We call it "The Big Adventure." Each year, a small group of four-wheeling friends gets together for our annual rendition of The Big Adventure. The rules are pretty simple: 1) Take a backcountry journey from Point A to Point B; and 2) Stay on dirt as much as possible. We also have a few corollaries to the rules: a) The route should be one most of us haven't been on before; b) It should include at least some terrain where the transfer case finds its way into 4-Lo; and c) the final destination should be somewhere with hot food, cold beverages, and showers. Let us not forget the showers at the end of a long trip!
The Cambridge dictionary says adventure "is an unusual, exciting and possibly dangerous activity such as a journey or experience." The Big Adventure 2008 definitely met this definition. Traveling long backcountry routes is, in itself, pretty unusual these days. Not only are oft-traveled routes improved with regular maintenance, the number of unimproved through-routes is declining as motorized recreation is systematically eliminated from more and more public land.
We certainly find our Big Adventures to be exciting. Backcountry travel on unproven routes offers the thrill of discovery. But being hours, or even days from help dictates good preparation. We must be self-reliant as spending days on the trail in unpredictable conditions requires level heads and reliable vehicles. "Possibly dangerous activity"? We avoid danger for danger's sake but four-wheeling far from pavement does introduce some risk factors with which not everyone would be comfortable. Most previous Big Adventures have had at least some 4WD "pucker" moments and this year's trip continued that tradition.
In planning 2008's Big Adventure, we needed to choose a suitable jumping-off point, a destination, and then a general route connecting the two. Cross-checking our calendars for available dates, we only had four days in common. This dictated a relatively short trip. Early October is a bit late for high elevation travel but generally great for red rock country. We wanted something a bit different than southeast Utah. Hmmmm...how about Grand Junction to Moab? Perfect! Now...how to do it?
Route options between these two points are very limited by the terrain. In addition to the Dolores and Colorado Rivers, several long cliff lines and ridges limit possibilities. We started poring over maps, comparing notes, and checking other sources. Most people know about the Kokopelli Trail, a mountain biking trail running from Grand Junction to Moab. Almost all of it can also be run in 4WD's and has been run quite frequently. We wanted something a bit different. Then a friend of a friend offered a route suggestion that sounded and looked intriguing. Sketchy information about an interesting backcountry route? Ideal! The Big Adventure 2008 was put in motion.
We met in Grand Junction at noon. Google Earth showed that Moab was only 66 miles away as the crow flies. Of course, we weren't crows and it would be a little bit further for our small earth-bound caravan. Besides, 66 miles is a Sunday drive, not a Big Adventure. We topped off the gas tanks and headed out of town. While we wanted as much dirt as possible under our wheels, we made a concession to the suggested route and headed west on asphalt. Little Park Road took us to Glade Park and then DS Road took us all the way to the Colorado/Utah state line. Once on the border, we turned off the pavement, aired down the tires, and headed south.
Ahhhh ... the backcountry with 'civilization' disappearing into our rear view mirrors, cell signals fading, and no email! We meandered through the desert, following what we soon took to calling "Ruxton's Route". We were headed generally south but swinging back and forth across the state line. The track took us into the drainage of Ryan's Creek and we passed a 3/4-ton Chevy flatbed with the transfer case sitting next to the truck. That might have explained the many miles of footprints we had been noticing in the road's dust. Someone enjoyed a mighty long walk through this empty country. The map told us to swing back west to drop into Granite Creek but we missed the turn. We noticed it almost immediately but continued onward as the map also showed that we would dead end high on the sides of the Granite Creek Canyon. Sure enough, the wrong turn ended at a great campsite with a marvelous view of our future route far below.
Since it was too early to call it a day, we backtracked to the turn and pressed on. Soon we were sitting at the edge of Granite Creek Canyon with a big dugway beckoning us downward. "Dugway" is desert southwest terminology for a bulldozer track allowing passage from the mesa top above to the canyon below. Most dugways date from the mineral exploration frenzy of the '50's and '60's and many of them are truly feats in innovative road engineering. Steep, narrow, rutted from precipitation, and partially blocked by rockfall, this dugway met the criteria for adventure! Someone astutely observed that the only tracks on it were ATV width. This was to become a common theme over the next miles.
Down we crept, stopping to roll boulders to the side of the road and carefully checking that the narrow shelf road was still wide enough to support our collection of Jeeps. It was a classic Big Adventure experience: on an unfamiliar track clinging to the edge of cliff on a road just wider than the Jeeps. With no viable place to turn around, any impassable obstruction would mean a long and potentially dangerous reverse up the dugway. Scouting on foot first is always a good idea.
