Big Bear – May 2024

Trip Report by Steve S. & Brent C.

A Weekend in the Woods

Base camp for the Weekend


The Big Bear area has always been a special spot for off-road exploration for people in Southern California. It’s a great place to get out of the summer heat of the deserts and “flat lands” that has a huge variety of trails to explore, some of which are very challenging.  Our plan was to camp in an area that we’d scouted before – Brent was to arrive on Thursday and secure the camp, with Bryan S. and Dave T. arriving later in the day.


Brent arrived around 1 PM on Thursday, only to discover that the campsite we had used for the past few years had been fenced off by the Forest Service. With no cell phone reception, he couldn’t alert the others arriving that day. Brent traveled a few miles in each direction to find an alternate site and eventually settled on the nearby Big Pine Flat Campground. Though not ideal, it would serve as a good meeting point.

Bryan and Dave arrived shortly after, and Bryan volunteered to scout for a new camp. Within minutes, Bryan radioed back that he had found a great spot. Brent and Dave packed up and headed over to meet him.

The spot Bryan found was perfect—a wide, relatively flat area under the pine trees with a single campfire ring and plenty of room for all 11 rigs expected for the weekend. The rest of the group arrived later that day or early Friday morning.

Camped in the trees


A beautiful sunny morning greeted us and after Breakfast Brent held a drivers meeting. The trail today was to include 3N69, or Gold Mountain as it’s more commonly known. This trail is rated as difficult with 6/10 for technical and reaches an elevation of 8,203ft with stunning views of Big Bear lake before dropping into Holcomb Valley. Due to the nature of the trail, Dave, Sebastien and Brad decided to leave their Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Xterra and Lexus GX470 at camp and hitch a ride in one of the 11 rigs, comprising mostly Jeeps of various models and a Gladiator and Tacoma. 

On arrival at the staging area for Gold Mountain, Christina & Richard’s Jeep had an overheating issue so decided to go back to camp accompanied by Bobbie in her jeep. Joe and Lily hitched a ride for the rest of the day.

A high clearance 4WD with 4 low and lockers are definitely required for this trail and the first obstacle to overcome is the Gatekeeper. There is no bypass to this and it’s there to stop less capable vehicles attempting the trail. The trail lead for the day was Brent with Dick at the tail.

I’ve got to be honest, I’ve never attempted anything like this and was very apprehensive when looking at the rocks we needed to get over. After watching how the group worked together to get vehicles over the gatekeeper, particularly Dave’s non lifted Gladiator and Fernando’s Tacoma, it gave me the confidence to give it a go in my stock Rubicon 4xe with 33” tires. 

The capability of these vehicles is incredible and with some expert spotting from Brent, we all made it comfortably over the Gatekeeper. 

Fernando cleans the Gatekeeper in the Tacoma on 32’s
Dave & Otis start the Gatekeeper in the Gladiator

The next obstacle was one of the first waterfall obstacles. There are a couple of different routes here and most of us took the intermediate route with 1 to 2 foot ledges. The harder route has a high chance of rollover and the obstacles can vary from 3 to 5 feet.

Bryan and Chub Chub attempt a difficult line at the first obstacle

The second waterfall obstacle was more challenging and also had a couple of different lines to take. Brent and Jim tried the harder line on the left which had a 2 to 3 foot step to get up. The granite rock was pretty slick and the Jeeps were unable to get the traction needed to get over that particular obstacle. The line on the right was a little easier and all vehicles managed to get over without too much trouble. 

Jim makes his attempt at the hard line

Dave & Otis figure out the best line on the first obstacle

Next up was the Bone Garden, so called because it sounds like crushing bones as you drive over them. It was just like the scene in the original Terminator where the machines were driving over the skulls.

The final obstacle before lunch required a couple of the vehicles to use their winches to get over the rocks, mainly due to lack of traction. I don’t have a winch on my Jeep but, after seeing them in action, I think that’s something I will definitely consider as “next on the list”. Fernando had a winch on his Tacoma and he hooked it up to my Jeep to give him the little extra he needed to get over the obstacle. It really doesn’t take much, just a little help.

Fernando gets a tug up the second obstacle

We stopped for lunch at the top of the mountain and took in the scenery. We were fortunate that there was no traffic on the trail as it takes quite a bit of time to get over some of the obstacles. 

After lunch we descended down through the Pine trees, across the Pacific Crest Trail into Holcomb Valley. It had been a pretty tiring day so we decided against the John Bull trail and headed back to camp.

