As the seasons change and Old Man Winter graces the mountains with liberal doses of fluffy white stuff, our thoughts drift towards winterizing our rigs, snow runs, and making sure our heaters work. Yes, even out here in sunny California we get snow. And the Sierra Nevada gets the lion's share. When we received an invitation to attend the Winter Fun Festival (WFF), a three-day extravaganza of snow-wheeling in the northern Sierra, we didn't need much of a reason, other than the words "snow" and "'wheeling" to load up the rig and head for the high country.
The Winter Fun Festival, which is now in its 28th year, has evolved into an annual winter destination event for hundreds of northern Californians. Based in the Gold Country town of Grass Valley, the area is rich in history of the '49ers and the Gold Rush. It also boasts some of the last of the hard-rock gold mines in the country, the Sixteen to One Mine in Alleghany. Winter Fun, which started back in 1982 as a small gathering of friends and two trail rides, now offers eleven trails ranging from mild to wild. The high country routes usually present headlight deep snow, and lockers, lifts, and over-sized tires are prerequisites. Mid-range runs skirt the snow pack's fringe, and the historic and SUV trips provide narrated tours of mines, graveyards, historic saloons, and the regions colorful past. Now, while the historic tour sounds...well...historic, we were looking for snow - lots of snow!
The air at 6 a.m. had a bite to it, and steam swirled from our coffee like that of a Norwegian hot spring in the dead of winter. After a home-cooked country breakfast of bacon, eggs, and biscuits and gravy, 200 rigs rolled out of the Grass Valley fairgrounds to their various staging areas. A few weeks earlier, the Old Man obliged us with a healthy dousing of snow, and our trail, Avalanche Express, had seen little traffic. With hubs locked and tire pressure below 10 psi for maximum floatation, we rolled off the pavement near Yuba Gap, elevation 5,500 feet.
Per WFF rules, all vehicles on Avalanche Express were required to have lockers, a lift, 35-inch tires, and a sleeping bag for each passenger. We've 'wheeled in lots of snow, and bringing extra food, water, fuel to start a fire, and sleeping bags makes good sense (yes, we've had to hunker down for the night a few times). The route would take us well above the snowline to the 6,500-foot level.
The snow depth increased with the elevation and when the existing tracks we were following disappeared, progress slowed and the rigs blazing trail began to get stuck. At this point we called in Cory Kaiser to the front of the line in his ultra-clean YJ. At 6 psi, his Goodyear MTR's churned right through the powdery abyss. In the back, the other rigs had a much easier time as long as they stayed in the existing track. If you didn't have good tires or got sideways and off track, there was a good chance you would be getting the hook from a buddy. The planned lunch spot was in an open play area near the top of Yuba Gap. Spectacular! Once the trail crew rounded up the stragglers, we spent the afternoon challenging machine against the elements and soaking up a winter sun while WFF kids had a toboggan contest using a snow shovel as a sled.
We were curious about winter travel requirements or restrictions on public lands and queried the U.S. Department of Forestry after our run. The old rules allowed for motorized access to National Forest roads with no restrictions as long as we maintained 12 inches of snow between the tires and terra firma. Caution! Things are changing! As we fight the endless battle for access to public lands, the anti-access groups are putting pressure on land managers to keep us out. By the time you read this, we may be restricted to only traveling over non-natural surface. Uh...non-natural? That sounds like pavement or gravel roads to us. Not to be too political, but this is all the more reason to join your local association and get involved in the land use battle. We digress....
In the lower elevations, WFF participants were touring some of the last inhabited outposts of the west. The narrated SUV and historic runs visited lost settlements with colorful names like Rough and Ready, Alleghany, French Corral, and Brittany Springs, and historic points of interest such as the North Star Mining Museum and the Oregon Creek Bridge, one of the last remaining covered wooden bridges in the west.
Back in Grass Valley, the Mother Lode Rock Crawlers were preparing a delicious roast beef dinner with all the trimmings. Behind the Winter Fun saloon, the Highlanders 4x4 club, who have been volunteering at WFF for decades, served up libations while more than 400 people gathered for a chillin' raffle. Lucky ticket holders walked away with prizes donated by Warn, ARB, BFGoodrich, Powertank, Rubicon Express, and dozens of other generous sponsors. Day two included several additional SUV/historic runs and more treks into the high country.
Cal 4Wheel is a major player in our political fight to keep public lands, such as Tahoe National Forest, available for off-highway vehicle (OHV) use. By attending events sponsored by Cal4Wheel, UFWDA, or your local state association, you'll not only have a great time, you will also be doing your part to support the ongoing struggle to keep our trails open.
The 2011 Winter Fun Festival will be held January 14-16. For more information visit www.cal4wheel.com. For events outside California, visit www.ufwda.org (United Four Wheel Drive Association) for a list of 4WD organizations in your state.
Snow Before You Go!
Going snow-wheeling is way cool, but when spending the night means bedding down in the front seat of a Jeep or hacking an igloo out of a snow bank, having the proper gear is essential. Without a well-equipped rig, tools, emergency equipment, and above all, experience, a casual day of whooping it up could end up as a nightmare. A few tips: Let someone know exactly where you are going and when you'll be back; Pack extra clothing, a sleeping bag, and extra food and water for each occupant; Outfit your rig with the proper emergency equipment, i.e., a reliable winch, tow strap, clevis hooks, tarp, tools, fire starter (Presto logs are awesome), a map and compass or GPS, and a CB radio or cell phone; Most importantly, take two rigs and if things get really bad, stay with your rig. When the weather clears in a couple of days, you can dig your way out or burn the spare tire as a smoke signal (start it with part of the Presto log).