INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. Behind the wheel of the shuttle van heading up Highway 28 to Spooner Lake, Monty Patterson is cautious and alert. He drives defensively, even a few notches below the speed limit.
A very responsible young man.
But Patterson, his Pabst Blue Ribbon ball cap strategically askew and his rapid-fire speech peppered with the linguistic tic "dude," nonetheless is starting to freak us out a bit.
"There's this one spot, dude, where it says 'landslide ahead,' and the trail gets down to, like, a foot," he said. "That gets a little technical. You either walk your bike or you power on through it, dude. I go for it. It's a long way down if you don't make it. But with a secure wheel base, it's fine."
He is talking, dude, about the Flume Trail, consistently cited in magazines and blogs as one of the nation's most scenic trails for mountain bikers, hikers, trail runners and photographers looking for Lake Tahoe landscape portraits.
In less than 10 minutes, Patterson will drop us off near the trailhead at Spooner Lake, where we who have plunked down $15 for the shuttle service from trail's end at Tunnel Creek in Incline Village will begin to experience for ourselves the 13.2-mile trek either by bike or by foot.
Thousands ride, run or hike the Flume Trail every spring and summer and, as Patterson so kindly noted, there is a boulder-strewn stretch along the ridgeline where things can get a little tricky. One false turn of the handlebars or misstep among the scree can mean plunging down to the shores of Lake Tahoe, 1,600 feet below.
But that's being overly dramatic. Only those with acute acrophobia (fear of heights) will fret about the Flume, the 4.4-mile, flat single-track portion of the trail that starts with a climb from Spooner Lake (elevation 6,326 feet) to Marlette Lake (8,161 feet) and ends with a 2.9-mile, duff-dominant downhill cruise along the Tunnel Creek Trail.
Most people will stop not out of fear or caution but merely to gawk at the jaw-dropping views of north Tahoe from such scenic heights. It is the trail that launched a million smartphone clicks.
The sparkling cobalt blue of the lake and the still-snowcapped peaks framing it give way to subtle gradations of blue celeste, turquoise and what Sherwin-Williams calls "sea salt" as you peer down to Sand Harbor below.
So clear is the water, so brilliant the sun, that you swear you can see fish darting about even from this great height.
The only complaint people have, really, is that the single-track lasts "only" 4.4 miles before veering slightly away from the ridge-line. Then again, maybe it's better it doesn't go on much longer, since this trail is "breathtaking" in more than one respect meaning, the high altitude will sap the energy of those not acclimated.
Yet, trailhounds keep coming back to do the Flume, and first-timers sometimes travel great distances to experience it. The shuttle van was carrying, among others, two hikers from Philadelphia and a veteran mountain biker from Murrieta, Riverside County, who had long sought to see what the fuss was all about.
"I've heard a lot about it and seen photos on the Internet," said Scott Howell, the Southern California mountain biker. "I wanted to do it at least once."
For a guy like Patterson, who supplements his mountain biking by working for Flume Trail Mountain Bikes, the rental shop and shuttle service in Incline Village, once is not enough.
"I never get tired of doing this ride, and I do it all the time," said Patterson, a professional mountain biker and former bike messenger in New York and Boston. "I love it."
It is possible, by the way, to traverse the Flume Trail without going point to point with the shuttle service or the two-car-buddy-system. You can park at Spooner Lake, complete the first 10 miles of the Flume (including the most scenic parts), then turn right and take the Tahoe Rim Trail about 15 miles back to the Spooner trailhead.
But that involves more mileage, more climbing, more thin air and, frankly, a higher level of fitness than most mere mortals possess. Only ultrarunners training for the July 20 Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile Race would find that a routine jaunt.
Much more pleasant for the rest of us is the point-to-point, 13-mile option. Sure, all the climbing is in the first five miles, but, if you take it steady and hydrate well, you'll be feeling good as you cruise the flats and downhills that dominate the rest of the course.
At least, that's what Patterson said on the ride up to Spooner. But he was talking over the incessant strains of Beyoncé on the radio singing "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." That chorus, annoying and persistent as hovering yellow jackets, stayed lodged in my head for the entire two hours of my run.
The only other minor inconvenience: The shuttle van is not allowed to drop people off at the Spooner Lake State Park turnoff, so he negotiated the van a few tenths of a mile east to a turnout. So, you have to cross Highway 28 and schlep a half-mile to get to the trailhead.
But, as Patterson might say, "It's all good, dude."
The trail begins innocently enough on the wide and flat North Canyon Fire Road. Mountain bikers will stay on that road all the way to Marlette Lake and the left turn to the Flume Trail. Runners and hikers, however, can take a more scenic option. A half-mile down the fire road is the junction for the Marlette Lake Trail (open only to hikers and equestrians), which runs parallel above North Canyon for most of the way.
"That's a lot more scenic than what the (bikers) do," said bike shop worker Brad Wick. "For runners on that trail, the climb is more gradual and steady. For the bikers, it's pretty much three miles of very gradual (climb), then, boom, big hill."