We reached the bottom and turned east up the canyon. It was already getting late in the day. We pressed on thinking that the canyon bottom would harbor a campsite we could reach by nightfall. Trees, thick brush, and washouts all pressed in on the narrow trail. Campsites? The road through the canyon didn't even have shoulders! By now, "Ruxton's Route" was taking on a more sinister undertone when we muttered it under our breath. Although it was still definitely a road, it was also obvious that ATV's were the widest vehicle in common use on it. A bit of advice: if you like paint on your vehicle, stay out of Granite Creek Canyon. The sides, hoods, and even roofs of our vehicles were being violated. We cringed at the constant "screeeeech" of a never-ending paint assault as we burrowed through the tunnel of scrub oak, sage, and tamarisk. Any hope of camping in the canyon bottom evaporated in the ten-foot high brush.
Several times we de-trucked to build ramps over troublesome rocks or to fill in wash-outs. We finally reached the turn to climb up and out of the by now claustrophobic confines of the canyon. The road was getting easier but not any wider. We were well past "camp-thirty" and into quickly deepening dusk. The insults to our paint continued unabated as we slowly ground upward. We finally reached a faint intersection in the gathering gloom. Our maps showed that we needed to take a right turn. The turn would put us on a yet smaller track that climbed even more steeply upward. A quick reconnaissance trip on foot confirmed that the route went through and was probably where we needed to be.
It was now authentically dark and we were traveling by headlights. The map indicated we wouldn't see the top of the ridge for another hour. The road we were on was the only flat, relatively rock-free ground we had seen for hours. It looked like camp to us! We erected the tents between the trucks, built a quick fire, and spent the night in the middle of the road. This is not the first time The Big Adventure camped in the road and, given our past record, probably won't be the last.
The next morning we continued our climb up the narrow ATV track. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the next intersection finally brought a Jeep-width two-track past the hood. We turned west and headed for what we hoped would be the centerpiece of our trip. The Sheep Creek dugway is a monster carved into the side of the Dolores River canyon about eight miles northwest of Gateway, Colorado. We slowly trundled to the edge of the canyon and got out to soak in the incredible view. The Dolores Canyon stretched away to the southeast and disappeared in the morning haze. The almost sheer plunge at our feet was impressive! How a road was going to get down this immense wall of sandstone was a mystery to us.
A few minutes later, the mystery was revealed. We stood in quiet awe at the canyon rim, each with our own thoughts as we contemplated this unbelievable road. The dugway drops almost 2,500 feet in less than three miles. We let our eyes follow the twisting route carved into the side of the cliff and we again noticed that only ATV tracks were in evidence. Hmmmm...
We climbed back into our trucks and started the long descent. We reached a small cabin by a spring and were pulled up short by the bane of motorized enthusiasts everywhere: the dreaded 'Closed' sign! The bright yellow sign screamed, "Road Closed Ahead to all vehicles greater than 50 inches in width. Closure is for public safety due to road damage. TURN AROUND HERE!" It was signed by the Grand Junction Field Office of the BLM and gave a phone number for more information. Needless to say, there was no cell signal on the side of the canyon so a phone call was out.
We hiked the road down to the bottom and examined the 'damage'. We were sure we could safely negotiate the narrow shelf road, even with the washout. But unwilling to risk legal entanglements on a closure of unknown status, we very grudgingly returned to the rim to ponder our next move. Spreading the maps on the hood of the Comanche, we looked for an alternate way to reach the Dolores River far below ... and looked ... and looked. There weren't any!
To the east, the nearest way off the escarpment was outside of Whitewater, nearly all the way back to Grand Junction. To the west, there were three fords of the river between us and Highway 128. The first two were known to be private and probably closed. The only known open ford was the Dewey Ford, so named as it is only about a mile short of the famous bridge of the same name on the Colorado River. The ford was 14.5 miles out of the way as the crow flies! Again, we were not crows and we knew it would take the rest of the day to bounce and jounce over the 30 miles of rough road to Dewey Ford. We would also be far to the west of our intended track to Moab. But this was a Big Adventure and sometimes part of the adventure is making some unexpected route adjustments.
We headed west and the road was indeed slow and rough. We decided to stop at the nearest ford on the outside chance that it would be open to public travel and since it was only a short way off our path of travel. We parked the Jeeps, waded across the Dolores, and verified the 'No Trespassing' sign on the south bank of the river. Big "sighs" all around but the water felt good as the day was getting really warm. It was early evening when we finally pulled up to the Dewey Ford on the Dolores. We crossed easily and headed south toward Moab. A flat, open spot on the ridge called to us in the setting sun so we set up camp for the night.
