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
Where It's At: 15 miles southeast of Moab, Utah.
What It Is: Arguably the most impossible half-mile in all of four wheeling, it's a mind-boggling assault of truck-sized boulders, tight squeezes and sheer vertical ledges, with no easy lines to take around (or over) any of them. Almost everyone needs to winch at least once (and often just to get past the entrance!), and even the best-built rigs can easily succumb to carnage here-as the trail host's website proudly proclaims, "Prepare for Damage!" Assuming your rig isn't in pieces at the end, you can spend the rest of your day enjoying other nearby rock trails at this private OHV site such as Strike Ravine, Minor Threat, and Green Day.
Where You'll Break: Gatekeeper, Squeeze, Can Opener, Waterfall.
Who To Contact: Area BFE, www.areabfe.com
The Snake Pit
Where It's At: 10 miles south of Clayton, Oklahoma.
What It Is: Okahoma rockcrawling at its finest, with the special added bonus of water-plenty of it. The Snake Pit wends its way through a series of creek beds in the Kiamichi Mountains, many of which are chock-full of large, wet boulders concealing big underwater drop-offs; plenty of ground clearance and top-to-bottom waterproofing are necessities here. There are plenty of other good rock trails scattered over three private ORV parks in the area (Rock Creek, Freiling's, and Green Acres); Wet and Wild, Green Mamba, Jeff's Ledges, and Slim's Slope are among the most highly regarded.
Where You'll Break: Someplace where your rig is likely half-underwater, so you'll want a winch and snorkel. The area's infested with poisonous snakes, too. Having fun yet?
Who To Contact: Southwest Four-Wheel Drive Association, www.swfwda.org
Where It's At: Five miles west of Moab, Utah.
What It Is: "Rockcrawling" and "Moab" are virtually synonymous terms these days, but even in the contemporary cradle of rock running, one public Moab trail is sui generis for combining white-knuckle difficulty in a majestic natural setting. Only crawlers with mega-experience and buggy-grade rigs can expect to traverse this three-plus-mile trail, which follows the deeply eroded remains of an abandoned mining road at the base of a high-walled canyon. Steep drop-offs and rollover-inducing stair steps are trademarks of Pritchett, and with several famous obstacles to conquer, it's a rare trail ride that doesn't result in at least one rig ending up on its side. If it's a bit too hardcore for you, you can drive mellower Behind The Rocks to the exit of Pritchett, and scenic Poison Spider Mesa's just a mile up the road.
Where You'll Break: Rocker Knocker, Suicide Hill, Rock Pile.
Who To Contact: Red Rock 4 Wheelers, www.rr4w.com
The Rock Creek
Where It’s At: 40 miles northeast of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
What It Is: The length of six football fields, it’s an ancient glacial rock deposit within Rausch Creek Off Road Park in east-central Pennsylvania. It’s a nearly unbroken expanse of rocks, more rocks, and boulders, with very few trees to serve as anchor points for winching, so a bulletproof drivetrain, lots of body armor, a capable spotter, and plenty of patience are a few of the things you’ll need to negotiate the Creek successfully.
Where You’ll Break: Almost anywhere.
Who To Contact: Rausch Creek Off Road Park, www.rauschcreekoffroadpark.org
Where It’s At: Eight miles east of Harlan, Kentucky.
What It Is: Designated a Class-5 trail, it’s a classic rock route within the Black Mountain Off Road Adventure Area, some 7,000 acres of abandoned quarry land open for public 4x4 recreation since 2005. While short in length, Lion’s Den is highly technical, with Jeep-sized boulders and several extremely tight squeezes between tall trees and rock faces that could make a long day for rigs running full-width axles. During the rainy season, it’s even more fun. Other good rock trails in the complex are Can Opener, Damnation, and Middle and Lower Rock Gardens.
Where You’ll Break: Almost anywhere—and if you drive anything wider than a Suzuki, plan on leaving some paint behind, too.
Who To Contact: Black Mountain Off Road Adventure Area, www.harlancountytrails.com/blackmountain.php
Where It’s At: Near Silver City, South Dakota.
What It Is: Rated a 5-plus, it’s the best-known, and arguably still the most technically challenging, of the hardcore rock trails in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Extremely steep and narrow in spots, with eight discrete obstacles along its route sporting names like Slimer and Stupid, Hal will challenge even the most experienced drivers to keep all four on the ground, and few wheelers traverse its length without making some sacrifices to the Sheetmetal Gods. In case you’re the exception to the rule, there are several other good trails in the vicinity such as Kong, Upper and Lower Buzzworm, and Flat Nasty.
Where You’ll Break: Skyscraper, The Waterfall.
Who To Contact: Black Hills 4 Wheelers, www.bh4wheelers.com
Holy Cross City Trail
Where It’s At: 10 miles south of Minturn, Colorado.
What It Is: Unlike many of Colorado’s most famous trails, which primarily feature vertigo-inducing but otherwise-unchallenging shelf roads, Holy Cross City is four miles of slow-speed off-camber rockin’ on a one-way route that dead-ends at the remains of a 19th century boomtown. A minefield of boulders awaits the wheeler at French Creek, and the steep and slippery 10-foot shelf at Cleveland Rock can cause driveline breakage and rollovers. Other good 4x4 trails in the area include Mosquito Pass, Wheeler Lake, and Hagerman Pass.
Where You’ll Break: French Creek, Cleveland Rock.
Who To Contact: Eagle County 4x4 Association, www.eaglecounty.4x4webs.com
Your Favorite Rock Trail
Where It’s At: Wherever you roll on boulders.
What It Is: We don’t know, it could be anywhere. Drop us a note and tell us all about it—where it is, how to get there, how hardcore it is, what kind of equipment you need, how long it takes, other cool trails in the area, and all that.
Where You’ll Break: We’re sure you never do, but your buddies do all the time, somewhere, right?
Who To Contact: Send us your best local rockcrawl stories and photos to “Readers’ Rocks,” Four Wheeler, 831 S. Douglas St., El Segundo, CA 90245, or send us high-res images and descriptions via email to email@example.com. We’ll collect them and publish the best submissions in an upcoming issue of the magazine, and if we pick one of your photos, a box of Four Wheeler goodies will be delivered to your door.