The Naches Wagon Trail was first crossed by settlers in covered wagons in 1853. Ultimately, only a few wagon trains ever made the difficult ascent to the 4,800-foot peak of Naches Pass because the terrain was difficult and easier routes through the Cascades were discovered soon after. The original route was so difficult, in fact, that along the western edge of the route, settlers were forced to lower their wagons down the mountainside using rawhide ropes. The first crossing by 4x4 vehicles occurred in 1953, when a group of enthusiasts in surplus flatfenders made a commemorative run on the famous route. It has been a favorite of Pacific Northwest 'wheelers ever since.
We recently joined the El Dorado Dust Devils as they left on their annual pilgrimage to run the Naches Trail on the last day of the year that it is open to off-road vehicles. The trail itself is part of a much larger skein of trails that intercross this section of the Cascade mountain range. So, if you happen to make it through the Naches early and relatively unscathed, there is still a great deal to see and explore.
While most four-wheelers would have hoped for warm, sunny weather, the perverse delight of these Northwesterners lies in thick, slippery mud, which requires lots of rain. as we set out that morning, with our eyes on the looming clouds, we all felt certain that the weather would accommodate our wish for lots of slick, mucky fun.
The entrance to the Naches is intimidating and easy to overlook. In fact, the first time around, it would be easy to mistake the trailhead for an eroded water channel. It is narrow, dark, and very steep. And if it's wet, you had better have big mud-terrains, lockers, and a heavy foot. That's where four-wheelers from other states always go wrong. They are accustomed to the type of four-wheeling that requires a light touch where power is concerned. They rely on traction and the crawling ability of their rigs to get them down a trail. Not so here. In the Cascades, you need to know when to get on the gas and when to back off just enough to let momentum carry you through an obstacle. Otherwise, you'll be in for a long day.
So, with those big muds bolted on, the hubs locked, the locking differentials engaged, and our heavy feet hovering over the gas pedals, we entered the Naches. The engines roared and the mud flew as we clawed our way up the trail. Here, you cannot stop; you cannot slow down. You have to stay in it if you want to make it to the top. Riding in Scott Frary's YJ, we had the advantage of having both a good rig and a good driver to introduce us to this trail. While we thought it was great fun, everyone else bemoaned the fact that it just wasn't slippery enough. Throughout the day, other drivers could be heard saying, "Last year, that took a couple of hours."
Working our way through the rest of the trail was an exercise in steering reflex. The trail was muddy, deeply rutted in areas, and wound constantly through tall, thick trees. It was not uncommon to be off-camber by as much as 25 degrees or so, and some of the larger trees bore the scars to show just how tight the maneuvering was.
As we reached the higher elevations, there were hopes of snow drifts that we could go play in, but again the weather did not cooperate. There was little snow, the mud was thick but not too slippery, and by noon, the sun was starting to come out. Well, you can't have everything.
By early afternoon, we'd finished the Naches Trail proper and began playing around on the nearby trail system. After mud and tight corners all morning, it was interesting to find what amounted to a big, rocky playground just a few miles away. This provided a couple of hours of clean fun for practicing our rockcrawling, testing our articulation, and seeing just how much traction our tires still had left.
As part of their annual pilgrimage, the club members don't start making their way back to civilization until well after dark. This way, they get to four-wheel all day, then wrap up the trip with a night run. Naturally, we didn't have any breakdowns until it was good and dark out, and then one of the members' rigs had his T-case blow out. That's not too bad as these things go, but it required that we throw a strap on him and tow him back to the trailhead.
All in all, it was a good day's 'wheeling. The scenery was spectacular, the trails were challenging, the vehicles were all well-built, and it was a part of the country that makes special demands of those who would explore it.