So you've ditched your steel frame for a bunch of DOM tubing, scored some Army axles, fabbed up a four-link, stuffed your gearboxes with granny cogs, and thrown down for a set of 49s. You've built your own rock rig, in other words-and now that it's finished, you ask, where do you take it? No, you're not content with your local quarry or open-pit mine-you just built the ultimate rock monster, and you want a trail that matches your machine. The kind of trail that rewards expert driving skills and punishes poor engineering, where imminent death (i.e., breakage) lurks behind every boulder, where a 6-ton winch is barely enough, and where instant bragging rights are conferred to all who finish with their rigs still running and their drivelines intact. A trail for Real Men!
And since it's clinically proven that Real Men run rocks, you've come to the right place.
For this story, we'll attempt to spread the rock-love as far and wide as we can-and while we've done our share of crawling over the years, there are obviously plenty of trails we haven't driven, so consider these selections a suitable sampling of the best hardcore opportunities across the entire U.S. We've also limited our picks to (more or less) natural rock formations as opposed to manmade courses like the Mini-Rubicon at Hollister Hills. Many of these routes are located within a network of trails, and in that case, we've chosen one as the best representative of its particular area. To the best of our knowledge, all of these trails were open as of press time, but if you go, always be sure to check with the sources included here in case of seasonal and/or event closures.
Finally, we realize we can't include every killer rock trail in the U.S. here, so drop us a line and send us some photos if you think we've overlooked your favorite can't-miss challenge for crawlers. See the end of the story for more details.
Oh, one last thing: If you need to ask, "What kind of setup do I need?", you ain't ready. It's almost impossible to overbuild for the places we're listing here.
Rubicon Springs-McKinney Road
Where It's At: 50 miles east of Sacramento, California.
What It Is: One of the holiest sites on the planet (after Jerusalem, Mecca, and Cooperstown), the granitic granddaddy of all Jeep trails is still the gold standard for rockcrawling. A former 19th-century stagecoach line, it hosted the very first Jeepers Jamboree in 1953, and contains within its 12-mile length some of the most famous obstacles in four-wheeling, such as the Walker Hill, Big and Little Sluice Boxes, and Cadillac Hill. The trail can be driven in one (very long day), but it's more fun to make camp at Rubicon Springs for a night, and drive out in the morning. Once you've reached the observation point at the top of Cadillac, your rig still running and basking in mechanical glory while you take in the spectacular vistas of the snowcapped Sierra, you can channel your inner Sinatra: If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere...
Where You'll Break: Little Sluice Box, Cadillac Hill, everywhere else.
Who To Contact: Friends of the Rubicon, www.rubiconfriends.com
Where It's At: 70 miles east of Apple Valley, California.
What It Is: One of the original legendary "Hammer" trails laid out in the late '90s by the Victor Valley 4 Wheelers at Johnson Valley, the 200,000-acre OHV area in the upper Mojave that's become a year-round destination for competition-grade rockcrawlers. Barely a mile and a half in length, Jack is a double-black-diamond minefield of monster rocks, loose dirt, perilous V-notches and near vertical climbs-and that's only to the top; the ride downhill has equally steep drop-offs, a high pucker factor, and plenty of chances for-yep-a rollover. With Johnson Valley's treeless lunar landscape, winching points are minimal, hence driving, spotting, and engineering skills are critical to success. If your rig survives Jack, you can try your luck on his sister Sledge next door, or further out on Claw Hammer, Aftershock, and Outer Limits.
Where You'll Break: Where won't you?
Who To Contact: Victor Valley 4 Wheelers, www.victorvalley4wheelers.com
Where It's At: 30 miles north of Phoenix, Arizona.
What It Is: Possibly Arizona's toughest rock trail (and that's saying a lot). Sheer rock walls, steep waterfalls and narrow notches are all highlights of this 5-rated serpentine ascent in the Table Mesa area of the Tonto National Forest. If you survive this "constrictor," there are numerous other trails nearby with cheery names like Annhilator, Upper and Lower Terminator, Predator, Raw Deal, Judgment Day, and Twisted. Despite their names, they range in difficulty from moderate to advanced, so just about everyone will find a rock trail to their liking here in the Table complex.
Where You'll Break: The Chute, Gatekeeper, Waterfall 2.
Who To Contact: Tonto National Forest, www.fs.usda.gov/tonto
Dusy-Ershim OHV Route
Where It's At: 30 miles northeast of Fresno, California.
What It Is: By rockcrawling standards, this is equivalent to the Dakar Rally: Thirty miles of rock-lined short-wheelbase hell in the lower Sierra Nevada, nine-tenths of which requires highly technical slow-speed driving. Besides demanding expert navigation and Jeep-building skills, Dusy is also an endurance test. You'll need at least two full days-more likely three, if there's traffic (and carnage) ahead of you, and there almost always is-to handle the trail from end to end. If your rig lives that long, that is. Regardless of the season, bring warm clothes-most of Dusy is run at elevations ranging from 9,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level.
Where You'll Break: Thompson Hill, White Bark Vista.
Who To Contact: 4-Wheel Drive Club of Fresno, www.4wdcfresno.net
Where It's At: 10 miles west of Las Cruces, New Mexico
What It Is: If the photo doesn't give you a clue, it's a short but insanely difficult climb up truck-tall rock faces and scatted boulders in the Robledo Mountain OHV complex outside of Las Cruces. Each February, this trail forms part of the weekend-long "Chile Challenge," one of the Southwest's most popular and enduring rockcrawl-enthusiast gatherings, so you can watch before you drive if you like. Once you've scaled the last of the vertical rock "waterfalls" at the top of the trail, you can enjoy the 50-mile vista of the Mesilla Valley below, then mosey on over to the other nearby hardcore trails in the vicinity such as Tabasco Twister, Patzcuaro's Revenge, and Rocotillo Rapids.
Where You'll Break: There are six steep "waterfalls" at the end of the trail. Any of them could be fatal.
Who To Contact: Las Cruces 4WD Club, www.lascrucesfourwheeldriveclub.com