A Dusy of a Trail: Opening Weekend on The Dusy Ershim Trail


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The Dusy Ershim trail is found in the mountains of Central California, south of Yosemite National Park, but at nearly double the elevation. This trail offers a variety of scenery and landscape that is arguably unparalleled by any other west coast trail. The route, that cuts through deep forest opens up to lush untouched meadows one mile, and later turns into sections of open plains with little tree coverage. Several lakes run along the trail providing excellent camping and opportunities to wash up after a dusty day on the trail. Much of the trail obstacles and surrounding mountain features are made up of large granite boulders. While seemingly similar to the Rubicon trail, due to its 33-mile length the Dusy Ershim has long held a reputation as the much more challenging of the two.

Having run the Rubicon trail last summer with little complication, we set our sites on the Dusy Ershim. This trail is only open a couple months a year due to the extreme winters its landscapes endure above 9,800-feet. We planned this trip several months in advance, a practice more than necessary for a trail of this magnitude. Meals for each day were planned to accommodate the six people in the group. Spare parts, fluids, and tools were assembled for the trail. Planning for possible breakdowns is vital on a trail that takes several days to complete.

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We aimed to hit the trail the morning of Friday August 5th, opening weekend. On the grade up to Shaver Lake, several Jeeps faced engine and transmission cooling issues. After limping rigs up the hill, we made it to the start of the trail just after dark. As our group was all new to the trail we were cautious at the start, all too aware that a breakdown early in the trip could put an end to the trail run.

Much like the Rubicon trail, the Dusy Ershim begins with a drive along a huge granite slab, this one is affectionately named “Chicken Rock” due to a steep 100-yard climb up the face. The trail then smooths out into a dirt road cut through an impressive wooded landscape. Rigs traversed along the path for a number of miles with no real notable obstacles. The trail weaves tightly between trees nearly the entire time making it a frustrating trail for full-sized rigs. While challenging obstacles were not as frequent as we had hoped, water crossings, lakes, stunning views, and wildlife keep the trail entertaining.

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The route features a number of good challenging rock obstacles that come as the path goes up and down mountain slopes. Thompson Hill is the most well-known obstacle on the trail. It is a mile uphill section of rocks and ledges. The start of the hill was not marked and thus was a little tough to pick out, but the most challenging section was a passable rock garden roughly 60 yards long of large loose boulders that shifted under tires and made for different line selections every time a rig passed over. The trail has a number of camp sites along the route but we ended up camping in less established spots once or twice along the trail when darkness fell.

Our group of six rigs averaged about 16 miles in the first two days, while we weren’t necessarily pushing to go fast, we were wheeling all day with only short breaks for lunch along the way. A sense of urgency struck us on the third day as the ’98 Jeep ZJ broke an ear off of its steering box and subsequently sheared all three bolts holding the box to the unibody. After a scramble to find spare bolts that could be forced into the remaining two ears of the steering box, we were forced to limp the ZJ over roughly 16 remaining miles of the trail. All in all, the ZJ managed to break more than eight bolts, and three ratchet straps, some of which were donated by a generous group of Jeeps that passed us on one of many stops due to sheared steering box bolts.

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This trail did not offer the shear rock obstacle difficulty we had anticipated. A moderately modified TJ with 33’s and a locker or two could traverse this trail without too much trouble. However, what this trail lacks in gnarly obstacles it more than makes up for in shear length. The trail is so long that bolts wiggle loose, and drivers fatigue and concentration can lapse. Even the smallest of vehicle malfunctions can be devastating when a rig is two solid days of wheeling away from a road in either direction. Preparation and driver focus is a must for this trial. As the Jeep ZJ showed, some broken parts just can’t be planned for, but luckily with some creativity and lots of patience the rig was able to limp off the trail.

While our experience was a little hindered by mechanical failure there is no doubt that the camping along the Dusy Ershim Trail was second to none. The streams and rivers running through the meadows, mountains, and forests were genuinely awe inspiring. The weather was a much needed break from the blistering heat experience nearly everywhere else in California. It is unlikely we will ever run the trail again in its entirety, but we would love to run just the second half of it to capture some of the best obstacles, views, and camping sections without taking on the entire 33 mile trail.

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Kyle Cunliffe

Growing up in Southern California many would expect Kyle to spend his days looking for the next gnarly wave to catch. Luckily waves don't have a throttle or steering wheel so his attention was devoted elsewhere. Kyle can nearly always be found looking for a way to go faster, or get over an obstacle just a little bigger than the last. Because he wasn't a trust fund baby he has spend years working on his own vehicles to keep the excitement going.

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