Mike Ortega’s eyes light up as he lets the air out of his Jeep tires. Once he gets the air pressure down to about 8 pounds per square inch, he knows his rig is ready for a little bit of rock crawling.
On Aug. 12 Ortega and a small group of avid rock crawlers rode the John Bull Run, one of Big Bear’s most famous routes for off-road enthusiasts. Letting the air out of those big knobby tires, something rock hounds call airing down, gives drivers the best traction over big boulders on the trail.
“This is one of the hardest trails in these mountains,” Ortega says as he leads the group of five Jeeps through the Gatekeeper, the western entrance to John Bull. You need the right vehicle to successfully maneuver over the big rocks and boulders that cover the road. Ortega’s 11-year-old son, Stone, remembers a time when they encountered a group in Hummers stuck at the Gatekeeper. “They had a hard time so we had to help them,” Stone says.
“Hummers are great for the desert,” Mike says. “They’re too wide (for the mountains). It took them around eight hours to do the whole trail. Usually it takes, even if you have a little bit of problems, around four hours max.”
“It was nice entertainment, though,” Stone says about the Hummer encounter.
Those going west on John Bull can figure out quickly if their rigs can manage the ride, Mike says. “If you get stuck at the Gatekeeper, you need to turn around and go back. The trail doesn’t get any nicer after that.”
Rock crawling is not a high-speed sport. Smart drivers take their time, examine the trail and find their lines over the rocks. When they say crawling, they mean it.
At the Gatekeeper the Ortega group stops and gets out, taking a close look at the trail. Rain during the weekend altered the course, moving rocks and dirt. “It’s never the same,” says Roger Campbell, Mike’s Big Bear Off-road Racing team partner. Once the line is determined, the drivers get back in their Jeeps and go through one at a time. Once a Jeep makes it to the top, the driver stops to help direct the next Jeep through the course.
“The key to rock crawling is finesse,” Mike says. “When you race something like the Hammer, you do push it a little more. But here, (rocks) bite if you don’t do it right.”
Another thing off-road groups such as Bear Valley 4x4 do right is take care of the trails they ride. They pick up trash, help other off-roaders who encounter problems and help the U.S. Forest Service maintain the designated off-road trails. What they don’t do, is go off the trail. “Sometime we go up there and put up trees, rocks or fences to block (illegal trails),” Ortega says. “That’s our responsibility. That’s our trail. Our job is to keep people on the road, and to keep the roads maintained and safe. It’s a good feeling that we’re part of it. We want everyone to enjoy it and to respect the forest.”