We were long overdue for a summer wheeling road trip. It's generally too hot to go off-road in the local Southern California deserts in the summer, so we made a call to a buddy and told him about our cabin fever. He said he had just the cure. Within a few weeks, we were on a plane to Michigan for four days of road trip and wheelin'. He even pulled some strings to set us up with a Jeep you may recognize, the Mopar Underground Sarge.
Sarge is actually based on an overseas J8 military Jeep. But this one sports a small lift and 35-inch BFG mud tires that are pushed along by the factory VM Motori 2.8L four-cylinder turbodiesel, an auto tranny, an NV241 T-case, a Dana 44 front axle, and a Dana 60 rear axle. For the next few days, we were happy to call Sarge our drab-green home.
If you've got a long four-day weekend to kill and you happen to be in or near Michigan, give our destinations a shot. You won't be disappointed.
We met up with Nick Cappa and Cole Quinnell early Thursday morning in Lake Orion and hit the road. We B-lined it to Rocks and Valleys Off-Road Park (rocksandvalleys.com) where we met with the great bunch of guys that run the park. Also waiting for us was a pizza and long-haulers Greg Henderson from AEV in his '05 Rubicon Unlimited and James Couch in an '08 Wrangler X Unlimited. After scarfing down the free pizza we hit the trails.
Rocks and Valleys truly has something for everyone and every skill level. There's mud, climbs, tractor tires, and even rocks. Coming from California we see plenty of rocks so we were interested in all of the other offerings the park had. But the funny thing is no matter where we go everybody insists on showing us the local rock pile. The truth of the matter is we'll take hills and mud-filled staggered holes over a rock trail any day of the week.
We started out on the Adventure Trail and eventually wound up on Python near the end of the day. The Adventure Trail gives you a small taste of just about everything Rocks and Valleys has and can be done in mildly modified Jeeps. Lockers are recommended on Python. Sarge was only sporting a limited-slip differential in the rear, but that wasn't what stopped us. We turned the transfer case skidplate into a cultivator over nearly every hump on Python. Most of the time we could throttle the 2.8L diesel and bump over the tough spots, but we needed a few tugs to keep moving when we were high-centered.
We left Rocks and Valleys before dark and hit the back roads for Silver Lake Dunes where we set up camp at the State Park Campground across the lake from the dunes. From there we went into town to spin some laps in the go-carts next to the ice cream shop.
At Silver lake Dunes you need a whip on the front bumper so check the rules for height and flag type before you go. But not to worry if you don't have one or forget yours, there is a store that sells 'em cheap across the street from the dune area entrance.
The Silver Lake off-road dune area is about 450 acres. It's not huge but big enough for some fun sand action. Plus the scenery is awesome. There are some directional rules so pay attention to the posted signs in the dunes. Some areas are one-way only. Even a stock Jeep can be tons of fun here simply by airing the tires down into the low teens. As far as dunes go, Silver Lake is pretty safe. Climb and descend the sand dunes perpendicular to the ridge at the top to avoid rolling over. On the taller steeper dunes you have to throttle it just until you start to crest the top and then let off so you don't launch skyward.
We stopped down at the beach to check the water but Lake Michigan was still a little too cold for swimming, at least for Californicated magazine editors. Later in the day we headed back to town for some more wheel-to-wheel go-cart racing. There is a lot to do and plenty of places to eat near the Silver Lake dunes if you get bored of wheeling the white sands.
At night we headed up to Val-Du Lakes Bar and Grill. It looked like line-dance-with-the-old-folks-night but Nick had no problem making friends and joining in. Things picked up once it got past the octogenarians' bedtime. Apparently the place hosts live bands on Friday and Saturday nights. There are also pool tables, softball fields, volleyball courts, Keno, and free Wi-Fi! Check out valdulakesbarandgrille.com for an event schedule. The place has a lot of potential for fun with your buddies.
Once we were done with dinner we came out to find the oil filter and cooler line on Greg Henderson's Hemi-powered Wrangler had gotten chaffed and was leaking. It was the only Jeep we took to dinner so we started to push it back towards camp where the tools were. We actually rode on the outside of it since most of the way was downhill. On a short uphill section we got a quick tug from a passerby to a local shop that fixed it as best they could with the only hose they had on hand (fuel line).
Cole and James had pressing family and work matters to attend to so they ditched us here. We think they actually bailed out because they were afraid of getting whooped at our next stop. We hit the road for the East Lansing Kart Track (karttrack.com). Greg's oil line burst after only about 80 miles. The fuel line used for the repair couldn't really handle the temperature of the engine oil. So we left him on the side of the freeway to hit a local NAPA for some real 1/2-inch oil line.
We reached the kart track around lunch and hopped in the rental karts to put them through their paces. It's a lot of fun racing wheel-to-wheel with your buddies because all of the karts are very similar. Driver skill and picking the right lines makes all the difference.
The track was really close to Greg's home so he cut his trip short once we were done racing. The Cappa brothers headed south to Jackson, Michigan for the final wheeling day.
Originally we figured we'd stay at a campground that we had found online, but it turned out to be a rather interesting trailer park that didn't allow short term stays. It felt more like a cult camp where they might cook up and eat your big toe so we eventually found a hotel that didn't have any police chalk outlines on the floors.
While driving around looking for a hotel the night before we spotted a Tractor Supply store that we stopped at the next morning. If you've never been in one you have to check it out. The place has all kinds of cool hardware and trinkets. Nick rolled out with a couple cheap mufflers and some miscellaneous hardware that he needed for some projects at home. Next stop, Bundy Hill Off Road Park (bundyhilloffroad.com).
We hit the park late morning. Bundy Hill is a week-day working gravel pit with all kinds of different trails, mud pits, a dirt drag race track, and pea gravel climbs. One word of advice, it's best to stay out of the standing water unless you know for sure how deep it is. Many of the mud holes can easily sink a Jeep past the windshield. Heavy rains alter the trails frequently and make them more difficult so there is always something new at Bundy Hill. Most trails are doable in a stock Jeep and we'd actually prefer to have a low-slung rig here since there are a few side hills to contend with. It's relatively close to gas stations and restaurants so it's easy to get your hands on anything you need or may have forgotten.