Category Archives: Off Road Event

GSMTR 2019 – The video

The official Fort’s Trail Team video for our trip down to Windrock Park in Tennessee for the Great Smokey Mountain Trail Ride.

Warning!  There are a few bad words in this!!!  Sorry!

We had a blast and made a lot of new friends… Be sure to read all about it on the previous post.

This version includes some music, enjoy the rockabilly tones of The Screaming Blue Messiahs.

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/

Trail Team Adventure 2018 – 300 and Poughkeepsie Gulch

Working in a car dealership with a bunch of car and truck loving guys and gals means that we routinely tell tall tales of triumphs and failures of our auto exploits.  

We can tell you stories of a Sales Manager going off the pavement and spinning out in our brand new SCCA FRS…  We can also tell you all about the trip where our 2010 4runner that we call “Treehugger” got its name. But one of our favorite stories to tell is of our technician, Dustin Harper and his adventure on “the Wall” with our “shop” truck called “300”.  The telling of Harper’s failure at the “Wall” on Poughkeepsie Gulch, Colorado usually results in raised voices and accusations of poor driving or poor spotting. All we know is that watching Harper’s blood pressure rise during conversation ensures that this story will be around for many years to come.  

It’s been four years since our initial foray into off-roading and overlanding in the great state of Colorado.  We started off with a few “stock” trucks and made our way to FJ Summit 8 for a crash course in mountain passes and some of the most scenic views in the United States.  One trip to the mountains and you are hooked. Prepare for many more visits in your future.

Since that first expedition… Our little group of three trucks has grown.  We have had as many as 8 trucks with us at TLCA events near and far from our home base in Pekin Illinois.  Inevitably, when we are around a campfire with friends or strangers, this story about 300 at the “Wall” comes up.

The Battle of Poughkeepsie  

It all started on our second venture to FJ Summit 9 in 2015.  Our group of travelers had grown to 5 trucks and now included a few technicians along with an advisor and the Service Manager.  Dustin, one of the techs, had worked countless hours on our shop truck, “300” it get it prepared for the long journey to Ouray. This young tech had taken a broken down 2000 Toyota Tacoma, with the help of other techs in the shop, created a formidable 4×4 trail rig.  We dubbed the 300,000 truck with the name of “300”. We even duplicated the movie logo for the fenders of the truck.

300 made its way to Ouray Colorado and proceeded to chew up trails all over Summit 9.  It would appear that the Wheeling Gods had blessed this little truck conquer every obstacle in its path.  

Until a fateful day at Poughkeepsie Gulch that would go down in infamy for Dustin and 300.

Our small troop of trucks made an unscheduled run to the top of a trail called Poughkeepsie Gulch.  PG is known as one of the toughest trails in the Ouray area. Not because of the trail itself, but because of its famous final barrier, ominously known as “The Wall”.  The wall is a two jagged slabs of rock faces that are divided by a large fissure that can gobble up wheels and make “The Wall” nearly unbeatable. On this day in 2015, we watched a 3rd gen 4Runner roll down on its side and brake all of its windows.  This is not a walk in the park by any means! (Also of note, in 2015 the “go around” was not available as it is now)

Our small group of 4Runners and FJ Cruisers had made it past the obstacle.  Some easier than others… Style point matter little on this hill. All that was left was for 300 to run up to the top like it had all week everywhere else.  

What happened next is a story that might be best told by the “Spotter” or the “Spotted”.  “Woody” from Ih8mud.com had donated his time that day to help out all the trail runs from FJ Summit on their spotting needs while trying to run the Wall.  Spotting an obstacle like this is a thankless job and anyone who takes it probably doesn’t do it two years in a row. It takes at least a year to forget all the grumpy drivers who can’t handle being told that they are holding up the line and cannot make it up without being “winched”.

Harper setup “300” on a line that Woody pointed him too.  Once set, Harper floored it. The truck didn’t make it up a ¼ of the way.  It wasn’t a spectacular looking attempt, infact, you might call it underwhelming   Woody called out and asked Harper if his “locker” was on. Harper said that it was…  He retreated backward to make another attempt.

