By Bill Hatfield

Whenever you cross a boardwalk spanning a meadow, or pedal through a grove of aspens, you are likely traveling on the fruits of labor from a horde of contributors. Fundraisers and donors, agencies staff, board members, trail builders, planners, regulators, bureaucrats, and citizens from all corners of the area make our trails possible by working together. And right now, excitement rules the roost as visions of an expansive and connected network of trails are becoming realized. Despite setbacks and delays, new and updated projects are moving forward that will link Tahoe/Truckee to hundreds of miles of trails in every direction. 

Allison Pedley started working with the Truckee Trails Foundation in 2009. “There’s more excitement in the air than I’ve ever felt in this job,” she said. “Whatever the reason, our community sees the value of trails and is responding in creative and collaborative ways. It’s pretty cool.”

It’s now possible to walk from downtown Truckee to Donner Summit completely off-road via the recently completed northern section of the Donner Lake Rim Trail. And it’s not unreasonable to think that one could one day walk or ride a mountain bike from downtown Truckee to Napa Valley or from Tahoe City to Pyramid Lake. With new projects connecting to existing systems like the Pacific Crest Trail, which already runs all the way to Canada and Mexico, area trail planners are seeing their visions come into focus. It’s been a long and dusty road to get here, but, boy, is it exciting.

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Building Relationships

Embedded in every inch of overland trail is a history of partnership and compromise. Modern trail planning concerns include land acquisition, property boundaries and easements, fuels reduction, and vegetation management, as well as utilities, funding, design, construction, and a variety of input from every interested trail user.

Hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians share modern trails with e-bikers and motorcyclists, and a network of relationships as complex as the trail systems themselves has inevitably formed between land management agencies, local municipalities, nonprofits, and privately owned businesses. Citizens work together — usually — to develop and maintain a network of trails that stretch across boundaries and connect populations.

Every organization has its own priorities, its own operational concerns. Sometimes trails aren’t the most pressing items and many trail budgets have recently dried up.

Enter the Truckee Trails Foundation.

The TTF is an advocacy nonprofit organization and was founded in 2002, when the Town of Truckee’s Trails and Bikeways Master Plan called for a nonprofit to help facilitate development of area trails. When funds are lacking for local non-motorized trail maintenance, TTF staff members can step in and contribute their expertise and fundraising ability.

“We raise the money through local grants and private donations, and hire the crew,” said Pedley, TTF’s executive director.

Every season, the foundation’s trail crew removes up to 150 downed trees on area trails. They are largely responsible for maintenance of certain trails, keeping them in usable, sustainable condition.

The TTF is something like a moderator — one swinging a pickaxe. Lately,  group members have been working on a trails master plan that pulls together the visions of different landowners like the Town of Truckee, the Truckee Donner Land Trust, the Truckee Tahoe Airport District, nearby counties, the U.S. Forest Service, and others. Its goal is to determine where any additional connections are needed to help create the most seamless network of trails possible in the region.

“We want to ensure that there are trails suitable for all user types and experience levels,” Pedley said. “With the partnerships we’ve formed, we hope to work together to identify next priorities, funding opportunities, construction strategies, and of course infrastructure needs such as signage, parking, and toilets. There is great momentum in the region right now.”

Most area trails and trail networks have had some link with Truckee Trails. The TTF works with the Truckee Donner Land Trust on trail projects; it works with the forest service; it works with Tahoe Donner, Glenshire, and Martis Camp, each of which has its own trails — some open for public use, some for residents and their guests only. Cooperation between agencies has led to work on the Truckee Legacy Trail, Truckee Springs, the Memorial Overland Emigrant Trail, the Donner Lake Rim Trail … The list goes on and on.

When it comes to interest in trails, instead of wondering who’s involved, it might be better to wonder who isn’t.

The Sierra Butte Trail Stewardship, a nonprofit based in Quincy, California, lists no fewer than 54 partners involved with its Connected Communities project, including elected officials, local governments, nonprofits, and area retailers.

The ambitious project, a plan to connect by trail 15 of Northern California’s small communities like Quincy, Portola, Sierraville, Westwood, Chester, and others, may eventually comprise up to 350 miles of trail and connect south to Truckee and Tahoe area trails via a Truckee Donner Land Trust project.

WHAT A VIEW: A mountain biker prepares to lean into a turn on the most recently completed section of the Donner Lake Rim Trail. Courtesy photo

In 2020, the TDLT and its partners announced the protection of nearly 3,000 acres of land in the Frog Lake, Red Mountain, and Carpenter Ridge areas. They’ve included a non-motorized trail in their plans for the area that would extend from Donner Summit though the newly protected areas and beyond to Independence Lake.

“Trails are just so important to our region,” said Greyson Howard, the TDLT’s communications director. He emphasized the importance of agencies working together. “All the relationships in the region are great,” he added.

Building Trails

Planning trails is a painstaking process, and the forest service is tasked with the organization of these kinds of matters on the area’s public lands. In addition to designing the trail, the agency must consider sensitive habitat, cultural sensitivities, historical resources, and more.

Most new trails on public land must first go through environmental review processes such as the National Environmental Policy Act and/or the California Environmental Quality Act. Several area projects that have the potential to connect trail systems are currently under evaluation now.

For example, on forest service land between Truckee and Olympic Valley on the west side of California State Route 89, a proposed 50 miles of new trails could one day loop from Truckee to Olympic Valley and back.

For now, design work in the area has not yet commenced. Jonathan Cook-Fisher, district ranger of the USFS Truckee Ranger District, said this Five Creeks area is in the midst of a vegetation study now.

