Off-Roading in Southern California's Gold Rush Country
When most people think about Southern California, the first thing that usually comes to mind is either Hollywood, movie stars, amusement parks, or beaches. Or all of the above.
They don’t typically think about gold or snow. But maybe they should. Because high up in the San Bernardino Mountains near Big Bear Lake, gold and snow have played a big role in shaping this region.
When gold was discovered here in 1860, it set off the largest gold rush in Southern California, leading to the rise of mining towns as well as legends of the colorful characters who inhabited them. The events of the late 1800s have left an indelible mark on the area, and those who seek a different kind of treasure—the riches of our past—can visit the places once inhabited by those who dreamed of striking it rich.
Today, gold fever has all but died out in these Southern California mountains—the last large-scale mining operation in the area ended in the late 1950s—and the treasure-seekers who once flocked to these mountains have been replaced by adventure-seekers.
In the spring, summer, and fall, the hills are alive with hikers, mountain bikers, kayakers, rock climbers, and off-roaders. And during the winter, when snow hits the ground, locals and visitors alike head to the area for the thrill of skiing, snowboarding, and snow wheeling.
With its proximity to San Diego and our home, as well as being one of the few places in Southern California to get snowfall that sticks, Big Bear is the perfect destination when my family wants to enjoy some winter adventures. And for those of us who prefer to play in the snow without the crowds, the forest offers more than 1,000 miles of trails, ranging from easy to difficult.
Because I love learning about local history and my husband enjoys the thrill of off-roading in the snow, we headed for the hills in early January to spend a chilly Saturday exploring the frost-covered forest and the Gold Fever Trail.
Located in the Holcomb Valley, just north of Big Bear Lake and west of the Big Bear Discovery Center along Highway 38 (North Shore Drive), the Gold Fever Trail is rated as easy, but it’s recommended that you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance. The trail is a loop that’s just under 20 miles roundtrip and, in normal conditions, it takes about three hours to complete.
To get to the trailhead, we took a right on Polique Canyon Road, 2N09, and it wasn’t long before we hit the snow line. Wheeling in the snow is fun, but it definitely makes off-roading more challenging, something I quickly discovered. We’d barely gone a few miles before I lost traction and started to slip and slide.
I was more than a little rusty at driving in the snow so, after airing down our tires for better traction, we did a driver swap and let Jordan drive my Jeep while I drove the Bronco with Brad as my co-pilot. This way, Brad could give me pointers as I tackled the snow-covered road.
Fortunately, the trail wasn’t hard and, other than my lackluster winter driving skills, we had everything we needed for a great day of snow wheeling. While I’m obviously not the expert at off-roading, my husband knows what he’s doing and the following is his quick (by no means comprehensive) list of essentials to know, do, and bring to safely off-road in the snow:
- Recovery gear. This is essentially everything you need to get unstuck and includes a winch, straps and shackles to use with the winch, gloves, a shovel, and traction boards.
- A friend. It’s always a good idea to hit the trail with a buddy in another vehicle, but it’s even more important when you’re headed into the snow. If you get stuck, your friend can help pull you out with some of that recovery gear you brought. And, if you want to have a snowball fight, you’ll have a target to aim for.
- Warm clothes and a blanket. This is probably a no-brainer, but if you’re headed to the snow, dressing for the weather is important if you want to avoid hypothermia. Bringing extra clothes and a warm blanket is also a fantastic idea in case you get wet or stranded.
- Food and water. Just in case you get stuck (and you don’t get unstuck for an extended period of time because of weather conditions), having nutrition and hydration are essential to survival. Besides, you can really work up an appetite playing in the snow and snacks are always good to have on hand.
- First aid kit. Snow, rain, sun…no matter the weather, you should always have a first aid kit in your rig.
- Chains. Even though you may not need them, chains can help when the roads get really slick. And when weather conditions get severe, even with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, you may be required to have them.
