When the Jeep Wrangler JK arrived in 2007, no one could predict just how profound of an impact it would have on the off-road hobby. While the four-door Wrangler Unlimited was a bit controversial to Wrangler purists at first, with almost 10 years under its belt, it has proven to be the most capable four-door Jeep ever produced. One of the most exciting things to develop from the JK platform has been the explosion of events dedicated to the late-model Wrangler platform.
Events such as Nitto’s JK Experience Alaska 2016 presented by Discount Tire have redefined what many consider a conventional wheeling vacation. Originally started by EVO Manufacturing owner Mel Wade to showcase the on- and off-road versatility of the JK platform, JK Experience (commonly known as JKX) has grown into a premier yearly JK event. After spending the last seven years exploring the Lower 48, JKX headed to Alaska for 2016. We were excited to see how the trip across the last frontier would unfold, so we hopped a plane and joined the group at their starting point in Anchorage.
Here, we’ve put together some of the wheeling highlights from the weeklong adventure.
The first wheeling day of JKX would take the group to a rain-soaked and extremely slick Mt. Baldy trail just north of Anchorage. This trail is frequented by hikers and off-highway vehicles as it’s not only scenic but offers easy (relatively) access to a crash site of a B-52 bomber that went down during WWII.
As the rain frequency increased throughout the day, so did the difficulty of the trail. As the only person to participate in every JK Experience to date, Euless, Texas, native Randy Byers was no stranger to tough wheeling. This was actually Randy’s first time wheeling his green ’12 Unlimited on a JKX. Randy said he liked the comforts of this Jeep but missed the Hemi-powered engine in his silver ’07 Wrangler Unlimited on this particular hillclimb. Just about everyone got to use his or her winch on this day.
Many sponsors opt to bring a JK to wheel on the trip. While most plan pretty far ahead for an adventure as big as JKX Alaska, ARB got this ’16 Wrangler Unlimited built just two weeks before the start of the trip. Equipped with Old Man Emu’s new BP-51 bypass shocks, Ultimate Dana 60 axles, and 37-inch Nitto Trail Grapplers, ARB would have luck on its side as the company’s last-minute build made the trip (and drive back to Washington) without issue.
Muskeg was something few people on the trip had ever dealt with before. This tricky bog is fine to drive on—if you can tread carefully, you’ll remain on the surface crust. Once you break through, all bets are off. Canadian Chris Larsen was more familiar than most with the waterlogged dirt and used his 40-inch mud-terrains and skinny pedal to help make it through.
If you’ve ever seen the movie (or read the book) Into The Wild, this is the Teklanika River that keeps Christopher McCandless from making it back across to Stampede Road. When the river is low enough, you can actually get back to the Magic Bus that still holds the journal from the ill-fated adventurer’s travels.
There was more to the JK Experience than just wheeling from trail to trail. Along with historic and scenic stops, there were plenty of road miles to clock as well. The Alaska trip was the longest to date as the crew journeyed as far north as one can travel by vehicle to Prudhoe Bay. This was accomplished by traversing the Dalton Highway, which runs alongside the Trans-Alaska pipeline the entire way. By the end of the week, some 1,950 miles had been covered.
Most off-road racers start off as recreational wheelers. Two-time King of the Hammers champion and Ultra4 racer Loren Healy got into the JK scene about a year ago with this Off Road Evolution–built ’13 Wrangler Unlimited. While it’s much tamer than his Red Dragon racecar, it allows him to haul his entire family out to the trail, which is what this family man and die-hard wheeler is all about. Fun fact: From the Arctic Circle sign, you still have more than 300 miles until you reach Prudhoe Bay.
We spent a good portion of our week riding in KMC Wheels’ ’12 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. Equipped with a Dynatrac ProRock 60 front, ProRock 80 rear, and an EVO Manufacturing suspension, we were able to move through the trails with ease. KMC also used this time to put its new XD229 Machete Crawl beadlock through its paces.
There are glaciers galore throughout Alaska that you can literally drive up to. Later in the week, we traversed a narrow and rocky ridge to make it to the Castner glacier. In addition to the absolutely amazing scenery, we got a chance to see how Nitto’s all-new Ridge Grapplers performed. From everything we witnessed, the tires are outstanding, but we’re eager to give them a proper review ourselves. Look for that coming soon.
Nearly everywhere you turned, there was another picture-perfect moment to capture. While the wheeling we experienced varied in difficulty, the scenery was always amazing at every stop.
Our favorite wheeling spot of the week would be the Knik River Public Use Area. The mixed-use park has just more than 250,000 acres of land to enjoy. While water is the primary obstacle at the park, there’s an abundance of tight trails and wide-open spaces to fit every wheelers fancy. Dynatrac’s owner Jim McGean took the opportunity to give the company’s new ProRock XD60s a good workout.
We’re hoping by the time you read this that David Retzloff has his ’09 Jeep back in his possession. After having an absolutely stellar wheeling trip, his incredible journey would end on a sour note as on his way back to Oregon his JK was stolen outside of Cache Creek, British Columbia, Canada. The Jeep, along with his Ford Super Duty tow rig and trailer, were taken. If you know anything about the theft of these items, please shoot us (and the authorities) a note.
Quite a few JK participants learned that the JK’s electronics don’t mix well with water. Many in the group opted for snorkels, while a few took their chances. With water crossings on every trail we encountered, we’d say some waterproofing and intake relocating should be high on the upgrade list if you plan to visit the area.
Our final site of the week was the Knik glacier. With a 5-mile-wide face and a river of constantly melting ice below, the Knik glacier was a truly magnificent wonder of nature to behold. Given that it’s just some 50 miles from Anchorage, we encourage anyone who has the opportunity to visit the spot to do so.
Tip of the Iceberg
It’s nearly impossible to fit in all of the incredible sites and wheeling we took in over the course of a week. From dipping our feet in the freezing Arctic waters to seeing Denali Mountain, the JK Experience was truly that, an experience. To find out more about JKX, and learn how you can be part of the next Experience, visit jk-experience.com