For many, off-roading conjures images of giant engines roaring as they push lifted trucks through muddy ground. Things are a little different, however; environmental protection has decreased the number of areas off-highway recreational vehicles can roll in the name of conservation.
Off-roading groups like the California 4-Wheel Drive Association take precautions not to disrupt natural ecosystems, said Del Albright, environmental affairs specialist and BlueRibbon Coalition ambassador. Most of the damage is done by ignorant, inexperienced riders.
“I spend all my time educating off-roaders on the right way to enjoy the outdoors with a motor,” said Albright, who has a bachelor’s degree in forestry and a master’s in environmental planning. “And if they don’t come around to education, we’re not afraid to call the cops.”
Gone are the days when drivers rode ATVs through empty hillsides at will. State vehicular recreation areas designate select places where people like Randy Burleson, 47, can “play” with their vehicles.
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“There’s been such a diminishment of recreational opportunities in last 20 or 30 years that most people are very protective of places you can go out and 4-wheel,” he said. “(Now) most people are very mindful about being right on the resource, but doing it in a sustainable fashion.”
Traditionally, most off-road vehicles are out in winter or summer, Burleson said. Driving in snow provides an extra cushion between wheels and terrain, and rainless summers mean vehicles are less likely to displace sediment around mountainsides, though the current drought has made trails usable throughout most of the year.
Western off-roading is more familial and nature-based than the mud races that take place in Alabama and Tennessee, said Kurt Schneider, CRAWL magazine land use editor who is a teacher at Heritage High School in Brentwood.
Schneider’s father was a concessions worker in Yosemite Valley when he was growing up. When tourists flocked to Tuolomne Meadows, the family would pack up their camping gear and head into unoccupied areas of the park.
“A big part of off-roading isn’t about wheeling; it’s about getting away in the mountains,” Schneider said. “I can take you out to lakes clearer than Lake Tahoe where you can see every star in the sky.”
Schneider’s family has been camping at a certain spot within the Eldorado National Forest for the last 20 years but stopped recently after park rangers gated the area. With three young boys and a father-in-law who suffers from diabetes, getting to the campsite by foot became a chore.
“Deserts are fun as well, but something about mountain lakes just really does it for me,” Burleson said. “I enjoy a technical challenge, something that will challenge me and the vehicle. Sometimes it’s size of the rock, sometimes it’s the rock’s placement, sometimes it’s the narrowness of the trail.
“But I’ve never made the trip, gotten there and said ‘Gee, I wish I was at home.’”
Here are five Northern California off-road destinations worth taking on:
Distance from Sacramento: 130 miles
Defining characteristics: A mix of large boulders and granite sheets. The most difficult obstacle is arguably Cadillac Hill, which has a sharp incline and many pointed rocks jutting out into the path.
Quote: “Northern California is where recreational off-roading really started after World War II, and the Rubicon Trail is our crown jewel.”
Kurt Schneider, CRAWL magazine land use editor
Distance from Sacramento: 25 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 to 7/10 (depending on area and vehicle)
Defining characteristics: Open grasslands surrounded by oak trees. Designed primarily for motorbikes, though 4-wheel enthusiasts can roll over an obstacle course that includes a rock field, pyramidlike structure and mud pit.
Quote: “Prairie City is an incredible place to go play, test your vehicle and have fun. You’ve got everything from go-karts to kids on little bikes learning to ride. It’s down by Folsom, so close enough to go out and try any vehicle you want, mild or wild.”
Del Albright, BlueRibbon Coalition ambassador
Foresthill OHV Area
Distance from Sacramento: 50 miles
Defining characteristics: Curved dirt roads meant for motorbikes or ATVs less than 50 inches in width to go “adventure riding.” Trail system is nearly 100 miles in total.
Quote: “(It) offers a wide variety of trail challenges. There are trails for beginners, trails for intermediate and expert riders. (It’s) at about 4,000, 5,000 feet and it’s a pretty cool forested type of experience.”
Don Amador, Quiet Warrior Racing owner
Distance from Sacramento: 85 miles
Defining characteristics: Tight turns over large boulders can easily flip drivers going too fast. Considered the toughest trail in the Sierra Nevada, Fordyce has multiple deep water crossings. Creek’s flow rate is controlled by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which operates Fordyce Dam above the trail.
Quote: “It presents about five serious obstacles called winch hills. You get a couple of tries at ’em, and if you don’t get (your vehicle) up by then you get winched up to save time and let other people go through.”
Slick Rock Trail
Distance from Sacramento: 130 miles
Defining characteristics: Granite rocks, old-growth forests and spectacular views line the trail, which has a creek running parallel. The trail earns its name from a steep granite face 4x4s can roll down, and is not to be confused with Slickrock Trail, a popular mountain biking route near Moab, Utah.
Quote: “It encompasses so much of the Sierra Nevada ecosystem. If you’re a mountain-loving person, Slick Rock Trail has it all. ... You just want to sit there and have lunch and enjoy the scenery.”