Aaron Johnson | California Sierra Trail Race: Part 1

California Sierra Trail Race: Part 1

March 06, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

August 1, 2014

It didn't take long after I finished the AZTR for the bikepacking itch to return - funny how fast the memories of the pain fade.  I couldn't make the Dixie 200 happen - that route looks awesome, saving it for next year - so I set my sights on the California Sierra Trail Race, a 425 mile route starting in Auburn, looping around Lake Tahoe, and finishing back in Auburn.

I've had my eye on this race ever since its creation was announced a couple years ago. Foresthill local hero Sean Allan had been piecing together this route for many years, painstakingly making obscure connections between established trails until he had a continuous, feasible, doable route.  I say doable because it would have been very easy to create an impossibly hard route in this area - the rough terrain and jagged elevation profiles of the foothills quickly add up, and Sean did a great job balancing the demanding trails with dirt roads and pavement. "Pavement right when you want it most, never when you don't want it," he promised, and he was right.

Jack and Jeremy at dawn, day 1 Jack and Jeremy at dawn, day 1

Only in its second year, and first year for the whole original route (last summer's fires necessitated some re-routes), the turnout is pretty pathetic - only 4 of us line up together at the Raley's parking lot in Auburn at 6am on Friday, July 18. Slightly different vibe than AZTR or CTR, already low-key events themselves - we just kind of shrug our shoulders and slowly ride out of town together. We are definitely excited but the pace is relaxed, easy pedaling down into the deep canyons and off towards Foresthill.

Incredible morning Incredible morning

Sean, who is not racing due to a recent knee surgery, meets us about halfway to Foresthill. It's a gorgeous morning, trails dusty but in good shape, and we have some good energy and conversation as we head into Foresthill. Still easy pedaling - so far, a much more mellow start than CTR or AZTR! I am enjoying it but starting to itch for some speed, get my blood flowing, my legs are ready to go!

We stop in Foresthill, mile 25, to load up for the long 100-mile haul to Lake Tahoe. Temps are rising, and Sean promises plenty of suffering ahead, warning that the first day is perhaps the hardest. Looking at the elevation profile has me a bit concerned - 14,000 ft of climbing over the first 71 miles???

It gets real pretty quick. We are smacked by a 2,000 foot hike-a-bike out of El Dorado Creek on Western States, the canyon a furnace in the midday sun. I have been with Jack and Greg up to this point, and am glad to see that Jack is able to match my pace - nice to have someone to ride with during one of these events for a change, as CTR and AZTR were mostly solo affairs for me.


Next up - how about 3,000 more feet of climbing? At least it is rideable, on dirt roads and pavement, through a huge burn area from a fire back in 2008.


Finally we escape the heat and make it to Robinson Flat, a cool little campground with this huge meadow full of flowers. We refill our bladders, and the cool grass rejuvenates our cooked bodies and brains.

We poke our noses above 7,000 ft for the first time, certainly not the last, and finally reap some rewards for all that fine climbing: a loose, shaley, ridiculously fun descent down to French Meadows reservoir. The afternoon light is stunning, everything is so green.

We are flying. Jack is tearing it up on his hardtail, impressive!

It feels so remote....and judging by how overgrown some trails are, nobody has been back here in a long time. We get torn to shreds by horrible prickly bushes as we approach the reservoir but we're loving it!

Uhhhhh is this the right way??

Uhhhhh is this the right way??

Our goal for the day is to reach the Rubicon river, just shy of 100 miles. We start the long descent down to the river as darkness settles. The trail is treacherous - steep, loose, overgrown, much of it not rideable in daylight, much less by headlamp. Ego and excitement has me riding a lot of it until I go over the bars once, maybe twice. We hike and slide our way down, until the grade mellows out a bit. The trail contours on forever, up and down, the darkness and thick forest play tricks on our tired brains. Where is the damn river??

Finally! We reach the Rubicon near midnight, ready to pass out. Unfortunately, we did not count on having to scramble on foot a couple hundred feet down sketchy, exposed cliffs to actually get access to the water! I'm sure there is an easier way, but we are too tired to search around for it in the dark. After our acrobatic water endeavor, we quickly set up camp and pass out in the warm night, alarms set for 4am.

Day 1 on Strava.

Day 2

I barely sleep. I'm sweating in my sleeping bag, but cannot expose any flesh to the cool air, lest I be devoured by the swarms of mosquitos. They dive bomb me incessantly, buzzing everywhere - they're even in my damn sleeping bag! The alarm couldn't come soon enough.

Finally we're moving. First up - a nice 3,500 ft pavement climb up to Loon Lake. The morning is gorgeous and we're making good time. We can smell those breakfast burritos in Tahoe calling us.....

But first, just the minor obstacle of Loon Lake and the Rubicon Trail. Our progress slows to a crawl, the trails full of chunk. Entertaining chunk, however, and we are fully immersed in the beauty of this place.



We escape Loon Lake and descend down to the famed Rubicon Trail. We can hear them long before we can see them: BRAAPP BRRAAAAAPP!

Jeepers everywhere! We are stunned at how gnarly the trail is and what these vehicles can do. We easily blow a half hour just watching them crawl their way over the granite slabs and boulders. Super cool. Time to boogie, only to be blocked again and again by these slow moving beasts. OK this is getting old.