After a good feed we sat around the campfire and looked back on the day’s activities. It was a really great day with some challenging obstacles, stunning scenery and a sense of accomplishment, not to mention some big grins.


Another beautiful sunny day and after a short drivers meeting we headed out to White Mountain, led by Brent with Bryan at the tail. This time Dave, Sebastian and Brad were driving their 4runner, Xterra and GX470. The trail was anticipated to be a little easier than Friday’s, especially in the direction we were going, east to west (the “downhill” direction).

We started off climbing the trail to White Mountain off Holcomb Valley Road.  It was rocky with some off-camber sections and shelf roads. The views into the Lucerne valley were stunning. Along the trail we saw a few motorcyclists having some difficulty descending one of the steep descents. One guy looked less experienced than the rest and he had a few tumbles. They managed to get down safely though.

Narrow shelf roads with beautiful views

We came to an intersection with an optional “challenge route” that  takes the driver up and over the crest of White Mountain and down “Suicide Hill”. Most of the group decided to take the bypass and regroup at the bottom of Suicide Hill. Once the main group arrived at the meeting point, It was obvious where the name came from.  Suicide Hill is a tall, steep hill with inclines in excess of 50 degrees, strewn with loose boulders and torn up from previous attempts to climb the hill in the uphill direction.  The hillside has an off-camber section that is littered with the scraps and debris of previous casualties – pieces of running boards, bumpers, even a shattered windshield off in the bushes…

Navigating the treacherous boulders and loose soil of Suicide Hill (52º incline at points)

Fernando in his Tacoma, Dave in his Gladiator, Jim in his Jeep and Brad in the Lexus decided to take this route.  Dialing it up to pucker factor 10, Fernando, Jim, and Dave (and Otis) successfully picked their way down the incredibly steep and loose hill. Unfortunately, during the descent Brad caught a bad line on the off-camber section and the Lexus slowly tipped forward and rolled onto its roof, thankfully stopping and not continuing down the hillside which would have been catastrophic. Fortunately Brad was ok with no cuts or bruises and that’s really all that matters.

When this sort of thing happens, it is a stark reminder of why it is so important to go on these kinds of trails in a group. The teamwork displayed to recover the Lexus was impressive.Dick, driving an old Willy’s flat fender Jeep, and Bryan returned to the top of Suicide Hill, directly above the stranded Lexus, to set up a winch team. Fernando and Brent devised a plan using a snatch block system wrapped around a large boulder at the side of the trail. This redirected the winch line 90º from Dick’s Jeep to the Lexus’s undercarriage. Dick’s Jeep was then connected to Bryan’s Jeep, which acted as an anchor. Both Jeeps “dug in” to stabilize themselves against the steep hill.

The recovery operation began by pulling the Lexus from its roof to its side. Next, they re-attached the winch line to another part of the Lexus to pull it back onto all four wheels. With the vehicle upright, Dick carefully lowered it down the hill in stages, with Brent standing on the running boards and steering the Lexus around obstacles. After every 80 feet of descent, the winch team had to reset. This involved chocking the Lexus with rocks, then Dick and Bryan moving down the hill to retrieve and redeploy their winch lines for another 80-foot descent.

This process was repeated several times until Dick’s winch line broke, causing the Lexus to careen down the hill toward the other club members watching from below. Fortunately, everyone had moved their vehicles out of the way in anticipation of such an event, preventing further damage. Brent managed to jump onto the rolling Lexus, dive into the driver’s seat, and engage the emergency brake, bringing the vehicle to a stop. Whew!

Brent and Fernando dash up the hill to assist

The next question, would it start? After giving the fluids time to settle, the plugs were removed and the engine fired to clear the oil from the cylinders. When the plugs were put back the engine was then started. For a few seconds it sounded like all was well but then shut down and that was that – apparently the engine had spun its bearings while briefly running upside down prior to the recovery.  Brad was able to call a recovery company to come get it off the mountain later than evening.

After the 3-hour ordeal of recovering the Lexus, many of the vehicles continued down the trail to complete the original plan, arriving back at camp about an hour later than a couple of rigs that had taken a shortcut to head back early.

When everyone was back in camp, Christina and Bobbie organized a pot luck meal. The food was fantastic, and spirits were good despite the earlier unfortunate events.  There was a surprising amount of laughter shared around the campfire that night – probably because of the intensity of what we had all experienced earlier that day.

Postscript: Sunday morning everyone headed out, and a few of us stayed back to make sure that AAA picked up the Lexus from the local fire station parking lot and took it to a shop in San Bernardino (down the hill).  The good news is that as of this writing, it sounds like Brad’s insurance will cover the loss!