January 31, 2020

Shifting Into Low Gear for a Gold Mining Ghost Town Adventure (in a Jeep)

It wasn't until about two and a half years ago that I realized there was any gold-mining history to Big Bear—the mountain community in San Bernardino National Forest probably better known for its ski resorts and, well, bears.

The only problem is that the only way to explore that history first-hand is to either hike to it or drive to it in a vehicle that can handle the unpaved, boulder-littered Forest Service roads.

So I got behind the wheel of a tricked-out, 4WD-equipped Jeep...

...outfitted with a two-way radio so my guide, Desi, could talk me through the tough parts.

We turned off of Big Bear's North Shore Drive and onto Polique Canyon Road—which is where things get interesting. The sign said we wouldn't be "off-roading" per se, but that's because we would be staying on the designated trails.

Those trails are not the types of roads that you're used to when driving a Honda.

And because it's winter, there was some snow, slush, ice, and iced-over water crossings to tackle.

It's hard to believe that the now remote area of Holcomb Valley was once bigger than Big Bear, with its gold-mining operations. Not only were there the miners themselves—often housed in temporary dwellings—but also the requisite saloon, bordello, supply shops, and what have you.

They had mules and donkeys to transport themselves and their supplies through this rugged terrain—where most of the structures are gone, having been razed or relocated. The visible signs of its mining history consist of a couple of gravesites, prospecting holes, and leftover tailings (or big mounds of excavated dirt).

Now, it's a wonderland of rocks and alpine forest marked more by its natural obstacles than its manmade landmarks.

On a Jeep excursion like this, you can't just try to avoid the boulders. You've got to set your tires squarely in their path so you can crawl over them.

You can't accelerate too much or your tires will just spin. When you're in 4 Low, the Jeep wants to move forward. You have to brake to keep it from going too fast.

It's probably the most fun—and most nerve-wracking time—you can have going just 1 mph.

There's another adjustment you've got to make to conquer this terrain—let some air out of the tires. By deflating them from, say, 40 PSI to 12 PSI, you increase the amount of surface area that can grab onto the rocks. On a paved road, it feels like you're driving on pillows.

When driving through water (sometimes deeper than 2 feet), it feels almost like you're swimming. And no matter how slow you go, you still get covered in mud.

Although mining claims are still allowed in Holcomb Valley, most visitors come out here to either crawl or climb the granite rocks—particularly in an area known as the Holcomb Valley Pinnacles.

We, however, trudged on—as my driving leg started to get a little sore and my neck and shoulders tired of craning to see where my driver's side front tire would land.

Fortunately, the tires on my borrowed Jeep were wider than the body itself—so in an area known as "The Squeeze," I just had to rub the tire below me against the boulder to my left and I'd surely clear the right-hand side, despite not having a passenger to help spot me.

For me, that was the mildest of all the white-knuckling moments along the Gold Fever Trail. I was much more worried about rolling over or even just having any of my tires spinning in mid-air.

Bt as we reached the final stretch of our excursion, I was negotiating all the obstacles without instruction. The radio had gone silent—and I was on my own.

The silence was a fitting soundtrack for rumbling through the burn area of the 2017 Holcomb Fire, which scorched the East Valley hillsides above Baldwin Lake just over a month after my last trip to Big Bear.

It's going to take a while for the landscape to recover. But it eventually will.

Fortunately, the 2017 wildfire didn't destroy what's left of the circa 1875 stamp mill of the Doble Mine (a.k.a. the Lucky Baldwin Mine), situated above the former town of Doble (known before that as Bairdstown, sometimes called Gold Mountain City).

But I'm guessing most visitors to Holcomb Valley aren't there for the mining history.

And even though I was, I found myself discovering it in a fascinating way—behind the wheel of a vehicle I never thought I could control (or would even want to). Desi says he never worried about the safety of his Jeep. And that's really saying something.

The irony of this excursion is not lost on me. When we emerged from the Forest Service Road 3N16, we were a 5-minute drive or about a mile and a half as the crow flies from where I got my Honda Fit stuck on Cactus Road, trying to get to Big Bear after accidentally winding up on Forest Service Road 3N03.

But this time, I was prepared. I could shift into low gear. I had a pace car leading the way and a radio to call for help.

And I wasn't scared—at least, not most of the time.

I was, however, kind of relieved to give the Jeep back to Desi after more than two hours.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Summer Visit to a Gold-Mining Ghost Town Destroyed By Winter
Photo Essay: A Watery Surprise Near Death Valley

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