Just two and a half hours northeast of Los Angeles is the town of Ridgecrest. It is surrounded by four mountain ranges and is within hours of both the lowest and highest points in the Lower 48. Ridgecrest is also home to the massive million-acre China Lake Naval Air Base. To add to Ridgecrest’s accolades, this little town in the desert is where we started this year’s Ultimate Adventure.
If you don’t know what the Ultimate Adventure is, then you must be new to Petersen’s 4-Wheel & Off-Road or to off-roading in general. Let us explain. The UA is a weeklong adventure road trip where a small band of attendees drive their wheeling rigs (no trailers) and explore a different part of the country every year. We wheel hard trails, camp out, and live out of our rigs. We devour fuel and junk food from many a gas station. We roll down the highways, byways, and backroads on our drives to find the best trails in that year’s locale, and we come home dirty with trucks scratched, scuffed, and stinky. And we love it. It’s basically off-road summer camp for grownups.
In years past, Rick Péwé led the group, but given his recent assignment to our sister magazine Jp it was time for a new sheriff in town. This year the honorable Christian Hazel, editor-in-chief of P4WOR, took the reins and drove the UA circus wagons like a champ. We kept the trip close to our California homes and ended up with a slightly smaller group than other years but still resulted in a trip that marked off many bucket list trails (and national parks) for attendees and saw some immense challenges for drivers and vehicles alike. We suffered heat that could debilitate and rocks that would annihilate and came out the other side with well-deserved undercarriage scars and sunburn. But we also saw grand vistas, crystal streams, and amazing waterfalls—and that was just on the road days!
The 2016 trip started in Ridgecrest at the end of June during a record heat spell. Despite participants driving from as far away as Iowa, Minnesota, Alabama, and even Florida, everyone made it to Ridgecrest on time and ready to wheel. Opening night of UA is filled with tech inspection for the appropriate safety and recovery gear, laughs with old friends, and welcomes to newbies. Of course it ends with late-night wrenching, as final preparations always occur in the parking lot of our starting hotel. Good thing too, as the group headed out early the next morning to Isham Canyon, in the nearby Panamint/Slate Range.
Day 1: Trail Day, Isham Canyon
Isham Canyon isn’t easy to find, nor is it easy to get through. We’d call it right on the cusp of being a rockbuggy trail, as it will push your full-bodied rig to the limits. To find Isham, head north out of Trona, California, and turn right at the Valley Sand and Gravel sign. This dirt road has a wash off to your left labeled P67, which leads up into the Slate Range where Isham is hidden.
The canyon seems mild as you enter, but around each bend is another body-smashing challenge. And the day we entered, it was a scorching 110 degrees—in the morning! The grouped progressed up the trail climbing obstacles and then stopping to root on others, chug water, find shade, and let engines cool.
Verne Simons started UA by flopping his recently completed Willys pickup on its side, an ominous start to the trip, but it only left a fender ding or two on the old iron. Isham is very similar in difficulty and composition to the nearby Hammer trails in Johnson Valley, and no one escaped the day without at least some body damage.
This photo epitomizes the UA: two guys in a truck laughing that they flopped, while their buddies grab recovery gear and fire extinguishers to help them get out of their predicament. We have fun even when everything goes sideways.
Returning reader Robert Keller was working his way up the canyon with ease in his big Chevy square-body flatbed truck when he decided to give some of our recovery gear sponsors the opportunity to lend a hand. Isn’t it nice of him to spool out his Warn Zeon winch and attach it to a Bubba rope around a massive boulder?
Cooper Rasmussen of Power Products Unlimited broke a front axleshaft climbing the last obstacle of the trail and was forced to winch. He wasn’t the only one who had to put their Warn winch to work on Isham though. Some participants were starting to wonder just how hard this Ultimate Adventure was going to be. The other casualty of the day was not Rasmussen’s axleshaft but rather his co-driver, Cameron Hotchkiss, who was overcome by heat exhaustion and required serious fluid replenishing at the local hospital after the temps climbed to (and probably past) 120 degrees, reminding all of us to “hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!”
Once the Willys was back on all fours, fluids topped off, and spills cleaned up, Simons idled up the trail and made short work of future obstacles. The rowdy 505-cube Chrysler big-block under the hood and good gearing was a perfect combo for the truck that was affectionately known as the logging truck because of its rustic look and dangling bumper chain.
Leading the group up Isham was Fred Williams in his returning Ultimate Summer Camp Jeep. Though it worked great in the rocks, he was quickly finding that high temps didn’t agree with the supercharged engine. It was quite a change from last year’s inaugural run of the Jeep when it rained every day on UA 2015.
UA 2016 brought back a bunch of 4x4s that hadn’t been on the trip in a while, including Clifton Slay’s TJ Unlimited. Slay has been on hiatus from four-wheeling but was back as tailgunner, and he has vital skills as an EMT to keep us all alive. Plus he knows a thing or two about wrenching and having fun on the trail.
You could say we threw our newbie readers into the fire by starting the trip with a rocky trail in 110-degree heat, and Ben Mahin wouldn’t deny it. He was learning fast that the UA isn’t a Sunday drive (even when we’re wheeling on Sunday) while working his WJ on 35s up Isham. SoCal rocks like to find weak parts, and Mahin’s steering wasn’t happy at the end of the day, but we all made it out in one piece.
