BARRETT LAKE JEEP TRAIL

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By Harry Wagner

James Roney's clean flatfender. Rusty Wagner dancing through the boulder field. The entrance to the trail.

Barrett Lake Jeep Trail- July 13-15
Trail Report by Harry Wagner
Photos by James Roney, Bonnie Wagner, and Harry Wagner

As soon as I got off of the plane in San Jose I knew that this would be a trip full of surprises and changes. The first change was one for the better; the cool bay weather was far more to my liking than humid, muggy New Jersey. The surprise theme continued as soon as I spoke with my parents. Instead of traversing the famous Rubicon Trail, our destination for the weekend was to be Barrett Lake. The reason for the change was the Jeep Jamboree, scheduled to run on the Rubicon the same weekend. It seems that the organizers of the Jeep Jamboree had obtained a parade permit for the trail, prohibiting any other traffic.

This is the end destination- Barrett Lake.

Barrett Lake is in the Crystal Basin Recreation area off of Highway 50, just south of the Rubicon Trail. The trail begins at Wrights Lake, which is a beautiful place in its own right. Wrights Lake caters mainly to campers and equestrians, in addition to being the starting point for four wheeling and backpacking. Barrett Lake Jeep Trail (as it is officially called) is approximately six miles long and is only open for a few select weeks each year. The USFS limits access to the trail to prevent overuse and damage.

The next surprise to occur was the condition of my fathers FJ-40 Land Cruiser. When I walked into the backyard I found it on jack stands with the hood up and the gas tank out on the ground! It should be noted that the following was new since the Cruisers last outing (drum roll please):

That is not a short list! I quickly changed clothes and along with fellow F-Troop member Dave Mayer we got to work as the sun went down. At 12:30 am the FJ-40 was finally all buttoned up and we were able to get a little sleep. We awoke only four hours later to load the Land Cruiser on the trailer and pack up our gear. Next surprise the Cruiser wouldnt shift! After the neighbors car narrowly avoided death by 38 tire my father realized that we wouldnt be able to maneuver the trailer out of the backyard; we would have to flat tow. Additionally, all shifting on the trail would have to be done under the vehicle with a pair of vise grips. Since we were out of time and both my father and I vowed NOT to miss this trip, the solution was deemed adequate.

The group - ready to head to the trail.

We made it to the meeting point only shortly at the designated time and met up with the others. The trip had a good turnout, with nine vehicles and 16 people representing the Fremont F-Troop either as members or guests. The group was quite diverse, with three Toyota pickups, a FJ-40, two CJ-5s, a CJ-7, a TJ, and a flat fender. We were blessed with little traffic on our journey into the Sierras, but several food/bathroom/gas stops kept us from breaking any land speed records. We arrived at Wrights Lake around 1:30 on Friday afternoon.

After unloading vehicles from trailers and airing down we got our next surprise. The Land Cruiser had no brakes. Couple this with the lack of shifting and we were in big trouble. Since everything from the brake lines down was new and the braking system had just been bled the night before, the HydroBoost brake booster was diagnosed as the culprit. It was decided that the rest of the group would continue on into Barrett Lake while my family, Dave Mayer, and James Roney fixed the Land Cruiser. Seeing as how my father was operating on four hours of sleep, James and Dave were kind enough to drive to the parts store after we pulled out the old brake booster and shifter.

Next surprise; Dave and James didnt return until seven (yes, SEVEN) hours later. They had driven all the way back to Sacramento to find the brake booster, and then had to modify the mounting brackets on the booster to fit my fathers application. While waiting for Dave and James my parents and I napped in the warm Sierra Nevada sun and enjoyed each others company. We saw several people having great luck fishing from the shore of Wrights Lake. As the day wore on and the sun started setting my mother made arrangements for us to spend the night in the campground at Wrights Lake. When Dave and James finally returned we bolted the new parts onto the Land Cruiser by flashlight before turning in for the night. The weather was mild enough that we slept out on a tarp under the clear, star-filled sky.

Rusty crawls over some boulders.

Saturday morning we woke up early in anticipation of a full day of wheeling. James surprised me with his generosity, letting me drive his flat fender through the first couple miles of the trail. I could get used to surprises like this; I was very grateful to be behind the wheel. Driving the Willys was quite different from my Toyota pickup; most notably the vast increase in visibility and the decrease in wheelbase.

The first obstacle we faced was the gate at the entrance to the trail! The gate is reported to be only 79 inches wide and was erected by the United States Forrest Service up to discourage fullsize vehicles from continuing down the trail, where they would encounter similar, natural width restrictions. The USFS does not want vehicles blazing new routes if they are too wide to fit through the trees on the existing trail. Regardless of the gate, Barrett Lake Jeep Trail gets serious right off the bat. Not more than 100 yards into the trail is a tough, rutted section where a large rock ledge must be scaled. The holes and rocks are spaced such that Jeep CJs and Wranglers have a difficult time at this spot, especially with open differentials. With only three vehicles, all of which were well setup, we had few problems here.

Most of the trail consists of a two-track dirt road winding through granite boulders and lined by pine trees. Approximately one mile into the trail there is an optional pile of large rocks that are difficult for most vehicles to traverse. If you do not have lockers or value your sheetmetal, take the bypass around this section. It took me several tries and lots of grinding noises to navigate the flat fender through this section of the trail.

