Each February, the interstate highways crossing New Mexico see a sudden influx of serious-looking vehicles. Huge tires, tubed frames, and many of them somewhat scarred from encounters of the mineral kind. They are an unusual sight as they fly down the road on trailers. Perceptive fellow travelers probably wonder, Where are they all going? We know exactly where the parade is headed. A large cross section of the nation's rockcrawlers is headed to Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the annual Chile Challenge.
The Chile Challenge isn't the biggest annual rock-centered event. That crown is most certainly reserved for a certain spring ritual in Moab. And the trails around Las Cruces aren't the most difficult in the country. There are certainly more difficult trails in various locales. But nowhere else has such an event grown up so quickly around its extreme trails. Lest reader mail deluges us, we will be clear that the Chile Challenge is more than just extreme rockcrawling. There are great trails for all levels of experience and vehicle modifications, including truly scenic rides for the new stockers. The local hosting club, the Las Cruces Four Wheel Drive Club (LCFWDC), does an outstanding job of organizing the event and making everyone feel welcome. The event serves as the winter quarterly meeting for the Southwest Four Wheel Drive Association (SWFWDA), so the vehicle count from the big regional association's six states is always high. The Chile Challenge is also home to all the typical accoutrements of a big event including vendor displays, some great evening meals, and one of the biggest raffles of the year.
Even so, it is the trails that draw return visits year after year. So many people come back, in fact, that the registration for 2008 was limited to 350 vehicles to keep from overwhelming the local trail system. And the four extreme trails are the centerpieces of the trails that keep people coming back.
This magazine wasn't the only 4WD-enthusiast publication there to capture a slice of the excitement for its readers. But we were the only ones who spent all four days behind the wheel of a vehicle out in the rocks on the extreme trails. We have only missed this event one year since its inception in 1991 and have run the hardest Las Cruces has to offer dozens of times. But these four trails, run under early spring skies, are so good; that we keep coming back each and every year. We love them, and you will also. So here, in the order we ran them in 2008, are the Big Four of the Chile Challenge.
We first walked the trail now known as Rocotillo Rapids many years ago when the LCFWDC was still frantically working to get the first vehicles through the steep, narrow canyon. There is just no way, we remember thinking. The club had started groups from both the top and the bottom of the canyon. After several weekends of work, the two groups had still been unable to meet in the middle. They feared that the rapidly approaching Chile Challenge would leave the new trail still unfinished. Knowing that we would undoubtedly be driving it, we sort of hoped they were correct and wouldn't get it finished. But finish it they did, and we drove it that first year. Well, drove most of it. Back when the "big dogs" of the sport were running 35-inch tires, only one vehicle made it all the way through the canyon without assistance by a winch that first year.
The canyon is considered quite a bit "easier" now with lots of traffic in the intervening years and 40-plus-inch tires becoming commonplace. Still, Rocotillo Rapids offers more than enough challenge to leave scars and fully earn its "Extreme" rating. Narrower and more twisted than the other trails in the system, its walls close in tight enough to take bites of fenders and rear corners. Its three signature obstacles are all still there, although they continue to evolve from the passage of time, water, and tires. The initial challenge is a rough ledge running diagonally under an undercut wall. The left side offers an easier passage that allows one to dance through if the tires hit all the appropriate high points. Most of the hard-core types choose to take the more difficult center route. The undercut ledge and tire-swallowing holes often necessitate multiple attempts, and that is where the undercut wall comes into play. Get too far right, and you will certainly lose paint.
The second signature obstacle is a pair of side-by-side ledges. The original route runs to the right, but the passage of numerous vehicles has taken some of the teeth out of its former bite. The "impassable" left side gets driven fairly regularly, but on the Wednesday run this year, less than half of the vehicles were able to scale it. The third and final significant challenge is a steep climb up a large outcropping of solid rock in the canyon. Hit the right line, and one can idle up. Miss it, and things can still get ugly. Only one vehicle showed its dirty side to the sky on our recent trip, but it served as reminder that Rocotillo Rapids still provides more than enough challenge for rockcrawling extremists.
Tabasco Twister is our personal favorite of the Big Four. Longer than the other routes and somewhat physically separated from the main trail system, Tabasco offers both high challenge and an uncommonly beautiful canyon. Due to its relative remoteness, it is a somewhat longer bounce through several canyons on rough dirt roads to get to the start of the fun. The stiffer challenges start with a nice warmup in an extensive rock garden. Multiple paths provide different levels of challenge to suit the driver's desire and ability.
Immediately following the rock garden is the first serious ledge. A wall of rock sits diagonally across the watercourse with a right angle in the middle of the canyon. The difficulty differs with the level of the gravel base at the bottom of the "falls," and a deep hole means high challenge. Thesharp breakover angle adds additional difficulty, but a solid winch anchor is available for the almost inevitable winch pulls.
