The California gold rush of the 1850s brought thousands of prospectors across the Great Plains to the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Truckee, California. In search of thumbnail-sized gold nuggets, the treasure hunters of yesteryear put down roots in mining camps with colorful names such as Hangtown, Yankee Jim, and Summit City. The latter, which became a booming metropolis of 8,000 citizens, sat on the edge of a small, alpine watering hole known as Meadow Lake.
Mining camps came and went like the seasons, and Summit City has since been reduced to a few piles of brick where hotels once stood. The 49ers no longer crowd the saloons on Saturday night, but treasure hunters still come in search of gold. Today's treasure hunters seek nuggets of the large granite type. Migrating from all over the country, they make the annual pilgrimage to the edge of Meadow Lake to resurrect Summit City, now known as Sierra Trek Camp.
Sierra Trek, which is sponsored by the California Association of Four Wheel Drive Clubs (CA4WDC), is one of the premier off-road events in the country. In 1967, Ed and June Dunkley, with the help of three CA4WDC clubs, organized a trail ride and steaks for a crowd of about 50 people. This year's event marked the 35th annual running of this four-day, four-wheeling extravaganza and drew a crowd of 1,500 four-wheelers -- Trekies, as they call themselves.
The event features seven different trail rides, ranging from a historic tour of the gold country and an SUV trail ride to hard-core rockcrawling on the Fordyce Creek OHV route. Sierra Trek also hosts a special 4x4 run for Americans with disabilities. "It's a unique opportunity to share the backcountry with people who may otherwise never get to see it," said Jason Berger, program coordinator for Disabled Sports USA.
If you have at least two Sierra Treks under your belt, the Flat Fender 4WD Club will escort you on a night run, appropriately referred to as Star Trek. Star Trek, which starts at dusk, offers you the short-wheelbase (SWB) trail under the light of a full moon. Upon your return to main camp, Star Trekies are treated to a delicious New York steak dinner, which will most likely be breakfast, depending on how late you get done.
In addition to some of the best 'wheeling in the country, other things you'll find at Sierra Trek are four days of great country meals, games for the kids, a vehicle show, and a manufacturer's display area featuring all the latest stuff for the rockcrawling junkie. By midday, canoes and small fishing boats dot Meadow Lake, and Trek-Kids play the latest version of mud-fighting and frog-catching on the shoreline.
We hooked up with Jim Harris (aka Uncle Willy) and the Sierra Treasure Hunters 4WD Club for an o-dark-thirty departure on Thursday's short-wheelbase run on the Fordyce Creek OHV route. More than 70 Jeeps, Toyotas, Broncos, and Samurais lined up in the predawn hours for staging and tech inspections. Grabbing some coffee and bag lunches, we wiped the sleep from our eyes and began a 13-mile, 12-hour trek of boulderous proportions. Do the math: 13 miles in 10 hours. Now that's rockcrawling.
The Sierra Trek short-wheelbase trail, which is arguably as difficult as the infamous Rubicon, is relentless in its determination to do bodily harm to your vehicle. A total of five separate winch hills, three river crossings, and dozens of hairball obstacles in between will challenge the most skilled drivers and their equipment.
The first mile is smooth cruising, but it quickly gives way to fields of granite boulders. The rising sun hits you head-on at the first obstacle, Sunrise Ridge, with a precipitous drop-off to your left, a sheer rock wall to the right, and the sun in your face on a dusty windshield. Get the picture? Stay frosty on this one; a wrong move and it's adios, amigo!
The approach to the first of three river crossings is a long descent through a boulder-strewn sluice box. Mature pines, firs, and cedars line the creek, and the canyon walls rise to the north and south as the trail winds its way up Fordyce Creek. Winch Hill #1 will definitely get your attention. Mother Nature clearly had fun with this one. A 100-yard sluice box filled with 30-inch boulders leads you to a 40-degree incline wedged between two granite slabs. A rock rolling and winch crew mans each winch hill. Every driver gets three attempts at the hill. Fail the third time and you get the hook.
Under minimal air pressure, Boggers, Mud-Terrains, and MTRs contorted around each rock to the point of sidewall failure in search of any available traction. Over the trail crew's CB channel, the airwaves buzzed with reports of stuck rigs and trail carnage. The trail crew, against the beautiful backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, managed to replace, repair, or weld everything back together and get everyone into camp for a home-cooked turkey dinner with all the trimmings.
For those of you who like your paint and sheetmetal as they are or think a guided tour of the gold country sounds relaxing, the sport utility run may be for you. Jim Bramham, trail guide and narrator (in truth, he is a walking encyclopedia of the area), will take you to the 8,000-foot summit of Lacy Peak. While taking in the 360-degree view and hearing a detailed history of the area and its people, we were served a delicious lunch of hot pasties, a traditional mining-era meal. The afternoon was filled with a walk through a 150-year-old cemetery and a trip to an isolated miner's cabin.
Sunday morning came much too soon, but not before everyone had a chance to win some wonderful stuff at the raffle. Trekies converged on the stage where manufacturers such as BFGoodrich, Dynatrac, Warn, Ramsey, Goodyear, ARB, and dozens of others handed out great prizes to lucky ticket holders.
After packing up everything and hitting the dusty trail back to the real world, we passed Meadow Lake and thought of the trials and hardships of the 49ers. In full agreement, we decided that a good 4x4 beats a covered wagon any day of the week. Our quest for granite nuggets was much more rewarding and much more fun.