so there shouldn’t be too much tourist traffic on the roads yet. In other words, I’m hoping the road more traveled is the road less traveled today.

Lake Tahoe ride
The overlook above Nevada State Route 342 provides a view of one of the Gold Hill mines. During the mining boom of the 1870s, Gold Hill reached a population of 8,000. Now a near ghost town, its population has dropped below 200.

Heading south out of Reno on Virginia Street, I take a right on Foothill Road for breakfast at Squeeze In. It offers about a hundred different omelets in addition to other standard breakfast fare. Back on Virginia Street heading southbound, I roll through a few more streetlights until the residential area starts to become speckled with more commercial, industrial and sagebrush covering. Turning left on Nevada State Route 341, Geiger Grade Road, the ride really begins. Over the next 13 miles, I wind my way up the mountain toward Virginia City. It’s important to watch for suicidal wild horses on this stretch, as they aren’t always as street savvy as they should be, and a close encounter of the colliding kind will ruin your day as well as the horse’s.

Entering Virginia City, I stop for a few moments to take a quick look around. It’s still early, so there isn’t much happening yet. Soon the shops will be open, mine tours will begin, the Virginia and Truckee Railroad will take tourists down to Carson City and Wild West gunfights will go into action.

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Lake Tahoe ride
This headframe above the Yellow Jacket Mine helped it to bring in more than $10 million in the 1860s and 1870s. Other Gold Hill mines had similar success during the boom.

Leaving Virginia City, the rider has a choice to make. Going straight, the highway turns into State Route 342, which leads to the towns of Gold Hill and Silver City, several mining relics and an active mine. A left turn on State Route 341, Occidental Grade, has less interesting scenery, but that doesn’t matter because my eyes need to stay on the road as it twists and turns beneath me. Both roads come together again and merge back into State Route 341 just south of Silver City. Beyond Silver City, State Route 341 offers mild twists and turns, and expansive views of valleys and distant mountains.

Lake Tahoe ride
Nicknamed the Jewel of the Sierra, filtered views of Lake Tahoe can be seen along Nevada State Route 431. The jewel on the left side of this photo is my Honda ST1300.

State Route 341 ends when it reaches U.S. Route 50. A right turn onto U.S. 50 west brings me into the metropolis of Mound House, Nevada, where a more, ahem, “adventurous” rider might turn left on Kit Kat Drive or right on Bunnyranch Boulevard. Back on U.S. 50 westbound, the road is straight and signs of civilization accumulate until I reach Carson City, the country’s smallest state capital. A left turn onto Carson Street takes me past the Nevada State Capitol building, the Legislative building and the Supreme Court building, which surround a pedestrian mall.

Continuing south on Carson Street, traffic increases and lanes are added as I ride through the commercial part of town. I keep to the right and take the U.S. 50 ramp west, toward my next destination, South Lake Tahoe. The ride up to South Lake Tahoe is a four-lane divided highway with big sweeping curves all the way up. It is easy to get rolling too fast on this road, so keep an eye on your speed because it is aggressively patrolled, as are many of the roads on this ride. The scenery becomes alpine as I ascend, and I start to get glimpses of Lake Tahoe through the trees.

Lake Tahoe ride
Just beyond Emerald Bay on California Route 89, it is difficult not to gawk as granite slabs soar from the lake to the sky.

Continuing west on U.S. 50, the twin cities of Stateline, Nevada, and South Lake Tahoe, California, are just a few more miles down the road. Once there, you can hit the casinos, see a show, take a gondola ride to the top of the Heavenly Ski Resort, participate in a variety of water sports entertainment and shop to your heart’s content.

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Unfortunately, you are almost assured of hitting traffic through this area. You can expect stop and go almost to your next turnoff, California State Route 89 north. After I turn right, the traffic opens up, at least for a while. This road follows the western coast of Lake Tahoe. It has mild curves and occasional openings through the trees to catch a quick glimpse of the lake.

As I approach Emerald Bay, the curves get tighter and the scenery is spectacular. Some of the curves are marked as low as 15 mph, and the signs should be respected. Meanwhile, incredible views of the lake open up to the right while huge spires of granite rise to the sky ahead and to the left. Traffic also increases, but I don’t mind too much because it gives me a chance to steal a quick occasional glance at the scenery. What I do mind is the parking situation. Cars are shoehorned into every conceivable parking space along the side of the road. I decide to ride on and only take mental photographs, profoundly grateful that I’m on a motorcycle and not driving a motorhome.

Lake Tahoe ride
The Bridgetender Tavern in Tahoe City, California, is located at Fanny Bridge over the only outlet from Lake Tahoe. Why is it called Fanny Bridge? Because so many tourists bend over the bridge rail to get a view of the rainbow trout swimming below it.

North of Emerald Bay, the forest closes in again, and I don’t get another glimpse of the lake until the highway comes right up to the shore in the town of Homewood. Continuing past Homewood, I ride a few more miles to my lunch stop in Tahoe City. I turn left to the Bridgetender Tavern and Grill and get a seat on the patio beside the Truckee River, where it originates as spillover from Lake Tahoe. The burger fortifies me for the rest of my ride and the garlic/parmesan fries guarantee that I won’t have any trouble with vampires for the foreseeable future.

In Tahoe City, I stay to the right and leave State Route 89 behind to follow State Route 28 along the northwest portion of Lake Tahoe. The remainder of Route 28 is dotted with lake views and more tourist towns. Crossing into Nevada, California State Route 28 becomes Nevada State Route 28, and it starts to rise above lake level. Looking down and to the right, I take quick peeks to notice some of the truly impressive mansions down at lake level.

Lake Tahoe ride
Turnouts along Geiger Grade provide breathtaking views of the Sierra Nevada rising from Truckee Meadows.

As I cross the Incline Village city limits, I follow the roundabout three-quarters of the way around and take Nevada State Route 431 toward Reno. This final road of the trip winds me up to the Mount Rose Summit, which at 8,911 feet is the highest continually open mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada. It also offers great views of Lake Tahoe and the forest as it climbs, and views of the city and desert as it descends into Reno.

The road straightens and flattens out, and the temperature rises as I approach the valley and my final turn onto Interstate 580 north toward Reno. I never tire of this ride and make a point of taking it at least once a year.

Lake Tahoe ride
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

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