Bike Camping at Washoe Lake State Park: Carson City, NV

I’m currently reading Joe Kurmaskie’s book, Metal Cowboy, Tales from the Road Less Pedaled, a collection of essays about his bicycle travels around the world. Reading about his adventurous tales got me yearning for my own two-wheeled adventure. Not having time for a full-fledged bicycle tour, we decided to go for an overnight bicycle camping trip. 

Packed and Ready to Go

I’ve been hearing a lot about sub-24 hour overnight (S24O) camping trips, and figured we had enough gear to give it a go. We have a big mix of camping gear, some of it light-weight backpacking gear, and other stuff better suited for car camping. Since we weren’t going too far away for our first trip, I figured we could carry a surplus of stuff, and not suffer too badly. We could learn from our first trip what worked well, what could be changed, and what would be better left at home. No matter which direction you pick, there is a substantial hill climb out of Carson City. We chose Washoe Lake State Park as our first destination. A steep climb to get there, but only 10 miles from home.

Ready for the last big climb

After my son got out of school, we loaded our camping gear aboard the Kona Ute utility bike, in the panniers on the tandem, and in a bicycle trailer attached to the rear of the tandem. The tandem and trailer together were over 11 feet long! The dark cloudy skies were a little menacing, but the weather reports assured me the sky would clear as the night went on. We slowly pedaled to the northwest corner of town, en route to Combs Canyon. As we pedaled along College Parkway, I could see a lot of heads turning to look at our strange procession. A passenger in a car even snapped our photo at one of the stop lights.

Combs Canyon

It felt good to cross highway 395 and get over to the less busy, west side of town. When we got to the Silver Oaks golf course, we encountered a terrified baby duck stuck in the gutter. The rest of the duck family was nowhere to be seen, but we figured the duck had a better chance in the nearby bushes than it did on the road. Kristy lifted the poor little duck up over the curb, and we hoped for the best as we watched it run down the hill towards the bushes. We continued our climb past the college, and saw numerous cottontail rabbits frolicking in the grass.

The climbing was already pretty steep, but the biggest climb was yet to come. We rested at the bottom of Combs Canyon for a bit, and then began the slow journey up the road. Even in the granny gear, the fully loaded tandem took a lot of effort to get up the hill, jerking forward a few inches with each pedal stroke. Kristy was pushing hard too, carrying all the food, drinks, and cooking gear. A deer sighting and passing cyclists provided welcome distractions as we climbed along.

Jerusalem Cricket

We were very happy to finally reach the top of Combs Canyon, knowing that it would be mostly downhill all the way to the campground at Washoe Lake State Park. It was getting late in the day though, and we still had a few miles to go before the daylight ran out. We eased the bikes down the hill, and crossed under the underpass to East Lake Blvd. The home stretch!

East Lake Blvd. is a fun cycling road, but it’s also narrow with no shoulder. You have no choice but to share the lane with cars, but not all of the drivers are eager to share. One car even honked at us for no good reason. Further down the road, Charlie and Kristy yelled, “Ewww!”, exclaiming that they saw a scorpion on the road. We circled back to check it out. As it turns out, it wasn’t a scorpion, but a big Jerusalem Cricket. Wanting to get it out of the middle of the road, and teach my son that we don’t have to be afraid of bugs, I picked it up with my gloved hand. The previously docile bug started wriggling madly between my fingers, turning its head to reveal some fairly respectful mandibles. I tried to quickly set it down on the side of the road, but it’s spiny legs were caught in the fabric of my gloves. I lost composure briefly and wildly shook my hand to get it off me! Charlie spat on the side of the road, just in case he got any bug matter in his mouth. Later when I returned home, I found one site that had this to say about the Jerusalem Cricket, “They can be ferocious and cause a painful bite. So beware and use a long stick if you are inclined to observe them and their behavior.” I’m going to remember this for next time.

We arrived at Washoe Lake State Park just in time. It was getting dark, and was time to get our bikes off the road. The first order of business was to get the tent setup, since it was getting a little chilly. After we had shelter, I started on dinner. We kept it simple by heating up some leftovers in a pan over my single burner backpacking stove. It’s one I’ve had since the 80's, and it still works quite well. We weren’t very hungry when we left the house, but we now eagerly ate every last bit of dinner and enjoyed some well deserved beers. I started a fire with the Presto Log we brought along, but it offered nothing but a little light and ambiance. This 5 lb item is one I’ll be scratching off the list next time! The nearly full moon came up after dinner, and really lit up the campsite. We read in the tent for a bit, played with our new iPhones, and then finally drifted off to sleep. Sometime during the night, I awoke to the mournful sound of many coyotes. Some near, and some miles away. Night music!

The next morning we woke up to a peaceful high desert scene. The campground, lake, and mountains were displayed in the perfect color of the early morning light. Washoe Lake State Park really is an overlooked treasure close to home. We tend to forget it, because it is so close. The campground was only about half full, and all the campers were very quiet. Each campsite is bordered by tall sagebrush, providing a good deal of privacy. The sandy ground is flat and perfect for pitching a tent, and each site includes a shade structure. Many sites even have shade trees. Clean bathrooms and showers were just a short walk from every site. Camp sites were $14 for the night.

