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72 Hours: Bikepacking Rocks

As in, bags over boulders.

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I’d never taken a nap at the top of a world-class descent before. Those trails are usually the kind of experience where, fed by days or weeks of anticipation, I drop in a little jittery, hyper-focused and extremely awake. So when I found myself slowly waking, looking blearily up at the tips of pines sitting still under the late-afternoon sun, only a handful of paces from the top few corners of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, I was a little disoriented.

Blame it on the bikepacking. That habit is hard. Of course, my partner Leah Lind-White and I hadn’t made it easy on ourselves; setting out not just to use our bicycles as modes of transport to spend a few days in the mountains, but instead choosing to use our bicycles as modes of transport to spend a few days in the mountains and enjoy plenty of legit descending, as unhindered as possible. That meant that we were sticking to chunky singletrack selected to maximize the fun factor, and riding burly full-suspension bikes with as little baggage slung to them as we could manage. But bikepacking, by definition, means carrying way more crap than you would on a normal bike ride, and we couldn’t escape that reality. It was just on our backs, so we could let our steeds dance freely. Or something like that.

The chosen venue, on and around the Rim Trail above South Lake Tahoe, was actually a backup plan. Late summer of 2020 meant that we were pretty well-adjusted to the uncertain nature of plans; that year having taught us that “plans” are nothing more than human folly until they actually become reality. Wildfire had shut the door on our original route further north in the Sierras, and so we’d gone to Plan B, anxiously monitoring fire maps and weather forecasts, hoping we wouldn’t have to resort to Plan C. That plan involved a lot more giving up, driving home and going back to work than we preferred, and it sounded like a lot less fun.

“Fun” isn’t necessarily the first word that comes to mind when you’re slogging the final mile or two up a mountain, sucking thin air into an overburdened, depleted body. But whatever the physical sensations of those moments were, more than anything we were grateful and excited to be on the trail, giving our shred-packing idea a whirl. The previous night, as our bags lay packed in the garage, the skies over Lake Tahoe were illuminated with dry lightning and wind whipped through the trees below. We’d lain sleeplessly, steeling ourselves for Plan C. But in the morning, our CalFire checks turned up a remarkable absence of any fire in the vicinity. (It wasn’t until several days later that we connected that lightning with the helicopter we heard overhead as we dozed at the top of Mr. Toad’s on our final afternoon on the trail…but that’s another story.)

And so, we pedaled. Then we pushed. And pedaled and pushed some more. We dripped sweat and began a steady intake of plastic-wrapped food, finding shade to replenish fuel and to simply rest already-weary muscles. But, with the only hurry on our time being the need to get to a camp spot before dark, we also made a point to enjoy the little things; lingering where the views were most striking and putting in a few extra pedal strokes when the trail briefly dipped downhill. And amidst just a few days away from the world, through the heavy backpacks and bright sun, every foot really was glorious.

Lake Tahoe.
Locked and loaded. Saddle bags were the only real weight we carried on our bikes; which limited how low our droppers could go, but otherwise maintained the responsiveness and maneuverability of a more normal trail riding setup.

bikepacking Tahoe

One of us finished a distant second on the first afternoon’s long climb up to Star Lake. Guess who…
star lake South Lake Tahoe
Payoff.

One of the more pleasant kitchen/dining room combos I’ve seen in a while.
bikepacking south lake tahoe
Adjacent to an equally stunning bedroom.

bikepacking star lake
One of the more rewarding parts of bikepacking (or just being a morning person, I guess) is being out on the trail for those moments and times of day that you’d normally miss. The predawn blue hour, in particular, has a certain magic stillness that always leaves me feeling a little bit of awe.

From the hammocks, it was straight into jumbles of rocks and roots, with eyes still adjusting to the shadows and angles of the single artificial light guiding each of us. There’s very little tame, “boring” trail in these mountains, which suited us just fine.

freel peak rim trail
Another major bikepacking perk: first light at nearly 10,000 feet. Stunning.

tahoe rim trail bikepacking
Surfing pumice below Freel Peak.
Coming from busy, busy Lake Tahoe below, spending a few days on the Rim Trail was to feel an immense, relaxing freedom. Not only were there far fewer people in the first place, but the kinds of folks that you encounter when you’re cooking breakfast at 10,000 feet are just such different souls than the ones busying themselves with a chaotic kind of “vacation” down below. While pandemic attitudes perhaps kept us from sharing coffee with the backpackers and the few other mountain bikers that joyously wandered past, that instinct to connect and share is a wonderful development among kindred spirits on the trail.
Leah carving.

After working our way down the range, up and over a few passes before traversing a lengthy section of raw, beautiful singletrack, we came out onto a broad, high meadow. Familiar from years of good times on two wheels, it was the approach to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and the final, cherry-on-top big descent of our trip. But first, there’d be a nap.
Perhaps we were just trying to see how many highly-effective ways we could find to wake ourselves up in one day. Toad’s, with its haphazard piles of broad boulders linked together by fast, sweeping corners, was one heckuva cup of coffee.

mr. toad's wild ride

mr. toad's saxon

This sure was a fabulous finale, and validation of our big-bikes-and-backpacks approach to the weekend. I perhaps got a little carried away for someone carrying a camera, a miniature kitchen and running on little sleep and spent muscles, but after starting slow, the trail was just too good to avoid opening it up and lettin’er ride. The backpack threw me for one or two loose moments, but I’m afraid my constant laughter might’ve startled a few chipmunks in that forest.

And…finish line.

South Lake Tahoe

Dusty and drained, we rolled back up to the truck, slowly teetering around the pullout until we could each convince a leg to swing over and plant on the ground. We were exhausted, yes, but it was that strain of fatigue particular to type-two fun where the exhaustion is laced with a healthy portion of elation. As we dropped our packs and sprawled across the tailgate, we just couldn’t manage to keep those satisfied little smiles off our faces. (Just don’t grin too broadly there bud, your pearly whites are bordering on brown.)

It wasn’t a huge, ambitious route, what we’d ridden, or anything particularly impressive. But that wasn’t the point. The idea had been, simply, to spend a few days on the trail; with the mountains, our bikes, and each other. I’d needed to unplug, to slow down, and to have my biggest concern involve not much more than steering a slightly-overweight bike through a pile of rocks. That nap at the top of Mr. Toad’s proved that I’d done just that. Somehow, by loading ourselves down and going for a big slow bike ride, we’d managed to lift the weight of everything else.

Bikepacking rocks. I can’t wait to do it again.

Photos and words by Satchel Cronk

Presented By:

Catch up on the first installment of 72 Hours HERE, from Fernie, British Columbia.