Getting up the Wall at Poughkeepsie is also a great opportunity to do some mathematics about altitude and horsepower.  At sea level when it was brand new the 2000 Tacoma made 190 hp. 300’s stock 3.4liter engine with 320,000 miles (Never overhauled) was probably a few ponies down from age.  Use the factor of 3% loss for every 1000 feet above sea level and you have a 36% loss of engine power. Even when new… That means the truck would have been sitting at 121 hp.  Add some oversized tires that have been deflated to 15 psi… And you have the recipe for a “dog”.

But that’s Ok…  In the game of mountain driving and wheeling… Slow and steady will win the race. FJ40’s are some of the biggest dogs on the trail and are known for their trail prowess.   Rarely do we need to have raw power at the top of a mountain. This spot is the exception. The Wall demands you get a little momentum on the rock face.

Attempt number two did not end much differently than the first one.  Harper had followed Woody’s line, but he was still not making it up the rock face.  Harper started to ask for a different line but Woody refused and told him that 300 was going to need to be winched.  

It didn’t take long before you could feel the the seething and hatred pouring out of the cab of 300.  Too the defense of both individuals… A lot more was going on beyond the Spotter and the Spotted.

Harper was an experienced driver with a truck that didn’t look like much on the outside.  Even to the studied eye of Woody, “300” looked unprepared for the Wall. Harper had the knowledge and experience that he probably should have been given another shot on the line he wanted.  But that wasn’t going to happen.

Harper could not see what Woody saw behind “300”… a growing lineup of trucks waiting their turn.  To complicate the situation, the overcast sky started spitting rain. A little bit of moisture on these rocks can make this hazard flat dangerous and far more time consuming if everyone needs to be winched up.   Woody was making a call that took every driver into consideration. It’s the kind of call that loses popularity contests!

This is where the story sat for the past two years.  Harper and 300 had to be pulled up “The Wall”. Constant ribbing and laughs have been pointed at Harper from every driver that has made “The Wall”.  Even folks who had never seen the rockface knew that this was one of Harper’s biggest regrets from our trips out west. Bringing this story up with Harper induces flashbacks and repressed memories that will start a flood of obscenities and excuses of what happened that day.  

Since then, Harper has taken 300 to countless off road events and parks.  In 2017 he traveled all the way to the Mojave Desert in the little truck that will not quit…  He has also run about every obstacle in Moab (Including a hot tub or two). He knows this truck.  

This past summer the Fort’s Trail Team once again made its way out to Colorado with several trucks.  At this point, we now bring customers with us as well. The planned run to Poughkeepsie Gulch was obviously the most anticipated stop of the trip.  On July 18th we made our way back to the scene of the past failure. There was an audience in tow with 300 that were looking for a front row seat to a redemption… Or a serious personal meltdown.  Either way… Everyone was sure that they would be entertained.

A couple trucks in our caravan this time around were sporting V8 engines and led the way… Even at 12,000 feet, those high powered trucks made “The Wall” look more like a traffic hump.   A couple V6 Gen 5 4runners were next… It was a little more struggle, but ATRAC proved its worth and they were up and over with little drama. Now came the defining moment of Harpers off-road reputation.  Was Woody right? Was this obstacle too much for 300? Would Harper make it on his own line?

Golfers lining up their puts take take less time than Harper when he finally got his chance to set up.  He was out of the truck several times making sure he liked the “line”. Nobody but Dustin was going to make the call on what approach to take.  

In and out of the cab…. Setting it up just perfect… And then…. Just a few seconds later, a momentous roar came up from the peanut gallery.  300 loped and flexed its way up and had bested the rockface. The audience cheered a hero’s welcome. Harper pulled the truck to a clearing and hopped out.  

The glow that exuded from Dustin was nearly blinding!  For years he had waited for this moment. While he had the confidence in his truck and his ability to get the job done, sometimes gravity and physics have their own barriers that faith just cannot break through.

