I went here with my wife and 2 kids today. This was our second attempt after trying it a couple of months prior on our stock Jeep JL Rubicon with 33s and deciding to stop, turn around, and head back halfway, right when we got to the first vista of Johnson Valley and once the trail got a bit more technical with bigger rocks and drops.
My wife wasn't confident we could do it with our clearance (I would have pushed but happy wife, happy life). Now we have a 3.5-inch lift with 37s M/T, so we were going to conquer it.
This was a great trail, although the information on the write-up and video, albeit being good, is incomplete, thus making it inaccurate.
When you enter the trail from Smarts Ranch Road (3N03), the sign reads "Most Difficult" black diamond. If you only drive until you get to the Horse Thief Flat this rating could seem a bit too much. Yes, there are a couple of challenging or technical spots where good tire placement is necessary and high clearance is indeed necessary but nothing out of the ordinary. I’d rate it “moderate” at its most challenging part.
If you leave it there that would be the assessment, although, Horse Thief Flat trail (3N03A) doesn’t end there, it continues all the way down until you reach the desert on the way to Johnson Valley.
This is where the picture changes drastically, on the last stretch of this trail, which, on our maps appears as an “unmarked road”.
Exiting the flat there is a short (1000ft) really fun and steep climb (230ft ascent at 25° incline) all the way up to a 5200ft elev. summit where you get amazing vistas of the mountains you came from as well as the desert. Now you need to go down, and the next half mile is as steep as the previous climb but this time going down.
This is the stretch that, to me, grants this trail that “Most Difficult” rating. You are descending from 5200ft to 4550ft elev. in a half-mile stretch. That is roughly a 650ft descent on a narrow steep ridge with many obstacles, eroded, and covered in loose rocks and stones. Most of the time you will be braking and allowing the car or truck to slide down over the rocky road (sometimes needing to get close to the ridge due to big rocks in the way). The whole stretch my Jeep marked a pitch of 22-23° and at a couple of points a roll of 10-12°. You can imagine my wife and 8yr old daughter were, let’s say, tense… (my 6yr old son was having a blast, lol).
I spent the whole stretch talking to them and reminding them that I was in control and I felt like I could do it. I think that helped my, vertigo suffering, wife, and my daughter remain calm and reassured.
But, as it usually goes, saving the best for last. There is the last, last, little stretch, where after a 45° right turn you enter the rollercoaster drop to end the trail in style. It is a 300ft stretch that can easily freeze you when you get out and study it at 27° pitch with much looser and accumulated rock that will easily have your rig slide sideways while braking and sliding down. If you remain calm and in control, you can correct the slide with your steering although those others in the car with you might have their hearts racing a bit. ;)
Anyway, I hope that this brings a little more detail and clarity on this forgotten trail to those who decide to go further than the Horse Thief Flat (which is an amazing dispersed camping spot). It is a challenging stretch where you will get a workout for your legs and arms while driving. If you are not prepared for something like this leave it at the flat and head back the way you came. But if you are looking for a fun challenge, this is definitely one! ;)