We'll admit it. Sometimes we get so caught up in legendary and almost mystical Jeeping locations that we overlook great places that are right next door. How many times have you driven for what seemed like days to some great trails, even though there was also serious wheelin' in your own backyard? For many of us living in Southern California, places like Baja or the Sierra Nevada (home of the Rubicon) offer a wide variety of extensive Jeep trail systems a day's drive away, and the vast expanse of the Mojave Desert is two to three hours from the house. However, even closer (and often overlooked) is Big Bear Valley. Not an hour from the hustle and bustle of the city is a land of thick forests; rocky Jeep trails; dirt roads; cool, clean air; abundant wildlife; and a beautiful lake surrounded by a welcoming community. We were there for the Inland Empire Four Wheelers' 22nd Annual Big Bear Forest Fest, and it just seems to get better every year. Always held on Father's Day weekend, it's a great way to celebrate with family, friends, and a few hundred Jeepers.
Dominated by the snow-fed lake, not surprisingly called Big Bear Lake, the valley sits at about 7,000 feet above sea level and is covered in pine trees, dotted with meadows, cut by streams and creeks, and surrounded by soaring peaks. It has been Southern California's favorite mountain recreation area since resident Kirk Phillips visited New York City, saw the world's first bus line, and was inspired once back home to create the world's second "bus line" from San Bernardino to Big Bear Valley in 1912 using White Motor Company trucks instead of buses. The valley began to experience increased visitation, and the hamlets of the Big Bear area grew to be a key mountain recreation and resort spot. The area now offers stores, markets, restaurants, fuel, hotels, and campgrounds, making it easy to find what you need. The Snow Valley Mountain Resort parking lot served as headquarters for the 2019 Big Bear Forest Fest, which is the size of two or three football fields, so there was plenty of room for vendors and campers. This was also the location for final registration, the morning trail lineup, and Saturday night's BBQ.
The views and the trails are pretty darn good in Big Bear. That's Baldwin Lake in the background way down below in the eastern end of Big Bear Valley. Due to the wetter-than-average rainy season, the normally smallish lake was swollen with water for the first time in a decade.
Frank E. Brown built the first dam in 1884 (it's now underwater, flooded by the lake as it filled to the new dam built in 1923) to provide a steady flow of water for farms below in the city of Redlands. The lake we see today measures about 7 by 2.5 miles. In 1845, a group led by Riverside rancher Benjamin Wilson wandered into the valley and gave what was then a mostly marshy expanse of water the name Big Bear Lake. The California gold rush also brought prospectors and settlers to Big Bear, and evidence of the area's long history remains in place names, old mines, and roads cut through the mountains. Those mountains and valleys are now laced with Jeep trails and dirt roads. The 22nd Annual Big Bear Forest Fest offered participants an opportunity to wheel on a wide range of club-guided trails, depending upon their vehicles and driving experience. The trails for each day of the three-day weekend were rated green, blue, or black (most difficult) for difficulty levels, and details about the trails and vehicle requirements allowed participants to make choices during early registration on the club's event website.
Long before that, the indigenous Serrano people occupied the valley, calling it "Yuhaviat," which translates to "Pine Place." It's the Jeep trails through the pines that draw us to the Inland Empire Four Wheelers' Big Bear Forest Fest. However, it's the whole package that makes it such a great event. A family-oriented club focused on the enjoyment and preservation of four-wheeling, the group organizes regular trail runs in the Southern California area, as well as some trips to Moab and the Rubicon. The Big Bear Forest Fest is the club's "really big deal," and it helps raise awareness and supports efforts to keep access to public lands open. This year's event saw 383 registrations (771 adults and 72 kids), and 600 tri-tip dinners were served during Saturday night's BBQ. We came for the challenging but fun trails and the camaraderie of this Jeep event—and yes, the tri-tip, too. If you're interested in Big Bear Forest Fest or any of the Inland Empire Four Wheelers' events, check out ie4w.com.
The folks from CORVA (California Off-Road Vehicle Association) were on hand to answer questions about how to get involved in land-use issues and help keep our public lands open to vehicular recreation. They were also handing out hot dogs for lunch.
