It’s a tense moment piloting a full size truck down a technical jeep trail. Each wheel placement critical, springs squeaking, rocks grinding under the tires, metal bits hanging low under the truck rasping over boulders in the trail telegraphing either minor scuffing or potentially catastrophic damage with every grinding jolt on the steep bedrock road down the mountain. The only other sound on the serene bluebird day in the mountains, far from highways and cell phone signal is the raucous cacophony of the two little boys in the back of a full size truck being piloted down a technical jeep trail, laughing, and carrying on and getting louder and more ridiculous with every excruciating bump.
The Snake Lake Jeep trail starts at Gold Lake in the beautiful Lakes Basin California. This is an area we’ve spend a bit of time over the years, but not nearly enough given how close it is to Reno. You could camp here every weekend for an entire season and never get bored. That’s a good idea. Maybe in 2019…
Anyway, this time Shawn and I brought the little guys up for an adventurous day trip to Snake Lake. The trailhead starts at the Gold Lake Boat Launch road and campground. If you’re looking for a basecamp for off road excursions in Lakes Basin either by 4×4, ATV, bike or foot, this is a good one.
Before we got started on the trail of course, we aired down the tires, and Shawn took the time for a little last minute manscaping. We were anticipating some high-clearance situations, and he wanted to trim the tail pipe back so it wouldn’t get crushed against the rear quarter panel of the Power Wagon and damage either. The battery powered saws-all also came in handy for trimming the Yakima bars short as we were anticipating some very tight trees. In fact a guy in the parking lot driving a Tacoma said he had a lot of trouble on the trail we were headed down. We finished the trimming and headed on down the trail with a fair bit of cautious anticipation.
We were joined by Brent, Rachel and Sam in their Modified Jeep JKU Sport. Spoiler alert: The Jeep JKU is perfectly suited for this trail. It fits and it has ample capability. There’s still a surprise from the Jeep contingent, so stick around…
The first stretch of the trail just gets you down to the other end of Gold Lake and you catch awesome views of the lake through the forest. It’s a 4×4 trail, but a bold Subaru driver could do it, and any stock 4runner can do it. At leas the first part.
Soon you arrive at the Gold Lake OHV Campground which has bathrooms and a number of really nice tent camp sites. The sites have tables, fire rings and bear boxes. It’s BYO Bear though. The campground has seen some renovation this last year and the bathrooms are a new addition. I’ve noticed in the past that the campground has been trashy with lots of surface poos. So hopefully things will change.
Shawn mapped out the route with the Gaia GPS app, and it was easy to follow on the iPad. The trail is fairly well marked and obvious, so you can get by with a simple map, or just following turn by turn directions.
Summit Lake is the first major intersection where you head right on a signed OHV Road, but it’s a good spot for a snack and taking care of any last minute trail prep. Brent unhooked the swaybar links on his jeep. This is the first time I’ve seen him do that and it ended up making a pretty big difference. If you look back at his jeep in the Prison Hill Video and the Deer Valley video you’ll see a lot of wheel lift. You won’t see that in this video.
From Summit Lake the OHV Trail heads north through thick forest above Gold Lake without any real challenges until you arrive at Oakland Pond. Here there is a sign for Snake Lake and the Snake Lake trail starts to head straight down the hill and things get hairy pretty quick. This is the point of no return. If you’re at all apprehensive, walk the first hundred meters of so of trail. It’s not far. If you decide to back out here, it’s worth the short hike to get down to Snake Lake without your rig. In fact, the distances involved in this whole trip are not that great at all, making it a great day trip.
The descent is a series of steep rocky sections of road without major obstacles, beyond the steep grade, and sometime loos substrate. Still a bad line could result in body damage or worse. But taking it slow and having a spotter makes it challenging but doable descent. After the initial descent and challenges, the trail is less insanely steep and backs off to just pretty steep. But there are still a few challenges in the short distance left before you get to Snake Lake.
So the Power Wagon made it down to Snake lake with no problems. We found a nice spot on the lake to have lunch in full view of the trail coming down the mountain.
The Climb Out
Once you’re at Snake Lake there are three options to get back out. Well, 4 if you count hiking. You can turn around and head back the way you came up the steep hill to Oakland Pond. This is supposedly the critical piece of the puzzle if you want to claim full credit for having done the Snake Lake trail. While it’s a tricky, but doable descent, the climb back up would be another matter entirely. The steep grade and sometimes traction limited road would pose a significant challenge to any 4×4 and driver.
The loop back to summit lake heads left right past Snake Lake, crosses the creek and starts heading up hill towards Little Deer Lake. We were confident/hopeful this would be easier than what we had just done. Spoiler alert: We weren’t wrong, but weren’t completely right either.
