How to Get Trails Built In Three “Easy” Steps

Lake Tahoe is experiencing a golden age of trail building with the biggest project of all on the horizon. But it wasn’t always this way. Here’s the story of how a group of people in Tahoe rose up to the task of making big ideas become reality. 

Chris McNamara has ideas—big ones. A professional climber and writer based in South Lake Tahoe, California, he also has experience acting on them. Like in 1999, when he needed more beta on big wall climbs, he founded the forum SuperTopo and proceeded to write 10 guidebooks on the subject. The idea he’s working on now is a mountain bike trail that would allow cyclists to ride entirely on dirt all the way around Lake Tahoe. He calls it the Lake Trail. 

The genesis of the Lake Trail was a conversation with a friend—the officiant at his wedding—who hiked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in his 70s. The miles were doable because of the support and lodging along the trail. “It just totally opened my eyes to the potential of long trails that are more accessible,” says McNamara. A trail of this scope also fell in line with his vision (which he shares with photographer Corey Rich) to turn South Lake Tahoe into the “Outdoor Capital of the World.”

Currently, the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail circles its namesake lake, but it’s primarily a path for hikers, and while sections are open to mountain bikers on even days, there is no legal way to ride a bike around Tahoe without pedaling for long sections on pavement.

So McNamara got to work. He pulled up current trail maps and compared them to historic U.S. Geological Survey maps and Strava heat maps. He took his bike into the woods and got lost. And eventually, he stitched together a 130-mile route. Incredibly, 115 miles of it already exist—a patchwork of multiuse singletrack and dirt roads that people can ride today. That left only 15 miles to build.

But constructing a new trail is hard. You need land, or approval to build on public land. You need volunteers armed with shovels and maps. You need money to fund environmental analyses, purchase equipment and hire experts. Luckily, McNamara says, Tahoe is experiencing a golden age of trail building because all three of these elements are in place.

“Tahoe has had about 10 or 15 years of key people in key positions who have just really made it happen,” he says.

Last summer, for example, major multiuse trail projects were underway all around Lake Tahoe: a flow trail in the north, a climb to replace an eroded and punishing ascent in the west, access to a new zone in the south, and a stunning, lakefront, paved bike path in the east. The latter was a million dollar project that involved more than 10 different government agencies and grassroots groups. McNamara hopes the culmination of all this momentum and various projects will be the Lake Trail.

All that experience and success has built trust, so despite having so many stakeholders in Lake Tahoe (two states, five counties, and several municipalities—plus an additional layer of environmental regulation), when an idea comes along like McNamara’s, the infrastructure exists to make something of it.

But that wasn’t always the case. Here’s how it all came together. 


1. The Land 


The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit is actually a small national forest managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Its 150,000 acres contain the big, blue, gorgeous lake, from the water’s edge to the mountain ridges. Some of the geography in the basin is private property; 78 percent is public land. 

In addition to managing the unique geography and purpose of the forest—it plays a fundamental role in preserving Lake Tahoe’s famously clear waters—Lake Tahoe also hosts approximately 29 million annual visitors, according to the Forest Service. And yet, like all forests, the LTBMU doesn’t have the funds to maintain every mile of trail in its jurisdiction, clean bathrooms and keep the lights on at the visitor center, let alone build new trails.

“We manage 380 miles of trails, a couple hundred miles of roads, and a bunch of recreation facilities, trailheads and all that stuff,” says Jacob Quinn, trails program coordinator at LTBMU. “The federal allocation we receive to manage and maintain [the trails] is definitely not enough. Like it’s not enough to cover me driving around in a truck with a shovel to do something. And we need a lot more than that.”

That’s why Quinn spends his winters applying for grants—85 percent of the LTBMU’s trails program is funded by a combination of grants, partnership contributions and other sources like federal infrastructure and maintenance funds. And it’s why he’s spent the last decade developing partnerships with nonprofits like the Tahoe Rim Trail Association and the Tahoe Area Mountain Bicycling Association, or TAMBA.

Quinn knows how fundamental those partnerships are because a decade ago the dynamic was very different. When he first started working in Lake Tahoe, TAMBA was defunct and Quinn was playing whack-a-mole with illegal mountain bike trails.

“I spent maybe half my time doing great construction projects with one partner, and then basically chasing down illegal trails and decommissioning them and restoring those areas for another big chunk of my summer,” he says. “It was super clear that this was a problem … that needs [of the mountain biking community] were not being met. And the result was a detriment to the land, primarily.”