We took our time along the way to Barrett Lake, stopping to take in the spectacular alpine scenery (and to let the big block powered Land Cruiser cool down). We saw a few other vehicles along the trail, but not nearly enough to be called a crowd. The most interesting was a homebuilt rig with inline seats, a Nissan four cylinder diesel, and 44 inch Super Swampers suspended by front, steering Dana 44s at each end. It looked like a giant insect. Most of the vehicles we came across on the trail were well setup for the rough, rocky terrain.

The scenery along the trail is spectacular.

The next difficult section is approximately three and a half miles into the trail; with an uphill climb full of large, loose rocks and several optional lines. I wasnt driving at this point, but I can proudly report that the Land Cruiser performed flawlessly and walked through the harder lines without hesitation. I dont know who had the bigger smile on his face, my father or me.

The rest of the trail to Barrett Lake continues with more of the same type of terrain until the last mile or so, which is comprised of large granite slabs, reminiscent of the Rubicon. Upon arrival we were grateful that the rest of our group was already there and had claimed a prime camping spot. The campsites at the lake were not overly crowded, but there were a good number of vehicles at the lake (I would estimate around 30 vehicles). We arrived at our final destination around three in the afternoon on Saturday. As I mentioned previously, our party took our time and spent about five hours driving through the trail. 

The cool, clear water of Barrett Lake felt invigorating after a long, hot day in the sun. The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent lounging around camp swapping stories and lies. The usual Toyota versus Jeep banter was at an all time high, building the expectation for the ride out on Sunday.

The next morning we broke camp early in order to be the first group on the trail. My concern was battling traffic coming back from Tahoe in order to make my 9:30 pm flight out of San Jose. By 8:30 am on Sunday our entire group was packed up and on the trail. Barrett Lake Jeep Trail is not a loop, so we started out over the granite slabs just as we had come in. Ryan was nice enough to let me drive his 81 Toyota Hilux pickup for the first couple miles of the trail, and I was very grateful. Ryans truck runs a 20R motor, 83 five-speed transmission, and dual transfer cases. The axles are fitting a Detroit locker in back, an Air Locker in the front, and 5.29 gears. 35 inch Goodyear MT/Rs on bead locked Eaton wheels fit the truck nicely thanks to a 2 body lift and 2 lift springs intended for a YJ in front and stock 64 Suburban leaves with a buggy leaf in the back. I was concerned that the truck would be unstable due to the relatively high center of gravity, but the truck displayed surprising stability on the trail. Ryans truck drove right over everything I pointed it at with little hesitation. Needless to say this greatly inspired me to finish building my own truck so I can hit the trails in the near future.

We continued back across the Barrett Lake Jeep Trail at a brisk pace with only one incident where a CJ-5 needed to be winched. The Jeeps had their revenge though when a main leaf broke on the front of Joes Hilux pickup with approximately two miles of trail left (he was sure to note that it was a -Jeep- spring that failed). This was our first surprise of the day and only mechanical mishap of the entire weekend. Joe had previously drilled through the spring in an effort to move the center pin forward on the spring pack, and this created a weakness. Luckily a fellow outdoorsman behind us was carrying a mobile welder in his Jeep. Using two batteries the main leaf was welded to the second leaf of the pack, allowing Joe to continue down the trail. I should mention that everyone I encountered on the trail was friendly and courteous, regardless of whether they were hiking, four wheeling, horseback riding, or mountain biking. I found this refreshing and it added to an already fantastic weekend.

A TJ with 44"s and stock axles!

Luckily the rest of the trail was relatively easy and we continued on to the last major obstacle without another incident. This is the optional rock pile located approximately one mile into the trail. Most of the group attempted to scale the rocks and all but one Jeep made it through unassisted. It was here that we encountered a couple driving a TJ equipped with a Rubicon Express Long Travel lift kit and 44 inch Super Swampers on stock axles. It was like nothing I have seen before.

The first three vehicles in our group had made it back to the pavement when Joes leaf spring let loose once again. The tempered spring steel didnt react well to being heated and welded. Since the disabled vehicle was only 100 yards from the end of the trail, a temporary fix was devised by ratchet strapping a log between the spring pack and the frame. This was enough to successfully get Joes truck back to the trailer.

On the way out we discussed the difficulty of this trail as compared to other nearby four wheeling spots, such as the Rubicon and Fordyce Trails. It is was generally agreed that this trail is not quite as hard as the other big name trails in the area, but still a challenge. If you are looking for the latest extreme trail, this isnt it. I would not suggest attempting Barrett Lake Jeep Trail with smaller than 31 tires and at least one locker. With this setup you would probably need to take the bypasses around the hard spots and your sheetmetal might make some contact with the rocks.

Ryan McAndrews getting twisted up.

Once back to the pavement we loaded up the injured pickup on the trailer and the rest of the vehicles aired up tires while those fortunate enough to have tow rigs hooked up lights and hitches. I was pleasantly surprised by the pace of traffic on Highway 50 and was able to take a shower and look at some of the digital photos my mother had taken during the weekend before leaving for my flight.

Our group was lucky to go through the Barrett Lake Jeep Trail when we did, I was informed that the day we left, the trail was closed for the year. If you enjoy beautiful scenery along with great camping and four wheeling, put Barrett Lake on your calendar for next summer. You can find out if the trail is open by calling the US Forest Service at 530-644-6048.

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