The smug look of personal satisfaction

Dustin’s grin was nearly contagious.  Everyone, and mean everyone, adults, kids, friends and complete strangers felt the electricity of the moment.  It was high fives and reviews from everyone about how well he and the little truck had done. This was worth the drive from Illinois by itself!  

It would a slight fib to say that we dont enjoy giving grief to Dustin anymore about the past failure.  Even a couple months later its still exciting to see him grin and talk about this moment of personal accomplishment.  We can consider this story now closed with an appended, happy ending.

Southern Cruiser Crawl 2017

Following Stork down Rubicon Ridge

The Fort’s Trail Team ended our 2017 “Season” with one of our favorite events in the TLCA lineup…  Southern Cruiser Crawl (SCC).  SCC has been a “must” event for our group since our first time venturing to Hot Springs Off Road Park in 2013.  It’s a mix of old and new trucks, great food, lots of friendly faces and most importantly… It’s a great off road park.

The event has been building year over year…  What started out as a small club event for Cottonland Cruisers has turned into a nationally recognized destination.  Forts Trail Team has been there to watch some of that growth.  Our first year at SCC was three years ago and we brought two trucks.  This year, we had a fleet of six trucks from Central Illinois caravan down the 8 hour drive south.  Our 2001 Tacoma dubbed “300” amazed us once again by showing its durability in trouble free operation on and off the trails, not to mention the drive to and from Hot Springs.  

Fall in Arkansas this year was hot.  Normally when we do SCC it’s a nice warmth in the sun, but when in the shadow of trees or in a valley… Its cool air.  Combine that with the first hints of fall in the tree colors…  And it’s nearly the best time of year to be there.  This year…  It was lot of dust and a heat everyday.  Highs during the days closed in on 90 degrees.  We are breaking a sweat…  Add to the dust from the truck in front of you and you suddenly feel like it’s Mojave Road all over again!  In all honesty, high 80’s while in the shade are not bad.   If you haven’t been there, Hot Springs Off-Road Park has lots of shade.  Every rolling hill is covered with trees and we are deep in these canopy all day.  Rarely do you find yourself in the wide open sun.

   The event is centered around this park…  And it would seem that three years of hitting these trails would make the event a casual drive.  But that’s not the case.  We brought some new people with us, so that is always a thrill.  We did manage to find some new trails, which I did not think was possible!  And, we did some “Night Wheeling” and managed to get backwards on one of the harder trails in the park.  It was a constant adventure!   

Night Wheeling requires a lot of light!

One notable highlight was when “300” got stuck.  It all happened when its over ambitious driver, Fort’s Maintenance Tech Hunter, decided to follow a line that the rock crawling buggies had just ripped through.  Watching the recovery was just fine for the rest of us…  We got to see a show from a world famous truck.   Marlin from Marlin Crawler pulled up and rescued the Tacoma with ease.  Lots of pictures were taken and lots of jabs have been thrown at Hunter since.  All that was missing was popcorn!

Rescued by Marlin

 

The camping was a highlight as well… As this picture below will illustrate.  Camping with new guys is always an adventure when they have not prepared their gear!  Somehow…   This one sided tent was able to sleep two guys for three nights!

Remember kids… Prep your gear!

This year, as In years past we have used the KOA in Hot Springs that is just five minutes away from the event.  They have great shower facility and it’s a quiet atmosphere to retire too after running trails all day.  We found out on day two that their breakfast is a pretty good deal as well.  Bonus!  KOA’s have all levels of service.  They have small cabins, RV Hookups and tent space.  We all tent camped.  KOA’s have always been a great value for stops when travelling the country, and this one in Hot Springs is on our good list.  

Mother nature gave us our final wakeup call on Sunday.  The driest of weekends always ends with rain.  (Because, what fun would packing your tent up be if everything was dry?)  At 6am Sunday morning… And big storm front moved through and made sure everything was soaked.   

