Location: Near Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 34.31731, -116.87411
(If you've been reading this blog series, feel free to skip down to the trail overview section.)
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:
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!
John Bull Trail Overview
The John Bull Trail (3N10), in the San Bernardino National Forest, is considered one of the most difficult trails in the Big Bear area. It features a mix of terrains, including rocky sections, steep inclines, and tight turns, making it an epic adventure for experienced off-roaders with well-equipped vehicles. The 3-mile trail is trail that connects to other trails at each end, allowing drivers a few options to head home once they reach the end.
This trail is easy…until it’s not. Once you hit the Gatekeeper, this trail will challenge your driving skills and get your heart pumping. John Bull is one of the toughest trails the San Bernardino Mountains has to offer and picking the right lines over obstacles is key to having a great day on the trail.
The John Bull Trail is rated as difficult due to its technical nature, with steep inclines, rocky terrain, and a variety of obstacles that require careful navigation and excellent driving skill. This trail is perfect for skilled off-roaders who are looking for a challenging and unforgettable wheeling experience. Some of the most notable obstacles include large boulders, deep ruts, and off-camber sections, which can be challenging even for experienced drivers.
- Rock gardens: The trail features multiple rock gardens with large rocks and boulders, requiring careful tire placement, slow and controlled driving, and a good spotter to avoid getting stuck or damaging your vehicle.
- Steep climbs and descents: The trail has steep inclines and declines, which demand low-range gearing, good articulation, and skilled maneuvering. Traction can be limited in these sections, so caution is advised.
- Off-camber sections: This trail has off-camber areas where the terrain slopes to one side, necessitating careful vehicle positioning and balance to avoid rollovers or sliding.
- Tight spots: There are several narrow passages where drivers must carefully navigate their vehicles between trees, rocks, or other obstacles. These tight spots can be challenging for larger vehicles.
- Ruts and erosion: Some parts of the trail may have deep ruts or erosion, making the path uneven and more difficult to navigate.
- The Gatekeeper: The Gatekeeper is a well-known obstacle at the beginning of the trail, featuring a series of large rocks that require skillful navigation and your full attention to clear. This obstacle serves as a test of your driving skills and your vehicle’s capabilities before proceeding further on the trail. If you can’t conquer the Gatekeeper, it’s best to call it a day because the rest of the trail doesn’t get any easier.
The trail takes you through a diverse landscape of pine forests, rocky outcroppings, and scenic vistas. You'll enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, including the San Bernardino Mountains, and see plenty of wildlife along the way.
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 of hawks and eagles.
The John Bull off-road trail is near Big Bear Lake, which offers a variety of camping options for visitors. Some campgrounds and camping options near the John Bull trail include:
- Holcomb Valley Campground: Located about 1.5 miles from the John Bull 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.
- 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 John Bull trail. Reservations can be made through Recreation.gov.
- Big Pine Flat Campground: Located approximately 9 miles from the John Bull trail, Big Pine Flat Campground offers 19 campsites in a wooded setting. Amenities include vault toilets, fire pits, and picnic tables. The campground operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Serrano Campground: Located on the north shore of Big Bear Lake, Serrano Campground offers over 100 campsites with amenities such as restrooms, drinking water, fire pits, and picnic tables. It is situated about 9 miles from the John Bull trail. 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.
In 1860, gold was discovered in the area around Big Bear Lake, and the Holcomb Valley Gold Rush began. The John Bull Trail is named after one of the most productive mines during this period, the John Bull Mine, which was established in the early 1860s. Miners, prospectors, and settlers flocked to the area, leaving a lasting impact on the landscape and local communities.
The John Bull Trail passes by the remains of old mining towns and the ruins of the mine, offering a glimpse into the history of the area.
The indigenous peoples who lived in the region before European contact were primarily the Serrano and the Vanyume. They lived in small villages and were hunter-gatherers, relying on the abundant resources provided by the local environment. The arrival of Spanish explorers and missionaries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries disrupted the traditional way of life for these native peoples, as they were forced to abandon their customs and lands.
The John Bull Trail and the surrounding area provide an opportunity to explore the rich history of the region, from the indigenous peoples who inhabited the area for thousands of years to the more recent mining and recreational history.