Sierra Nevada Labor Day Weekend Run

Of all the trips that we’ve gone on this year, I’d have to say that this was by far the mother of all last minute runs.  In fact, I don’t think any of us had any idea as to where we might be going – if we were going, until the Friday before and even then, nobody had a clue as to what the plan was until close to 10:00 PM that night.  Heck, we were still making changes to our plans while we were on the highway and on our way up to our rendezvous point the morning of our trip.  But, in spite of all the craziness (enough so that one member in our group almost stayed home), I’m happy to say that this trip ended up being one of the best ones of the summer and definitely one to remember.

After spending an entire day behind his computer private messaging people on JK-Forum and hammering out the details with Jen (toad) and Jason, Matt (doojer) organized and planned out a trip that would take us up into the very remote and outstandingly beautiful Monache Meadows which is located up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of Lake Isabella and east of Kennedy Meadows.  From there, we would set up camp for two nights and use it as a jump point to do a run up the Sherman Pass 4×4 Trail on Sunday morning.

As mentioned, on the morning of our trip, we decided to make a last minute change in plans as to where we would meet up and have breakfast.  Initially, we were all going to meet up in the town of Mojave but our last experience eating there left us with grimaces on our faces and so we decided to meet up a bit closer to L.A. and have breakfast at the IHOP in Lancaster.  By the time we got there, our JK thermometers were already showing temps well into the 90’s and so we were hot to get fill up, get back on the road and up the mountain before the heat became unbearable.  Needless to say, after a quick and unremarkable meal, we all got back in our Jeeps, headed up the 14 to Mojave where we gassed up one last time, got some last minute provisions and then made our way up to the 395.

Soon after the 14 hooked up with the 395, we left the main highway and the searing 100°+ temps and started our long climb up the Sierra Nevada Mountains on Mile Canyon Road.  By the time we reached the Chimney Peak Wilderness and Kennedy Meadows, the landscape had abruptly changed from being that of rocks, Joshua Trees and small desert scrubs to being that of cool green aspens, pines and golden meadows.  And, along with the change in landscape, we were also treated to significantly cooler temps which were now in the low 80’s and really quite comfortable.  After a brief stand off that Jen and Jeff had with a very large bull in the middle of the road, we continued to make our way up 22S05, past Black Rock Ranger Station and then stopped at the Monache Meadow Jeep Trail staging area to air down our tires and disconnect our sway bars.

Thanks to some recent showers that fell either the night before and/or the morning of, the trails from here on out were wonderfully dust free for everyone in the back of our group and we were even treated to something we rarely see here in California, MUD!!  Yup, all along the way out to our camp site at the northern most reaches of Monache Meadows, we found a myriad of deep brown mud puddles of varying sizes and viscosity and as you can imagine, we took every opportunity we could to transform the factory color of our JK’s into a nice shade of brown.  Now, while the Monache Meadow Jeep Trail is rated “easy” as it should be, I can tell you that there was one large optional rock face that we encountered about a third the way in which did provide some good low range fun descending and ascending it from different directions.  But, aside from it and all the mud there was very little if anything that required us to use 4WD.

When we arrived at our camp next to the South Fork Kern River, it was close to 6:00 PM and the sun was already hidden behind the taller peaks leaving just the crowns of the pines a glow with amber light. So, with nightfall just around the corner, we all picked a spot to pitch our tents, setup camp and then were served a delicious meal of chicken tacos that Matt and Heather prepared for us while Jason set the mood with his guitar.  Unfortunately, there were fire restrictions in effect in this area and so smores were out of the question along with a camp fire.  Needless to say, we ended up spending the rest of the night huddling around a lantern in the middle of a fire ring but at least we had each others company and had a lot of fun talking the night away.

The following morning, Jason, Cindy and I got up at the crack of dawn and decided to take a morning walk down along the river out to where the forest opened up to the outskirts of the Monache Meadows.  Along the way, we saw a variety of Lupines and other wildflowers that hadn’t been eaten by grazing cattle and in the river itself, we saw scores of frogs and schools of 6″-8″ trout.  Back at camp, Matt and Heather were already up and working hard to cook up some extremely good pancakes and sausages for everyone.  While we were eating, we began discussing the day ahead of us and came to the conclusion that we were all tight on gas and that it would prove to be a problem if it weren’t addressed sometime during the day.  Unfortunately, the nearest gas was about an hour and a half away back on the 395 in Pearsonville (of course, had we gassed up one more time here just before leaving the 395, we wouldn’t be having this problem) or at Kernville which was about 2 hours to the south.  Anyway, after we finished up breakfast, we did some calculations and decided that the best course of action would be to run the Sherman Pass 4×4 Trail even though our tanks were on the low side and then head down to Kernville, which would only be about 30 miles away and fill up there.

Leaving camp, we headed back to the Black Rock Ranger Station, stopped there to use their fragrant facilities and then made our way over to the Sherman Pass 4×4 Trail.  Of course, getting there ended up taking a bit longer than expected but only because we were following our GPS units which were initially instructing us to take an ATV route that apparently hooked up to where we wanted to go but was inaccessible to us.  Needless to say, by the time we were able to double backed to where we started and finally get to the Sherman Pass 4×4 trail head, it was close to 2:00 PM and starting to rain just a bit.

Now, I should point out that our original plan was to run this trail from west to east as the Charles Wells Guide to California Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails suggests but because of where we were coming from and our current gas situation, we decided to do this run in reverse and in retrospect, I’m really glad that we did.  Although the National Forest Services rates this trail as being “difficult”, I would have to say that it is for the most part really quite easy.  Granted, we did encounter a couple of tippy sections along the way and there were plenty of extremely tight squeezes we had to make between trees but over all, the terrain was nothing so challenging that a stock JK couldn’t do with little to no effort at all especially if you take the bypasses.

