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The Nache Wagon Trail

Front Passenger Side View Car On Mission
Mark Nobles | Writer
Posted March 1, 2005

Exploring One of the Early Pioneer Trails

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.


View Photo Gallery
  • Scott Frary lead the pack through a dark, misty section of the Naches.

  • The snow pack through this part of the Cascades is deep and cold, so the trail is closed through the heart of winter.

  • An early-morning rendezvous in the misty cold was just the thing to get the group going.

  • This deceptively mild rig belongs to Dan Bowie. The '74 CJ-5 has an AMC 360 rumbling beneath the hood and runs 35-inch M/TRs on Trail Ready bead locks. The spring-over suspension provides good ground clearance, while the spool in the 44 rearend keeps the tires churning at all times.

  • Kevin Kehrberg and his wife Julie pushed their '80 CJ-5 pretty hard all day long. The mods are many, but the short list includes an AMC 360 with a Howell EFI kit, a clocked Dana 300 with the Tera 4:1 kit, 37-inch M/TRs on American Racing wheels, a Dana 44 front and 60 rear, and KMK Ultimate fenders.

  • Bill Sienkiewicz kept his '84 Scrambler in the thick of things all day. It's equipped with a Vortec 350, a 4L60E transmission, and an Atlas. Not content with anything small, he swapped in a Dana 60 up front and a 14-bolt in the rear, and then bolted on a 12,000-pound Warn winch. The 37-inch boggers made short work of the mud and rocks on the trail.

  • After 12 years, Duane Klusman has put his '77 CJ-5 through its paces. Sporting an AMC 360 and a T-18 tranny with a 6.32 First gear, this rig has plenty of grunt. The 35-inch Mud-Terrains have been hand-siped and bolted to the front and rear 44s. With ARBs fore and aft, this little rig just keeps on going.

  • Although this photo doesn't do it justice, Dan Brossman's '00 TJ has undergone some nice modifications. The 4.0L H.O. now backs onto a 700R4 tranny and a 3.8 Atlas. Both axles were swapped out for Currie high-pinion 9-inchers, both with ARBs. Accessories include a Warn HS9500 winch, onboard air, and Tom Wood driveshafts.

  • Scott Frary has poured countless hours into his '88 YJ, and it shows. He's only owned it for a year and a half and already he's swapped in a Dana 44 front and a ProRock 60 rear, both with Detroits. The drivetrain now consists of a Chevy TBI 350, a 700R4 with a Novak conversion kit, and a Dana 300 with a Currie twin-stick shifter. The 37-inch BFG Krawlers are mounted on Walker Evans bead locks. The accessory list includes MasterCraft seats, Poison Spyder rocker knockers, a Warn 9500ti winch, and a M.O.R.E. front bumper.

  • You hate to catch a man when he's down, but Jeff James did such a slow-motion rollover here that we couldn't help but include it. His '80 CJ-5 is equipped with 44s front and rear, both equipped with Detroits. He also runs 33-inch M/TRs mounted on Eagle alloy wheels. The Poison Spyder corners keep the rig safe in such incidents as these, and the Recaro seats kept him comfortable until he was rolled back over.

  • Tom Eads had the pleasure of hauling around Kyle Branchick (of Klune-V) on this trail ride. Tom's '98 TJ is outfitted with a 3.8 Atlas, 35-inch M/TRs, Trail Ready bead locks, and a suspension comprised of both Teraflex and Rubicon Express parts. He runs a Tera 60 in the rear with a Detroit and a high-pinion Dana 44 up front with an ARB.

  • While the dappled sunlight gives the appearance of a warm summer afternoon, it was actually a chilly Washington afternoon -- perfect for four-wheeling the Cascades.