- Air down your tires. Airing down your tires not only gives you a smoother ride, it increases your traction, which you will definitely want in the snow.
- Know the weather conditions. Before heading out to off-road in the snow, check your local weather conditions. Making sure there isn’t a monster storm heading your way and knowing when it will get dark can make all the difference between a great day and a not-so-great day.
This list is just the basics, and you can certainly include other items to better meet your individual safety and comfort needs when heading out to off-road in the snow.
Snow wheeling can be a fun adventure, but safety is key—as the saying goes, hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
The Stillness of Snow
As we followed the trail, climbing 8,000 feet in elevation, we were surrounded by stunning scenery—pine trees, mountain tops, and views for miles. And, because there’d been a recent, heavy snowfall, the thick, undisturbed layer of snow added an otherworldly beauty.
Nearly everywhere, the forest shimmered and sparkled in the bright afternoon sun. And there was a quiet stillness filling the snowy landscape that is impossible to find in suburbia. Meandering through the trees was a tranquil experience.
We traveled slowly, especially where the snow was thickest, since we couldn’t see what was underneath. We also had to cross a few deep puddles, and I learned about keeping my moment going to get through them while being careful not to go too fast so I didn’t slip and slide coming out of them. The best part? I got to initiate the new Bronco with mud and that brought a huge smile to my face.
Even though we occasionally came across other off-roaders enjoying the snow, for the most part, it felt as though we were the only people roaming through an enchanted winter realm. I was half expecting to see the Snow Queen make an appearance and I’m not ashamed to say that I found myself looking for a lamppost, a sure sign that we were in Narnia, not Southern California.
I didn’t find any lampposts or other signs of a magical nature, but we did find several markers of an historical one. Along the Gold Fever Trail, there are 12 of them located at sites significant to the area’s gold rush history and our goal was to find as many as we could.
Exploring Gold Fever
Even though little remains of the structures that once stood in these locations, as we journeyed along this historic trail, stopping to explore, I found it easy to picture what this area must have been like during its heyday in the late 1800s.
The first marker is for Holcomb View Trail. It required a short, 250-foot hike along part of the Pacific Crest Trail, which cuts through these mountains, but we bypassed it because we weren’t up for a trek through knee-deep snow to look out over the valley. But, as the story goes, a hunter named William “Bill” Holcomb was tracking a grizzly bear through the valley in May 1860 when he came across a quartz ledge. He returned a few days later with his partner to collect chunks of the quartz to see if they contained gold. When they were washing the pieces in a nearby creek, they discovered the creek bed was simmering with gold.
Word got out fast and by July prospectors had flocked to area, kicking off Southern California’s gold rush. The valley, which is about five miles north of Big Bear Lake, is named for Holcomb and where most of the gold mines in this part of the state were located.
The second marker is for Last Chance Placer. This site is basically a large hole in the ground where prospectors conducted placer mining, a technique that uses water to separate gold from rocks and other debris, typically using tools such as a pan or a sluice in their search for gold. I had to wonder how many men stood in this very place hoping and dreaming to find gold at the bottom of their pan.
The third marker is for Two Gun Bill’s Saloon. We stopped here and made the short trek down the path, and although we couldn’t see anything because of the snow, this site is purported to be the location of a genuine Wild West watering hole. But in this case, legend and reality don’t quite match up.
While the legend is based on a grain of truth, the actual saloon was located about a mile and a half west of this site. The story that this was where the infamous saloon and dance hall once stood was told so often that everyone eventually believed it.
Minus the snow, all that’s to be found here now are the few remaining logs of a cabin built in the 1930s. But it’s still fun to imagine the tinny sound of a piano wafting out the door of a saloon, horses tied to a hitching post nearby, and the sound of voices raised in revelry.