So I was feeling pretty good about the climbing part as I bid adieu to Patterson (but, alas, not Beyoncé) and saw Howell take off ahead of me on his bike. He had miles of a dusty fire road to traverse before getting to the Flume's single-track splendor; I had shaded single-track among pines, moderate switchbacks with lupine and elephant's ear lining the path, and a few snakes to hop over on the way to climbing to an altitude of 8,161 feet, my audible breathing keeping the beat with Beyoncé.
A swift, 300-foot elevation loss in the last half-mile of the Marlette Lake Trail affords postcard views of the lake, which you follow via the fire road on the west side for 1.5 miles more until you reach the dam.
That's when you'll get the lake view that's been touted so often. In early June, I still had to wade through ankle-deep water at the dam to reach the sign for the Flume Trail.
This is the winding path leading to the gorgeous views of Tahoe. I tried to rid my head of the refrain, " 'Cause if you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it," by thinking about how one man was almost single-handedly responsible for the Flume Trail.
Back in the '80s, two-time national mountain bike champion Max Jones bushwhacked through an overgrown and rock-strewn Flume Trail that, because of its condition, was little used by riders. He knew how the route was formerly a wooden flume that brought water to Virginia City during the 1860s silver-mining boom and figured that such historical significance, as well as the views and the gnarly ride along the ridge, would be a draw.
So Jones, who now owns Flume Trail Bikes and runs the shuttle service, spent years clearing fallen limbs and huge stones to get the trail in shape.
For the past 25 years, it's consistently been on the top-10 lists of trails in every mountain bike magazine.
For a runner or hiker, the hillside-edged Flume portion is both safer and not as safe as for bikers.
Safer, in that you can crane your neck to the left for extended periods and peer down on Lake Tahoe or gaze to the snow-capped peaks in the distance without fear of falling into the abyss. Less safe, in that you do have to watch for adrenaline-fueled mountain bikers whizzing past with little space for you to step off.
But that's not an issue once you leave the Flume and make the descent on the Tunnel Creek Trail. It's an easy downhill glide. Beyoncé wormed her way back into my head.
After all the eye-candy of the Flume, the last portion of the trail is a bit of a letdown. But once you arrive back at your car, parked in the lot next to Flume Trail Bikes, you can refuel with coffee or beer or both at the Tunnel Creek Cafe.
It was in the parking lot where I caught up with Howell, the mountain biker with whom I shared the shuttle. I asked him how he liked the Flume Trail, and he just shook his head.
"It was fantastic," he said. "Good thing I saw pictures of it before or it would've been too much to take (at a first glance), it was so spectacular. I stepped off the bike a couple times just to soak it all in."
As for me, I couldn't wait to get in the car and crank up Bob Dylan's caustic "Idiot Wind" on the CD player, anything to get Beyoncé out of my head.
THE FLUME TRAIL
Distance: 13.2 miles, point-to-point
Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 80 to the Highway 267 exit. Take 267 for 11 miles south and turn left on Highway 28 East (North Lake Boulevard). At the traffic circle, stay straight on North Lake Boulevard. Turn left on Ponderosa Ranch Road, then an immediate right on Tunnel Creek Road. Park at the Tunnel Creek Cafe parking lot.
Cost: $15 for one-way shuttle service to the trailhead at Spooner Lake State Park, $2 for entrance into the state park.
Route: From the entrance kiosk, head straight to the sign for Marlette Lake. Head straight on North Canyon Road. If you are running or hiking, turn left after a half-mile at the trailhead for the Marlette Lake Trail. If you are a mountain biker, go straight on the North Canyon Road fire trail all the way to Marlette Lake. On the Marlette Lake Trail, follow the switchbacks up a hill and after reaching the peak of climbing, ignore the trail to the left and continue straight on the single-track down to the lake. Turn left on the fire road bordering Marlette Lake for 1.6 miles. When you reach the dam, turn left and cross the water to reach the Flume Trail. Follow the Flume Trail along the ridge line for 4.4 miles. At a junction, go straight (downhill) on Tunnel Creek road for 2.9 miles to the Tunnel Creek Cafe parking lot.
Difficulty: Moderate (because of altitude and early climbing)
Starting elevation: 7,000 feet
Ending elevation: 6,326 feet
Elevation gain: 2,116 feet
Elevation loss: 2,844 feet
Exposure: If you go in the morning, you'll get some shade from the canyon walls. But most of the trail is exposed. Wear sunscreen and bring twice as much water as you normally consume, due to the high altitude.
Toilets: Yes, at Spooner Lake trailhead
Probability of getting lost: Almost nil. Good signage.
Will there be blood? Probably not. Fire roads and single-track, smooth. Some dicey sections of the narrow Flume Trail with scree to traverse.
Dogs: Saw a few roaming free on the Marlette Lake Trail, but none on the Flume Trail. Owners are advised to keep dogs leashed on the Flume.
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.