Great Smoky Mountain Trail Ride 2019

Matt is watching Trey’s underside coming down a “moderate” trail

To start the story of our Trail Team trip to Tennessee this spring… We need to go back to October 2018 in Arkansas…  The Southern Cruiser Crawl in Hot Springs. As you know from our previous ventures to SCC, this is a favorite haunt of the Trail Team and we were there again in full force at last years event.  

It’s a tradition that our guys buy into the saturday night charity raffle at SCC and this year we all walked off with some great prizes.  One of them was Jake’s certificate for a free entry to the Great Smoky Mountain Trail Ride, donated by Southeast Toyota Land Cruiser Association.  The event is held at Windrock Part in eastern Tennessee in late spring. It was decided then that the group who were present for SCC would make the trip to GSMTR.  (Thats a lesson for you other TLCA events… 1 registration for free turned into 6 total!)

Only a handful of our crew in Fort’s Trail Team have been to Windrock, Jake, Stork and Chism made it down for the Appalachian Trail Roundup a few years back.  Of that crew, only Jake was making this trip.

The 4runner Salute!

It was 5 greenhorns and one veteran.  But, as we later found out while venturing around the park, it would take a long time become a veteran at Windrock.

We left as a crew of 6 trucks from Fort’s on Wednesday morning.  The drive has you go from Indianapolis, to Louisville to Lexington and straight south…  All told… It’s 550 miles and 8 hours of driving. Anyone with a V6 was making this in 2 tanks…  The V8 guys seemed a little thirstier!

Windrock park is 73,000 acres of wooded Tennessee knobs, hills and rocks laced with gravel roads to get you around.  In between those service roads are a variety of terrains that go from moderate (Blue Trail) to difficult (Black Diamond) to extreme (Double Black).  

We spent the first day getting our feet wet in the park.  We picked up maps in the office (Pro Tip, these are the best maps we have ever gotten at an off-road park) and headed into the trails without much thought about where to go.  That worked for a while, but after a few hours we found ourselves doing a few circles on some trails that didn’t quite follow the map. The goal was to have lunch in a spot that would give us a scenic view.  That didn’t happen and we ended up eating lunch in a 6 way crossroads for 45 minutes or so.

Now at most Off Road parks…. You would expect to see a couple dozen trucks pass by while you are sitting at an intersection like this.  If we saw two trucks, I’d be lying. We saw a couple of side by sides and a jeep… But other than that, we were out there on our own.

The park is massive, and its not something I can’t stress enough.  Our experience with off-road parks has always been something much smaller.  You go run a few trails… Then come back to the pavilion and eat lunch… People relax and tell some stories, meet new friends, or even take a siesta before heading back out for more fun.    It doesn’t work that way at Windrock. Once you are committed to some trail time in this park…. You should plan to be out all day, and return when you are done for the day. Fortunately, we had all planned for eating on the trail that day and had packed our coolers accordingly.  The smart guys had brought chairs.

After lunch, we meandered on some blue trails towards the western side of the park.  The trail markings were becoming clearer and we started to get a better sense of where we were at.  We spent another 3 hours going around small rocky hills and thickly brushed trails. Unfortunately… As we wandered to the end of the park… We started to wonder if we could get out!!!  The trails end near the edges of the park, and we soon worried that we would have to backtrack the whole trail system to get to an exit. (In a small park, this is not a problem, here it could be another 2 hours!)  Harper ran ahead on a trail that was marked dead-end… We were skeptical of the markings because our GPS’s were all saying that this was 4×4 road that exited on a paved road.

Thankfully, this one did end up on a road.  Not sure you can get so lucky every time so take this story as a cautionary note.   A couple of us ran into town for provisions… Others stayed and had the provided Taco dinner in the pavilion.  (Which I heard were far more delicious than the Chik-Fil-A that we had in town!)

Harper’s 4th Gen

Day 2 had us back on the trails with a little more confidence… And a plan!  We had studied the map and decided to hit the eastern side which had some long stretches of blue trail.  We were all wanting something more difficult than the previous day.

