The annual Chile Challenge put on by the Las Cruces 4-Wheel Drive Club (LC4WDC) never fails to disappoint, and this year the trails were spicier than ever. Starting in Caballo, New Mexico, where the event has been based for three years now, we tagged along on some trails we had never seen before and quickly found out just how challenging these trails can be. Big canyons combined with big rocks provided plenty of kick to keep things interesting.
Every morning groups staged for their registered trails at the Caballo Riverside Campground. Staggered start times meant less traffic on the access roads and the trails themselves. Typical group size was 10-20 vehicles, including the trail leader.
First up was Crystal Canyon, one of the closer trails to the host campground. Crystal is hard right from the start, with large boulders in the deep canyon leading up to a waterfall climb. It didn’t take long before the first carnage struck, and it would not be the last. A JK front axleshaft didn’t want anything to do with Crystal Canyon, so it was pulled and the Jeep driven back to camp. Before the group could get moving again, a driveshaft failed after it landed on a large rock at the base of the climb. Rather than retreat, the driveline was repaired and the group continued up the canyon.
At the top of the falls, an off-camber rock slab and V-notch came next. The group wasn’t out of the woods yet (or in this case, the canyon). A Jeep LJ lost a tire bead. A ratchet strap and onboard air had it back to trail pressure in no time. The canyon gradually became easier as it wound towards the dirt access road at the top.
LC4WDC rates the trails on a scame from 1 to 12. Crystal is rated 9+, a good warmup trail to begin the event and to test whether you are ready for the really extreme trails. Yes, this wasn’t even the hardest of the Chile Challenge! Don’t fear though. If you don’t have a tube buggy and sticky tires, there are trails for everyone at the Chile Challenge regardless of wheeling experience and vehicle prowess. Plus, the desert landscape is awe-inspiring.
Andy Townes’ Jeep Rubicon TJ dislodged a large boulder at the base of Crystal Falls as he was lining up for the climb. The TJ’s body armor prevented this obstacle from becoming the body shop. He let his Goodyear MTR tires mounted on Spyderlock beadlock wheels pull him up and over the rock.
The next day we joined a large group on Brandon’s Challenge, rated 10. It follows a boulder-filled canyon bottom to the exit, which is a ledge climb with several line choices. It seemed the challenge wasn’t the trail itself today but rather addressing the carnage that would ensue. Right away a brake caliper ripped from its mount. Then came a series of broken steering links, steering ram mounts, and suspension links. Fortunately, the trail was short and sweet, and everything was repaired just in time for lunch at the end of the trail. Spare parts, onboard welders, and a willingness to help each other kept this from turning into a night run. Some returned to camp, while others tackled nearby trails.
Tucker Cottam borrowed the keys to Jason Grisham’s Jeep MJ and tackled the falls on Crystal Canyon with ease. It is equipped with an Atlas transfer case splitting power from the stock six-cylinder engine to a front Dana 44 with RCV axles and a rear Dana 60.
Short Cut & Burnt Out
Our final day of wheeling was spent on Short Cut and Burnt Out, arguably the two toughest trails offered at on the Chile Challenge. Short Cut is rated 11, while Burnt Out is not officially rated and is run at the trail leader’s discretion. The trail starts in a small sandy wash like many of the others and quickly turns into a narrow rock-lined canyon. Pick the wrong line and you find yourself on your side looking at the sky. Our group had a trouble-free run up Short Cut compared to previous days. The carnage list included a broken driveshaft yoke, a pinched brake line, and a cut tire sidewall.
After Short Cut, another trail awaits to test even the most capable of vehicles. Burnt Out is a brief trail that ends at a large wall with a burned-up carcass of a Chevy truck at the bottom. Several in our group made the climb while others scattered axle parts, showing that it is a wise choice to run at the end of the Chile Challenge rather than at the beginning—otherwise you might be spectating for much of the event.
We saw everything from broken suspensions to brake failures, but don’t let the carnage fool you into thinking this event is hard on your equipment. The trail comradery from strangers made quick work of getting rigs repaired and back on the trails each and every day. Come prepared to handle the spice, and you will be rewarded with some of the best rockcrawling in New Mexico.
Grisham works his way up the off-camber rock slab after Crystal Falls. His TJ is built to tackle the tough trails, with a Vortec 5.3L engine, a STaK T-case, and 1-ton axles. He came down from northern New Mexico with a group of friends to take part in the event this year.
Matt Olsen from New Braunfels, Texas, brought his stretched 2000 TJ to the event after reading about it right here in these very pages. His Jeep worked well in the rocky canyons thanks to the four-link suspension and Fox air shocks on all four corners. The 40-inch Maxxis Creepy Crawler tires were backed up with a front Dana 60 and rear Dana 70 axle.
Campsites were busy every night with socializing and vehicle repairs. In this particular camp, repairs were underway on flat tires, broken leaf springs, and broken link mounts. A potluck dinner was held the first night, while the last night of the event was the raffle. Vendors put their products on display in the group pavilion.
Welders were in high demand. Flashes of light could be seen lighting up the surrounding trees from several different camps. This repair of a transmission crossmember and link mount was being finished using a homemade battery-powered flux-core trail welder.
Tom and Marlyn Barclay brought out their tube buggies from Colorado to tackle Brandon’s Challenge. The boulder-filled canyon worked their four-link suspensions with coilovers nonstop as the 39-inch BFGoodrich Krawlers provided the grip.
Lenna Drummond was finding and taking the hardest lines possible in her 1972 International Scout. Equipped with one-ton axles, sticky BFGoodrich Krawler tires, and full hydraulic steering, this is one capable Scout.
Trail repairs were common on Brandon’s Challenge. The steering ram mount broke away from the axle, which also tore out one of the steering joints. A cordless grinder and a battery-powered stick welder fixed the departed tubes, while another trail welder was used just ahead to repair a broken lower link on yet another vehicle. The repairs worked to allow the vehicles to finish the trail and get back to the trailer.
There isn’t much left of Dustin Hoefel’s 1986 Toyota truck besides the cab and part of the frame. It started life as a two-wheel-drive truck and has morphed into a serious rockcrawler. Linked 1-ton axles, dual T-cases, and a 22R engine that runs on propane work in conjunction to turn the 42-inch Interco Iroks.
Synergy Manufacturing was a sponsor of the event, and we found the Synergy Jeep JK flexing its way through Green Canyon. It is equipped with a Synergy 4 1/2-inch short-arm kit, Currie 44 axles, and 37-inch Nitto Trail Grapplers. Green Canyon is the access point for many of the other trails in the area but also offers several challenges of its own. It is rated 8 for the toughest section, where the canyon becomes narrow.
Brian Calhoun is no stranger to rocky canyons. For the past several years he has raced King of the Hammers in his Toyota truck, which is equipped with Diamond Axles and dual T-cases. The low gearing turns 37-inch Pro Comp Xtreme MT2 tires on steel beadlocks. Here at the exit of Short Cut is a great photo-op, especially for leaf sprung vehicles.
Coyote Sparrow lined up his 1985 Toyota 4Runner to make the climb on Burnt Out. Wheel speed and commitment seemed to be the best way to make it to the top. Only a few in our group made the climb. Others winched or broke trying.