Fall is a season of change. Cooler temperatures, leaves turning colors, and everything being offered in pumpkin spice flavor. In southern New Mexico the 25th annual Chile Challenge served up chile-spiced rockcrawling along with some big new changes.
Traditionally the Challenge was held in February on trails just outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico, by the Las Cruces 4-Wheel Drive Club. With the designation of the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument in the same area, the club faced too much red tape to continue holding an event in the traditional location, the Robledo Mountains. In 2014 the club decided to move everything 70 miles north to the Caballo Lake State Park Riverside Campground. With the move came a date change to October in order to attract more participants, and all new trails that we were anxious to check out.
Now in its second year at the new location and date, the move seems to be paying dividends. Dan Pettit, the event organizer, estimated a 25 percent increase in registrations this year—up to 215 vehicles. The increase in registrations really helps the LC4WDC further its efforts in keeping our trails open. All profits are put towards land use. Pettit also proudly explained, "The club has been granted a 10-year permit by the BLM to host the Chile Challenge in the Green Canyon Designated Trails Area." This is great news for an event that as recently as two years ago had an uncertain future.
Participants this year came from as far as Canada to take on the rocky canyons near the lake. The Chile Challenge is a family-friendly event and offers trails for all skill levels, from scenic dirt road drives to canyons that will eat sheetmetal and break even the best-equipped vehicles. The new venue and trails were receiving great reviews from everyone we talked to. It is great to see a new life given to the 25 year-old tradition. There is no better time than now to put the Chile Challenge on your to-do list. And if you have been to the event in the past, a new challenge awaits! To find out more, visit chilechallenge.org.
Jeffrey Jacobson leads a group up Not Worth It in his Jeep Scrambler on 43-inch sticky SXs with locked Dana 60 axles and an LT1 engine backed with a TH400 and an Atlas transfer case. This canyon trail is short (only a tenth of a mile long) and offers a nonstop technical climb with large boulders throughout. Jacobson, along with a few other volunteers, has helped to develop the new trail system that the Chile Challenge uses.
Paul Ness' silver Toyota FJ40 is powered by a 5.3 Chevy Vortec engine mated to a 4L60E transmission and an Orion transfer case. The wheelbase is stretched but remains on leaf springs with FJ60 axles swapped in. Maxxis Trepadors wrapped around Spyderlock wheels grip the rock going up Not Worth It canyon.
Wayne Bennett drove his 2014 JK to the event from Nebraska and wheeled it hard during the week considering he had to drive it back home. A 214:1 crawl ratio, thanks to a four-speed Atlas transfer case, allows him to go easy on parts even though the rest of the Jeep is built to take it. The front Dana 44 uses RCV axles with upgraded ball joints and PSC hydraulic ram assist steering. The BFG Krawlers are mounted on B.A.D. beadlock wheels, and the coils and shocks have been replaced with ORI struts on all four corners.
Near the top of Off Again trail is an off-camber slab next to a rock wall. Some chose to stay on the slab and lean into the wall, but Brian McDaniel placed his left tires on the wall and drove all the way up the slab. McDaniel’s 1997 TJ uses full-width 1-ton axles turned by a GM 5.3, a 4L60E, and a 3.8 Atlas. He also built his own suspension using Artec brackets and 14-inch ORI struts on all four corners.
The trails may be all new, but there are still tall ledges that the Chile Challenge is known for. Kent Gehrls attempts a ledge on Frame Twister in his 2003 TJ. The TJ's wheelbase is stretched to 100 inches with a TnT Customs long arm and steering box relocation. The 37-inch Krawlers on Trail-Ready beadlocks are mounted to Currie Rock Jock 60 axles.
The Minefield will test the flexibility of any vehicle that attempts it. Wayne Judkins' 2014 JK had no problems negotiating the trail, although several tight spots required backing up to get the line just right for the length of the four-door. Judkins’ JK is equipped with Dynatrac axles and Off Road Evolution suspension and armor.
John Kobert negotiates a tight right-hand turn on Minefield, which balanced his 2014 JK on only two wheels. The landing was soft thanks to the King coilovers and bypass shocks. Currie Rock Jock axles turn the Nitto Trail Grappler tires.
Bill Ritchie has attended the Chile Challenge since 1998. His diesel-powered Land Rover Defender, dubbed Frankenrover, has seen its fair share of trails. The Rover uses Unimog 404 portal axles and 39-inch BFG Red Label Krawlers mounted on Walker Evans beadlocks.
Caballo Lake State Park Riverside Campground served as home base for the event. The campground offers nice facilities and RV hookups right along the Rio Grande. Those who stayed in the camp were rewarded with spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The staging area was in a large open field behind the camp with staggered start times.
Many of the trails branch off from Green Canyon. The canyon can be as easy or as hard as you want it to be with multiple lines to run. Bill Johnson brought out his Avalanche Engineering Contender buggy powered by a carbureted small-block Chevy. The carb didn't seem to hold Johnson back, but he did mention plans of going to propane injection.
Backstage Pass starts in a dry wash and loops back around to the start after climbing and then descending two different canyons. Jeff Butcher's Toyota FJ40 is powered by a 4BT diesel and retains Toyota axles. With a tubed back-half reducing the amount of body, he chose a harder line through this bend in the canyon.
Back at camp repairs were frequent. A crack in the frame on a Jeep Scrambler is temporarily repaired with a small piece of steel plate and a battery-powered MIG welder. Other common failures were steering issues and broken axleshafts.
Friday night was the ice cream social hosted by New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance and the LC4WDC raffle with prizes donated by many vendors. The group shelter at the Riverside Campground was a central gathering place on several nights during the event.
The Green Canyon Designated Trails Area spreads across a rugged landscape that is scattered with old mines and mining roads that connect some of the trails. David Mankins leads a group up The Shaft in his 1985 Toyota 4Runner. The trail gets its name from the mineshaft at the top.
Todd Steele wheeled at the Hammers for many years. Since moving to New Mexico, he is getting out and exploring the trails the state has to offer. His 2002 Jeep TJ twists up The Shaft on 39-inch Swamper TSLs and 1-ton axles.
Jim Hughes volunteered to be the tail gunner on The Shaft in his Formula Toyota buggy riding on 37-inch BFG sticky Krawlers. Hughes is crawling the right-hand side of a 4-foot ledge near the top of The Shaft. Not only was he the tail gunner, but he was also giving a ride-along to a representative from the BLM, showing him what responsible recreation was all about.