A little more than half way through the trail, we were happy to find ourselves in front of a challenging rocky climb that could be done as an alternative to the main trail.  And, after walking the length of it to see what was in store for us, making a quick stop to find a geocache in the area and having some lunch, we each proceeded to make the climb picking our way up the rocks and looking for lines that would offer the most fun.  For me, this would cost me my EVAP canister as the trail decided it wanted to take a bite out of it and Jen and Jeff found themselves hi-centered with both front wheels in the air just like Doug (Trail Bud) on our last trail run up to Buck Rock.  Matt picked some pretty hard lines but was able to make his way up to the top without too much trouble and Jason simply walked over everything in his 2-Door Rubicon sitting on top of 35’s.

The rest of the trail from here was for the most part quite easy with the exception of the very last stretch leading back down to 22S05 or Sherman Pass Road.  This length of trail passed through a carbonized forest that was eerily beautiful but was also slow going due to the fact that the terrain quickly became very steep, narrow, heavily rutted in places and had some extremely tight hairpin turns as well as fallen trees that needed to be negotiated around. Once we got back to pavement, we aired up our tires, reconnected our sway bar links and then made a trek down to Kernville to top off our thirsty Jeeps.

For the record, I haven’t visited the Kern River in over a decade and after seeing what a zoo it was on our way down to Kernville, I now know why.  Granted, this was a holiday weekend but I kid you not, what I saw looked like scenes from a documentary chronicling the lives of refugees living in a tent city.  Of course, once we got to town, the only two gas stations had a line of cars extending out to the road and tempers were hot enough to match the heat of the day.  And, after avoiding near scuffle I almost had with another driver at the gas station (which Matt so eloquently diffused with his cunning diplomatic skills and Jason’s pleasant smile), we topped off our tanks, were treated to some cool fruit compliments of Jen and then made our way back to camp.

Tired, hungry and struggling to see the featureless road ahead of us with the crappy headlights that come standard on the new JK’s, getting back to camp would ultimately take us a lot longer than expected and dinner wouldn’t be served until well past 10:00 PM.  To top it off, it had apparently rained at camp while we were gone and everything got a good soaking including all our chairs.  But, with much gratitude to Matt and Heather as well as Jen and Jeff, we all got to feast on delicious buffalo burgers, chili, pasta, beer and wine before turning in for the night.

For those of us who were awake early enough to see it, the final morning of our trip presented us with a wonderful going away gift which was being able to see a beautiful deer nonchalantly walk across the river and right into the middle of our camp.  So far as we could tell, it showed no fear of us and only ran off when it heard a engine start up from another camp down the ways.  I have to say that seeing this deer this close and in this manner was a real treat but also a sad reminder of what we would be leaving that day.  Soon after it was gone, the rest of our group got up and we proceeded to cook up some bacon and eggs for breakfast while everyone laughed and enthusiastically recounted the experience.

After breaking down camp and packing up our Jeeps, we all made a final pitstop at the campgrounds only open air facility across the river and then made our way back out into the Monache Meadows.  Once back into the open, we decided to do a little exploring of the Bake Oven Sand Dunes and the meadows beyond to find a geocache that was entered into Matt’s GPS.  From there, we splashed our way across the South Fork Kern River and then spent some time checking out a set of rustic cabins that were apparently the only ones in the area that are currently unoccupied.  On the trail again, we headed south as far as we could until the road was blocked by the Sierra Wilderness Boundary and then backtracked our way until we could find a road that would take us back across the South Fork Kern River.

This second crossing across the South Fork Kern River was a bit deeper than our first and the embankment on the opposite side was a bit steeper as well and so after I made it to the other side, my engine stalled.  Unsure of what exactly caused the stall, I killed the engine and Jason helped me check the air intake and dipstick to make sure my engine didn’t swallow some water. The rest of the way back out was pretty uneventful and we only had to make one stop for Matt who needed to work on his sway bar disconnect links which were giving him some problems.  Back at the Black Rock Ranger Station, we aired our tires back up, reconnected our sway bar links and then took off to Kennedy Meadows in hopes of finding a phone that worked so that Jason could make a call to his wife and let her know that he was going to be late.  But, as luck would have it, the pay phone we found there didn’t work and so we made had to make a beeline back down to the 395 where cell phone reception was sure to be found.

Soon after Jason was able to make his call, it was determined that he couldn’t stick around for lunch and needed to get home and so we split off with him down the 395 while the other two in our group headed on home down the 14.  Along the way, we were pounded by a freak shower and dazzled by the lightning that came with it.  And, much to everyone’s surprise, we found that traffic along the entire length of our drive to be unusually light to non-existent especially considering this was the last day of a holiday weekend.  Certainly, it was if nothing else, a welcome end to an amazing trip.

When I said this was the mother of all last minute runs, I really don’t know if words alone could express just how crazy and last minute it really was.  And, if it weren’t for all the hard work and planning that Matt and Heather did for us all, I’m not sure we would have been able to pull it off and so to them, I offer a special thanks and my sincere gratitude.  You guys rock and we always enjoy going wheeling with you.  As far as Jen and Jeff goes, I really do appreciate you being so flexible and accommodating enough to join us on this run in spite of all the uncertainty leading up to the trip.  As for Jason, I really am glad that you decided to find a way to come on this trip especially since I know how difficult it was for you to do.  We really had a great time with you, loved the fact that you brought and played your guitar for us and enjoyed your help in keeping me awake on the long drive up and back home again by talking to me on the CB.  Thanks again everybody for the great time and I look forward to go wheeling with you again soon.

To see all the pics from our trip, click on the banner above or on the link below:

Sierra Nevada Labor Day Weekend Run Photos



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