In this age of very jaded consumers, only rarely does a product actually exceed the expectations that are created by the advertising campaign that accompanies it. The same is often true in the world of four-wheeling routes. Individuals with widely varying skill levels and equipment regularly make claims about extreme challenges, world-class trails, and even the hardest one yet. The experiences that create these comparisons are as varied as the individuals, further clouding the clarity and the anticipation with which new trails are received. With the proliferation of closure signs, the desire for better trails has placed even more focus on the very few new trails that have been opened to the public and serve to create even more pressure to deliver the goods in terms of a high-quality recreational experience.
On the flip side, the flow of information concerning new challenges has never been faster or easier because of pervasive media and the World Wide Web. Not only is information dis-seminated quickly and completely to interested individuals, it is often accompanied by enough photos so that any false advertising is quickly revealed.
It is against this backdrop of hype and information that the Independence Trail system near Penrose, Colorado, was unveiled to the public in mid-1999. In addition to watching the creation of the trail system with much interest (and letter-writing support), we had checked out all the available Internet adventures posted by people who had run the trail. The typical quote was somewhere between ecstatic and awestruck. Not everyone had a good time, but all agreed that the trails were every bit as difficult as advertised. With each passing account, our desire to experience Independence firsthand increased. After several aborted attempts because of scheduling conflicts and fickle weather, we finally had the opportunity to run this new trail system a year after it opened. If you like extreme rockcrawling challenges, the Independence Trail system delivers on all the hype - and then some.
A short history lesson is in order here. The Independence Trail system has its roots in the closure of another fine Colorado trail. The Rattler Trail near Howard, Colorado (see "Bitten by the Rattler," Mar. '98, 4WD&SU), was closed because of resource concerns. Challenge-minded four-wheelers in Colorado's Front Range area were encouraged to work aggressively with land management agencies to identify a suitable replacement. Scott Riebel, current president of the Colorado Association of 4 Wheel Drive Clubs (CA4WDC), took the loss of the Rattler in a particularly personal way because it had been his personal favorite. Scott was absolutely determined to find a trail worthy of filling the void left by the Rattler closure. Working with the BLM, Scott was urged to take a look at a designated OHV area near Penrose to determine if it was viable. Scott went out to examine the area and came back with this to say:
"I came upon a canyon just a little too quickly. When the dust and my heart had finally settled, I was confronted by what was potentially the greatest four-wheeling that I had ever seen. Boulders larger than my Jeep - countless numbers of them!"
Scott had found his replacement. Then the real work started. With a small group of dedicated individuals, including Jerry and Julie Panek from nearby Predator Four Wheel Drive and Bill and Krista Dixon, Scott set out to make this potential four-wheeling paradise a vehicle-consuming reality.
Creating a designated area suitable for hard-core challenges from a BLM suggestion is a two-pronged task. First and foremost is the challenge of shepherding the necessary paperwork through the not-always-customer friendly federal paperwork maze. Although the Penrose area was identified as an OHV area in the current management plan, an environmental assessment was necessary to designate exactly which routes were to be developed and under what parameters that development would take place.
The second, and much sweatier effort, was the actual physical labor needed to turn a vision of a trail into something a vehicle could actually drive. (OK, drive is a relative word when used to describe locomotion up a hard-core trail.) The creators also built and installed more than two dozen winching points, all carefully anchored in solid rock and painted bright orange for visibility. The whole trail system was outfitted with numerous signs crafted from 1/4-inch steel plate. When the whole effort was complete, approximately 1-1/2 miles of new trail system had been created in the confines of the area's rocky canyons.
We will say this: The creators of this trail system were true rock crazies and absolute visionaries. These tight, boulder-infested canyons and crevasses are the type of routes that normal people see and say, "No way!"
The trail system currently consists of four trail segments. Since the first trail work was completed on the 4th of July, the system took a rather patriotic theme in its naming. The four segments are known as Independence, Freedom, Patriot, and Liberty. With an excellent group of vehicles and cooperative weather (and some serious good fortune), we were lucky enough to run all four of the currently available segments in one long, glorious day.
Our group of 10 vehicles included several of the key contributors to the creation of the trail, with Jerry and Julie serving as our trail guides. We dropped (and we do mean dropped) off the trail head at the top of the mesa and immediately started the steep descent to the canyon below in a rock-strewn side drainage. So far, so good. Rocks - a lot of them - in, on, and around the trail. Maneuvering was slow and careful because there was little room between the boulders on the side of the trail and the vehicles slithering through. We soon passed the Freedom Trail leading back to the top of the mesa. The Freedom Trail is meant to provide a safety valve to let individuals rethink their commitment to probable vehicle damage and get out before encountering the really serious stuff. The Freedom Trail itself is not your typical escape route or bypass; it has several winch anchors that are sometimes necessary to get back up its steep and ledge-ridden track.
