Many readers will recall that last year’s Ultimate Adventure was one of the hottest on record, with temperatures hitting 128 degrees as we passed through Death Valley. Not to be outdone, we began the 2017 Ultimate Adventure in Phoenix. In the middle of June. The day after it was so hot that the Phoenix airport canceled all flights for any aircraft smaller than a commercial jetliner. Yeah, that hot. Temperatures hovered around 123 degrees as readers, cronies, and sponsors converged in the Valley of the Sun. “I went to pull my tube car off the trailer and it was already at operating temperature!” Sam Gillis joked. Oops, we did it again.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Ultimate Adventure, think of it as 4x4 summer camp. For the past 18 years, Petersen’s 4-Wheel & Off-Road has gathered with friends, sponsors, and readers for a week of wheeling. Each year we visit a new location, but the route is unknown ahead of time to all but the trip leader. Participants in the trip have to be capable of wheeling hardcore trails, driving for hundreds of miles at freeway speeds, living out of their vehicles, and fixing anything that breaks. Oh, and there are no trailers or tow rigs allowed. So make that “4x4 summer camp for badasses.”
Former 4WOR staffer and longtime UA participant Trent McGee (one of only two people to attend every UA) was tasked by Editor Christian Hazel to organize the trip for 2017, showing us the best of his home state of Arizona. We started with a trip to Table Mesa Recreation Area, a popular rockcrawling area north of Phoenix comprised of BLM, state land trust, and private property. The 11,557-acre recreation area is in McGee’s backyard and is home to a plethora of legit rockcrawling trails including Die Hard, Anaconda, Terminator, and Predator. We shifted into low range on Predator before heading up to the Indian Fort and finally tackling Terminator.
It has become standard over the years to start the Ultimate Adventure with some difficult rockcrawling to shake down the vehicles while we are still within cell service and give the noobs on the trip a taste of what to expect. We have had folks opt out on Day 1 in the past, but this year everyone took to the rocks like a duck to water.
After conquering Table Mesa we returned to Phoenix to rehydrate, fix broken rigs, and get our last shower for the new few days. The following morning McGee led us out of the Salt River Valley up into the Bradshaw Mountains. Our destination was Crown King, which is not only a quaint old mining town (population 133) but is also 4,000 feet higher in elevation than the valley floor, which provided pine trees and much cooler temperatures. Getting there, though, was the fun part. While rockcrawling on Day 1 is an established part of the formula, miles and miles of dirt roads are not. Typically, the Ultimate Adventure has alternated wheeling days with road days to connect wheeling locations. Arizona is full of wide-open spaces and dirt roads, though, and McGee intended to show us all of them.
The group camped near Crown King before turning north, rising and falling through peak and valley on our way past the Desoto Mine and the town of Spring Valley to refuel before taking Bloody Basin Road into the Agua Fria National Monument. McGee planned out a route over 100 miles of dirt along the Great Western Trail and through Copper Canyon, hidden below the roar of Interstate 17. After airing up the tires the adventure wasn’t over, and cooling systems were put to the test on the Beeline Highway where the road gained over 2,000 feet in elevation on the way to Payson, Arizona for the night.
Morning on Day 4 came early for those who were experiencing mechanical issues or chose to nut-and-bolt their vehicle after three days of rough roads. After the daily drivers’ meeting, the group headed to nearby Tonto Natural Bridge State Park to visit the world’s largest natural travertine bridge and cool off in the limestone pools. All of this seemed too good to be true, but we were just getting started.
Check-in took place on the first day, with participants arriving from all four corners of the country. Sam Gillis was in charge of inspecting each vehicle for necessary items including rollcages, fire extinguishers, and first aid kits. With the formalities out of the way, everyone socialized over pizza.
Surprise! Former longtime 4WOR editor and UA organizer Rick Péwé was back at the Ultimate Adventure this year as our newest crony. Péwé served as tail gunner in the double-ended JK built for the 2012 trip. He enjoyed the opportunity to relax on the UA for a change.
Day 1: Table Mesa
The event started with a trip to Table Mesa, where we ran the Predator Trail. Here Trent McGee spots Keith Bailey’s CJ-7 through a tight squeeze. The Rugged Radios handheld units were a godsend for spotting and relaying information through the group of 20 rigs.
Christian Hazel’s Cummins R2.8 Turbo Diesel–powered UACJ-6D didn’t move under its own power until check-in day, so we anticipated some new car blues. The Jeep worked surprisingly well, though, a testament to Verne Simons’ mechanical prowess. The only issue was a loose hydraulic ram clamp moving on the tie rod, which Chris Durham resolved with a couple of quick tack welds.
Last year Dave Chappelle brought his Toyota Hilux, but this year he drove his Isuzu Amigo with Steve Bechard from Rugged Radios. The Amigo is linked with coilovers in the front and airbags in the back, suspending Dana 60 axles.
Cooper Rasmussen makes big look good. This year Diesel Power Products built a regular-cab Ram 2500 with a shortbed conversion and 42-inch tires. Dubbed Howitzer, the Cummins-powered Ram was easily the largest, heaviest vehicle on the trip. That didn’t stop Rasmussen from doing all of the hard lines, though.
If you are a fan of the show Dirt Every Day, you likely recognize Tube Sock, Fred Williams’ TJ Wrangler. This is the Cummins R2.8 Turbo Diesel–powered Jeep that Williams famously drove underwater. After changing the fluids and reinstalling the interior and rollcage, he was ready for the Ultimate Adventure.
