Every year we await the end of winter with baited breath. Not because we yearn for the heat of the summer (we live in Phoenix, and no one yearns for summer here because it can hit 120 in the shade!). Rather, we yearn for one of our favorite Southwestern off-road events, Tierra Del Sol’s Desert Safari (sometimes called TDS for short). The event is the world’s oldest, continuously held off-road event put on by the aforementioned historic four-wheel-drive club. While it may not have the best rockcrawling, the biggest mud holes, or the world’s best off-road trails, TDS is still one of our favorites. Why? We get to hang out with friends and wheel one of the most unusual areas in the Southwest.
Nestled on the western shore of Southern California’s Salton Sea, in areas known as Ocotillo Wells and the Truckhaven Hills, Tierra Del Sol affords off-road action like no other. With eroding sandstone and mudstone hills, the mostly open off-road area (you can range where you want, except where fenced) is decidedly unique. Without much vegetation and slow but steady erosion, the dirt is like kitty litter and offers fun without the risk of too much body damage. The eroded spots between hills allow for suspensions to flex to their max, causing tires to lift and or rub.
Following along, either with friends or during the yearly organized trail run, pushes just about any 4x4 to its limits, whether it be a stock rig or a fully built crawler. Lockers, tire clearance, and flexy suspension rule the day.
We like to head to TDS early on Thursday in order to ensure maximum fun and adventure. From there the event just grows over Friday and Saturday, ending with an organized trail run before a raffle like no other. See what adventures we had and see what we saw along the way.
Friday is the day that most folks arrive at the event, but several of us got there on Thursday yearning for the dirt. We spent the first day cruising around looking at all the hot spots that would be packed with off-roaders and their rigs come Friday and Saturday afternoon. One area that is always hopping is the area around the Phone Booth Hill. Below and to the east of the phone booth is this gray sandstone hill, which lots of folks try to climb. Mike Marquez made short work of this technical climb despite an incorrectly wired (and nonfunctioning) front locker. The former four-banger YJ is a fresh build on its shakedown run with a recent 5.3L and 4L60E swap and a stout Rob Bonney Fabrication rollcage.
Our buddy Mike Tarvin has owned this apple-green 1975 CJ-5 for about 28 years and has put hundreds of thousands of miles on it. To say he knows it well would be an understatement. It’s powered by an AMC 304 bolted to an NP435 transmission ahead of a Dana 20 packed with TeraLow 3.15:1 gears. The rear axle, a Dana 44, has a Detroit Locker, while the front Dana 30 has a tight Powerlock limited slip. Despite the CJ-5–length hill, the CJ climbed and spluttered and Tarvin conquered the hill. He did, however, decide that the accelerator pump diaphragm in the Motorcraft 2100 carburetor was bad, hence more carburetor blubbering than expected.
Chris Willis has one of the cleanest 1984 CJ-8s we’ve seen in a while. It is set up with leaf springs, but don’t let that make you think it’s slow in the bumps. No expense has been spared on the suspension, including King Shocks, air bumps, long shackles, and multileaf Deaver springs set in a sprung-under arrangement. It all equals a CJ that’s more than ready for the bumps.
Possibly inspired by Mike Tarvin and his CJ-5, this guy in his Suzuki Samurai fought and fought one of the last climbs below the Phone Booth. Despite some amazing driving with several wheels in the air, the little Sami just couldn’t make it, but not for lack of trying. Thanks for the show, buddy!
After we explored the Truckhaven Hills (don’t you love that name?) to the north, we returned to the Ocotillo Wells training center as the sun set. Camp was hopping, with more attendees arriving every minute and lots of wheelers playing on the training center obstacles.
Back at camp we watched our buddy Tarvin rebuild his Motorcraft 2100 carburetor. This guy sure knows his Jeep. He suspected that the accelerator pump diaphragm was going bad, so after a quick trip to Mecca, California, for parts, and a campsite carburetor rebuild, the apple-green Jeep was back to normal.
With the carb back together, more adventures were afoot. Our pals Ian Lilieblad and Eric Filar rolled into camp in style per usual. Lilieblad’s nearly stock flattie had succumbed to use and time in the notches south and east of the training center, breaking at the upper kingpin mounting hole off the axle. To get the flattie back to camp, these guys used a heavy-duty ratchet strap to connect the front bumper of the flattie to the rear crossmember of Filar’s 1946 CJ-2A. The Willys centipede, as it was called, wouldn’t turn well but somehow got all the back to camp, where repairs could be contemplated before the Jeep could be loaded onto a trailer.
Saturday is the day when the Tierra Del Sol off-road club leads an official trail ride. Recognize that Kia? Yep, it’s our old Kimchi from the 2015 Cheap Truck Challenge (Jan. 2016; bit.ly/2J0kOHw). Our friend Rob Bonney is the current owner, and he seems to be driving it like he stole it. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Desert Safari official trail ride is a huge game of follow-the-leader that starts after staging on Holly Road and meanders south and west from the main vendor area. The club will lead you, and lend you a hand if trouble arises, but you can also go explore other lines off the marked run. This Samurai found a steep way down a hill. Nice driving, buddy! Get ready to floor it if the back end starts to feel light.
As the official trail ride wound down we bumped into Colin Christ of San Diego, California, and his full-width 1983 CJ-7. He recognized the Derange Rover and told us he was a longtime subscriber. We were flattered someone noticed all our hard work. Christ’s blue Jeep has a GM Dana 44 axle from a K10 swapped under the front. Out back the AMC-20 was dropped in favor of the donor Chevy’s 12-bolt.
After lunch we tooled around the area checking the popular spots along the way. One of the coolest trucks we saw was this 1965 4x4 crew cab Dodge. The truck is about a mile long and had a later-model Dodge Dana 60 front swapped under a 440ci V-8 and a TF727 from a motorhome. A stock car radiator was inexpensive and keeps the big-block Mopar engine cool.
1965 4x4 crew cab Dodge engine
As our last day at TDS 2019 wound down, we headed back to the Ocotillo Wells training center and shoved the Derange Rover into the “Little Sluice” in an attempt to entertain. We found out the hard way that turning on the electric lockers always helps with traction. Duh!
After rocking the Sluice we handed the keys of the Rovah to our pal Trent McGee, who wired the truck before the Ultimate Adventure last year but never got to drive it (my fault). Behind the wheel, he made short work of 1000 Dollar Hill, but despite the presumed windfall, he hasn’t paid us a vehicle rental fee yet. It was his birthday, so maybe we’ll let it slide.