Southern Cruiser Crawl happens in October…  It’s on the Fort’s Trail Team to-do list every year.  If you want a fun, end of the year, 4 wheeling romp…  This is the one to do.  Let us know if you are interested in going as we always have room for more folks.  Its also worth noting that this event is made for every type of wheeler;  Buggies to stock trucks can have fun here.  Food is provided every night and it’s a big party afterward.  The KOA does book it’s cabins pretty far out in advance…  Otherwise, you can plan this trip around the event registration later in the summer.

Beware though…  One trip to Arkansas for this and you will always want to go back!

Join us!

Kokopelli Trail Expediton with Cruise Moab

Matt M’s 5th gen is lined up and ready to go on the Kokopelli Run

Wanted:  Cruise Moab registrants with an extra taste for adventure for this years Overnight run on the Kokopelli Trail.  Trucks must be lifted, modified and protected from the extreme trails that will be between you and Moab.  Additionally, be prepared to cook and camp for yourself as we will be on the trail for three days and two nights.  Also, if you can bring those pudding cups with the gummy worms for the camp potluck, that would be great.

While that might seem like a bit of a stretch for the official Kokopelli Overnight registration, it’s not too far removed from what Stan Wright was asking of the intrepid adventurers who signed up for his guided tour to Cruise Moab 20.

This overnight run is not a new thing for Cruise Moab.  For the past few years they have run a multi-night “overlanding” style trek from Grand Junction to Moab via the Kokopelli Trail.  The 142 mile trail has a little of everything including the route that sends you over Rose Garden Hill and and a sidetrack up the Top of the World trail.  That mileage may not seem like a long distance on paper, but believe it or not, it takes a constant pace to finish in under three days.  This outing is a draw for anyone not familiar with the area or wanting a taste of overlanding.  The registration filled up quick and they couldn’t take everyone who applied.  

Night 2 campsite on the trail.

I will admit to being a “noobie” on this type of overland trip.  I had read the trail notes on “MUD” from years past…. It sounded amazing and equally stressful.  I had even sold the trip to a few friends and co-workers after selling myself on it.  Registration goes fast.  Four trucks in my local group tried to get on the run…. Three of us made it.  Fortunately, I was one of those three.  A lesser man, and a true friend would have bailed when the fourth truck was left behind…. I am not that good of a friend.

We had months to prepare.  That was good and bad.  It gave me a lot of time to think about my truck equipment…. And then start over-thinking personal gear.  Fortunately, this run was being guided by Stan Wright (same one at the beginning of this magazine!) and Chris…  Any questions we had about what to expect would be laid to rest by the experienced guides.  We received an email from Stan with expectations of our trucks and a special area in “mud” to start sharing information about the planned trip.  Also, we were encouraged to add some background on the rest of the adventurers.  Of course, it turned into a drool session when we saw the modifications some of the guys/gals had done to their rigs in anticipation of this trip.  

Matt Wagner knocked one off his bucket list. Top of the World, Moab UT.

There were folks registered from New Hampshire, Illinois, Texas, Atlanta, Seattle and San Diego and all points in between.  We just about hit the four corners of the US of A with this crew.  Drivers and passengers were all ages and we even had a celebrity dog along for the trip!   It was a diverse vehicle lineup.   A newer GX body, Tacoma, FJ Cruiser, a diesel swapped 62, a few 80’s, four 4Runners and a couple 100 series.  You have to stay disciplined to stop watching all the cool trucks around you or you might do something dumb on the trail!  

The night before the event start, several of us decided to camp out at the trailhead in Rabbit Valley.  (Never saw a rabbit BTW). About 8 trucks had set up to get a bonus night of camping before we hit the trails at 10AM the next day.  It was a nice head start to meet a few of our merry band of adventurers.  April in the high desert is beautiful camping weather.  Cool and dry with clear skies.  

Stan showed up the next morning for the drivers meeting with a big pile of local burritos…. Now this could be a test…. Do you throw down burritos before an eight hour trip on a rough and tumble trail?  I risked it.  They were delicious.  Local flavors win again!  We had the group pow wow…. Rules, inspections and expectations were taken care of.  We would have a long drive to get to our first campsite.  Buckle up, let’s move now and prepare for some amazing views.

