In the northern Sierra Nevada, between the kaleidoscopic hues of fall color and emergence of spring grasses, winter months provide copious opportunities for good romps in the snow. When January weather reports indicated the region would be hammered with up to 8 feet of the fluffy white stuff, we headed for the Gold Rush town of Grass Valley and the 35th annual Winter Fun Festival (WFF). The forecast was spot on, and after the deities of weather blanketed the high country, the skies cleared for two perfect days of winter wheeling.
The early morning air was below freezing when we pulled out of the Nevada County Fairgrounds at 0600 for Frostbite Extreme, a trail that follows one of the 1850s emigrant routes backwards toward Nevada. Prerequisites for this run were 35-inch tires, front and rear lockers, a winch, and recovery gear, as well as sleeping bags, emergency food and water, and a tent. The possibility of spending the night sounded like fun, so we tossed in a few Presto logs and MREs.
By the time we reached 5,000-feet elevation, the snow was deep, hubs were engaged, and we had a line of Wranglers, Cherokees, and Grands in tow. In conditions like this, the modus operandi is to follow the guy in front of you until the existing tracks end, then take turns blasting through virgin snow, which usually happens 20 feet at a time while the tach needle bounces off redline. We played this game of vehicular leapfrog into the late afternoon until progress was reduced to a few feet with each assault and our stomachs were growling.
In the lower elevations, participants on a narrated SUV tour visited lonely Gold Rush settlements with colorful names like Rough and Ready, French Corral, and Moonshine. By the time the sun dipped below the horizon, more than 400 snow seekers were back at basecamp for an evening of socializing at the saloon, music, and a ranch-style steak dinner (we opted for steak over a tent and cold MREs).
The Winter Fun Festival, sponsored by the California Four Wheel Drive Association, is held each January near the Gold Rush settlement of Grass Valley. It offers a dozen trail rides ranging from high-elevation snow slogging to mild historic runs.
The night wrapped up with a sweet raffle filled with Warn winches, BFGoodrich tires, and more than $10,000 in other off-road swag. The Winter Fun Festival, which includes 13 separate trail rides (and a night run), kicks off California’s snow-wheeling season each year, and is one of the West's premier family 4WD venues. For information on the 2018 event go to cal4wheel.com.
This ’06 LJ, piloted by Vince Regan, provided a good demonstration of the capability of a relatively stock Wrangler Rubicon. Equipped with a mild lift, Fox Shocks, and Goodyear MT/Rs on OE wheels, it had no issues keeping up with the heavily modified rigs.
Trail boss Nate Davey led the group in a ’08 JK Wrangler Rubicon fit with Synergy suspension and Fox shocks, Goodyear MT/Rs on Walker Evans beadlocks, and a Warn winch.
During winter months, thousands of miles of California’s high-elevation U.S. Forest Service roads are open to OHV access.
Flotation is the name of the game when traversing soft snow. While airing down to 10 to 12 psi is suitable for rocks, running 5 to 8 psi allows for a much wider footprint and better flotation.
Arriving at higher elevations near Henness Pass Road, the Winter Fun trail crew cut us loose for some serious snow play. What ensued was a game of follow-the-leader through bottomless snow.
We like seeing well-equipped first-generation Grand Cherokees on the trail. This fine example, owned by Jim Harrington, sports a Rusty’s Off-Road suspension, TeraFlex 5:1 transfer case, 35-inch Mickey Thompson Baja Claws on MT alloy wheels, a Nate’s Off-Road bumper, and 12,000-pound Smittybilt winch.
The Wrangler YJ, which was produced from ’87 to ’95, shed its early “Yuppie Jeep” reputation and has proved the naysayers wrong. Configured with traditional leaf springs fore and aft, it has become a reliable and capable option for backcountry travel.
Jordan Wambaugh hits the trail in a ’15 four-door Rubicon decked out with a MetalCloak Game Changer suspension and Rancho shocks, 38-inch Goodyear MT/Rs on Raceline beadlocks, and a Warn Zeon 10 winch cradled in an Olympic bumper.
This fine example of the Cherokee XJ ran on BFGoodrich Mud-Terrains, a mild 4-inch lift, and was fit with a modified Warn bumper and Mile Marker winch.
If you don’t get stuck once in a while, you’ll never understand the capabilities of your Jeep—or the limits of your talent. Craig Clinton deploys a recovery strap to get his ’97 TJ out of a drift.
Eddie Vandervoort’s ’05 Wrangler Unlimited, which has the stock 4.0L mill, proves that you don’t need a blown big block to be bad to the bone. Running a GenRight suspension and bumpers, King coilovers, 42-inch Goodyear MT/Rs on Raceline beadlocks, and Currie Super 60 axles with ARB lockers, Eddie broke trail much of the day. Other gear included Rigid LED auxiliary lights, a Warn 9.5ti winch, Mastercraft Safety seats with five-point harnesses, and an AEV hood.
No matter what size tires you run or choice of vehicle, gravity is the common denominator that causes rigs to take a ditch-nap.
A reliable winch should be standard equipment on any rig that heads into remote areas. Although this guy should be wearing gloves, the synthetic rope he is stringing out is much safer and easier to work with than traditional steel cable.
Drivers await their turn at the front of the pack to make fresh tracks. Note the Hi-Lift jack, kinetic recovery strap, and sturdy Poison Spyder rear bumper—standard fare for backcountry travel on a Jeep.
During California’s Gold Rush, the Henness Pass toll road provided access over the Sierra Nevada for wagon trains moving supplies from San Francisco and Sacramento to Nevada mining districts.
While there is nothing like a solo trek through the mountains, traveling with others adds a healthy measure of security—nearly everyone in our group received the business end of a recovery strap.
We didn’t catch this guy’s name but loved his old-school CJ-7, replete with a tow hitch front bumper and KC halogen lights.
After five days of stormy conditions, participants on the Frostbite Extreme run had reason to celebrate clear skies.
Impervious to cold climes and frosty hands, the kids had more fun that anyone: slipping, sliding, and having a knockdown snowball fight.
Evening festivities included a vendor show, music, kids games, and a raffle. Young Jeepers from the Sierra Treasure Hunters 4WD Club served dinner on Friday night.
After a long day on the trail, guests bellied up to the Winter Fun watering hole.
Alleghany, population 58, was founded in 1859 and remains one of the last holdouts for hard-rock miners. The Sixteen-to-One mine is one of the few in California that has been in operation since the Gold Rush.
On the way down the mountain we stopped to belly up to the old wooden bar of the Alleghany Saloon for a soda.