Tahoe Pyramid Trail
September – October 2019
Bi-state trail will span 114 miles, connecting Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake.
BY MEGG MUELLER
Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America, known for its clear, crystal-blue waters created by snow melt from the surrounding mountains. Pyramid Lake is an endorheic salt lake—a prehistoric vestige of the once great Lake Lahontan—that sits in the desert about 100 miles northeast of Tahoe.
These two disparate bodies of water are joined by a common thread—the Truckee River. The Truckee is the only outlet of Lake Tahoe, flowing northeast for 121 miles from Tahoe City, California, through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range into Nevada where it ends its journey at Pyramid Lake.
For 21 years, Janet Phillips kept track of the Truckee River in her job as director of water resources for Sierra Pacific Power Company (now NV Energy). After she retired in 2001, her love for the river took on a new life.
“It’s a beautiful river and there should be a path next to it,” she says. “I think people should appreciate what we have here. It’s a unique and wonderful thing.”
Knowing the river as intimately as she did, she knew there were many established trails, access roads, and paved paths in the cities the river flows through, but they were unconnected. She envisioned a trail that parallels the river from its start to its end, and the idea for the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail was born.
STEP BY STEP
Janet first started scouting a trail in the Truckee Canyon back in 2003. She admits she was naive when she thought how long it would take to complete the 114-mile trail.
“Frankly I didn’t think putting a path in would be that hard. I looked down and saw a dirt road, and I thought five years max. I had no clue how hard this would be,” she admits. “It’s probably a good thing, because if I’d known how hard it would be, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Word got out about her dream, and volunteers started offering help. In 2005, the group—then called the Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway—became an all-volunteer, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization (The name was changed to Tahoe-Pyramid Trail in 2018 to better reflect the variety of trail users).
The first project the group undertook was a 1-mile path that would connect Reno and Verdi. Already a popular local ride, cyclists were previously forced to use Interstate 80 to complete the ride. In 2005, the section was completed, funded by almost $400,000 in grants and donations, plus hundreds of volunteer work hours.
IF YOU BUILD IT
Today the trail is 80-percent complete, with the final section of the Truckee Canyon finished just this August. From Tahoe City, California to Sparks, the trail is a collection of paved paths, dirt and paved roads, and singletrack trails. The section from Sparks to Pyramid Lake has 33 miles of completed dirt trail, including 23 miles on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, but there are two segments that have not been as easy to plan and build as Janet had hoped.
“People assume because we’ve made progress every year on the upstream side, building a mile or two of trail each year, that it’ll be like that going east. I’m not so sure it’s going to be like that at all. We may have a hiatus on the progress,” she notes.
At issue is private landowners who are not interested in having the trail through their property. The organization has been focused on completing the Truckee Canyon for the last few years, but in 2020, Janet will again take up the cause for this eastern section of the trail, and this time around, she’s got some unexpected support.
The Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center—home of Tesla, Apple, Zulily, and Switch, among others—has already granted permission for the trail on a portion of its property, and Janet has heard from a group of outdoor enthusiasts who work at Tesla. They are interested in how they can help get the trail extended out from Sparks to the USA Parkway so they can ride to and from work. These types of partnerships could be key when it comes to working out differences with the property owners. Janet is sympathetic to their concerns, which run the gamut from encouraging homeless camps to fire risks and vandalism.
“It’s hard to convince some people about the benefits of the trail,” she says. “We’ve promised at some locations to put up a fence so people stay on the trail and not wander into someone’s property.”
“Fire risk is a legitimate concern. There are very few trees, it’s dry. No camping is the rule, but who’s going to enforce that? It’s challenging for sure,” she continues.
AN END IN SIGHT
Challenges notwithstanding, Janet hopes to have the trail completed by 2025. It’s an ambitious plan, but for one as tenacious as she, it’s not unthinkable. As the trail nears completion, interest in the organization is ramping up. Buzz is building in the outdoor recreation community, trail usage is increasing, and volunteer numbers are starting to grow. A private company in Truckee, California—Dirt Gypsy Adventures—is offering shuttle rides for users who want to complete the 15-mile section from Hirschdale, California to Verdi without having to do the return trip.
