Location: Near Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 34.275322, -117.050809 (west end of the trail at the intersection of 3N16 and 3N93)
(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!
Related TrailRecon YouTube Videos
“Is Holcomb Creek the Hardest Trail in the San Bernardino National Forest?”
“Holcomb Creek Trail – Big Bear Weekend part 2/2”
Holcomb Creek Trail
The Holcomb Creek Trail (3N93) starts at Big Bear Lake and is an approximately 6-mile, out-and-back trail through the rugged San Bernardino National Forest. As you travel along the trail, the scenery changes from dense forest to rocky hillsides, offering stunning panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
Along the way, you will encounter breathtaking scenery, including shallow water crossings, and a unique blend of terrains that are a feast for the eyes as well as a test for the skills of even the most experienced drivers.
I know there are several folks who will disagree with me, but in my opinion, Holcomb is the hardest trail in Big Bear and probably the most scenic.
This trail offers a diverse range of terrain, including rocky sections, steep inclines and declines, water crossings, and off-camber areas. The trail is known for its challenging rock gardens, which require careful tire placement, slow and controlled driving, and often the use of a spotter to avoid getting stuck or damaging your vehicle.
- Rocky sections: The trail is characterized by rocky sections, some of which form rock gardens that require precise tire placement and careful navigation. These sections can be demanding, especially for inexperienced drivers or less capable vehicles.
- Steep inclines and declines: Holcomb Creek Trail features steep uphill and downhill sections that test your vehicle's traction, gearing, and driver skill. Low-range gearing and good articulation will be essential in these areas.
- Off-camber sections: The trail has off-camber areas where the terrain slopes to one side, demanding careful vehicle positioning and balance to avoid rollovers or sliding.
- Ruts and erosion: In some parts of the trail, deep ruts or erosion may create uneven and challenging driving conditions. Navigating these areas requires caution and proper tire placement.
- Mud: Depending on the weather, you might also encounter muddy areas, which can be slippery and challenging to navigate.
- Narrow sections: The trail features a few tight spots, where you'll need to carefully guide your vehicle between trees, rocks, or other obstacles. These narrow sections can be more difficult for larger vehicles.
In addition to challenging terrain, the trail follows Holcomb Creek, which provides a picturesque backdrop of the surrounding mountains, dense forests, and the creek itself.
The landscape is characterized by a mix of coniferous trees, such as Jeffrey pines and white firs, and deciduous trees like black oaks. The creek banks are lined with willows, alders, and cottonwoods, while the forest floor is dotted with ferns, grasses, and wildflowers during the spring and summer months.
The San Bernardino National Forest is home to a wide variety of wildlife, and you may encounter several species along the Holcomb Creek 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.
Holcomb Creek is also located near Big Bear Lake and it’s plentiful camping options, including:
- Holcomb Valley Campground: Located about 3 miles from the Holcomb Creek 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 5 miles from the Holcomb Creek trail. Reservations can be made through Recreation.gov.
- 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 Holcomb Creek trail. Reservations can be made through Recreation.gov.
- Big Pine Flat Campground: Located approximately 11 miles from the Holcomb Creek 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.
- 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 around the Holcomb Creek Trail has been inhabited by various Native American tribes for thousands of years. The Serrano and the Cahuilla are two of the primary tribes that lived in this region. These tribes were hunter-gatherers who relied on the abundant natural resources in the area for their sustenance. They hunted deer, rabbits, and other game, and gathered acorns, berries, and other plant resources.
The Serrano and the Cahuilla had a deep connection with the land, and they developed a strong understanding of the local flora and fauna. They used plants for food, medicine, and tools, and they practiced land management techniques to maintain a healthy ecosystem. They also established trade networks with neighboring tribes, exchanging goods such as pottery, shells, and obsidian.
With the arrival of European settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries, this region saw significant changes. The settlers established ranches, farms, and logging operations, which impacted the native tribes and the environment. The gold rush of the mid-19th century also brought an influx of prospectors to the area, with gold mining operations springing up around Holcomb Creek and the surrounding region.
The Holcomb Valley, located near the Holcomb Creek Trail, was named after William F. Holcomb, who discovered gold in the valley in 1860. This led to the establishment of the gold rush town of Belleville, which was briefly the largest settlement in San Bernardino County. The gold mining boom was short-lived, and by the late 19th century, most of the mines were abandoned. Some remnants of the mining era, such as old mine shafts and equipment, can still be found in the area.