Northstar California Resort, also known as #gnarstar and #duststar, is a mountain bike park and ski resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. A North Shore resort, it’s about a fifteen minute drive South on Highway 267 to King’s Beach and stunning Lake Tahoe. Known for its first-class amenities and village, its 3,000 acres are known for epic snow in the Winter, and mountain biking in the Summer. You can also hike here, or just take the gondola up for a scenic ride to mid-mountain and the Ritz Carlton Resort, a luxurious hotel complete with day spa. However, the real draw here in the summertime is the mountain biking.
There is nothing like chair-lift assisted riding. For the amount of downhill you get, you’ll need all that energy you saved not climbing hills. The laws of physics are in your favor here, gravity assisted. The first time I came here, my forearms and wrists just about gave out by the end of the day I was so sore! Most people ride downhill bikes here, but enduro bikes are becoming more popular. I rode my low-travel bike here for a few years before upgrading last year to 150mm of travel, which is still on the scant side for Northstar. I’ve actually never tried a downhill bike, so I only know how these trails feel on my enduro bike. With enduro racing, it’s more helpful to ride these trails on my bike, anyway.
I don’t consider myself the top expert on Northstar, but I’ve ridden here dozens of times over the last several years, basically since I got my first full-suspension mountain bike (with all 110mm of travel!). I love riding up here! I’ve included some videos below of the trails, with the obvious preface that there are riders out there who charge way harder than I do. As a racer, videos are part of my training, and help me improve; they may also help give others an idea of what the trails are about. I know I get a lot out of watching others’ videos, especially when it’s a new trail.
You can make it as easy or challenging as you want riding Northstar. Having fun is often considered the most important part of mountain biking, and I passionately agree with that, but safety is equally important here. Northstar is known not only for eating tires and rims, but causing some pretty awful injuries. Full-faced helmets and protective gear are prerequisites.
If you’re an experienced mountain biker, you will immediately find your niche here, and know how to gauge each trail. If you’re new to mountain biking, it probably goes unsaid to start off on the blues and work your way up. Always stay in control, be able to stop on a moment’s notice, and know when to call it a day. Fatigue is public enemy #1 in mountain biking, so don’t let it get you sloppy. This is not the terrain to get tired on; you need all your focus, awareness, and commitment to tackle these trails.
The terrain is pretty well-maintained, especially on the Zephyr side of the mountain, while the Vista side has a more wild, all-mountain feel. It’s famous for getting dustier as Summer goes on and the last of Winter’s moisture is sucked from the soil. The rock is granitic with boulders ranging from the size of bowling balls to small cars. The overlying thin topsoil can become quite loose, like ball bearings over boulders, especially as it dries out. Sometimes it can feel like hydroplaning or skidding on ice it’s so loose. The dirt takes on a sort of hydrophobic, repellent quality that you must keep it in mind, to varying degrees, depending upon the trail and time of Summer.
The glorious exception to the #duststar reputation is Livewire, a meticulously designed trail that Northstar is most known for. Livewire is a fast, adrenaline-pumping descent with thoughtfully built, intelligently spaced jumps that you can get just about as high as you want to on. It is supremely dependable thanks to daily watering and regular trailwork, which makes it a wonderful trail to progress on over time; you get better at it each time you ride it, and the trail gets more fun. Its Livewire Classic downhill race is a big draw each year.
This is the first trail I ever rode here, having heard so much hype about it; this started a love affair over the years of learning how to flow with grace down its packed berms and tabletops. It earns every superlative, praise, and contagious zeal that surrounds its name. From rolling to soaring, you can get as sick as you want to get on this trail. If you ride here on a weekend, expect this trail to have a steady stream of riders, and be ready to yield to any faster riders coming down the trail on you. Everyone from six year-olds to pros on the UCI MTB circuit ride here, so be prepared for all types of riders, showing respect – and hopefully a smile! – in the process.
Coaster is a fun intermediate run, a long traverse down the mountain that makes for a good warm-up. It crosses Boondocks, so look out for riders at the merge.
Gypsy trail includes a variety of rock gardens, wooden berms and jumps, and a Red Bull corkscrew section. It’s a little bit of everything rolled into one.
Boondocks is a double-black that is a long descent full of enough sandy corners and rock drops to get you fired up. There are many go-arounds, as there are on most other trails here, but this trail is rocky top to bottom.
On the Vista side of the mountain, the chairlift operates Fridays – Sundays; however, you can easily pedal to it via Zephyr when it’s not turning on weekdays. It’s about a ten minute traverse on fireroad from the top of Tahoe Zephyr Express. That’s the trade-off of coming here on weekdays in the Summer: you will almost have the whole mountain to yourself, but if you want to ride Vista, you’ve got to connect the dots. It’s a trade-off I’m willing to make, especially as a teacher with my Summers off! It’s a beautiful thing to be up here on a weekday.
Sticks and Stones is a solid double-black on the Vista side, whose middle section is famously challenging. There are steep, loose sections of crust on rocks. The upper and lower sections hold their own, but the middle section is the hardest.
Speed Control is a super fun, flow-trail style run that starts below Vista mid-mountain. It’s fun to connect this one to Pho Dogg. Both trails are single blacks, with lots of dynamic flow to them. These are great trails to work on pumping.
Karpiel is a rocky, double-black that starts at the top of Vista. The upper and middle sections aren’t overly gnarly, but the very lower section? Dude what?! This is one of the hardest sections I’ve ever ridden at Northstar, and I certainly haven’t cleared every feature on it yet. If you want full-commitment, keep your speed or crash G-force thrills with high-stakes consequences for crashing or making a seemingly minor error, this is the trail for you! Don’t let the upper part of the trail fool you – the lower section is a bugaboo for many riders I know. You can exit out early before this bottom part, as many riders do, and don’t kick yourself if you do. It’s better to leave in one piece than in no peace.
Dog Bone parallels Karpiel, but starts mid-mountain. It’s also a double-black, whose upper section isn’t terribly death-defying. As you can see in my video below, I am still working on the lower section, which is, like Karpiel, a lot more challenging. Keeping your speed here is essential; I endo’d after stopping from getting my pedal stuck on a rock. Losing momentum makes starting again that much harder since you’ve lost your rolling power.
Both Karpiel and Dog Bone connect to finish at a steep, narrow slide down to the Diving Board, a few feet rock drop, which launches into Daytona Berms at the base of the mountain. The banked berms are a fun finish to the ride, but note that it merges with the bottom of Sticks and Stones; be aware of oncoming riders when you are at this junction.
Cooling off with a dip in the refreshing, second deepest lake in the United States is a wonderful way to finish off a day of physically demanding, and likely dirty, mountain biking at Northstar. The Lake Tahoe region is gorgeous enough to visit in its own right, mountain biking or not. But it’s that much more fun when you bring your two wheels!
Now go get some!