It wasn’t just the environment that was suffering. When a teenage boy crashed his bike on one of the illegal trails and needed a helicopter evacuation, the first responders had trouble finding him because the trail wasn’t registered.

“That was the last straw,” said Quinn.

After that incident, the Forest Service hosted a conference in October 2010 so they could sit down at the same table with local mountain bike riders. Ben Fish, the current president of TAMBA, remembers those meetings well and says Garrett Villanueva, a trail engineer with the LTBMU, was instrumental.

“He was pretty much like, you guys have to get your act together and get organized,” said Fish. So they did.  


2. The Volunteers


TAMBA was initially founded in 1988 to build trails, educate mountain bike riders and develop the first bike search-and-rescue team in the nation. Eight years later, it had more than 1,500 members. But when Fish moved from Connecticut to Lake Tahoe in 2003, he didn’t find a thriving mountain bike scene. Instead, he says, the trails were hard to find and illegally built. And TAMBA had gone dark.

“I thought I was going to live in a mountain bike mecca,” he says. “So I was blown away that it almost felt like the scene was more cohesive in Connecticut than it was in Tahoe.”

After the conference with the Forest Service, Fish, a landscape architect with experience in permitting and moving dirt, raised his hand to get involved. Other mountain bikers heard the Forest Service’s call to action, too, and posted flyers around town for a new grassroots group. Their first meetings saw about 50 people, and in January 2011, TAMBA officially resurrected with a board meeting at a local bar. The group set out some clearly defined goals; among them were building a community bike park and expanding the features on a popular route in South Lake Tahoe called the Corral Trail

“We had to figure out what was going to be the common interest,” says Mike Gabor, a Forest Service officer at the Lake Tahoe unit.

Fish drew the first sketch for the Bijou Bike Park in 2011, and four years later, it was built. The Corral Trail was revamped with a wide range of riders and abilities in mind. While some riders enjoy 30-foot gap jumps, the greater interest was in flow trails, and that was the direction TAMBA took. But while the Corral Trail itself was a success (riding it feels like you’re on a rollercoaster because the pitch is perfect and the momentum is steady), the trust it built between the Forest Service and local mountain bikers has paid back dividends and given the local riders a strong voice in the process. 

“They’ve had a clear vision for what they want their organization to be,” Quinn says. “They follow through on their commitments that they make. And then, for us and other partners, we’ve done the same on our side. It’s just been so fun to be a part of that for the last 10 years, 11 years.”

Quinn says the group reports 2,500 to 3,000 volunteer hours a year—a number he expects is underreported and doesn’t include the late-night phone calls he receives from volunteers to work out a problem or an idea about the trails. One of those volunteers is McNamara.

“Chris has been a huge source of brainpower and support for TAMBA for a number of years now,” Fish says. “He has the voice of TAMBA. It comes not just from an individual, but an organization.”


3. The Money


When Fish describes how TAMBA has evolved, he speaks about fundraising. Initially, raising $20,000 was slow and tedious. Now, TAMBA and its partners can probably raise that much in a month.

That has a lot to do with support from the Tahoe Fund, a philanthropy group that has leveraged $2 million in private donations to secure $40 million in public funds for environmental projects around Lake Tahoe. Many of TAMBA’s trails are listed in the Tahoe Fund’s portfolio.

“I think right now we’re in a special moment for trails in the Tahoe region,” says Amy Berry, CEO of the Tahoe Fund. If the Forest Service agrees on a project, and TAMBA says they’ll build it, the Tahoe Fund is usually on board to help fund it. “The level of trust is really high amongst everyone.”

Berry points to McNamara as one of the people responsible for creating that energy. 

“Chris McNamara is a big reason why trails are exploding around this place,” she said. “He has this big vision.”

So when he wanted to build the 15 miles he needed to finish the Lake Trail, he was able to tap into a solid network of recreationists, trail-building volunteers, government agencies, nonprofits and philanthropists who were united in a common vision.

This summer, for example, the Tahoe Fund supported the environmental assessment for the Lake Trail. Its funding—as well as money from the Truckee Tahoe Airport District—enabled the Forest Service to dispatch crews of wildlife biologists, hydrologists, botanists, cultural heritage experts and others to study the potential alignment of the route’s missing link. This type of analysis ensures the trail won’t harm the environment or wildlife. A Proposed Action for the trail may be available for public comment in 2020, according to Quinn. After that, the trail may need additional environmental analysis, final approval, and then more money, and more volunteers.

“So, yeah, hopefully it will just continue that spirit of all of us working together and sharing resources,” says McNamara.