For the past few years, Keith Bailey has brought his Bruiser tube buggy on the UA. This year he dusted off the ol’ CJ-7 to represent Magellan on the trip. The 38-inch Falken Wildpeak M/Ts fit thanks to a spring-over front suspension and four-link rear with air shocks.
Mark Turner of VooDoo Offroad is the mad scientist who put a bright green FC on Mattracks and built a supercharged Power Wagon with a copper bed. His latest creation is this CJ-10 on a JK chassis with retro Honcho graphics. It was arguably the coolest rig on a trip that was full of amazing vehicles.
Invited reader Nick LeBlanc came all the way from Florida. The AC compressor on his Cherokee locked up on the first morning, but LeBlanc and his co-driver, AJ Posikan, had a new one installed in under an hour. Unfortunately their radiator split in the 123-degree heat later the same day, sending them back to the parts store.
Sam Gillis brought one of the only tube buggies on this year’s UA. Having a purpose-built vehicle allowed him to conquer more difficult obstacles at the expense of storage space and comfort on the road.
Dana is a new sponsor for UA this year under the Official Crate Axle category, and its Ultimate Dana 60 crate axles could be found under Hazel’s UACJ-6D, Péwé’s orange double-ended “JKJ,” and Dana’s wicked 525hp LS-3–powered JK. Randall Speir and Jon Mobily wheeled the Jeep to a degree bordering on violence, and the only time they had to touch the axles all week was to lock the hubs.
This was the first time an H3 had been on the Ultimate Adventure, but Chris Paul didn’t have any problem keeping up with the rest of the rigs. He built the flexy link suspension himself with ZJ coils to match the lift height of the rear spring-over. A smog-legal LS swap made sure he had no problem keeping pace on the few road portions of the trip.
Offroad Designs’ Stephen and James Watson were back again this year in their well-sorted square-body Chevy. The Watsons do a ton of wheeling, and it shows in all of the little details they added to the truck over the years to make it as comfortable as it is capable.
This is the namesake obstacle of the Terminator Trail, and only about half of the group made it up unassisted. Damon Haas was one of the lucky ones in his Ford-powered International Scout.
The dynamic duo of Chris Durham and Fred Perry was back this year representing Warn. Thanks to Perry’s spotting, Durham didn’t need to use the VR8000 on the front of his four-door JK when climbing Terminator. Yes, we said JK. Durham developed the Gladiator front-end conversion to stand out from the crowd.
Day 2: Crown King
Each day starts with a drivers’ meeting to discuss the plan for the day. Rather than everyone waiting for one vehicle that is in need of repair, a crony is paired up with the injured vehicle and told to catch up with the group after the repairs are made. The addition of Magellan eXplorist TRX7 GPS this year made it much easier for the group to converge since the route was preloaded on each ruggedized tablet.
The back road to Crown King is long and dusty, but it allowed us to leave behind the giant saguaro cactus in favor of ponderosa pines. The trail winds upward, eventually reaching elevations of roughly 5,000 feet and offering a few pretty good, entertaining obstacles along the way.
Wayne Lambert was our returning reader for 2017, and he learned a lot on the 2016 trip. For instance, rather than push your luck, sometimes it is better to just get a tug from your Warn winch or VoodDoo Offroad recovery strap. Lambert’s big-block–powered, NV4500 five-speed Chevy on 1-tons handled the trip like a champ for the second year in a row.
Even though he was representing Warn on UA, Chris Durham will always be a crony at heart. It is no coincidence that he is in all of our repair photos since he was the first one to volunteer to help fix anything that broke. In this case, it was the steering box on the Dana JK. Durham used the tailgate of the UACJ-6D as a workbench to reassemble the box.
It doesn’t get much better than this. In addition to radio communications, Rugged Radios provided each participant with a collapsible chair for the trip. The chairs came in handy when camping at Crown King, where the credibility of the stories declined as the beer consumption increased.
Day 3: Payson
Dan Strubbe runs a ZF five-speed manual transmission and ORD Doubler, so he had plenty of gearing options to go up and down through the Bradshaw Mountains without wearing out his brakes.
The route was perfect for the Cummins R2.8 Turbo Diesel engines in Christian Hazel’s UACJ6D and Fred William’s Tube Sock TJ. These engines sip fuel, run cool no matter what the ambient temperature is, and make plenty of power to move a 4x4. Long distances between fuel-ups? No problem with the R2.8 Turbo Diesel.
Outside of Camp Verde was starting to look like the Ultimate Adventure 500. Occupants of the open vehicles probably got brown lung after covering hundreds of miles of dirt, and most of the bolts under our rigs were finger-tight by the end of Day 3.
Lonnie McCurry Jr. had some mechanical issues with his 6.4L Hemi–powered JK, but he and his son, Evan, never gave up. Several of vehicles on the trip were putting Skyjacker suspension components to the test, and there were zero Skyjacker-related issues on the entire Ultimate Adventure.
Day 4: Tonto State Park
Trent McGee led the UA in his trusty TJ buggy. He preran the route several times in order to maximize the amount of time spent in the dirt, although some pavement was unavoidable. In all, 700 of the 922 miles covered on the 2017 Ultimate Adventure were off-pavement.
Travertine is a form of limestone that is common in caves and hot springs. The travertine bridge at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park stands 183 feet over a 400-foot-long tunnel that measures 150 feet at its widest point. The group had roughly an hour to climb down and go exploring before the Ultimate Adventure continued. Stay tuned for Part 2 of our UA2017 coverage to find out where.