Updated: Jan 11
If we had to pick the quintessential High Sierra overlanding route, this would be it! Snow capped granite peaks, a plethora of alpine lakes, rugged trails, and beautiful pine forests make the El Dorado Backcountry Discovery Trail one for the ages!
Adventure Rating: Epic
Trip Length: 184 miles, 4 - 6 days
Season: Late June - November. Check with the forest service regarding snow conditions higher elevation trails like Strawberry Pass, Hungaletti Ridge, and Blue Lakes.
Avg Trail Rating: 3
Peak Trail Rating: 5
Typical Terrain: Forest service dirt and gravel roads, rocky jeep tracks and some connecting pavement.
Recommended Vehicle: High clearance SUV w/ 4x4 (sliders and spotters recommended). If you have a truck, you'll need to avoid Pardoe's Trail. See Alternative Routes for more info. Recommended Gear: n/a
Adventure Vans: Sprinter 4x4s can do some of the route. See the Alternative Routes section for more info.
Alternative Routes: Yes! See bottom of route details for more info. Permits: n/a
At a hair under 600,000 acres, El Dorado National Forest sits squarely in the central Sierra between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. Building upon the network of California Backcountry Discovery Trails (Mendocino, Six Rivers, Shasta-Trinity, Modoc, Plumas, Lassen and Tahoe), the El Dorado BDT (Backcountry Discovery Trail) is the latest adventure to be added to the trail network-- and boy is it a deucy! It might just be the finest example of backcountry vehicle travel in the High Sierra. Over the course of 184 miles, the intrepid traveler will experience technical jeep trails, serene alpine lakes, ancient pine forests, snow capped peaks, and the exquisitely rugged terrain and views of the High Sierra. Those that value technical trails and backcountry travel will especially enjoy this route. And things are about to get rowdy and fast. We begin our adventure on the popular jeep track, Strawberry Pass Trail (DP1). A 12 mile trail littered with granite boulders in numerous locations. Be prepared for slow speeds in 4-low as you pick your way through this track. A spotter is recommended for all but the most experienced and capable rigs. Given the terrain and slow going, it's not uncommon for folks to spend half a day working their way up to Strawberry Pass, and as you get closer to the pass, the awesome views of the High Sierra will begin to reveal themselves from behind the pine forest. Strawberry Pass spits out at Highway 50, adjacent to one of the Sierra's oft-photographed Caples Lake (DP2). Take the pavement on Highway 88 up and over Carson Pass (DP3) and past Red Lake until you reach the turn for Burnside Lake Road. Despite is proximity to the highway, most visitors in the area flock to Blue Lakes, Caples Lake, and Silver Lake for camping and aquatic recreation. But don't let this deter you, Burnside Lake (DP4) is incredibly scenic, easy to reach (graded dirt road) and a great place to take a break or camp. The next order of business is heading up Hawkins Peak (DP5), which tops out at just over 10,000 feet! Things get steep and loose fast, but the views atop Hawkins Peak is well worth it! During years of heavy snowfall, Hawkins peak may not be accessible until late July. Once you've had the opportunity to take in the awesomeness at Hawkins Peak, head back down the mountain and retrace your tracks back to Highway 88 and swing a left.
Next up is another incredibly scenic portion of the route, which we call the Forestdale Divide Loop. As you turn off the highway, the first several miles of Blue Lakes Drive is paved. The lush green meadows of Hope Valley (DP6) always create a welcome juxtaposition against the granite bluffs and pines that border them. There are a number of dirt trails in the area that also look quite interesting, but we haven't had the opportunity to explore those just yet. Blue Lakes is another popular camping location, so expect a bit more folks on the trail and out and about, especially on weekends. The paved road soon turns into a gravel road, and the gravel road becomes a a dirt trail, with the occasional loose and rocky section, but nothing that would qualify as remotely technical. If you are looking to get away from the crowds, try checking out Lost Lake. As you make your way up towards Forestdale Divide (DP9), the pine forest begins to give way to the rugged and barren slopes of the High Sierra. As you crest the divide, Round Top and The Sisters come into view directly to your left, both surpassing 10,000 feet in elevation. As you lose elevation, the route soon drops back into the mixed pine forest and ends at the pavement next to Red Lake.
Once again we'll backtrack along Highway 88 past Caples Lake, and then past Silver Lake (another very popular lake) before turning off onto dirt. The route loops around Mud Lake (DP10), which despite its name, is an incredibly scenic lake with a number of primitive lakeside campsites. From Mud Lake the track begins to ascend quickly with lots of tight turns and loose dirt until reaching the intersection of Pardoe's Trail (DP12), where the trees begin to open up. Swing a left and begin working your way across the craggy rocks until you see the trail again. Pardoe's Trail has two main rock gardens, you'll be working your way towards the upper rock garden. Pardoes' Trail traverses Hungalelti Ridge (DP11, formerly Squaw Ridge) with absolutely insane views of the High Sierra. For your standard overland vehicle, plan on spending an entire day traversing the entire length of Pardoe's trail (heavily modified Jeeps on 37-40" tires can probably do the trail in half a day). There are a number of suitable campsites in upper Pardoe's that provide reasonable shelter from the elements (wind). Upper Pardoe's is an out-and-back venture, so turn around and the other way down Pardoe's. Once you pass the turnoff for mud lake, you'll be on lower Pardoe's trail. Expect to do a reasonable amount of spotting and picking your way through the various granite boulders, slabs, and twisty and tight turns through the forest. As we noted above, Pardoe's is not suitable for longer wheelbase vehicles (most trucks will have difficulty making it through). Once you're out of the lower rock garden on Pardoe's, it's pretty much smooth sailing, and while the views of the High Sierra are long gone, the forests, meadows and mountainsides are actually quite scenic through here. The dirt trail eventually gives way to a paved forest road as you close in on Lower Bear River Reservoir, another popular camping and recreation spot. You'll loop around the dam, and take the pavement until it turns back to dirt. From here, you'll follow a series of secondary forest roads that are steep and loose in sections, hopping on the pavement of Highway 88 for less than a minute before jumping back onto a wide, graded forest road. You're now out of the High Sierra, and into the lower elevation trails, which is a bit of a misnomber as most of these trails are between 5 to 6,000 feet. The remainder of the route tends to be in more heavily forested sections, without the same sort of views had on Hawkins Peak, Forestdale Divide, and Hungalelti Ridge. This portion of the route was also hit by the Caldor fire in 2020, so the current state of the forest along the route is unknown at this time.
The wide graded dirt road eventually turns into a series of tighter, steeper, and rockier trails. You'll need to use 4-low in some of the steeper sections, and you may encounter a few spots where pin striping is inevitable. Be sure to stop at Leek Spring Fire Lookout (DP13) along the way, and the Granite Slabs Playground (DP14) is a great place to explore and play around with your rigs, snap some photos, or camp (there are a number of great sites in this area).
The final leg of the route works it's way back towards Highway 50 before finishing up on the moderately technical Long Valley Jeep Trail. Cross the pavement of Iron Springs Road and head towards Alder Creek. If the mountains saw a reasonable amount of snowfall, Alder Creek (DP16) has a number of great secluded campsites right along the water. As you make your way up Alder Creek Lookout (DP17), things get real steep and loose fast, but it'll be worth it. Park at the locked gate below the lookout, and it's about another 150 yards to the since abandoned lookout which consists of some old buildings and a dilapidated lookout tower where you can still climb to the top. From the lookout, the trail becomes a bit milder, and while steep, it's a well maintained dirt road most of the way until you reach Highway 50. The American River (DP1