Gold Mountain Trail Location: Near Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 34.274311, -116.819408
Having lived and wheeled in California for many years, I have to say this state is truly an off-roader’s paradise. From the mountains to the desert, the Golden State has a lot to offer when it comes to off-grid adventures.
I’ve gotten pretty familiar with a lot of trails here in California over the years, and I often get asked about which trails are my favorite, especially the difficult ones. So I thought I would share some information about a few of the trails that top my list of difficult off-road trails here in Southern California in a series of blog posts. In no particular order, the trails I’ve chosen to share are:
- Gold Mountain
- Pinyon Mountain
- John Bull
- Holcomb Creek
- Valley of the Moon
I’d like to say that this is not a definitive list of all the difficult trails in California, nor is it a complete list of all my favorite trails here. These are just some of the best, in my opinion.
I also want to emphasize that these trails are considered difficult, and they are recommended for experienced off-roaders with a capable Jeep or other off-road vehicle. By “capable,” I mean high clearance with four-wheel drive with low range, and lockers wouldn’t hurt either.
Because these trails are difficult, it's essential to be well-prepared for the obstacles and challenging terrain you’ll encounter and to know your vehicle's capabilities and limitations. Always travel with at least one other off-road vehicle, carry recovery gear, and have a plan in case of an emergency.
Four of the five trails that I’m going to talk about are Jeep Badge of Honor trails. These are trails that have been selected by Jeep (there are currently about 50 of them) and you can earn badges to display on your rig—or wherever you want—after you complete them.
To participate in the Badge of Honor program, you have to download the app, https://www.jeep.com/badge-of-honor.html, and register your vehicle, which is pretty easy. Within the app, you can get trail maps, directions, reviews and photos, the weather, and a lot more. You don’t have to be a Jeep owner to use the app but you do have to have a Jeep to earn the badges.
I’ll provide GPS coordinates to the trailhead for each trail but please note these coordinates are approximate and you should check an updated map or navigation app before starting your adventure. It’s also a good idea to check with the local ranger station for updated trail information, including trail closures, restrictions, or permit requirements before heading out.
Finally, because I know not everyone is local to Southern California and may need to camp when tackling these trails, I’ve included some basic information about camping in the vicinity of each trail. Before planning your camping trip, I recommend checking for any local regulations, restrictions, and permit requirements.
Also, many of the camping options are dispersed campsites and in remote, off-grid locations, so be prepared by bringing adequate supplies, a reliable vehicle, and communication equipment. And please, always practice Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly principles to respect our fragile ecosystems and leave things better than you found them.
And just for fun (and because my wife made me do it), I’m including information about the history, and plant and wildlife of the areas around the trails. Regena and I have found that this information just adds to the overall experience and makes it more meaningful.
Okay, on to the trail!
Gold Mountain Trail Overview
The Gold Mountain Trail (3N69) is a scenic and challenging out-and-back trail that winds for about 7 miles through the hills of the San Bernardino National Forest, offering breathtaking views and an unforgettable driving experience.
I’ve tackled the Gold Mountain Trail several times and it’s been a different experience each time. The first time, we found snow and plenty of mud. Another time, it was dry and dusty, the obstacles were more difficult, and we encountered new ruts. This was a great reminder that trails change over time and with the seasons, so it’s always fun to try trails you enjoy more than once and see what’s changed.
The trail consists of a mix of steep and rocky terrain, with tight turns and narrow passages that require careful maneuvering. There are several steep inclines and descents that can be pretty challenging, but the views from the top are well worth the effort. Here are few of the obstacles you can expect on Gold Mountain Trail:
- Rock gardens: The trail features several rock gardens, where drivers must navigate their vehicles through large rocks and boulders. Proper tire placement and slow, controlled driving are essential to avoid getting stuck or damaging your vehicle
- Steep climbs and descents: The trail includes steep inclines and declines, which require low-range gearing and careful maneuvering. Drivers should be cautious when approaching these sections as traction can be limited.
- Off-camber sections: Gold Mountain Trail has off-camber areas where the terrain slopes to one side, making it necessary to carefully position and balance the vehicle to avoid rollovers or sliding.