A wide variety of trails were available on the 22nd Forest Fest three-day agenda, but spots filled up fast during online pre-registration. In some cases, two groups with staggered start times ran the same trails on the same day to accommodate the nearly 400 Jeeps registered for the event.
Jeff Secord and his son Jacob (in the passenger seat) wheeled Jeff's '07 JK Wrangler Sahara. Mildly modified with a 2 1/2-inch Rough Country suspension, manual sway bar disconnects, an Aussie Locker in the front axle, and an open rear axle (Jeff says there's a selectable locker coming soon), "Nellie" as the Jeep is nicknamed, did a respectable job on the trail. Nellie has seen her fair share of off-road use, getting that name the first time Jeff rode down a really steep obstacle and yelled, "Whoa, Nellie!"
The MetalCloak crew showed up at the 22nd Forest Fest with their Corner Travel Index trailer so that event registrants could test the flexibility of their rigs. It also allowed them to scope out the underside of their Jeeps for any restrictions or obstructions that needed be remedied in order to gain maximum unfettered articulation.
Becky and Carl Kaucky brought their new-to-them 2015 Jeep JK Rubicon Unlimited (they attended 2016 Big Bear Forest Fest in their old-to-them green 2008 JKU). Driven by Becky this year and set up with a long list of mods, the well-built orange Wrangler sported a 4.5-inch Rubicon Express long-arm suspension with Fox 2.5 adjustable reservoir shocks and 37-inch Toyo Open Country M/Ts wrapped around Method 701 Trail wheels.
During the Father's Day weekend event this year the forest was still in spring clothing, greened-up and covered with wildflowers. It made the surrounding countryside more beautiful than ever for the Inland Empire 4 Wheelers' 22nd Big Bear Forest Fest.
Jeepers came from all over the Southwest to attend the 22nd Big Bear Forest Fest. Some were old pros, while others were just getting their tires dirty, like Sandy and Missy Wright, who brought their nearly stock (2 1/2-inch lift and 33-inch tires) '14 Wrangler from Arizona for its first real technical trails. They learned a lot on this trip and told us that the Inland Empire Four Wheelers trail crews were especially knowledgeable and helpful.
The history of the Big Bear Valley is as interesting as the area is beautiful. We made a side trip through Holcomb Valley, which lies at a higher elevation just north of Big Bear Lake on Forest Road N316 (a graded, but in some places degraded, dirt road), to the Pygmy Cabin. Very small with a 5-foot-tall door (hence its name), the log cabin was likely built and inhabited by a miner, and at one time it was said to have been used as a barbershop.
Garry Kenyon spent the entire weekend running trails in his "bass boat blue" (it's got a hint of metalflake) daily driver, a 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. The supercharged and intercooled 4.0L, Dana 30 front with 3.73 Lock-Right, Dana 44A rear with 3:73 posi, 5-inch Rough Country long-arm suspension, and 33-inch BFGoodrich tires are just a few of the mods that also make this Jeep a capable trail machine.
There are hood ornaments, and then there are "hood ornaments." We especially liked this one found on a Jeep owned by a member of the Inland Empire Four Wheelers.
There's quite a story behind this '77 CJ-7. Owned now by Garry Kenyon and towed to the event with his '04 Grand, it belonged to his late uncle Robert Keller who built it decades ago and used it frequently on these very trails. Garry's sister Sherry and her husband, Ren van Wijngaerde, drove it during the 2019 Big Bear Forest Fest. The Golden Eagle features a 258ci I-6, 30 front, 20 rear, 4.56 Lock-Rites in both, a 4-inch spring lift, and a vintage Viking 12,000-pound winch. Riding in it was a thrill.
Our trail choice on Saturday was Gold Mountain. While the trail is not long, it is punctuated by rock-strewn difficulties that require good driver skills and a well-prepared vehicle for a successful day. The trail rapidly climbs up the side of the mountain to meet Forest Road N316, which can be used to return to town (go right) or continue into the woods (turn left).
While none in our group needed it, there were usually Inland Empire Four Wheelers members standing by at every major obstacle with a vehicle set up and ready to winch out any stuck or encumbered vehicles, just in case their spotting advice wasn't enough to get you through.
The new 2020 Gladiator always gets people's attention, and the project that R1 Concepts Performance Brake Parts had on display during the 2019 Big Bear Forest Fest was a big hit.