The fourth marker is Jonathan Tibbetts’ Grasshopper Quartz Mill. All that’s left at this site, which was once the location of a busy stamp mill, is a water pump. During the gold rush, this 5-stamp mill would have been alive with the sound of machinery pulverizing rocks pulled from local mines like the John Bull or Gold Mountain mines in the quest for gold.
The fifth marker is for Hangman’s Tree. While the actual tree that was used for some rough frontier justice no longer stands, this is the site where more than one person met their demise at the end of a rope. Records show that within just two years of gold being discovered, some 50 murders had been committed in Holcomb Valley. Other acts of lawlessness included claim jumping and election fixing.
The sixth marker is for Original Gold Diggings. This marks the location of the field where Bill Holcomb made his original discovery of gold, sparking gold fever in these mountains and bringing an influx of prospectors to the area. Between 1861 and 1862, thousands of claims were staked throughout the valley. I could almost see a grizzled old tracker, rifle in hand, bending down to see what was shimmering in the creek and making the discovery of a lifetime.
The seventh marker is for Belleville. This is the site of a once bustling town, named after Belle Van Dusen, the first child born in the valley and daughter of the town blacksmith. Belleville was founded in late 1859 and went from boom to bust within the blink of an eye. There were 1,500 people living here in 1861, but only three years later in 1864, it was a ghost town.
All that remains now is a log cabin that was moved here to represent the type of dwellings that once stood in this meadow. Walking around the cabin, with the cold blowing through the empty window frames, I could imagine just how tough life—and the people who lived it—must have been.
Unfortunately, this was as far as we got. We weren’t able to see the remainder of the sites because a vehicle was stuck in the snow ahead of us, blocking the trail and causing a backup of at least five other vehicles. Fortunately, a Jeep coming from the other direction was helping to pull the stuck vehicle out of the snowdrift.
Because of the slick road and the risk of sliding into the other vehicles, going around wasn’t an option. So, after about 15 minutes of waiting in vain for the trail to clear, we turned around and headed back the way we’d came.
This was a great reminder that if you’re going to off-road in the snow, come prepared. Make sure you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle and recovery gear.
Even though we couldn’t check out the other markers along Gold Fever Trail during this trip, there’s always another time and it gives us an excuse to come back.
Whispers from the Past
Our day spent wheeling in the snow and chasing after some gold fever history was a day well spent. Not only did I get to challenge myself to drive safely in the snow, we also got to learn more about the events and people who shaped the history of this little corner of Southern California. We got to see where they worked, lived, and (in the case of Hangman’s Tree) died.
Even though a historic marker is the only thing to indicate anything significant occurred at some of the sites, it’s still pretty cool to imagine what it was like here for the early settlers and prospectors. These people battled the harsh weather and unyielding terrain, dealt with the dangers of grizzly bears and human nature, all while dreaming of building a better life or striking it rich.
If gold and snow aren’t the first things that come to mind when most people think about reasons to visit Southern California, I’m okay with that. The crowds and tourists are welcome to enjoy Hollywood nights and LA traffic. They can have the packed amusement parks and congested beaches.
As for me, I’ll enjoy these beautiful places off the beaten path, where snowfall creates a winter wonderland, and the history of the Wild West and California’s gold rush still echo on the wind. If you make the trip to explore the Gold Fever Trail, I hope you listen carefully because voices from a bygone era might whisper their stories to you too.
Watch the Adventure
If you'd like to watch our adventure on the Gold Fever Trail, check out the TrailRecon video below.
- Big Bear Lake History, https://www.bigbear.com/things-to-do/museums-history/
- Gold Fever Trail Brochure, the Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, http://backroadswest.com/blog/wp-content/HolcombGoldFeverTrail.pdf
- TrailsOffroad, Gold Fever Trail, https://www.trailsoffroad.com/trails/1615-gold-fever-trail (this site requires membership access)
- Legends of American, https://www.legendsofamerica.com/ca-holcombvalley/
- The Big Bear History Site, http://www.bigbearhistorysite.com