In the video we didn’t know what was coming. If you aren’t into taking body damage, don’t run a Power Wagon back that way. If you aren’t OK with some body damage, probably don’t take a Power Wagon down there at all. Shawn is a very deliberate and careful driver, and he ended up taking hits to the bumper and rear quarter panel. Less nuanced drivers can expect more. Of course, a better spotter than some joker with a camera might have helped. It’s impossible to know.
We were soon caught by a dude named Jesse who was driving solo in this old Jeep XJ he got on Craigslist for $400. He was happy for the company and took up his place in caravan. The mismatched front clip, custom vented exhaust and hangdog cigarette caused us to be initially skeptical. There was chatter over the CB about the probability of his needing our assistance with the winches on our much more outwardly reputable rigs. That would prove to be unwarranted.
The climb to Little Deer Lake rises above Snake Lake and starts out fairly chill. But there was a rather tight pinch that caused the Power Wagon some trouble. The trail splits the difference between a Jeep Cherokee sized rock on one side and a Suzuki Samurai sized rock on the other. The gap between the two is almost the exact width of a Ram Power Wagon. With the angle and surface imperfections and turn radius added in it proved to be an especially tight spot for Shawn to bust through.
Shawn initially creeped up to the squeeze at dead slow. got right up in that Cherokee Rock’s business with his new Kinzer bumper. I stopped him, alerted him to the contact, and he felt like using a steel bumper to slide past rocks was it’s exact intended function. He had literally installed it the day before and painted it with a rattle can the day before that, so it stung for sure. However, it looks at leasr 20% more bad ass today than it did before. So fair trade.
The real kicker here was the big step-up rock sitting just ahead of the Samurai boulder. We tried some rock stacking but the Power Wagon just spit those rocks right out and stopped it flat. Even with both axles locked and all 4 tires turning in unison like Michael Jackson backup dancers. We quickly decided to winch it from there to avoid any further damage.
The best winch anchor was a significantly dead tree in direct line from the stuck Ram. But it was far enough away should any catastrophic failures occure, so we gave it a go. The problem with sensible, cautious slow four wheeling is that horrible things rarely happen and it makes for dull YouTube. However, we have a lot invested in these vehicles, not to mention the occupants, so we take no unnecessary chances if we can help it.
A quick tug and the Ram was over the step-up rock and free.
Brent guided the JKU up and the tight fit was less a challenge than the rock step-up. He got up with help from the flexible un-swaybarred front end. And then came Jesse in the $400 Cherokee. He cruised it easily, clearing all the hazards with room to spare.
From there the trail keeps climbing through beautiful views over rough but uneventful terrain to skirt around Little Deer Lake. And it climbs some more.
I got some cool video of all three vehicles ascending a steep and loose hill which the JKU and Power Wagon skated up with ease. The Cherokee had some momentary open differential issues and continued on. For some reason, I remember thinking that this guy was lucky to have run into us. Madness.
By the time I ran back up to the Power Wagon and jumped in, Brent had raced up ahead and danced through the next and final obstacle with no witnesses or apparent difficulty. It’s a rocky hill with a left turn at the top that would again expose the disadvantages of a large, heavy, long wheelbase vehicle. Shawn tried every approach to the bedrock climb and each time grounded out on the skid plates. Again, rather than beat up his truck, Shawn chose to winch it up. And again, a short tug got him past the breaking point and over the obstacle. And again, it was sensational YouTube video. But the kids had fallen asleep in the back seat and it seemed wrong to wake them up by rolling the truck through the forest.
AND STILL I suggest that he not get too far ahead lest poor jesse and his Cherokee needs a winch tug to get up. I don’t know what I was thinking. Long story short, I now have Jeep Cherokee alerts on craigslist. That cherokee mobbed up it just fine. The only thing Jesse needed from us was a witness to his boldness and skill behind the wheel.
The rest of the trail is cool and interesting and fun, but not challenging. It’s an enjoyable bumpy road compared to the descent into Snake Lake and the climb up to Deer Lake. There is one place where the trees are fairly tight, but Shawn was able to get through with little effort. We made it back to the Traihead to air up, reconnect sway bar links and let the kids rowdy about before heading back home. A nice ritual to ease out of the rugged adventure of four wheeling and prepare for the hum of pavement and the eventuality of civilization.
Another nice buffer is a stop at the Brewing Lair in Blairsden. It’s on the way home and so easy to get to that not stopping for a pint, some ping pong, and a relaxing debriefing from the trail would be just another 4×4 fail.
I know what you’re all thinking. Where is the 4Runner through all of this? Safe at home holding down the driveway. I wanted to focus on capturing this event for your entertainment.
How to get to Snake Lake
If you want to get to snake lake, just look at a map of Lakes Basin and follow the roads to Gold Lake. If you want detailed turn by turn directions, you can back our Patreon Page and I’ll post it all for you there.
Snake Lake Links
- Full Turn-by-turn directions, GPS Waypoints and Tracks
- Vacation Graeagle
- Tahoe National Forest
Thanks for following our little adventure!