Again, Windrock demonstrates its massive size.  In order to get to the inlets for the trails we wanted, we had to leave the park and drive through town… And then drive another 20 minutes on county/state roads for the entrance.  This is great, but we are all aired down to 15 to 25 psi… Its a slow slog on the pavement with tires that mushy. Again… This park has you plan differently!

We took green trails back to the beginning of the blue and began a great run of scenic and challenging driving though the lush Tennessee backwoods.  There were areas and roads that appeared to be chiseled from rock… There were other spots that had 18” to 24” boulders cast down the roadway like it was class 5 riverbed…  Sans the water. All in all… The blue trails were fun… But, we were kinda hoping to find a black trail to see if the grading was the same caliber as these blues. Honestly, the blues were not anything we had been threatened by to this point.  There were a few blacks off-shooting from our route, unfortunately as we came upon the trail guides, they were marked for quads and bikes only. (Eric didn’t see that part in the map legend that describes each trail… Because that’s really hard to read while driving!)

Tree Hugger, at the lead.

At the head of two trails..  82 and 83… There is a high road and low road “route” that take you around American Knob (cowpunk band name idea!).  The merge onto 82 looked a little daunting, it was up a hill with some severely cut grooves around some boulders. If this trail had been marked black… I probably would have stepped out of my truck and double checked the route.  But this was still “blue”. To this point. Blue had not meant anything that we could not conquer with ease. I lined my 2010 4Runner up and ascended the hill with a moderate clip to fight off gravity. I dodged the first obstacle and then quickly made a zig to the left to get some traction on the rocks and boulders that looked the least scary.  Physics got the best of the truck and I was suddenly stuck underneath with neither forward nor rear movement. Jake and a couple others were yelling for me to stop, as it appeared I was making matters worse. I was high centered on my CBI skid around the transfer case area.

We tried a couple different wheel directions.  Tried all the of the fancy controls on the ATRAC, Diff Lock…  We didn’t try a different driver! But I did have plenty of spotters with experience.  I was “treed” up on this boulder. Fortunately, we had just installed a new 12,000lb line and control bezel on my Smittybuilt XRC winch before this trip.  I was ready. We found a tree on center and started the arduous dance of back and forth with the winch and truck drive-train to get off of the protruding rock.  When your muffler is getting crunched… You get amazing noises from the spring loaded connections in the exhaust line. (Trail damage this trip is underneath). Harper got Tree Hugger in line and I got to the top.  

Once I was on top…  Its was decided that this was not a trail for the whole group!  Jake and his 2017 TRD PRO Runner were certainly capable… But was it worth the risk of damage to his new truck.  Same thing with Trey and his new Tacoma. Ultimately, Scott and Harper decided this was a route their 4th gens would take with me.  Harper made it up and made it look easy. Its amazing what aggressive tires can do in these situations. Scott’s route was based on the muscle of his V8 engine…  He nearly jumped the boulder… Only to end up with 1 wheel hanging off the obstacle at the top. Smittybuilt winch to the rescue again!

Recovering Mountain Goat, Harper at the ready

Once we gathered back on the merge point on backside of American Knob…  We decided that the Windmills and overlooks might be a fun way to decompress!  Again, the mega park had us driving for a while… But when we found the overlook…  It was worth the trip. I have no idea how far you can see from these hillsides… But it felt like being on top of the Sears Tower (I know I know…  Willis Tower is what you call it these days) with a view of trees for 10 miles through the “smoky mountain” haze.

Towards the end of the second day of wheeling.  We found a rocky little hill climb and started heading to the top.  It was a soft pile of yellow rocks sitting in orange dirt. We hadn’t seen much action in the past hour…  So, this was a welcome distraction. Tree Hugger made it to the top with little incident… The rest of the group followed.  Jake told us as he got to the top that he had blown a tire… Every rotation of the passenger front wheel let off a little air hiss.  