It was just that.  The first day’s drive was a long winding trip to the Mesa, that had us scrambling to beat bad weather.  Heavy clouds loomed overhead that morning and we were getting some drops on the windshield.  Stan explained over the CB that we would be in bad shape if a downpour arrived, leaving us on slick orange surface mud (I remember a similar feeling at Mardi Krawl…. No thanks!).  We moved along quickly for the first few hours.  After we reached the top of the Mesa we had our chance to take a breath and take a look.  Amazing views that you can only dream about from the interstate.  No doubt, you sucking it all in while driving, but a stop once and awhile lets you really admire the huge vistas that no camera can ever capture.  

potluck in the middle of nowhere!

Part of our preplanning had us pack a shareable meal for a potluck on night one.  We got the camp area with lots of time to set up and start cooking before dark.  This was my first chance to see all the possible overlanding combinations.  Rooftop tents of a few different varieties.  Awnings galore.  And a few folks setting up traditional tents.  Supper was anything but freeze dried camp food.  Brats, Chicken Tacos, homemade Soup (kept frozen for the trip in a portable freezer)..  So much food that we couldn’t kill it all!  Thank God there are not bears in this area…. We would have been surrounded!  We spend the night hearing some great yarns from TLCA President, Ross Woody.  Most of us had no clue that a minor celebrity had tagged along for our trip!  (I didn’t get his autograph!)

Day two on the trail had us running all day to get to top of the world.  We started off at 9AM…. And arrived at the trail entrance at about 5PM.  It was a tremendous day with winding trails that kept us seeing sights of the snow covered San Juan’s in the distance.  So far, nothing had held us up.  No cows, gastric distressed drivers or broke-down trucks.  According to Stan, this was unusual.  They normally were dealing with some sort of breakdown every time they start this adventure.  Could we beat the odds?

We headed up “Top of the World” trail for some great “light” at the end of the day.  The sky was blue and the clouds were minimal.  Remember what I said about breakdowns?  It happened.  It sounds like it’s bound to happen on a trip like this.  And in reality…. You should be mentally prepared for your personal truck being the problem that holds everyone up.  Recovery gear is highly recommended from the start for this reason.  Our group had some old trucks, and we ran at a reasonable pace to make sure everyone was safe.  Surprisingly, it was the newest truck in our group that had the first failure.  The Tacoma had succumbed to poorly modified front diff carrier that had given way at the body mount.  There was a scramble to assist, but it didn’t appear that we could solve this halfway up “Top”.  It was decided that the taco was drivable enough to head back down to our second night’s campsite in the valley.  The rest of the crew were able to get to the most scenic photo shoot in Moab.  Really, the best photo spot in the United States until somebody proves otherwise.

Heading down Rose Garden Hill.

The trail damage had held us back about an hour…. We were coming down from “Top” in nearly full darkness.  It was a scramble with lots of auxiliary LED’s in all directions and a huge dust cloud.  When we got back, we still had to time to cook some dinner at the campsite and set up a campfire with all our remaining firewood.  It was a big BS session with lots of laughs and stories that any Toyota lover would appreciate.  That night, our youngest trail runner declared that she had adopted 10 new Dad’s on this trip.

The next morning was rough.  We found out that the damaged Tacoma was out of the run.  They would have to head back to Moab after finding the differential mount had been completely sheared off.  Adding to this…. Our 4Runner from New Hampshire was now getting a very loud whine from the rear carrier.  They did not feel safe enough to make the journey to Rose Garden Hill.  The two injured trucks limped back to Moab.  (What happened in Moab is a great story of folks helping each other out if you want to hear about it sometime.  The kind of stuff that restores your faith in humanity.)

I personally have a history with Rose Garden Hill and it didn’t end pretty last time I was there.  Google:  UCA repair with ratchet straps for an idea.  To be honest… I was happy to sign up for this tour and have guides at the ready to lead us down.  I had met the criteria to make this trip, but Stan and everyone else in the group were weary that I would have some extreme trail damage with my light setup.  I had my heart racing as we approached the obstacle laden hill.  It is no understatement to say that our spotters, Stan, Ross and Chris were brilliant.  I did end up with a scratch on the side of my truck…. But nothing that I could not have done at the local off-road park.  We were feeling the advantage of having experienced wheelers with us.  This kind of leadership can make all the difference between a great day of off-roading and the worst day of your life.  There is a giant fence that separates the two, and you can fall onto either side very easily.  