The trail below the Freedom turnoff is not for the faint of heart or paint conscious. It drops into the canyon bottom more than three immense ledges. The second of these ledges has a prominent rock situated next to it, and the angle of the drop guarantees that anything except the exactly correct departure line will leave at least a quarter panel planted firmly against the rock. Each unfortunate vehicle leaves its legacy here. Further challenge is added by having to turn sharply to the right while descending this off-camber spot to avoid the rock just downstream. Forget that little detail, and you will find yourself firmly wedged between the rock in front and the ledge behind and no way to move in either direction. The only extraction method available in this predicament is to winch sideways until the frontend clears the rock. Once through this delicate operation, you still have to drop off the last and the largest of the three abysses. If you drive a Scrambler, prepare yourself mentally because you are going to feel this one. Tire placement is, again, critical to keep from rolling left or right off of the jumbled pile of boulders that constitutes the final ramp leading to the canyon bottom.
Once there, it is time to relax a bit. The next 100 yards is merely rockcrawling. You will soon encounter a sign and a choice. To the right is the infamous Patriot route; to the left, the almost equally taxing Liberty trail. It is a good thing that the sign in the canyon bottom points out the Patriot choice because it would be very easy to drive right past this narrow memorial to rock mayhem. It does not even look like a trail. The Liberty route to the left was purported to be not as drastic but much longer. We steered right toward Patriot because we had invited our trail leaders to give us their best. The route along Patriot is only a couple of hundred yards but it has taken groups as long as two days to get to the top of the canyon. We hoped it wouldn't take quite that long.
We didn't bother to ask the names of all the obstacles in Patriot because it is a moot point. Suffice it to say that the whole canyon is an obstacle. Two points stand out. The first is a little exercise in articulation that the locals call the Air Hole. Hit the canyon's rock face correctly and you will create a tremendous air photo opportunity as your front right tire climbs wildly in the air. Hit it wrong, and you could very well lose an axle, your tie rod, or the paint on the entire side of your vehicle. The second true attention-getter is the final series of ledges at the top of the canyon known as Heckle Hill. Not only are the ledges steep and polished smooth from the continuing burnishing of the tires, but the exposure at the top is such that a bad attempt could result in a nasty roll down the slope. And yes, the spot is easily accessible to the public so that a cheering gallery is usually in place when you ascend.
We had all 10 vehicles back up on the mesa top (and only a few via winch cable) by 1 p.m. There was way too much quality daylight left to merely head back to camp. The lure of the Liberty trail called to us from the nearby canyon. We lost two vehicles to the need for an early end of the day, but the rest of us dropped down the Freedom trail back into the canyon. The only real intimidation the whole day had been felt on the three big ledges dropping into the canyon, and since they were between us and Liberty, we were getting ready to roll the dice on them again.
Suffice it to say that the second trip down the ledges was just as difficult, just as metal threatening, and just as noisy. Soon we were back in the canyon bottom and heading toward the Patriot and Liberty junction. This time, we made a left at the sign and headed up the Liberty trail.
Liberty is somewhat less intimidating than Patriot, but after running both, we're not sure it is any easier. The trail is much, much longer at more than a mile, and the rocks are frequent and menacing. In many respects, Liberty is the more technical of the two trails with a lot of tight, off-camber maneuvering required to pass through unscathed. It also has its obstacles, with several steep and harrowing climbs up and through narrow defiles.
It was deepening dusk by the time we reached the end of the trail and climbed back onto the mesa top. It was a short drive back to the campsite and we were tired. Running all of the available routes in the Independence Trail system in a single day had sapped our energy, but it left all rock-aholics satiated. The cost for 10 vehicles: two transfer cases; a broken steering arm; a tire; an engine mount; a couple of taillights; and miscellaneous rock rash.
The Independence Trail system is an absolute must-do if you seek rocky canyon crawls over seriously challenging terrain. The individuals who worked so hard and long to see this trail system created, as well as the club that is working hard to ensure it stays open, deserve our thanks. If you are looking to severely challenge your driving skills and the strength of your vehicle, your expectations will be exceeded.
How To Get ThereThe Independence Trail system is relatively easy to get to, but we found some mighty contradictory directions provided by various sources. Here is the straight scoop:
Penrose is located about 25 miles west of Pueblo, Colorado, on Highway 50. Take the Highway 115 exit off of 50 and head north through town. On the north side of town, the highway takes a pronounced bend. At the bend, take a left onto 3rd Street (this is also clearly marked as the route to Brush Hollow Reservoir). Turn north on E Street and follow the road north about 3 miles. You will drop down through a small valley and climb the other side where a cattle guard marks the beginning of BLM-managed land. Take the first left after this cattle guard and you cannot miss the large steel sign marking the staging area.
The trailhead is located at 38 29' 38.8"N, 105 01' 55.0"W, or 13S 0497214 Northing 4260639 Westing for those of you who prefer UTM.
Remember that this trail and all others require good stewardship of the land. Treat the trail with respect and don't leave anything behind.