Sierra Canyon: Connecting Nevada’s oldest town with California’s South Lake Tahoe

Words by Kurt Gensheimer, photos by Abner Kingman 

Towering more than 5,000 vertical feet above the Carson Valley, the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada isn’t as much a slope as it is a wall — a majestic, snow-capped wall that never fails to command the attention of anyone driving on Highway 395. In the heart of the Carson Valley, positioned right at the foot of said eastern slope, lies Nevada’s oldest settlement, Genoa. Only a 20-minute drive over Kingsbury Grade from South Lake Tahoe, the town is a refreshing and historic escape from the summertime crowds that seem to get bigger and bigger with every season in South Lake.

Founded in 1851 as a Mormon trading post, Genoa served as a way station for pioneers traveling the California Emigrant Trail. After the Mormons were recalled to Utah in 1857, Genoa went on to serve as the first capital of the Nevada Territory, in 1861. Genoa also was home to the state’s first newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise, made famous by Mark Twain, as well as Nevada’s oldest thirst parlor, the Genoa Bar. The Genoa Bar is the oldest continuously operating saloon in Nevada, still open seven days a week, attracting locals and tourists alike.

“To give folks perspective, I like to tell them that this bar was operating before Abraham Lincoln was president,” says Genoa Bar proprietor Willie Webb, who acquired the bar 17 years ago with his wife, Cindy.

If the walls of the Genoa Bar could talk, they’d probably tell you about the times Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt came in for a drink, or about the movies filmed here with John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and James Caan. Perhaps they’d share the tale of the Diamond Dust Mirror behind the bar, which was shipped around South America’s Cape Horn from Glasgow, Scotland, in the late 1840s. Maybe it would be the story of Raquel Welch’s leopard-print bra and how it ended up hanging on the wall, or a flashback to the many brawls that played out in front of the saloon where folks now sit at custom-milled picnic tables enjoying a cold one.

The Genoa Bar has been popular with a lot of folks over the years, especially history buffs and motorcycle clubs. And thanks to the recently completed Sierra Canyon Trail, a 4,000-vertical-foot singletrack descent in 9 miles off the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), the town of Genoa, and the Genoa Bar in particular, is about to attract a lot more mountain bikers.

Finished only a few years ago by the Carson Valley Trails Association (CVTA), Sierra Canyon Trail is still relatively unknown to most mountain bikers who visit the Lake Tahoe region. But considering its huge elevation drop from the TRT into a historic community with a legendary saloon, the top-rated The Pink House restaurant and David Walley’s Hot Springs Resort, Sierra Canyon Trail won’t stay unknown for long, especially when you take into account the trail’s many options.

Depending on fitness, skill and time, there are several ways to incorporate Sierra Canyon Trail into a quality ride. Sierra Canyon can be done as a point-to-point, a partial shuttle or a full shuttle right to the trailhead. For those who want to fully earn it, from South Lake riders can climb Kingsbury Stinger, a new trail completed in 2016 by the Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association (TAMBA), offering easy access to TRT from the heart of town. Kingsbury Stinger climbs nearly 1,500 vertical feet in about 5 miles without too many technical challenges or steep pitches. Once to the TRT, riders continue climbing north for another 5 miles to Sierra Canyon, but before dropping in, they climb one more mile north on TRT to The Bench, which offers one of the most scenic vistas of Lake Tahoe anywhere on the loop. Climbing to The Bench also gets you slightly more than 4,000 vertical feet and 10 miles of downhill into Genoa, making for a 25-mile ride.

A hardier, more technical ascent right from the heart of South Lake is found on the rocky stair-steps of Van Sickle Trail to the TRT, earning you a few extra beers as well as a couple of fun but short bonus descents on the TRT heading north. For a final challenge before reaching Genoa, about 7.5 miles down Sierra Canyon, riders can climb about 2 more miles and 1,000 vertical feet southbound on Genoa Canyon Trail with towering views, finishing with a tight, technical descent that dumps out into town only a few hundred yards from the Genoa Bar.

Sierra Canyon is also an ideal trail for shuttling, with multiple drop-off options. For those who don’t have a dedicated driver or don’t want to deal with the logistics of two vehicles, Over the Edge Sports in South Lake Tahoe recently launched their $30/person “Pass-2-Pints” shuttle service, dropping off at either Spooner Pass to the north of Sierra Canyon or Daggett Pass at the top of Kingsbury Grade to the south. Riders can pedal TRT to Sierra Canyon, then drop to Genoa, where Over the Edge will pick you up.

The shuttle options make the ride from Kingsbury to Genoa 18 miles and from Spooner Summit 16 miles, both with approximately 1,600 vertical feet of climbing. For those who just want to go downhill, Forest Service road 14N32 heads north from Kingsbury Grade right to the Sierra Canyon Trailhead near Genoa Peak. The best option for families with young, adventurous kids who might not yet have the legs to climb from South Lake is shuttling straight to Sierra Canyon. But be warned: 14N32 can get rocky, bumpy and loose; a high-clearance vehicle is highly recommended.

What makes Sierra Canyon a particularly notable trail is that it’s fun for a wide range of skill and experience levels. The trail delivers commanding views of Carson Valley nearly 4,000 vertical feet below the trailhead, giving a true sense of how big this descent really is. On the upper slope, Sierra Canyon has several high-speed sections with long sight lines, passing through rideable scree fields of rock and numerous reverse grades good for airing out.

As the trail gets deeper into the canyon, passing through numerous springs, aspen groves and cottonwoods lining an ice-cold stream running strong even in October, vegetation becomes more lush. Switchbacks become more numerous, some with high outside banks to help keep cornering speed up, others a bit tighter to help control speed as the trail gets closer to town, where hikers, trail runners and equestrians share the route. We counted 76 switchbacks from top to bottom on Sierra Canyon — definitely a lot, but somewhat warranted considering the big elevation drop. There are only a handful of switchbacks on the upper 3 miles, with a majority of the turns in the last 3 miles. And although most people won’t consider it, Sierra Canyon has a reasonable enough grade that it can be pedaled from Genoa all the way to the top.

Sierra Canyon is just one of many new trails constructed by CVTA in the last decade. Thanks to their efforts, the Carson Valley now boasts more than 75 miles of multi-use singletrack in the region just south of Carson City, including the communities of Genoa, Gardnerville, Minden, the Pine Nut Mountains and Topaz Lake. Considering the number of quality trails and the growing crowds in Lake Tahoe, the Carson Valley is fast becoming a great place to ride for those who want a more local, friendly and genuine vibe with fewer tourists.

Genoa is also an ideal place to spend a weekend, even in peak season. David Walley’s Hot Springs Resort is just a 2-mile pedal on a paved bike path from Genoa, and renowned restaurant The Pink House is located in a painstakingly restored 19th-century Gothic Revival home. The Pink House offers a full lunch and dinner menu as well as an ice cream parlor, and the outstanding quality (and reasonable prices) of every dish will make you question going over the hill, where a dinner bill can be double that and service is usually half as good.

Depending on how big the winter is, the top of Sierra Canyon can be rideable as early as Memorial Day weekend. But the record-breaking winter of 2016-17 reminded everyone that sometimes the top won’t melt out until late July. Even if the high country is still under snow when you visit, Genoa and the Carson Valley are worth a stop, as there’s plenty of lower-elevation trail to enjoy most of the year and a friendly, pioneer spirit that can’t be found in South Lake Tahoe.

Check out this video of the Sierra Canyon ride by Anthony Cupaiuolo of First Tracks Productions:

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