After John Sutter’s discovery of gold in Coloma, California, the 1850s and 1860s were a busy time in the West. Thousands of immigrants paraded across the Great Plains and the American philosophy of Manifest Destiny was coming to fruition.
In the northern Sierra Nevada, bearded miners, entrepreneurs and ladies of questionable vocation bounced along on buckboard wagons toward the high country. Their quest was precious metals, and the routes they travelled were carved through glaciated valleys and around alpine lakes.
Northwest of Truckee on the edge of a verdant meadow, a trapper named Henry Hartley collected ore samples that showed high promise. Word of his discovery flooded through the foothills like wind through a screen door, and in short order the valley was smothered with canvas tents, ramshackle huts, and the beginnings of what would become the boom-or-bust town of Summit City.
By 1866 and at the height of its prosperity, it boasted brick hotels and banks, a jail, houses of ill repute, a few dozen saloons, and a newspaper. They even had a paddle steamer for Saturday afternoon cruises on the lake. Within a few years the mines played out, the saloons and hotels were empty, and Summit City slowly decayed into a ghost town. It was abandoned, but not forgotten.
A century later, a group of Jeepers from Sacramento came up with the idea to resurrect the town, albeit as a weekend tent camp, and the track they would use to get there was a rough-and-tumble mining road along Fordyce Creek.
The event was appropriately named Sierra Trek, and when they locked in their hubs for that first traverse to Meadow Lake, they entered the opening act of an epic that would become an off-road legend. Last August marked Sierra Trek’s 50th year, and we were on hand to celebrate its golden anniversary.
Thursday morning found us at the staging area with the Sierra Treasure Hunters 4WD club (STH) long before twilight. Trek has always been a volunteer-run event, and STH is one of its three founding clubs – the other two were the Sacramento Jeepers and Camilla City Broncos. As the first rays of daybreak lit-up our windshields we were descending off of the appropriately named Sunrise Ridge and navigating through a boulder field to the first river crossing.
Fordyce is a sister trail to the famous Rubicon, and having done the Jeepers Jamboree just two weeks prior, we’d have to say that Fordyce is one tough bugger. It’s only 17.7km in length, but it can take all day – and part of the night if you have problems. There are a total of five winch hills – each of which is staffed by a full-time crew – and dozens of obstacles in between that command your attention.
Our posse of Jeeps, Toyotas, Broncos and Scouts threaded its way along the river, eventually arriving at Winch Hill 1, a long, steep sluice with a bus-sized wedge at the top. Passing the Carlisle Mine and the remains of an old stamp mill, we thought about the early travellers along this creek.
It is said that back in the 1860s a weekly stagecoach ran this route from Cisco Grove to Meadow Lake. Heavier supplies, such as mining equipment and building materials, were brought into this forbidding landscape by wagon and oxen. We were glad our rigs were equipped with locking differentials, low gears, modern tyres and low air pressure.
By day’s end we were scratching our way up Winch Hill 4, where the Dixon 4 Wheelers had created a Las Vegas-style theme park, complete with slot machines and a wedding chapel – Elvis would officiate gett’n hitched if needed. Winch Hill 5 marked the end of a great day of wheeling, and we made haste for Meadow Lake.
Sponsored by the California Four Wheel Drive Association (CA4WA), Sierra Trek has become one of the West’s premier family off-roading events. While the original affair boasted a single trail ride and Saturday night barbecue, it has grown into a four-day festival with options ranging from mild to wild.
The following days were spent running Outer Limits, a moderate trail on the Bear Valley Loop, and taking a guided SUV tour of the cemetery, abandoned miners’ cabins and the 8000-foot summit of Lacey Peak. Afternoons found us hiking, fishing and canoeing around Meadow Lake.
Buckboard wagons no longer rattle along Summit City’s dusty streets, but for a week each year the town is reborn as a massive tent camp; a gala affair and tribute to the days of yore.
Along Main Street, purveyors of off-road equipment set up shop and present their wares. At the end of the block is the Chuck Wagon Kitchen, where hearty ranch-style meals are served daily. Across the square is a bank, café and bathhouse. Ladies of questionable vocation no longer promenade on the hotel balcony, but when the sun goes down, today’s Summit City reveals the bravado of its Gold Rush roots.
The nightly party is worth the price of admission. A live band takes the stage and rattles the timbers ’til the wee hours as revellers kick up their heals on a 50-foot dance floor. Yonder, patrons belly-up the wooden bar at the Wild West Saloon while the sheriff and barkeep attempt to maintain law and order.
Saturday night features a massive raffle with more than $30,000 in swag, and lucky ticket holders go home with gear from Warn, ARB, BFGoodrich and Premier Power Welder. The Sierra Trek has become an annual gathering, a pilgrimage for off-road aficionados from around the country and the world, and we’re excited to see where it goes over the next 50 years.
For further information on the Sierra Trek 2018, click on cal4wheel.com.
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