The final hike out is brutal but thankfully no jeepers, as they closed that part of the trail for the day. So close to Tahoe but it's noon, our chances of getting breakfast burritos is dwindling. I bomb the final descent into Tahoma, beeline it for the market, and yes!! HUGE breakfast burritos served right up!

Burrito/coffee/ice cream BOOM. Instant recharge, and we're off to tackle Stanford Rock.


Ahhhh. Tahoe Rim Trail. Blissfully smooth climbing, it is nice not getting the crap knocked out of us for a change.

Climbs are starting to wear on us....

Climbs are starting to wear on us....

Incredible views of the lake as we near the top. Storm clouds are brewing so we waste little time. The descent back to Tahoe City is the best of the trip so far - how can this keep getting better?

Kings Beach is our goal for the evening. After a brief stop in Tahoe City for some pizza and to wait out a quick lightning storm, we head back up the TRT for the final leg of the day.


Glorious, glorious evening riding. Such a fun trail.

Darkness comes and we still have many miles to cover. For me, the arrival of darkness is always difficult - energy levels plummet, mental struggles ensue. Jack is hurting as well. The trail is so much better than last night, but we are desperate for Kings Beach. We are still high on the mountain, but hilariously, we can hear the Infected Mushroom concert thundering up from the lake below. Here we are, alone in the pristine wilderness, with a dub step soundtrack to keep us awake. Oddly comforting, it means we are getting close.

Finally, the trail spits us out onto the highway, and we bomb 1,000 feet down to Kings Beach. We stumble into the Safeway and slowly peruse the aisles, frazzled by the lights and colorful packaged food after the hours of dark forest. As we shop, the store fills up with kids from the concert, some in bizarre costumes, many in nothing but boots, thongs, and torn up t-shirts - what a freaking bizarre scene! The dichotomy between the wilderness and crazy rave kids is too much for my tired brain and I just want to get out. It takes far too long to get out of there with the crowds, but we finally get everything and head out to find a place to sleep. Jack checks behind the dumpsters outside, and finds us a nice grassy field, hidden from view, so we plop down and set up camp like a couple homeless people, camping in a field behind Safeway. Already after 1am, I finally get some good rest, so thankful for no mosquitoes!

Day 2 on Strava.

Day 3

Our nice field behind Safeway

Our nice field behind Safeway

5am alarm wakes us up, and we blearily head out towards Mt. Rose. Jack is strong, moving well - I struggle a bit and he disappears up the road.

2,000 feet up the highway later, with a bit of rain, we are back on the TRT. I've done this segment before and am looking forward to it - fast, flowy goodness. Thanks to the rain, the dirt is absolutely perfect.

Despite the great trail and conditions, I am a bit grumpy. My knee is hurting, and out of nowhere I get launched off my bike and front flip upside down into a bush. Get it together man!

Soon, we come across hoards of runners - turns out the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 is going on, and we make our way through the back of the field. These runners have been moving for 30 hours straight, 85 miles in - so interesting to see their conditions. Some are chippy and fresh, and some are straight up zombies, struggling with every step. Jack is especially excited, as he's an ultrarunner himself.

We refill water at Spooner Lake, watching the TRT100 finish - such a cool, supportive community, huge turnout and cheering for the runners as they cross the finish line. If only bikepacking had the same level of participation and support......

The TRT over to Heavenly is an absolute blast - huge lake views and a techy but fast descent. Jack stops to fix his seatpost and I push ahead, eager to get to the market and get some food. Some ominous looking thunderclouds have been forming overhead, and a couple miles out from Kingsbury, it starts raining. Not too heavy at first, and I make it to the market still fairly dry. I spot a restaurant next to the market and duck inside, just as the sky opens up and starts DUMPING rain. Huge lightning and thunder all around. Wow, I made it just in time, but Jack is still out there! I hope he finds shelter! I sit down and order a huge BBQ bacon cheeseburger, and check out the weather forecast on my phone. Not good, heavy rain forecasted basically until midnight. Crap. We are about to head up to 9,600 feet, the high point of the route - not where you want to be during a thunderstorm!

Finally Jack come stumbling in, soaked head to toe. He got caught out in the storm, and had to take shelter under a staircase from the lightning. We sit and eat and chill, unsure of what to do - the rain has let up a bit, do we head back out? Do we wait and see if it gets better? Neither of us is particularly excited about a cold, wet night in the rain, so we decide to wait a bit. Suddenly the power goes out - not just for the restaurant, but for all of South Lake, the casinos, everything - and the restaurant is mobbed by people, as they have a generator and are still serving food. We just want to nap, but there is nowhere to lie down. Finally, around 7:30pm, we order some coffee and sandwiches to go, and head back out into the soggy twilight.

Star Lake is the goal. Only 9 miles, but some tough climbing - I estimate 3 hours. The night is actually pretty warm, and the rain stops. We are entranced by the lights of the Carson Valley below as we traverse through Heavenly Ski Resort. It is a beautiful night, and we make quick time to the lake.

We find a perfect bivy site right next to the lake and quickly set up camp under the stars. We are so thankful for being here, for having the good fortune to be doing this - it is truly something special. Another early wakeup awaits, and sleep comes quickly.

Day 3 part 1 on Strava.

Day 3 part 2 on Strava.


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