Once in a while you get a phone call that's so intriguing you feel lucky you've answered the phone. That's how I felt when Scott Frary, aftermarket sales manager for Eaton/Detroit Locker, called and told me about an upcoming trail run he arranged in his local area. He wanted to invite me along on a three-day trip through a couple of great adventure areas in Washington state.
Some people might consider the adventure's focus an unlikely couple of trail machines but Jeep's '06 Commander and Eaton's '07 Jeep Grand Cherokee were going to be the highlight of the trip. The Commander was built by Mopar and received just the right amount of functional lift and now rolls on 35-inch mud-terrain tires. The adventure was intended to show the capability of Jeep's Quadra-Drive II system in these two vehicles. I thought to myself, "How could I not go and watch this possible festival of carnage?"
I couldn't wait to tag along on the 300-mile trip that was bound to be filled with great adventure and the possibility of learning just how capable the Quadra-Drive II system really is on trails rated 3-plus in technical difficulty.
Both of the modern rigs are equipped with Jeep's Quadra-Drive II systems and feature Eaton's EGerodisc limited-slip locking differential. Although these components aren't available from your local 4x4 shop, they are factory options on new Commanders and Grand Cherokees. We are finding more often than not that trail rigs don't have to be the bare-bones stripped vehicles of yesteryear, unless of course you're an old-school Jeep purist who hates comfort, stability, and modern conveniences! These vehicles completed the runs with the accessories not usually found on the average built-up trail rig. Accessories like power everything, navigation systems, A/C, a Bose stereo system, and heated leather seats just to name a few. If I sound a bit jealous it's only because I am. They were just too darn comfortable looking as I sat in the dust and dirt of an open vehicle. The drivers of the new Jeeps could just roll their windows up to escape the choking dust and uncomfortably hot weather. I'm still coughing up bugs and things that shouldn't be discussed around the dinner table.
Chrysler sent along two Jeep engineers for the adventure to show us enthusiast wheelers how the experts handle these vehicles: Steve Houtman, product development engineer of Jeep Vehicle Development and Vince Schrand, Chrysler's lead engineer for limited-slip and locking differentials. Sure they have long, important titles, but they offer something of equal value: as true Jeep enthusiasts, their experience of years of off-highway adventure. They also own their own trailworthy Jeeps. Steve has a prized '84 CJ-7, and Vince owns a well-built '90 Wrangler YJ. Although Michigan doesn't have the open land to explore by Jeep like we do here in the West, they still get out and play whenever and wherever they can.
Our adventure group had 12 very capable trail rigs and included Jeeps from just about every era of manufacturing. We had an MB (yes, it has the wrong grille and windshield frame), a CJ, a YJ, three TJs, an LJ, an XJ, and a ZJ. The trip started out at Evans Creek ORV. Scott and his copilot, wife Cheryl, had us running every trail except one that would have guaranteed extensive body damage for the fullsize Jeeps. We don't often turn away from too many trails: If we only have a 50/50 chance of some damage we'll give it a shot, but if it's 100-percent guaranteed the vehicle will receive extensive body damage, it's just pointless.
The trails at Evans Creek were dark, damp, tight, lush, and challenging. On the trails, we found deep mudholes and lots of stumps just waiting to tear a door or fender off. With Mount Rainier nearby, we frequently drove into clearings offering spectacular views. The weather was flawless, and the trip ran very smoothly. We left Evans Creek around 5 p.m. and headed east to the historic Naches Trail.
The Naches Trail was the very first emigrant wagon trail passing through the Cascade Mountains. The first group to cross this area made it with 30 horse-drawn wagons in the fall of 1853. There were several near-vertical descents from which the wagons had to be lowered on ropes. Today, the trail is open to ORVs and can be very challenging depending on the time of year. The trail is open in mid July and closes mid November.
Our group reached the trailhead at dusk and made great headway without any issues. This trail is in a deep and heavily wooded forest, so it wasn't just dark - it was black! The trail was steep and very tight. We progressed for about two hours until we hit the Pyramid Pass logging road. This logging road is the quickest way to get over the pass, so we decided to bypass the rest of the trail and use it to avoid getting back to the lode before midnight. Our group hit Whistlin' Jack's Lodge in Cliffdell at about 9:30. Dinner and beverages were foremost on our minds after a day that covered 175 miles and eight hours on the trails.
Day two started early the next morning. Our group headed up toward Shoestring Trail near Naches. This area is on Wenatchee National Forest land and is patrolled by the Cle Elum and Naches ranger districts. It is open to ORVs all year.
After a short, dusty hillclimb, we hit the first actual trail of the day: Lower Woodpecker Drive. Lower Woodpecker wound its way through a recent clear-cut that reminded us that this is a working forest. Logging is allowed in certain areas but really hasn't had much impact on recreation. The trail winds through stumps that show you just how tight this trail was just a few years ago. This trail system was created in the '50s and '60s by the Jeeps of the day: short CJs and flatties. Back in the day, almost every rig on our trip would have been considered far too big to run these trails.
Upper Woodpecker Drive was next with a stop at Funny Rocks and Moon Rocks obstacle areas. We played on the rocks for a couple of hours with nothing but a little rash damage. John Mathews in his XJ proved to be the star of the day by taking the hard line up Can Opener. Can Opener is so named because if you take the wrong line, it will tear off the right side of your rig. John made it look easy, but those of us with shorter-wheelbase Jeeps and no rear projection were merely spectators. Clifton Slay in his tricked-out LJ named Tippy gave it a good try, but his transmission would stall due to the excessive angles.
After a quick lunch, we hit a very tight trail known as Rocky Saddle. The full-bodied rigs fought their way through two-, three-, and four-point turns, while some of the smaller rigs used their body armor to pivot around the trees. Northwest wheeling can be very technical, and our group didn't emerge unscathed. The Commander and the WK both came out with new dents, while Tom Wood piloted his ZJ through without any damage.
Day three we ran a trail known as Kaner Flat, which is anything but flat. This trail required the only winching of the trip, mostly due to tougher optional routes up the trail. Alan Hewitt piloted his '76 CJ-5 up a route seldom used and nearly had a nasty roll. Quick winch work kept him upright and on the trail. Tom Cain and his '42 MB also found a loose spot on a hillclimb that required a winch. The only damage of the day was a torn sidewall suffered by Randy Mark.
Tight trees and hillclimbs were the theme of the day, and the Commander and Grand Cherokee crawled and powered through with the rest of the group. The Quadra-Drive II system gave them locker-like traction when needed, and they always took the hard line. It was impressive to see these modern and very comfortable vehicles go through areas usually only traveled by fully modified off-road vehicles. It was readily apparent that the Commander and Grand Cherokee with the Quadra-Drive II systems were just as capable as any of the Jeeps modified with aftermarket components.
Our third day ended a little early as our group needed to head back to civilization in western Washington.
It was a great adventure attended by wonderful people and featuring beautiful and challenging terrain. It was a trip where we all actually learned a little something about IFS suspensions and Jeep's Quadra-Drive-equipped trail rigs. They work just as well off the trail under harsh conditions as they do comfortably driving your kids to the ballpark.