The next morning we gathered once more around the hood of the Jeep to plot our path. We were now well west of our intended route with no good way to get back on track. We decided the most likely path to Moab on dirt coincided with the Kokopelli Trail. First, we indulged in a short (but slow) side trip to Top of the World as several in the party had never been on this vertigo-inducing cliff. We were only 200 yards from returning to the county road when a motorcyclist flagged us down. His buddy had fallen and blown out a knee near the top of the trail. They were looking for a vehicle to give him a ride back to his truck. With no hesitation, the group turned around and made the second slow trip to the Top of the World to gather our guest passenger. With the rider safely delivered to his tow vehicle, it was already late afternoon when we once more turned our backs on 'civilization' and headed east on the Kokopelli.
Not all of the Kokopelli is easy 4WD terrain. The short section through Cottonwood Canyon brought the best seat wrinkles of the trip. There is an alternate road around this piece of the trail and we soon learned why there weren't too many Jeep-width tracks on this section. We made a trip across a VERY narrow shelf with a pronounced lean to the outside. We didn't make many miles before dusk encouraged us once more to look for a camp site. An abandoned drill site provided a flat and spacious camp site and we enjoyed the brief play of sunlight on the sandstone as the sun went down.
Our last morning revealed a heavily overcast sky and before long we had intermittent sprinkles on the windshield. Continuing our theme of 'side trips to spots of interesting perspective', we drove to an overlook high above the Dolores River. This 'south side' viewpoint gave a great view of the canyon and the roads coming up from Gateway to the east. More roads for another time!
Returning to the Kokopelli Trail, our progress slowed as we turned back west toward Rose Garden Hill under threatening skies. We knew that the Hill would be challenging enough without moisture to slick the rocks and we preferred to get there before the rain. We could see precipitation moving our way and knew the race would be close. It was sprinkling again as we reached the top of the Rose Garden. This famous descent has a steep pitch and is punctuated with numerous ledges. A gaggle of mountain bikes had to descend on foot. They looked at the road, studied our Jeeps, and concluded that they wouldn't want to drive it. By the time the final vehicle side-slipped off the last ledge, it was in a steady rain.
Even with the area's incredible scenery now obscured by the rain, we resisted the urge to take Onion Creek as a shortcut to the highway and Moab. We stuck to the Kokopelli and wound our way up into the higher ground toward Polar Mesa. We were rewarded with great views back into Fisher Valley, even though the falling rain covered everything with a grey veil. Oh, for some sunshine! The fall colors of the aspen and the oak would have been brilliant as we skirted the La Sals and headed down toward the Spanish Valley and Moab.
We hit the pavement just outside of Moab and headed into town for the waiting warm showers, hot pizza, and cold beverages. The 2008 edition of our trip hadn't gone according to script. But it was, once again, a Big Adventure with plenty of route finding, backcountry beauty, and 4-Lo activity many miles from the nearest highway.
The Sheep Creek dugway will definitely require a return trip and several other areas piqued our interest enough that we won't be able to leave them unexplored. The conversation around the pizza in Moab turned to other long backcountry routes and plans for The Big Adventure 2009 are underway.
The Author's Evolving Jeep ComancheMy 1988 Comanche has been carrying me through the backcountry for five years now and it continues to evolve to meet my needs. Some of the recent modifications and improvements include the following.
The stock 4.0L motor has been replaced with a stroked 4.6L version. The additional low-end grunt and wider power band has made it more "drive-able" on the highway and 'wheel-able" off the pavement.
The Mickey Thompson Baja ATZ tires continue to impress me. We drove 370 miles to Grand Junction and 350 miles home to Albuquerque and wheeled them hard in between. They provide great performance on all surfaces we encountered including some very rain-slicked ledges on Rose Garden Hill. I have yet to put a hole in the tires in spite of rubbing them liberally with sharp rocks and the occasional tree stump. The ATZ's remain smooth and quiet on the highway at 75 mph.
I bolted a United Welding Specialties aluminum box to the bed of the truck. This sturdy, lightweight unit replaces a much heavier homemade steel box. The weight savings from the swap have been absorbed by a fifteen gallon RCI fuel cell from Summit Racing. No more leaking fuel cans in the bed of the truck. The fuel cell is plumbed to the main tank with a transfer pump but I retained the ability to pump fuel to less gas-endowed companions.
I have also added "The Attic" to my roll cage. This self-fabricated and removable rack carries the lightweight items (camp chairs, sleeping mats, clothes, etc) above so that the ARB refrigerator, the UWS tool box, and Powertank CO2 tank are all easily accessible without having to move a layer of items.