A completed Rose Garden Hill is nearly the end of the trip… And that is a heavy feeling.  We did wander for an hour through a canyon on the way to our finish in Moab.  It was as chance to rip through 20+ water crossings… It was a serious refresher after days on a dusty trail.  I made it my goal to cover the 4Runner every chance I got.  We had some chatter on the CB’s and spent a seriously long time glad handing and wishing well to all of our fellow travelers.  We had survived, for the most part, and were enjoying each other’s company.   We were all slow to break up the party at the beginning of the pavement.  If given the chance, we probably could have gotten half the group to head back to the start and do it again!  

Our intrepid tour guide… Stan Wright.

Stan and Chris have been leading this trail run for a few years…. And have been threatening to hand it off to other volunteers.  Any of you folks who go to these events know that it takes a lot of manpower and personal commitments to make anything like this happen.  Please.  Help out when you can, and be sure to thank those that do.  Thanks to our trail leaders, Cruise Moab and TLCA for putting on a great event!  

Rose Garden Hill Breakdown – Part II – The Recovery


Continued from Rose Garden Hill Breakdown Post.

We were happy to get back to camp after the “trail repair” on Rose Garden Hill.  It had been a long hot day and we were looking forward to grabbing showers before hitting the campground. The word “campground” would paint a mental picture of campers, tents, and facilities for dining and showering.  Our campground was not so luxurious…  It was a few gravel slots backed up the Colorado river, about 5 miles out of Moab.  This camping is super cheap (5 bucks a day), but it’s also super thin on amenities.  Bathrooms (Fancy holes in the ground) are included…  Showers are not a feature that come with this price.  

Our original plan was to stop at the KOA and pay five bucks for a shower.  But they closed before we got back to town.  Showers were out.

We got back to our sparse campsite.  I washed off as much bearing grease as I could from my 5 gallon portable water tank…  Took a camp shower from there (Don’t know what a camp shower is?  Just ask sometime, I’d rather not describe it here).

End of the day… This hit the spot

Jake and I talked it over a very refreshing and cold beer.  Obviously, we were not going to be doing any more wheeling the next day with his FJ in its current state.  Our priority as a vacation was to get Jake’s truck up and repaired so we could finish out the trip.  

The nearest Toyota Dealer from Moab is Western Slope Toyota in Grand Junction.  Now, you might be saying “Why go to a Toyota Dealer?”.  First off…  I’m partial to my profession.  I trust our techs more than anyone on a newer FJ like this.  Secondly, Jake’s FJ is a 2014 with roughly 25,000 miles.  Our first hope was that this upper ball joint failure would be warrantable.  In order to make this a clean process…  Going to the dealer first was our best bet.  Was this warrantable?  In my opinion… Yes.  We were off road… No question.  Were we baja blasting and damaging the truck by being reckless?  No.  When the ball joint came loose…  We were crawling and and creeping up the hill and that joint should not have popped out.  

Rigged ball joint.

The drive from Moab to Grand Junction is about 120 miles.  I can tell you with complete certainty that it feels 5 times that long when you are watching the road for bumps and stopping to adjust ratchet straps.  The straps did loosen over the drive.  Those extra straps and frequent stops were completely necessary!

We rolled into Western Slope Toyota in Grand Junction about 10AM.  The Service Advisors were super friendly and said that we were gonna be OK on the warranty repair and they would move it up to the front of the line.  There were a couple problems with our repair though…  Grand Junction Colorado gets their parts from a Toyota parts depot in Dallas Texas.  It would be a few days before that Upper Control Arm (UCA) would be ready and installed.  Then…  Their alignment shop would need to be scheduled.  Holy smokes…  We were days out for a warranty repair!  