For the record…  If you have followed us at all…  You know that Jake somehow takes the brunt of trail damage and field repairs!  Not sure why… He is not the craziest person on the trail… He is actually one of the most reserved.  Here was another incident that we can use to prove our trail prowess. A multiple patch repair. Tree Hugger was holding an ARB tire repair kit.  We started adding plugs to the sidewall of the Falken until it stopped hissing. Then we added two more plugs for good measure. Jake had a Milwaukee portable compressor that we set to 35psi.  That little guy worked for about 10 minutes before shutting off. The tire did not appear to be leaking. In that 10 minutes, Jake found 4 or 5 places that had a tire near the park. They were all $50.00 overpriced!  But, you take what you can get!

We figured this bit of afternoon drama was a good place to stop for the day.  Now… The long path back to the main entry trail began. It took nearly an hour to cross the park and get to the formal entrance.  Jake watched his on-board tire monitors the whole way back and found that our patch was holding.

We got back to the camp and headed for dinner at the Pavilion.  Friday night was burgers and dogs covered in your event admission.  This was my first chance to sit down with a couple locals putting on the event.  I had sought out Jason Hoffman for the past two days. He is one of the hosts of the Toyota Trucks and Trails Podcast.  We had been chatting back and forth over the past few months, and we wanted to meet up. After dinner we sat down and were talking about his show…  It was then that I discovered he was the VP of the SETLCA. As we chatted, Jamie Murphy, the secretary, sat down with us and I asked some questions about the event.  I knew the event had been going on for a long time… 29 years. But when he told me that they had registered over 200 trucks for this year… I was blown away! This park is soooooo big, you really can’t feel the crowd.  This event had moved to Windrock a few years ago and now has the space to grow. As they keep fine tuning, they are moving some future dates as well.

I met a few people at the pavilion that night and had a moment of realization that even though the faces were 100% new to us…  They all love Toyota trucks and anything that has to do with off-road, gear or travelling all over this hemisphere. There is a community within TLCA that makes traveling anywhere to any event feel like you are among family.  When Jason’s wife said she had had enough of this truck talk (and mosquitoes) she gave me a big old hug that made me feel like we had been friends for decades.

After dinner and chatting, a few of us decided to head back on the trails in the dark.  We headed back to the lookout point and were blown away by the view that a full moon and clear sky were presenting.  What during the day had looked like thick green forests with no civilization in sight now showed off ribbons of lights.  Roadways and small towns were all over the horizon.

Saturday, I had to blow out early with Trey.  We both had graduation commitments on Sunday. The rest of the crew stayed behind for one last day on the trails.  Jake got his tire fixed up that morning and the team sought out the “tunnels”. I’m waiting for a full report, but it sounds like these long caverns are akin to a sensory deprivation chamber.  Pitch black and filled with water.

Pet friendly atmosphere.

That night, southern style BBQ Chicken and pulled pork were the menu. The food, its just one more reason to come to a park during these group sponsored events.  Jake sent me a picture of his plate as a reminder that leaving early deserves punishment. I was also missing the best part of all TLCA events, as per tradition, they hold a charity raffle.  This years proceeds were going to the Tennessee Fisher House Foundation.  Nearly $25,000 in gear were up for the grabs. Just $100.00 in tickets won Scott a voucher for Upper Control Arms and a brand new Power Tank setup.  That’s a bargain! Also of note, for the first time ever, Jake came back win-less from a raffle? He did snag two t-shirts from mid-air… So he wasn’t completely empty handed!

Sunday morning, the rest of the crew broke camp and headed home.  Fortunately there were no more incidents with trucks, tires or ignition coils… Just a big May rainstorm to wash the trucks on the way through Indiana.  

This was a fun trip with new folks and new trails.  Regardless of not winning any more tickets to future TLCA events at the GSMTR raffle.  You will likely see this whole crew in Arkansas at Southern Cruiser Crawl for another SCC in 2019.  

See you on the trails!

Eric Stahl

Links:

  1. http://www.stlca.org/
  2. https://toyotatrucksandtrails.com/

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