Group leader Christian Hazel brought another returning truck in the shape of our big Super Dirty Ford F-250 from UA 2013. The big white Ford took a beating from the start, and Isham left more than a few marks on the back half. Maybe a flatbed will be in its future, but other than a flat tire and spun wheel stud in the front portal hub, the Ford wasn’t a bad ride for desert trails because the A/C still works and overheating isn’t an issue.
The tight squeezes of the rocky trail put the pucker factor to anyone worried about nice paint or straight body panels. Rich Conlon’s JK had just received a fair bit of upgrades prior the trip, and these allowed him to work his way through the rocks without leaving any yellow stripes on the boulders.
Our other new attending reader, Wayne Lambert, dove right into Isham like a fly to stink and proceeded to find himself hung up like a fly on honey, but his 427ci big-block–powered, granny-geared Chevy and Warn winch got him through mostly unscathed. The SoCal native may have been more accustomed than some to the heat, but these rocks were the biggest he had ever wheeled, and he took it all in stride.
Day 2: Dirty Road Day/Death Valley
The heat the next day was even worse. The group endured 128-degree temperatures in Panamint Valley and Saline Valley on our way through the living ghost town of Darwin. We were starting to think that more than a few of us would receive Darwin Awards as engines and transmissions kept dropping like flies due to the heat, leaving us stranded with no shade or refuge. Our first road day of UA 2016 was brutal.
The scenery of Death Valley was amazing, with crystal blue skies and rolling mountain ranges, but the lack of shade had vehicles struggling with triple-digit temps and climbing. Every stop was met with the sound of engines clicking off, coolers popping open, and hoods getting raised.
Some hoods were just removed and strapped on top to try and keep powertrains cool.
Traveling 20 rigs deep on a dry dirt road did have one benefit. The dust that coated the drivers and passengers in open-top vehicles acted like a fine layer of suntan lotion. But dirt also plugs air filters, making engines work even harder, so it’s better to just let the group spread out.
We arrived in Darwin and had some downtime waiting for the whole group to catch up. The adventurers quickly found shade. The small town is still inhabited, but the midday sun kept most of the locals holed up in their homes. It was either that or the locals were wary of the large number of dirty guys driving giant lifted 4x4s who had taken over their small town and claimed their minimal shade.
Once back on the road the adventurers were trying every conceivable way to stay cool, from water balloons and sprayer bottles to soaking-wet shirts and hats with flaps. Trucks that were designed for big power and cool climates were getting put to the test. Radiators earned their keep, and auto tranny owners were laughed at by their manual transmission driving friends.
The many deserted mining operations and buildings along the Death Valley route were cool to check out. It was amazing to realize that people had come here looking for prosperity. A place called Death Valley doesn’t seem like a good place to dig holes looking for gold, but many tried. In 1994, Death Valley was declared a national park.
Fortunately communications this year were better than ever with the addition of Rugged Radios on the Ultimate Adventure. Hazel was able to limp the group along while calling out to cronies to help the fallen. Hazel himself even dragged reader Ben Mahin with a Bubba Rope for miles behind the Super Dirty project truck after Mahin’s tranny decided it had had enough.
In fact, the big diesel Super Dirty didn’t skip a beat in the heat and led us all through the valley and into the night as we headed upwards in elevation toward camp.
Though it was a road day, and was mostly on graded gravel desert trails, we felt like we had survived something epic. It turned out Death Valley saw record temps that day (reports were a solid 128 degrees and up), and we were there to see it through dusty eyes. We had been wishing for shade from any passing cloud in the sky, and it was relief when the sun started to set and we came into Bishop, California, on our way to Oh Ridge campground at June Lake. We set up camp after dark and celebrated as the night grew cool and the coolers grew empty.
Day 3: Road Day, Yosemite National Park
The morning greeted groggy UA campers with a crisp start. We were still amazed at the heat of yesterday, but it soon faded when we realized we had snuck into an amazing mountain-encrusted lakeside campground under darkness the night before. We barely had to crawl from our tents, tentcots, hammocks, and rooftop mattresses to see snowcapped mountains.
The campers ate breakfast, packed up, and stuffed gear back into 4x4s before checking over their rigs for loose hardware and low fluids. The desert had taken its toll, but the reward was an epic tour of the Yosemite National park. We convoyed into the park amongst foreign tourists and families on summer vacation. Our circus show of wild wheelers on big rubber proved just as interesting to some as the heroic granite cliffs and ancient giant Sequoia trees.
Of course selfies abound at the great views for UA attendees who had traveled from across the country to see the wonders, such as this shot of the father and son Falken Tire team, Andrew and Drew Hoit. They were driving a perfect UA vehicle built out of a Jeep TJ Unlimited by Savvy Off Road. The LJ has plenty of power under the hood, yet the 5.3L stayed cool to drive and had enough room for two guys’ gear.
As usual we rolled in like Vikings, clogging up parking lots as we stretched from loud-riding 4x4s and made sandwiches and took photos. The year 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park System, and we were stoked to visit two as part of our adventure, but there were still miles to go. We were headed to the most famous trail in the world. Unfortunately we have to tell you about that in Part 2.
Clackamas, OR 97015