Western Slope Waiting room… Buckets in the service drive.

There was an alternative…  Order UCA’s on Amazon Prime using overnight shipping.  The guys at Western Slope were open to this.  This would remove Toyota from paying for a warranty repair, but we would be on the trail in another day.  Western Slope said they could do the work the next afternoon, but were not sure if there was enough time to do the alignment that same day.  We ordered Total Chaos UCA’s from Amazon with the expectation of having the fine guys at Western Slope do the work.  

Social Media is a wonderful thing.  Jake had put out a message on the FJ Summit forums on Facebook about his breakdown and wanting to know if anyone had UCA’s handy.  That didn’t pan out… But we did get a message from Keith and “Keiths Garage” in Grand Junction. Keith offered to get the FJ done as soon at the UCA’s arrived and to get it to his alignment guys ASAP when he was done.  Keith had a long history of working on Toyota 4×4’s in this part of Colorado and was well spoken about of by the locals.  This was a no-brainer.  

Keith’s Garage to the rescue.


This night…  We found a nice Best Western on the Northeast side of Grand Junction.  We had one criteria… An outdoor pool.  This hotel had one indoor and one outdoor.  It was a perfect situation for this dusty crew!  

After a dip in the pool…  Everyone got cleaned up and we headed to downtown Grand Junction.  If you have not been there…  Its worth stopping by.  Lots of cool shops and a nice brewpub kept us entertained and well fed for the night.

The next day…  The UCA’s showed up at Toyota at 10AM.  The guys at Western Slope Toyota were cool with our change of plans. They were completely backed up with work and they were really shoehorning us in to get the FJ fixed that quickly.  It was a relief to not force our truck into their schedule.  We ran to Keith’s shop where he was waiting with open arms…  By 4PM the truck was aligned and back on the road.  Keith and all the kind folks in Grand Junction saved the trip!  

The “magic” photo spot!

Now it was off to FJ Summit X.

After we were all in Ouray…  We had dinner at Buen Tiempo.  “Buen” seems to be our annual dinner stop when we are at Summit.  We had our dollar bill planted on their towering two story roof (If you don’t know how they do it…  Give the waiter a buck and watch).  When we were heading out, we ran into Woody and Heather Swearengen.  The owner of Ih8mud.com chatted with us about his imported Landcruiser.  I was schooled on the different models numbers for RHD, LHD, Petrol and Diesel models.  (because, someday I will have one!)  Woody and his wife are great folks and I always recommend signing up for Ih8mud for Toyota 4×4 fans of any skill level.  

Thursday morning we had a plan to hit the top most pass at FJ Summit.  Imogene pass is a rough trail road that runs 17 miles between Ouray and Telluride.  At its topmost peak, it tops out at 13,100 ft.  This is not like Pikes Peak or Mt Evans… You are crossing streams, climbing steep inclines, pinstriping your truck and grinding up your off-road tires on sharp rocks.  

The climb through the mountains was a striking contrast to camping in Moab just days before.  The weather was slightly cool with an air of dampness.  Everything was green!  Even the upper elevations above the treeline the small amounts of green were a glowing vision of life versus the overwhelming brown tones of eastern Utah.  When we reached the top of Imogene pass, it was crowded with Toyota trucks that were trailing with groups from FJ Summit.   We waited for about 30 minutes before we could pull off this picture of our trucks at with the sign.  It was cold at the top… But again…  After sweating and being wrung out in Moab…  It was a welcome change of season.  I told everyone to suck it up.  The temps back in Illinois were around 100 and these 50 degree winds would be forgotten as soon as we hit Kansas on the way home.

Top of Imogene

After hitting Telluride we had to call it over for the Stahl’s.  My family had to get back to Illinois to get my daughter to camp on Saturday.  Our layover in Grand Junction had cost us a day on the trails in Colorado and this was last hurrah.

Jacob and family spent another few days in the area before heading back.  His exploration led him to Bangs Canyon in Grand Junction.  Which, judging by the pictures and his reviews… Is a great place to run around in for a day.