Located deep in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near the Sonora Pass, Niagara Rim is a beautiful trail that Cindy and I had been wanting to run for quite some time now but always found it logistically difficult to do. Certainly, it’s quite a haul to get to from our home down in Southern California and it’s even quite the trek from South Lake Tahoe where we normally spend a good part of our summers. And, being that Niagara Rim is a ‘difficult’ rated trail, it’s also one that we preferred not to do alone and finding friends who could join us out in this remote location had proven to be somewhat of a challenge. Needless to say, when we announced that we would be doing a run/camping trip out on this trail about a month ago over on JK-Forum.com, we weren’t sure what to expect and had no idea of who if anyone would be able come along. Of course, what we hadn’t taken into consideration was the fact that just about every planned run on JK-Forum.com has a way of getting people to come out of the woodwork and this trip was no exception to the rule. Much to my surprise, when all was said and done, we were able to get a total of 10 Jeep JK Wranglers coming from all over Northern and Southern California to join us.
Unfortunately, Cindy and I weren’t able to get out of town a day early as was originally planned and actually ended up not being able to leave until late Friday night. Fortunately for us though, our good friends Jen (toad) and Jeff (Bullfrog) were kind enough to wait for us so that we could caravan up with them and that made the long drive up a whole lot easier to do. While the plan was to make it up to camp no matter what, I think all of us were toast by the time we got to Merced and the thought of setting up camp at 2:30 AM wasn’t very appealing to anyone. So, we all decided to call it a night, checked into a local Super 8 Motel and caught a few hours of sleep.
The following morning, we were back on the road again by 6:00 AM, made a quick stop in Sonora for breakfast and just by chance, had the pleasure of hooking up with Mike (WeGo4x4) and Todd (FireRescue707) along the way and we all rolled into camp by about 9:00 AM. After saying our hellos and taking some time to explain the reason for our delay, we unpacked our Jeeps, setup our tent and camping gear and then proceeded to remove our soft top and doors. Tempted by what they were seeing us do, pretty much everyone else in our group decided to do the same and by the time we were off to the trail, our campsite was littered with an array of Jeep doors leaning up against trees, rocks and even on the ground – truly a sight to be seen.
Of the 10 JK’s in our group (three 2-door and seven 4-door), most were slightly to moderately built up and one was bone stock with street tires. Of the drivers we had, most had some wheeling experience but never on the kind of terrain they would be seeing and a couple were in fact total newbies. At just a little over 6 miles in length, Niagara Rim is a relatively short trail that normally would take about 3 hours to complete but soon after we started the trail, it became clear to us that we wouldn’t be getting back to camp until the end of the day.
Starting off with a steep descent down a rocky hillside followed by a tough climb up some loose boulders and soft soil, the first real obstacle on Niagara Rim is called No Way Out and it’s presented to you right from the get go. While there is a bypass around the climb, everyone in our group decided to make the most of this trip and take a stab at it. And, as you can imagine, those with a greater degree of flex, big aggressive tires and/or lockers made it up the climb with ease and those without… well, they did struggle a bit and even required some stacking of rocks but with the exception of only a couple of JK’s who were forced to take the bypass, everyone else was able to make the climb. Beyond No Way Out, the trail continued to be rocky and somewhat of a challenge all the way up to the top of Hard Brake Hill and a tow strap was needed a couple of times to help out Tyler (JKid) who had the only stock JK in our group.
Hard Brake Hill gets its name from the fact that it is a very steep descent down a hillside with very loose soil and to make things a bit more interesting, about half way down, there are rocky outcrops protruding from either side of the trail making it just narrow enough to prevent you from squeezing through without some effort. In other words, you have to come to a near stop at this point in order to carefully negotiate your way over these rocks and given the circumstances at hand, this can be quite a challenge especially if you lack a good low range to help you engine brake your way down or have street tires that offer very little traction. While everyone in our group did make it down this section with ease, it was a little concerning to watch Tyler in his stock JK essentially make a controlled slide to the bottom of the hill. The trail beyond was easy and very scenic as it took us past fields of Mule Ears and across a ridge that offered stunning views of the Stanislaus National Forest beyond. This continues for a couple of miles until we reached our next challenge, Sidewall Suicide.
Sidewall Suicide is an obstacle that takes you up and around a jagged outcropping of lava and then has you descend a short but steep, tippy and narrow shelf that can potentially put you on your side. Nothing life threatening per se but going over would sure put a damper on your day for sure. Because of this, most people tend to pull close to the sharp rocky wall on the driver side and rubbing your tires against this can result in damage and/or destruction of the sidewalls – hence the name ‘Sidewall Suicide.’ Fortunately, this obstacle can be bypassed and a little more than half of our group made the wise decision to do just that. All in all, Sidewall Suicide really isn’t that difficult of an obstacle and is probably more psychological than anything but it’s certainly not for everyone. And, of the people in our group who did choose to take on this challenge, all were able to clear it with ease.