WORKIN’ IT: A Truckee Trails Foundation crew member puts the finishing touches on a trail near Sawtooth Ridge. Courtesy photo

“We really need to see the impact of the vegetation work on the ground before we commit to any trail design,” Cook-Fisher said.

Still, things are looking favorable for a network of trails in the future.

“We want to do it,” Cook-Fisher added. “We have a strong belief that the pulse of work is such that once we go into an area and do some forest health work, we need then to go in and manage for the recreational impacts that are undoubtedly going to occur.”

Cook-Fisher emphasized the forest service’s dedication to making land management projects fit with the look and the landscape of the area under consideration. These concerns can contribute to lengthy periods between visions of trail systems and getting crews on the ground building trail.

Trail projects can be epic, sometimes taking decades to complete.

The Tahoe-Pyramid Trail, a 116-mile route from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake following the Truckee River, has made incredible progress since the original conception in 2003, though some challenges remain.

In October of 2019, the TPT celebrated a major milestone when the last section to be completed between Lake Tahoe and Sparks, Nevada, was opened near Floriston. It’s now possible to walk or ride from Tahoe City all the way to Sparks along the river.

Mark Kimbrough, a member of the group’s advisory board, said the planners’ next ambitions are to complete a segment between Sparks and Mustang. If that piece is opened, the trail would stretch unbroken from Tahoe City to the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center (TRIC) on USA Parkway, leaving only the section between there and Wadsworth incomplete.

Kimbrough said the TPT is working closely with Washoe County on an agreement to obtain funding through grants and on some challenging private property and easement issues related to the Union Pacific Railroad on the Sparks to TRIC section.

“It’s going to be very challenging to finish that piece,” Kimbrough said. But he’s optimistic now that Washoe County is involved. He thinks with the backing of local government, the TPT may be able to make significant progress soon. “It’s a really big deal that they’ve stepped up to the plate,” he added.

Trail building agencies and organizations are interested in more than just building brand new trails. Part of the forest service’s work entails discouraging user-created trails or rerouting existing, unsustainable segments.

“We are actively looking to build trail and respond to demands,” Cook-Fisher said. He stressed the need for user-created trails to be legitimized or decommissioned because they often go through sensitive habitats. Through environmental reviews, the forest service learns about sensitive resources, archaeological sites, and endangered species. This is the main reason to formalize trail planning and construction.

Pedley echoes this sentiment and understands people’s desire to engage with new places. 

“Our town is growing, and the visitation is growing,” Pedley said. But, she added, “To build trails legally takes hundreds of thousands of dollars and a lot of time, and some people get impatient …. We are trying to work on speeding up that process while still being cognizant of all the environmental issues.”

Once the environmental review work is complete, the question of funding is the next hurdle. Along Verdi Ridge, east of Boca and Stampede Reservoirs on the boundary of the Tahoe and the Humboldt-Toiyabe national forests, a project proposes 71 miles of brand new motorized and multi-use trails. It’s been through the review process, and organizations could potentially begin construction immediately if they can secure funding. The forest service is searching for internal funding via grants, and could begin construction next year.

Building an Audience
Additionally, the Verdi Ridge project calls for approximately 35 miles of existing non-motorized trail to be opened for Class 1 e-bikes to meet a growing demand.

Cook-Fisher thinks people are moving to the area specifically because of the outdoor recreation opportunities. “I think there’s more trails interest now than there’s ever been,” he said. “Trails are seen as contributing directly to quality of life,” he added.

“Wouldn’t it be great to reduce the reliance on cars by having trails that connect right into towns, right to where people are staying?” Cook-Fisher said. “Not to mention, it’s more fun to have trails that loop, trails that connect, trails that take you to a destination.”

Pedley thinks nationally, hiking and mountain biking are both seeing increased popularity, and it would stand to reason that this would also be true here.

“It definitely feels like there’s more going on right now,” Pedley said of trail projects. “But keep in mind that some of these projects have been in the planning phase for years and years. I think it’s partly coincidence that these efforts are seeing more movement now, but I’ve also heard talk of our region being in the middle of a ‘trails renaissance.’”

Many existing and potential area trails are designated for non-motorized multi-use — meaning for hikers, bikers, and equestrians. Others, such as the Pacific Crest Trail and parts of the Tahoe Rim Trail don’t allow mountain bikes. The Rim Trail has clarified a lot of usage designations on its maps. Several of the new connector trails are opening up pathways for bikers.

CROSSING OVER: Cooperation between the Tahoe-Pyramid Trail and Truckee Meadows Water Authority enables trail users to cross TMWA property near the Fleish Hydroelectric plant. Courtesy photo

Five Creeks, for example, would be a multi-use trail system, “a bike-friendly alternative to the PCT,” Pedley said.

“I kind of tell people I’m not retiring until we’re done with that because it’s so huge and remarkable and I want to be a part of that,” she said.

When it comes to trails, Cook-Fisher said there’s less emphasis on agencies being unique and more on the connections, themselves. Trail users may not be particularly concerned whether they are walking or riding on national forest land or in a state park. “We have to have a seamless experience across jurisdictional boundaries,” he said.

He thinks the regulatory entities accept that and want to support that. “There’s growing recognition that if you work in local government, you work in state, you work in county, you work in federal government — that it’s really just a shared guest experience,” he added.

Those trail lines that we walk and ride on will change in time, keeping area mapmakers busy with updates for years to come. They’ll be adjusted as our needs evolve and as the land and the communities change. And the folks who dedicate themselves to these long-term projects will quietly proceed. 

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