After eating a simple breakfast of fruit, bagels, cream cheese, and coffee, we went off for a hike down to the beach. While the beach at Washoe Lake isn’t a great swimming beach like you might find at Lake Tahoe, it’s very interesting and fun to explore. There are sand dunes that run the length of the beach, and this is where Charlie spent most of his time. The lake has receded quite a bit, so there are different layers of ecosystems to walk through to get to the water. The high water mark had a nice sandy beach to sit on. Below that, there was a tall grassy strip of land. Between the grass and the new shoreline was a muddy section. Thousands of fish got trapped here as the water receded, and there were little dead fish everywhere. Surprisingly, there was very little odor. The birds must have had an all-you-can-eat buffet before the fish decomposed! The actual shoreline had firm wet sand to walk on in many places.

Washoe Lake

We all did our own thing for awhile. I ran around with my camera of course. There were many pelicans floating around the lake like little sail boats. They never let me get too close for a good picture unfortunately. Kristy was relaxing back on the high beach while Charlie jumped off the cliffs of the sand dunes.

Out of Water

Finally, I spotted a coyote cruising the dunes, so we regrouped. We headed back to the campsite to get packed up for the journey home. It was still before noon, so we had plenty of time to get home at a leisurely pace. As we rode home along the lake, we ran into many road cyclists out for their Saturday morning ride. The cars were a lot more courteous in the morning than they were the night before, slowing down and giving us plenty of room. To all of our pleasures, there was far less climbing to get back over Lakeview on the way home; Washoe Lake sits up higher than Carson City. Once cresting the summit on top of Lakeview, we had miles of downhill and a slight tailwind all the way home. It turned out to be one of the best camping trips ever, and we can’t wait to do it again!

Having done some RV camping a few years ago, it was quite refreshing to bring just the bare essentials. There weren’t many camp chores to do; the simplicity allowed more time for relaxation and exploration. Here’s a rundown of some of the gear we brought along: Tent: We brought our roomy 4-person Coleman tent. The tent is rather heavy as it has several long poles. It’s not the ideal tent for bicycle camping, but we were lucky enough to have the room and our riding distance was not great. I’m already researching some lighter backpacking tents to purchase when I have some extra money. Sleeping Bags and Pads: Sleeping Bags were easily stowed in the trailer, but could have been easily compressed and strapped down on racks. We each had a Thermarest inflatable pad to sleep on…minimal weight and volume. Food and Cooking Gear: We brought an easy dinner of leftovers, bagels and fruit for breakfast. A small ice chest fit easily on the back of the Ute. Cooking and eating gear included a small backpacking stove, backpacking cook pan, bowls, cups, and silverware. A small amount of dish soap and a cleaning sponge. A stove top coffee pot, coffee, cream, and sugar. Tea. And of course beer. Miscellaneous Gear: A small candle lantern, books, clip-on reading lights, pocket knife, bottle opener, phone, bicycle repair kit, extra fuel for the stove, matches and lighter in a waterproof container. Clothing and Personal Hygiene: Layered clothing. Wind breakers, fleece vests, wool socks, long pants, shorts, wool hats, sun hats, and underwear. We rode in our regular clothes…the short distance didn’t require any cycling specific clothing. We used flat pedals and wore our waterproof Keen sandals. No need to bring an extra pair of shoes. Tooth brushes, toothpaste, floss, TP, hair brush (for Kristy!). Water: Since there is plenty of good drinking water available at the campsite, we only carried water bottles on the bike.

Loaded Ute

On the way home I was already thinking about where we could go next…although I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up back at Washoe Lake State Park again. It’s so close and peaceful. 

Get more information about bike overnights.

Tip for this adventure: At just 10 miles from Nevada's capital city, Washoe Lake State Park makes a nice place for overnight bicycle camping. The campground is peaceful, the views are outstanding, and there are many trails to explore on foot while you stay in the park.

Favorite local bike shop: Bike Habitat.

5 responses so far ↓

Jeff Moser - Aug 25, 2011 at 4:10 PM

Thanks for publishing! Anyone who has ever dreamed of doing a bike tour should definitely do an overnighter first to get the hang of things. We learned a lot from this trip.

Seth - Aug 26, 2011 at 2:45 PM

Nice story, and great pictures! Very cool to make it a family outing. That Ute looks like a great bike to take on a tour.

Jenny Scanland, NV State Parks - Aug 29, 2011 at 10:19 AM

Thanks for sharing your great adventure with everyone at Washoe State Park!

Leo Horishny - Apr 5, 2012 at 4:43 PM

I'm glad to read someone else enjoys WLSP as much as we do. I've thought about using that as a test destination and it's great to see my thoughts were on track. I've also considered Davis Creek Park as a close destination point too.
I'll be posting sometime this year myself.
One thing about WLSP I always enjoy is the amazing sage smell. For me, heaven smells like that.

Leo Horishny - Apr 5, 2012 at 4:45 PM

I forgot to add I loved your phish photo, excellent.
I'll be riding down from Sun Valley when I make my trip.

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