Nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains, California near Big Bear Lake, a small town called Fawnskin is home to the Outpost Cabins – a historic property which has become a hub for adventure-seekers. And this summer, we had the opportunity to experience this incredible place firsthand from a UTV.
And not just in any utility terrain vehicle. We joined none other than friend and stunt woman Jolene Van Vugt to explore this high desert landscape in her newly ADV upgraded Polaris RZR Pro XP 4 Ultimate. She was our gracious host and tour guide on this memorable, overnight excursion.
The Outpost – formerly known as the Quail Cove Lodge – was built in the 1930s and has been an oasis for Big Bear recreation ever since. From fishing to hiking and mountain biking, the Outpost has access to some of the best OHV trails and off-roading in Southern California. While some may say it is too hot there for off-roading during the summer, this region may actually be the perfect alpine destination to find cooler climates. Located at 6,171ft in elevation, it often stays at a reasonable temperature. And if you’re caught off-guard, you can always kick back in the lodge.
Arriving at the Outpost, you are greeted by the incredible people who run and own the cabins. Not only Jolene, but her brother Billy and his wife Alyssa – also major off-road and adventure enthusiasts – welcome their guests with smiles and open arms, ready to divulge all the wonderful outdoor secrets the area has to offer. Nestled on the north side of the lake, the cabins have ample room for trailers and other such automotive toys. Just verify space when you book your stay.
While there are few OHV designated roads near Big Bear, what routes are available are worth the trip. Check out the sights off of the Gold Fever or put your skills to the test by taking on one of the most challenging trails on the mountain: the John Bull Jr. If you want to tour just outside of the Outpost, venture to White Mountain. It offers great views, a range of obstacles and just a great excuse to wander nature. Keep in mind, although the trailhead starts relatively close, you will need to trailer your SXS to the trailhead of any OHV path.
Although the mountain is a good place to escape the Southern California summer, we opted to start our journey only 2,000 feet above sea level at Cactus Flats. Located halfway down the mountain off Highway 18, south of Lucerne Valley, Cactus Flats was a surprisingly short 12.8-mile drive from the Outpost, a 25-minute drive in length. And at the same time, it was a gateway to endless miles of off-road goodness for anyone to enjoy.
There was also ample staging room to prep our RZRs and ourselves for the ride. The chosen path began fast and windy, and filled our peripherals with a mix of Joshua Trees and pine trees. A fork in the road provided an opportunity to navigate through a rocky and technical section along the higher tree line, while a lower path remained swift and rally-like.
The lower we went in altitude, the more the terrain became a wasteland – from harsh road conditions to jagged, stony crossings. That was where we split off for the famous Rattlesnake Canyon trail. This was the portal to Johnson Valley, which is approximately 16 miles in length and can be done in almost any 4WD vehicle. In UTVs, it was a relatively easy trail. We encountered everything from deep sand to creek crossings with some light rock crawling. There were even some historic abandoned buildings which made for a great lunch spot.
Yet the abandoned buildings and fast sandy wash weren’t the best part. Instead, it was the lush dense grove of Joshua Trees – as if a forest entirely made up of this bizarre flora. Fascinated, we did some research on them. For instance, on average, they live to be about 500 years old, only growing two to three inches per year. And there we were, driving through these resilient relics of the wild – a pure and spectacular piece of nature everyone should visit.
We traveled to the end of Rattlesnake Canyon meeting highway 247 across from Johnson Valley, home of the infamous King of the Hammers event. Already at the end, we felt a little ripped off, not having seen one rattlesnake… But that didn’t stop us from turning around and doing it all over again. This time, as we made our way back to Cactus Flats, the pace was slightly faster since we knew where to go.
On the road, we stopped for a bit of fun in a mini-track burned into some large red mounds. When a track presents itself in the middle of nowhere, one must honor it with some hot laps. Mission complete, and journey resumed, the massive canyon walls – even the second time around – made for a unique trail riding experience. One we wish we could do again and again.
As we neared the staging area, the sun was getting hotter and marked the end of our trip. Unfortunately, we could only afford a night and a day, but it was well worth the escape from civilization. Dedicated OHV trails in Southern California can be difficult to find, and public land is becoming more and more restrictive to UTVs and non-plated off-road vehicles. Which is why we must cherish what little we have and seize the opportunity to take advantage of them while we still can – for a day, a weekend or weeks.
Fortunately, Cactus Flats is not far from central SoCal in the San Bernardino National Forest, where primitive camping is allowed with access to picnic tables and restrooms. However, if you’re willing to make the trek as far as the Outpost, you can skip the camping and enjoy a nice cozy bed and a warm fire to end the day.
Jolene and her brother Billy were incredible hosts. And while Jolene typically spends her time on movie sets, she was able to take some time off work and join us for some of our visit. The no frills cabins provided everything we could need to just get away. Our evening was spent under the stars, fireside telling stories with great new friends. There are so many incredible parks to visit in this country.
We aren’t saying that the Outpost or Big Bear Lake or even California is the best destination. Only that for us, our schedule and the distance, it was the right place for right now. It’s not about planning the perfect adventure, it’s about leaving the door and going on an adventure. So, if you want to see what the California deserts are all about, make your reservation at the Outpost, venture around Joshua Tree and find some strange in the San Bernardino Mountains.