Off-Road Travel: Big Bear, California

Aug. 30, 2010 By Jaime Hernandez
Off-Road trails abound in Big Bear, CA.

Getting out of the heat during the summer can be a challenge, especially if you’re trying to go off-roading. All one needs to do is get a little creative and venture out to new destinations. With this in mind, we sought a little adventure and headed to Big Bear, Calif., for some high-elevation trails.

Big Bear is located about 60 miles east of Los Angeles in the San Bernardino National Forest. There are 169 miles of forest roads for OHV use, 900 miles of SUV/4X4 routes, and 104 miles of challenging 4x4 trails.

The San Bernardino National Forest has off-road trails for all experience levels.  ATVs, Dirtbikes, UTVs and 4x4s--they’re all welcome!

Before our trip, we did some scouting to see what trails there were around the Big Bear area. We found some great off-road trail guides and resources on for the Big Bear, CA area.  We also found a large map with details of the trail system and roads in the San Bernardino National Forest.

Here is a link to the electronic PDF version of the San Bernardino National Forest Vehicle Use Map.

If you’ve never been up to the Big Bear, we recommend you start by visiting the Big Bear Discovery Center. You can learn more about the area, talk to the rangers about current trail conditions, and even pick up some off-road trail guides. 

Big Bear Discovery Center—a place to find information and maps for your off-road adventures.

You can also pick up your Adventure Pass, which is needed in the San Bernardino National Forest if you plan on pulling off to the side and parking. The fees from the pass help maintain trails and related projects.

We started our Big Bear adventure with the “Gold Fever Trail.” This self-guided auto tour takes you through scenic Holcomb Valley where, in 1860, Southern California’s largest gold rush started.

In 1860, Bill Holcomb and Ben Choteau found gold in Carribu Creek and started what is known as the largest gold rush in Southern California.

Leaving from the Big Bear Discovery Center, set odometer to zero, turn right onto HWY 38, then look for 2N09. Make a right at 2N09. Continue on 2N09 to reach Holcomb Valley. The entire trip is 10 miles. The terrain isn’t very difficult, but the history and local beauty is immense. 

You can pick up a free “Gold Fever Trail” guide at the Big Bear Discovery Center that will give you some history on stops along the way—like the Original Gold Diggings site, Bellaville, Hangman’s Tree and Gold Mountain (a.k.a. “Lucky Baldwin” Mine).

Driving through the Juniper Tree lined road in Holcomb Valley.

After you’re done exploring the old “Gold Fever Trail,” get ready for some off-road action. We’re talking about trails where high clearance, lockers and 4LO are required. The challenge of the trails rivals their beauty. 

We met up Tom Severin from Badlands Off-Road Adventures, who was up in the Big Bear area with a group of fellow four-wheelers exploring. Tom was kind enough to extend an invitation for us to join his group on some technical trail runs.

The White Mountain trail (3N17) is north of Big Bear Lake. It is rated “most difficult” by the Forest Service.

The White Mountain trail is 6 miles in length, with an optional 1-mile section through 3N17A. It offers a wide variety of terrain, including rocks and steep hill climbs. Be ready to experience contrasting vistas of the alpine forest and the desert floor in nearby Johnson Valley, Calif. The trail is adopted and maintained by Orange County 4 Play.

Feeling Lucky? Try Suicide Hill. Tom Severin made it with his Land Cruiser that is locked, geared and rolling on 37s.

From Big Pine Flats campground, take dirt road 3N14 to 3N17. The White Mountain trail is 6 miles long and will offer some challenging climbs, like Suicide Hill. This hill gets its name from an unfortunate Jeep fatality and intense terrain climb. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. If you’re not up for the hill climbs, there are by-pass roads.
Having a rear locker and plenty of power will ensure a successful hill climb on the White Mountain trail.

Another fun trail in the Big Bear area is the Gold Mountain Trail (3N69). It is located north of Big Bear City and northeast of Big Bear Lake. The trailhead can be accessed on Highway 18, near mile-marker 56, just past the Big Bear Discovery Center. The trail is 5 miles in long and is adopted and maintained by West Coast 4x4 Club.

The most difficult section of the Gold Mountain trail can be conquered with careful planning and a great spotter. Lisa Markley shows us how it’s done with a Jeep.

It is rated as “most difficult” by the Forest Service, primarily because of some sharp rock ledges in the beginning. The rest is moderate and can be done by a semi-stock 4x4. 

The zigzagging trail ascends to 8,235 feet to Gold Mountain. It will give you an amazing bird’s eye view of Big Bear Valley below. You’ll also be driving through the historic gold country area where the famous “Lucky Baldwin” mine once stood.

The DeLaMar 40 stamp mill at Gold Mountain could process 130 tons of ore in 24 hours. It was built after the Lucky Baldwin mill unexpectantly burned to the ground in 1878. The DeLaMar mil ceased operation in 1903 (Photo Courtesy of Big Bear History Site).The majority of the trail is tight and does require some finesse to get through it without scratching your paint or re-shaping your metal. High clearance is recommended with at least 31-inch tires. A rear locker will come in handy but is not required.
Tom Severin from Badlands Off-Road Adventures decides to take us through the Talus slope on alternate route 3N69A. This amazing by-way takes us around Gold Mountain and then re-connects with the main trail 3N69.

The John Bull trail (3N10) is considered the most difficult trail in the San Bernardino mountains. The 5-mile trail traverses through rock gardens, obstacles and the infamous “gate keepers.”  

John Bull Trail (Photo Kevin Blummer).

We didn’t get a chance to go on this trail during our weekend adventure but felt it deserved mention. We have been told it’s the most difficult trail in the San Bernardino Mountains and has been dubbed the “mini Rubicon.” The John Bull trail stewards can attest to that.

Trail-built vehicles are a must to get through this 5-mile basher. If you want to read more on it, check out a trail report put together a few years back by Kevin Blummer.

The Ghosts of Holcomb Valley

You can also talk to the trail stewards who have adopted John Bull trail: Waywegoes 4x4 and Early Broncos Club.

Big Bear is a full-service town with plenty of hotels, RV parks and eateries.  There are several gas stations in town and diesel is also available. 

If camping is more your style, we recommend Big Pine Flat and Crab Flats campgrounds, which are near OHV areas. These are the only two campgrounds from which your can ride your ATV, UTV or Dirtbike directly to the trail. It also makes them great base camps for your 4x4 adventures. 

Besides off-roading, there are other fun things to do, like fishing or boating on Big Bear Lake. There is also skiing and at two Big Bear ski resorts.

Whatever you do, have fun and enjoy your time in this wonderful mountain town.

Fore more information on Big Bear, visit


USDA Forest Service – San Bernardino National Forest

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