After a brief stop for lunch, we made our way down Shale Hill and over to the Lion’s Butt. While the Lion’s Butt is a specific obstacle on the Niagara Rim Trail, it is also a play area that offers terrain such as large granite slabs, boulders and ledges very similar to Moab. By far, I think this was everyone’s favorite part of the trail and we pretty much spent the rest of the day playing here. Of course, Cindy and I loved it here as it gave us a chance to really put our new Off Road Evolution EVO Front Coil Over and rear EVO Lever Suspension System to the flex test and let me just say, we were blown away by it’s performance (more details to come soon)!! Being that traction was optimal on the granite, even Tyler had an easy time pushing his JK to the limit. Before heading back out, we decided to make our way down and around the Lion’s Butt obstacle and it was at this point that we nearly had our first casualty of the day. The Lion’s Butt is basically a steep descent down two large granite slabs with a crack down the middle. However, the crack isn’t exactly in the middle and the two slabs are exactly even and attempting to straddle it will ultimately put the passenger side of your Jeep up on the high side towards the end and in a very bad way just you start to drop off of the slabs. Jen did this a bit and it gave her a fright as her passenger rear corner started to take flight when she came off the slab. Unfortunately, Kristen didn’t see this and when she made her way down, she straddled the crack even more and if it weren’t for Chip (kidjeep) jumping on the rear corner of their Jeep at the last second, she would have gone over for sure.
Considering ourselves lucky that nobody got hurt and nobody sustained any real damage on their Jeeps, we decided to skip the last and hardest section of trail called the Rock Pile and call it a day. As it was, sunset was fast approaching, everyone was tired and several members in our group were in need of heading back home. Taking one of the many cut-across trails that hook up to the main trail, we were able to make it back to camp in no time at all, got those in need of leaving situated and the rest of us relaxing with dinner in hand and good company around a nice warm campfire.
The following morning, most of our group packed up and headed for home. With only Jen, Jeff (Bullfrog), David (MBATF), Jeff (BeepJeep), Cindy and I left, we decided to head back out to the Rock Pile. Now, according to Charles Wells, author of the California Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails books, the Rock Pile is “strictly extreme hardcore 4-wheeling” and let me tell you, it really is. Essentially, the rock pile is a large granite expanse with cracks you can negotiate up, huge ledges you can climb, slabs you can traverse across and boulders you can play on. While we were there, we encountered a guy in a rock buggy that had made his way up almost to the top of a long nasty crack only to break his tie-rod, drag link, steering assist, front drive shaft, winch cable trying to pull himself out and toast a couple of Optima Yellow Top batteries trying to weld things back together. Truly, he was in a bind and if it weren’t for the fact that his other buddies were also in highly modified buggies that could get into difficult positions and help him out, I’m not sure what he would have done. But, I digress. For our purposes, we found a lesser crack to work our way up and spent our final morning at Niagara Rim working at it. Without a doubt, the boulders here were huge and proved to be a real challenge and a ton of fun. Being that Jeff’s (BeepJeep) 2-door was only an X with 33’s, he decided to leave it behind and hitch a ride with David but much to our surprise, Jen was able to make it up in her 2-door X sitting on 4″ of lift and 35’s. In order to get back down, we had to negotiate our way across a large granite face cris-crossed with deep fissures and a steep drop off at the end and for the 4-doors, this was no problem at all. While we did end up hooking a tow strap to the back of Jen’s JK just to give her piece of mind as she dropped off the final ledge, it wasn’t needed and she made it off just fine as well.
Of all the trails that I have had a chance to run here in California, I’d have to say Niagara Rim is by far one of my new favorites. Yes, it is very far and a chore to get to but that might also be the reason why it’s still so clean, beautiful and devoid of crowds. Plus, with the ability to take cut-across trails connecting the campground to the various points along the main trail, you can quickly and easily make your way out to your favorite play spots like the Lion’s Butt and Rock Pile. Need I say, if you have an opportunity to make it out to this great wheeling spot, I would highly recommend it.
If you would like to see all the photos from our trip to Niagara Rim, simply click on the banner above or on the link below:
Project-JK.com Niagra Rim OHV Trail Run 2008 Photo Gallery
Of course, you know there will be a YouTube Video posted from this run as well so be sure to check back soon for it.