Next up is The Abyss. Aptly named, the signature test piece of Tabasco Twister is a huge ledge stretching all the way across the canyon. The verticality experienced by drivers when their front tires reach the top of the ledge is intimidating. The propensity for the rear tires to drop into the holes at the base of the wall often has the drivers staring into the yawning voids at the bottom of the ledge. Again, a handy winch point may see a lot of use if the holes at the base are at full depth.
After The Abyss, the rest of Tabasco Twister is a pleasant drive for rock-loving drivers. There is enough optional challenge to keep things very interesting. One optional climb through a slender slot has been the scene of particularly abundant driveline carnage. The narrowing walls in the slot tend to trap the rear of the vehicles in a tight mineral grasp. The resulting load on the front end has driven many a component past its breaking point.
Tabasco Twister is also about scenery, which, at least in our opinion, is fine enough to want to drive the canyon even if it were paved. Over the many years and numerous traverses that we have made of these trails, Tabasco remains our personal favorite of the Chile Challenge Big Four.
Short and sweet. Yes, that sums up our Friday route. Of course, one has to appreciate a high degree of challenge to attach the adjective of "sweet" to Habanero Falls. Tucked into a side canyon and reached via one of several of the easier Chile Canyon routes, Habanero was originally called the Magnificent Seven due to the seven separate and distinct waterfalls in the canyon back when tire first met rock. The original name was dumped in favor of the chile theme, but memorable challenges remain.
First up is a deceptively difficult leap straight up 4 feet of vertical limestone face. The rock has been polished so smooth, and the lip so abrupt, that many vehicles find themselves buffing the face with their rear tires while skewered by the skidplate. The secret is to find a spot on the ledge where the edge offers a bit more breakover relief and then let the rear wheels hit the ledge with a little more mojo. A lucky bounce will have you up and checking out the next phase of the route.
Across a front-end-swallowing hole, around a corner and, whoa! Eyes fixed on the enormous ledge looming ahead and WHAM! You might just be distracted enough to find yourself trying to push solid rock with your bumper or pumpkin as you attempt to mount the tricky little ledge in front of the monster that has riveted your attention. A little repositioning, a bit of momentum, and now one is free to contemplate the final, and by far most challenging, difficulty on Habanero.
No name on this one, just a chance to point your hood at the sky and carefully, oh so gingerly, feel for some traction. We won't lie, there is an established "magic" line that works for most vehicles, but a mere inch or two literally means the difference between crawling and floundering. It always feels good to get to the top, acknowledge that the "line" is still there where you remembered it, and realize that there is a cold one with your name on it back at camp.
Ah, Patzcuaro's ... or "pet squirrels" as some irreverently call it. Although Tabasco might be our personal favorite, nothing compares to running Patzcuaro's Revenge on the Saturday of the Chile Challenge. Home to the most difficult obstacles around Las Cruces, and center stage for a huge audience of gawking onlookers, Patzcuaro's is almost universally regarded as the toughest task of the Chile Challenge. The start of the trail is near a large dirt lot that is already filled with onlookers by the time the first tire hits the first rock on the trail. Patzcuaro's starts in a dark (and in the early morning of February, cold), narrow canyon where the vehicles quickly confront the first obstacle - Nemesis I. A steep climb to the left or a crack crawl on the right are the choices, and neither of them are easy, even for the drivers of the Chile Challenge. Our group on Saturday is typical for the event, with 42-inch tires plentiful and lots of tubing in evidence. Believe me, very few of them "cruised" Nemesis I.
As soon as the first couple of vehicles are through, the trail leader heads for one of the primo obstacles of the Challenge - Nemesis II. Situated in a large rock bowl at the bottom of the canyon, the site is crowded with onlookers eager to watch man and machine challenge both rock and gravity. Nemesis II is actually two parallel routes: the original route to the right and the "bypass" to the left. To the uninitiated public, both look supremely ridiculous. The bypass is so dug out from years of vehicular assaults, that it is almost as difficult as the original route. The original route is so vertical, that vehicles seriously assaulting it this year hooked a safety cable to the winch point beyond. As the original route necessitated a winch in 2008, we tried the left side and eventually succeeded in mounting the nasty climb intact and with winch unspooled.
Whew! Always a little pucker on that one. With Nemesis II behind us, we motored on to the rest of Patzcuaro's challenges. The most difficult climb has yet to come, about halfway through the 2-mile-long canyon route. This narrow cleft in the rocks, about one vehicle length in height, can be climbed, but it yields to very few. Only two vehicles in our string of 20 made the climb that day: a buggy whose rear-steer capability allowed it that little extra bit of traction, and a Toyota whose wheelbase shortened the ledge considerably. We were stymied in our attempts, in spite of having climbed it numerous times in previous years. One of the joys of the Chile Canyon trail systems is that Ma Nature rearranges the trails each year, and success one year doesn't mean an easier time the next.
And that is the Big Four from a driver's point of view. These four trails have been adding the spicy heat to the Chile Challenge for many years and are the major trail factors that keep the event one of the premiere rockcrawling stops of the year. We hope to see at least 350 of you there when we attend again next year.