- Loose rocks: The trail's surface can be covered with loose rocks and gravel, making traction and stability a challenge in several sections.
- Tight spots: The trail features a few narrow passages where you’re going to have to carefully guide your vehicles between trees, rocks, or other obstacles.
- Ruts and erosion: Some parts of the trail may have deep ruts or erosion, making the path uneven and challenging to navigate and will require careful tire placement and your full attention.
The Gold Mountain Trail winds up and down the mountain, offering panoramic views of the surrounding hills and mountains. The landscape is characterized by a mix of coniferous trees, such as Jeffrey pines, ponderosa pines, and white firs, as well as deciduous trees like black oaks and cottonwoods. The forest floor is covered with various shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers, particularly during the spring and summer months.
In addition to the previously mentioned trees, you may also encounter manzanita, mountain mahogany, and California lilac. The understory can include plants like wild rose, blackberry, and different species of sagebrush.
The San Bernardino National Forest is home to a wide variety of wildlife, and if you’re lucky, you may encounter several species along the trail. Some common animals in the area include mule deer, black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, and grey foxes. Smaller mammals like squirrels, chipmunks, and raccoons may also be spotted.
If you’re into birds, keep your eyes peeled for species that include Steller's jays, mountain chickadees, acorn woodpeckers, and various types hawks and eagles.
There are several camping options available near the Gold Mountain Trail, which is close to Big Bear Lake, a popular travel destination that offers a several campgrounds and facilities. Some camping spots near Gold Mountain Trail include:
- Serrano Campground: Located on the north shore of Big Bear Lake, Serrano Campground offers more than 100 campsites with amenities such as restrooms, drinking water, fire pits, and picnic tables. It is situated only a few miles from the Gold Mountain Trail. Reservations can be made through Recreation.gov.
- Hanna Flat Campground: This campground is situated in a more forested area, offering a more secluded camping experience. At an elevation of 7,000 feet, you can expect the weather to be mild for Southern California, and during the summer days rarely exceed 90º F with night dropping to a balmy 50º-65º F, on average. Hanna Flat Campground has around 88 campsites with amenities like restrooms, fire pits, and picnic tables. It is located about 6 miles from the Gold Mountain Trail. Reservations can be made through Recreation.gov.
- Holcomb Valley Campground: Located about 4 miles from the Gold Mountain Trail, Holcomb Valley Campground offers a more rustic camping experience with fewer amenities. The campground has 19 campsites, and facilities include vault toilets, fire pits, and picnic tables. It operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Pineknot Campground: Situated in the San Bernardino National Forest near Big Bear Lake Village, Pineknot Campground is about 8 miles from the Gold Mountain Trail. The campground offers 47 campsites with amenities such as restrooms, drinking water, fire pits, and picnic tables. Reservations can be made through Recreation.gov.
- Dispersed Camping: San Bernardino National Forest also allows dispersed camping in specific areas. You can camp outside of designated campgrounds, but you must adhere to the forest's guidelines and regulations. For more information on dispersed camping, visit the San Bernardino National Forest website.
The area surrounding the Gold Mountain Trail was inhabited by the Serrano and the Gabrielino (also known as Tongva) people long before the arrival of Europeans. The Serrano people, who called themselves "Yuhaviatam" or "People of the Pines," lived in the mountainous areas, while the Gabrielino people inhabited the lower elevations, including the valleys and coastal regions. Both groups were hunter-gatherers, relying on the diverse natural resources provided by the landscape.
The arrival of the Spanish in the late 18th century dramatically changed the lives of the Serrano and Gabrielino people and disrupted their traditional way of life. The discovery of gold in the area in the mid-19th century led to an influx of settlers, further impacting the Native American peoples' lives and their connection to the land.
The Gold Mountain Trail is named for the gold rush of the late 1800s, when miners came to the area with dreams of striking it rich. The trail takes you past the remains of old mining towns, including the ghost town of Stonewall Mine, which operated from the late 19th century until the mid-20th century.