While Janet has been the driving force behind the efforts for the last 16 years, without the volunteers and community support, there would be no trail. Janet estimates that between 80-100 people a year come out to volunteer for a day or so, but it’s her core group of about 12 volunteers that work year after year to keep this dream alive. From trail planning, engineering services, accounting, legal work, and risk management, volunteers are needed to do much more than trail building. There are 17 sections of the trail that need volunteers to do regular maintenance, such as removing weeds and small obstacles, plus reporting trail conditions so more robust repairs can be
organized. The volunteers are crucial to the success of this monumental undertaking, Janet mentions frequently.
After 2025, when hopefully the trail is completed, Janet envisions eventually there will be paid staff to manage the programming and maintenance aspects of the trail, much like the Tahoe Rim Trail Association.
But endings are not what Janet’s focus is today. It’s seeing that last section in the Truckee Canyon completed, getting more signage in place along the finished segments, and making sure those segments are well-maintained. Once the upstream portion of the trail is entirely complete, then it’s time to get the word out even more and promote the trail.
Janet’s convinced that giving people a great experience on the finished segments of trail will help with the efforts to convince the downstream stakeholders this trail is nothing but a positive asset to the community. From a tourism standpoint, the Reno-Sparks area is basically the halfway point of the trail, and Janet envisions people flying to the area to stay in a hotel, perhaps one that offers a shuttle to either end of the trail. Folks will ride from Tahoe City to Reno, she believes, stay the night, then do the Reno to Pyramid section the second day. It’s certainly an amazing athletic feat for anyone to accomplish, and in today’s active world, it’s anticipated trail users will flock to the once-completed trail.
While the dream of completing the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail in five short years is long past, the extraordinary vision to one day be able to follow the Truckee River from beginning to end is almost here. And it’s a day Janet Phillips will continue working toward until she sees her dream become reality.
Volunteer, Ride the Trail
A Wish Comes True
BY MEGG MUELLER
I’ve always looked out car windows and wondered where the roads I’d see in the distance go to. I wonder what’s over that next ridge, or what’s down in that canyon. Growing up in Reno with family in northern California, the drive over Interstate 80 was a consistent part of my childhood. I’d catch glimpses of the Truckee River coursing past, and wonder, how do you get down there?
Now I know. In June, Associate Editor Eric Cachinero and I grabbed our mountain bikes and rode the Floriston to Verdi section of the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail, and I was down in that canyon, racing with the river for 10.8 glorious miles. The trail defied all expectations; it undulated in a gentle yet persistent manner, with plenty of singletrack for fun. The sections of dirt road were a respite and while there is one short but very gnarly steep climb, as long as you can walk, you can ride this trail no problem.
Hikers and runners along the way confirmed what we were discovering. The trail is a gem, hidden from the road at times, closer to freeway in others, but all with gorgeous views of the canyon and river. At times we were high above the freeway and river, feeling like we part of a special club that has access to such sights. Other times we were mere feet from the river, which on our June morning was raging with the snowmelt of summer still flowing strong.
The trail was well marked with clear signage, and maps from the organization’s website showed the elevation changes clearly. There are informational signs along the trail, giving glimpses into the history of the river and the power stations along it. There were plenty of areas offering shade and a place to rest or have a snack. When the river is calmer, I can picture trail users resting with their feet in the water, or even taking a swim. Maybe even bring that portable fishing rod for a chance at some Truckee trout.
In the fall, the Wadsworth to Pyramid segment will be on my to-do list. This area offers less shade, so for me, it’s a cooler-weather ride. Regardless of the section I will ride, I know for certain this is an incredibly special opportunity to see parts of this area that for years I’d only wondered, “how do I get there?”